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Bleach is probably the most misunderstood manga in the last twenty years or so. There has been a lot of misconstrued information, misleading narratives, or misunderstood analysis that have tarnished this series’ legacy for several years. It only starting to go back to a good position once the Thousand-Year Blood War anime adaptation started back in 2022.
Much has been said about the series and the protagonist, Ichigo Kurosaki. A lot of critics have mentioned that author Tite Kubo crafted a dull protagonist who is reactionary and doesn’t have a goal… which is not only misleading but also throws away how people view storytelling. Simply put, whenever an Ichigo analysis takes place, the terms “reactionary protagonist” and “doesn’t have a goal” are often mentioned, which are concepts that, believe it or not, are not bad at all.
This article is meant to not only explain why there is more to Ichigo’s character but also why protagonists can be reactionary and not have a grandiose goal and still be quite good.
Ichigo is a teenager from Japan who has the ability to see ghosts and interact with them. Ever since his mother died when he was nine years old, he developed a habit of wanting to protect everybody, especially his family. However, once a Hollow, this universe’s version of an evil spirit, attacks his family and he is aided by the Shinigami known as Rukia Kuchiki, Ichigo obtains the powers to become one and defeat the evil creatures.
This is how Ichigo begins his journey as a Shinigami, becomes a part of the Soul Society’s army known as the Gotei 13, and begins to discover a lot more about his roots, his powers, and who he is as a person. Of course, he also has a lot of fights along the way.
The Comparisons With Luffy and Naruto
Bleach was, along with Naruto and One Piece, one of Shonen Jump’s “Big Three” of the mid-2000s, which was a point in manga history when these three series were at the forefront of the industry. Because of this, people often tend to draw comparisons between them and their protagonists, with a lot of critics saying that Ichigo Kurosaki doesn’t have a grand goal like Luffy wanting to be the King of the Pirates or Naruto wanting to become Hokage.
Let’s get this out of the way: Ichigo doesn’t need a grand goal. And it’s not because you have to like the character or not; it’s because that’s not how stories work.
While these series share some similarities, they are ultimately quite different in their approach to things. One Piece is a lot more focused on adventure and constantly moving around while Bleach and Naruto are more “based-focused”, if that term is valid. Bleach focuses a lot on introspection, particularly with Ichigo, which is not as prominent in the other two series. Naruto goes very deep into the antagonists’ backstories and why they behave the way they do, often adding another layer of complexity.
So, these three series are Shonen’s “Big Three” and they are also different from one another. Ichigo is not extremely extroverted like Naruto or Luffy, doesn’t want to eat all the time, and is not always happy, which is shown in several moments where he struggles with his own self-confidence and even self-worth (the Fullbringer arc is something that couldn’t happen with Naruto or Luffy, for example). While Naruto and Luffy definitely take inspiration from Dragon Ball’s Goku, Ichigo is closer to someone like, say, Yu Yu Hakusho’s Yusuke Urameshi.
All of this plays a narrative in the repetitive criticism that Ichigo’s character gets all the time: because he is compared to the other two protagonists of the “Big Three”. But is also worth a factor in the fact that he is a Japanese teenager in the real world, Shinigami stuff notwithstanding, which is a far cry from the fiction worlds that Eiichiro Oda and Masashi Kishimoto crafted for their stories.
Ichigo cannot aim to be a Gotei 13 Captain because he is not a spirit yet and should never want to be the Soul King because that is a fate worse than death. It’s fascinating how a protagonist could have a goal like Naruto and Luffy and be called cliché (like Black Clover’s Asta) but if one strays away from that trope, it is criticized. Not every anime protagonist needs to aspire to be their universe’s equivalent of a president to work.
The Reactionary Character Take
A common argument that is often thrown, whether it’s with Ichigo or certain other protagonists, is that they are reactionary and, therefore, cannot work in a story. They only react to the events around them instead of instigating change and pushing the plot forward.
That’s one of those takes that have become buzzwords to use when trying to analyze a story but if you ask someone why a reactionary character is bad, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. The main reason for this is that there are several amazing protagonists in fiction who are reacting to what is happening in the story and don’t have great goals. It could be argued that most Marvel and DC superheroes only react to evil; if there weren’t any supervillains out there, Clark Kent would spend his days as a journalist and Tony Stark being a millionaire playboy.
However, focusing on shonen manga, Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is the best example of how reactionary can work in this medium. If we take the original universe, five of the six JoJos are reactionary characters; only Giorno Giovanna has a big goal and is proactive, which moves the story forward, and he is the least liked protagonist of the first six, ironically enough.
This doesn’t make characters like Jonathan Joestar, Joseph Joestar, Jotaro Kujo, Josuke Higashikata, or Jolyne Cujoh all the less loved by the fandom. They are still amazing characters and their journeys are a joy, so the lack of a goal or not being proactive is a non-factor in these discussions.
The truth of the matter is that, much like Ichigo or many of the JoJos, most people don’t have big goals or dreams. Most people want to live a peaceful life or don’t know what they want to be, especially around Ichigo’s age group. And when talking about being relatable or realistic, that is a lot closer to how people are than Luffy and Naruto establishing a goal of being their universe’s strongest when they were just kids (they are still solid protagonists and have obviously worked the way they are, considered both franchises’ success).
Ichigo does have a goal: he wants to protect his family because he has survivor’s guilt because of the death of his mother and he associates strength with being a good protector. This is why he feels so down when he is defeated and this is why the Fullbringer arc is so important to understand him: that’s when the reader or the viewer realizes that he wants the power and that he enjoys fighting to protect others. It is a bit of a selfish goal and Kubo should have explored more of Ichigo’s selfish side, but is still a good example of who he is.
Lack of Character Development
“You are both Zangetsu to me.”
Ichigo’s story is not only the tale of a protector finding the strength to take care of others but also the tale of a young man trying to understand who he is. His entire inner world, as a concept, is all about understanding his true essence. The final conversation he has with Zangetsu and the false Yhwach in the legendary “The Blade is Me” chapter is all about that: him coming to terms with the fact that they are not inner demons or people living inside him but a part of his soul.
This is a protagonist who never fully understood who he was and journeyed through this story to find purpose through his battles. Through these battles, he began to understand what’s important and what is true strength, which derived from his own self. I wouldn’t say that Kubo always stuck the landing with these ideas, but there’s a reason why even the biggest critics have always praised the scenes of Ichigo’s inner world: in a way they reflect a person’s constant search for self.
It is also a testament to Ichigo’s personality and views of the world that, by the end of the series, he is insanely powerful and still decides to live a normal life as a translator. It’s refreshing to see a shonen protagonist, especially me now in my late 20s, who doesn’t want to reach the pinnacle of his profession or try to change the world. Ichigo only wants to have a peaceful life and be able to protect his loved ones when push comes to shove.
And that is profoundly human.