My formative years in anime were during the era of the Big Three, a time when Naruto, One Piece and Bleach gained international popularity with their underdog stories, sense of adventure, and determination to keep standing no matter the odds. They were inspirational, filled with epic battles, emotional moments, and great plot twists. Up till recently, Bleach was the only one that didn’t stand the test of time, getting its anime cancelled in 2012 and its manga abruptly concluding a few years later. I was heartbroken; Bleach was my favorite of the Three and it was painful to watch it crash and burn so pitifully. I still immensely loved its story and characters even in its dark moments. Anime that hit you in the feels during your childhood have a hold on you that is hard to describe. Bleach has me in a headlock and won’t let me go.
One of the biggest complaints about Bleach, in comparison to One Piece and Naruto, is its protagonist, Ichigo Kurosaki. A lot of people complain about Ichigo's motivation because, unlike his Big Three counterparts, he doesn’t have a grand goal that pushes the story forward. He gets swept up in the Shinigami world by circumstance and thrown into conflicts that don’t necessarily involve him. People think he floats around his own series and swings at whatever swings first. I disagree with this sentiment. He doesn’t want to be the pirate king or ninja king or soul king, but that doesn’t mean he has a lack of ambition. Ichigo’s goal is simple and probably the easily the most relatable out of the Big Three.
Ichigo wants to protect his status quo— to defend the people and places within his reach.
Why is that bad?
It’s not a grand goal and people insult him for it, but I think it’s admirable. Not everyone wants to be president of the United States. Most people, myself included, just want to hold on to their small happiness and enjoy their lives. They want to be with the ones I care about. That’s what Ichigo wants. This, in a way, makes him the everyman of shonen protagonists. Yes, he’s the most powerful Shinigami to ever live (and not live?) and that puts him a step above the rest, but, at the end of the day, he just wants to keep his friends and family safe— the one thing he couldn’t do as a child when his mother died.
It's not epic or exciting— it’s not a grand quest— but it is as noble as it is common. Holding on to what you have, treasuring it, and trying to make the best of it. He doesn’t have the greatest character development of all time but, due to his motivation, I can relate to him more closely on a human level than someone with a farfetched dream I could never imagine.
I relate to Naruto not because he wants to be Hokage, but because he wants to be accepted by his community. He wants friends, a life, and a place where he belongs. When he defeats Pain and the Village celebrates and supports him, that is his greatest accomplishment. That is him achieving his true dream. He doesn’t need to be president of the United States to be acknowledged and accepted. Ichigo is working towards a goal on that same level. He doesn’t want anything grand; he wants to preserve what he has. For most people, I think that’s all we want to do too.
There are tons of reasons to rag on Bleach. I'm a fan and, believe me, I could rag on Bleach forever. I just don’t think Ichigo is one of those reasons. Let the teenager love his family, live up to his name, and protect what is closest to him. After everything he’s been through, he at least deserves that much.