I have been wanting to do this blog post for sometime now but for some reason never managed to quite get to it. Since I can't sleep, I figured I might as well get this done. If you spend any time in one of the major Bleach forums, you will find a group of people who believe that the quality of the Bleach has deteriorated and that Soul Society Arc was the best arc and the current arc sucks etc, etc. Surprisingly, the majority of these people are also Esapada fanboys... funny that but it is kind of an important point that I will address in this post. So please remember that for laters.
Now at a very basic level, whether you prefer the Soul Society Arc for the Arrancar Arc really depends on your taste. It's like having a preference for chocolate or strawberry ice cream. Some people like chocolate, other like strawberry. However, we aren't simply talking about some people liking chocolate and other liking strawberry, its more that people believe that there has been an actual drop in the quality of story, fight and character development between the Soul Society Arc and the Arrancar Arc. My personal position is that the majority of the difference people cite can actually be chalked upto perception. Now before we get started, for the sake of argument I am consider Volume 1 to 20 as the "Soul Society Arc" (technically it's the shinigami arc but we'll just call it the Soul Society Arc) and Volume 21 to now as the "Arrancar Arc". Now on to why I think the majority of it is perception.
Firstly, timing. By the time the Bleach anime aired its first episode in October 5, 2004, Bleach already had 14 volumes. By the time the first Bleach anime episode aired in english in September 8, 2006, Bleach was upto volume 23. This is very important because the sites where the SS Arc is touted as being something out of the ordinary are all english sites were the a majority of the people came to bleach when the animes start. Perhaps even when the english dubs started. I.e. they were not reading Bleach from the very start. I do not know if this is true of all manga but I have noticed that Bleach has a very different feel to it when you read a volume to when you read a chapter a week. It seems clear to me that Kubo writes for volumes and not for the weekly magazine. I mean, sure he throws in those cliff-hangers with Matsumoto's stomach getting ripped and Hitsugaya getting cut in half but by in large his chapters read better when they are put together in a volume. Reading week to week the pace of Bleach seems slow, read a volume and suddenly everything is really fast paced and exciting. This is true of both the Soul Society Arc and the Heuco Mundo Arc. However, because the majority of the non-Japanese fans came to Bleach AFTER a lot of the Soul Society Arc chapters were already out, they read those together and as a result the story was perceived to be more fast paced then it actually was.
That being said, Soul Society Arc was 20 volumes. The Arrancar Arc, by the time it finishes middle of this year will be approximately 26 volumes. So that's six additional volumes of content. So was that content "fat" that Kubo could have trimmed away? Well that really is down to peoples opinions because it comes down to what Kubo could have cut, or rather I should say, "should have cut based on the opinion of person X". Many people do not like Omaeda and they would have preferred it if all Omaeda related scenes were cut. Other people do not like Orihime and would have liked her scenes to be cut. Others have had enough of Renji or Chad or Rukia or Ishida or Hitsugaya... especially Hitsugaya and want to never see him in the manga ever again... you get what I mean. Kubo himself did scale back his story. He designed Ashido Kanō and the Forest of Menos but cut it because of timing but was happy for the anime team to include it to pad out their episode count and give more flesh to Heuco Mundo. Who knows how many other scenes, characters, fights he cut or at least cut short. At some point in time, you just have to go that as an artist, Kubo felt that anything less then ~26 volumes wouldn't be enough and so he made the arc go for 26 or so volumes. In short, we fans have a myopic view of Bleach and from our perspective dropping certain things would "improve" Bleach for us. However, that is not to say that, that would be a good decision for the Bleach series as a whole. I mean, if I had my way, we would see more of Ichimaru Gin and less of the espada but that is not to say others will share my point of view. But I digress.
So point to take way: The pace of Bleach has not changed. It is still a mange written with the volume in mind and not so much the weekly chapter publication. Thus the perception of readers who read the Soul Society Arc chapter one after another are skewed. They would largely have the same complaints about the slow pace of the Soul Society Arc that they do of the Arrancar Arc.
The second point that people usually raise as a source of complaint is in regards to Espada power levels and perceived inconsistencies etc, etc. Well I personally do not see how any of that is different from what happened in the Soul Society Arc. The equivalent of Grimmjow and his Faccione coming to Karakura Town was Byakuya and Renji coming to Karakura Town to get Rukia. During that encounter, Renji was pushed back to a certain extent but Byakuya made a joke out of Ichigo. Similarly, Grimmjow's faccione were destroyed but Gimmjow himself walked away with only a scar and condescending words for Ichigo. Following this, Ichigo and his friends went into training. For the Soul Society Arc they had a ten day training session. During the Arrancar Arc, they had a one month training session. So actually the power of Ichigo and his group was much better explained during the Arrancar Arc then it was during the Soul Society Arc, especially when you look at the fact that in both arc, Ichigo and his friends pretty much made their opponents look like jokes.
Consider this, during the Soul Society Arc - Ichigo defeated Ikkaku, Renji, Kenpachi (I repeat, Ken-THE-MONSTER-pachi), took out three vice-captains as if they were nothing (granted Omaeda was probably the strongest of the vice-captains there and Omaeda + frontal attack is not a good combination) and then defeated Byakuya. Ishida himself defeated Mayuri's bankai and only went down to Tosen without a struggle because he lost his spiritual powers. Ganju of all people defeated Yumichika and Chad one-punched everybody until he came across Kyoraku. Somehow it is perfectly acceptable for Ichigo and his friends to pwn Gotei 13 captains but HEAVEN forbid should they turn the Espada into jokes.
Granted, it wasn't so much Ichigo who made the Espada into jokes but the captains. So I guess in this case we do have to express things a little more generally. During the Soul Society Arc, the protagonists ran rings around the antagonist. During the Arrancar Arc the same thing happened. Nothing really changed on that score between the two arcs, except the expectations of the reader. Somehow, the fact that Ichigo and his friends were allowed to live and not harmed during the Soul Society Arc is perfectly acceptable but the fact that no good guys have died during the current arc is somehow terrible storytelling by Kubo. Please forgive the irritated tone but seriously! If you like the Soul Society Arc, where everything had a happy ending, why would you expect the Arrancar Arc to be different? I mean, it's not as if Kubo EVER gave the impression he was going to kill off protagonists. He may by the time the arrancar arc ends. Especially if Aizen is to continue to be the main villain but saying that the Arrancar Arc is inferior to the Soul Society Arc because of this is kind of silly in my opinion.
So point to take way: By in-large, the protagonist performance against antagonists have been consist between the Soul Society Arc and the Arrancar Arc. Only thing that had changed was that people expected/wanted the Arrancar to crud stomp the Shinigami.
The third point is a bit strange. It is to do with the actual story of Bleach. This is kind of hard because the story of the Bleach is still on going. While Kubo is making things up as he goes, there is still a over-arching story that is developing chapter by chapter, arc by arc. This is also a point that is incredibly difficult to explain to people, the majority of whom have never written a story in their life but someone think that they know how stories are written and characters created. Seriously, I would like to set these folks some simple writing challenges then see how they get on with it. But I digress, in Soul Society Arc after a certain amount of development Rukia gets taken back to Soul Society and Ichigo goes and rescues her. In Arrancar Arc, after a certain amount of development Orihime get's taken to Heuco Mundo and Ichigo goes and rescues her. So far I don't see the difference. Many people being up the point that Aizen's murder mystery added another element to the story. Except it wasn't much of an element. Aizen was found dead, suspicion was thrown on Gin it was a side story running parallel to the main story of Rukia's execution that allowed us to see more of Soul Society and Gotei 13. That they were related we did not find out until volume 20. That Aizen was the bad guy from the start, was not made clear until volume 20. Those who like to bring out-of-verse comments into the mix say stupid things like "but Kubo hadn't planned all that at volume 1" or something like that. But it doesn't matter what Kubo did plan or did not plan. Kubo might be working without a plan but we have to take the story of Bleach as it is revealed to us. In volume 20, Aizen's explanation made it clear that HE was the invisible hand of the enemy from the beginning. From the very beginning. Going so far back as being the cause of Hisagi's scars, Kaien's death and why Urahara put Rukia in a gigai that effectively ensured that she would not get her powers back. However, we did not know any of this until volume 20. Likewise, I have no doubt that by the time we come to volume 46-47, i.e. the end of the Arrancar Arc, a lot of things that are confusing us now, will be made clear. Then and only then can we pass a proper judgement on the arc.
So point to take way: The quality of the story is essentially the same between both the Soul Society Arc and the Arrancar Arc but as we are still in the Arrancar Arc we can't really judge the arc. Once the arc finishes, we'll be able to form a proper judgement.
Having talked about how the Soul Society Arc and the Arrancar Arc are the same, let me now address how they are different. The fundamental difference between the Soul Society Arc and the Arrancar Arc is that the Gotei 13 were never villains. They were the main antagonists of the Soul Society Arc but they were never villains. The Gotei 13 were defending the rule of their law. The rule of law is the defining characteristic of civilised society and its defence is considered noble in many societies, including most of ours. Ichigo disagreed with the laws of Gotei 13 and so fought against it. However, his desire to protect his friend was not a black and white moral issue. Rukia did knowingly violate the law. She knew that if she were caught, she would be punished. She just hoped that her powers would return to her before anyone in Soul Society found out what she did. Conversely, the application of the law seemed draconian in the case of Rukia because there were mitigating circumstances. Had she not done what she did, Ichigo and his family would be destroyed. The mitigating circumstances did not seem to be being taken into account. So over all, it was a grey area where neither party were in the right but neither party were in the wrong either. Soul Society was right in defending their law. Likewise, Ichigo had a right to defend a friend who was clearly suffering from a miscarriage of justice. This is what set the Soul Society Arc apart from... well alot of manga arcs in-general.
Now remember earlier that I said that those who complain about the Arrancar Arc are also Espada fanboys, well this is where it becomes important. The Arrancar Arc does not have a grey area. It's pretty black and white. As Soifon said in the recent chapter (chapter 389) they are fighting for survival. If Aizen wins, the Gotei 13 dies, all of Karakura Town dies, the area surrounding Karakura town dies, Ichigo dies and who know what else Aizen will do. Aizen and his Espada are actual villains. Yet those who like them (well like the Espada) go on as if they are not. They talk of things like "redemption" for the espada or other equally stupid, moronic things. Which Espada has ever asked for redemption? With the sole exception of Starrk, who has ever betrayed the faintest desire for a peaceful end to the conflict? None! Not a single one. The Espada, the arrancar must die. There is no other way because they exist only to bring death and destruction. Like Sanderwicci said, the arrancar are soldier, the espada their commanders, they would not have started the war if they were not wiling to win it at all costs. Yet you have people hoping for the return of Ulquoirra. Why? What do you think he will do once he comes back other then start fighting Ichigo again? Ulquoirra died loyal to Aizen and while his interest in Ichigo, Orihime and Ishida increased just prior to his death, that does not mean he is going to sit around a campfire with them and sing kumbaia. In fact, even as he realised he was dying, he still wanted to continue fighting Ichigo.
These are things that Espada fans have difficulty accepting. I honestly believe that this is because it is actually very hard to cheer for evil characters. Where a character has no redeeming quality, people will make-up redeeming quality. Sort of like those women who right to violent murders in prison and defend their correspondences by saying "Oh, he's misunderstood!" or "He's actually innocent". The espada are not the Gotei 13, they are villains therefore, they are ending the way they are. However, the brutal end which the espada are facing at the hand of the Shinigami and their allies is the number one reason why many people in the forums I mentioned earlier believe that the Bleach isn't what it used to be. No, Bleach is as it always was. It's not Kubo, it's you. So either deal with it or stop reading.