I love BLEACH. While there’re objectively “better” mangas out there, what Tite Kubo started in 2005 is still one of my greatest inspiration in creating fiction, because underneath the flashy fight sequences and repetitive storylines, there’s an outstandingly intelligent story filled with profound themes, and amazing characters. So, now that we entered the final phases of this epic tale, I decided to re-read and review the entire opera up until this moment. Follow me in the…
BLEACH RETROSPECTIVE I: The Death and the Strawberry (Volume 1 to 8)
The opening of BLEACH is a rapid-fire descent into absolute insanity, as our protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki beats up some jocks, strolls down a road talking to a bleeding dead girl and gets into a fist fight with his father, all of which is played entirely for laughs. And from there, things just get both sillier and grittier, with a disembowelled magical warrior-woman that sucks at drawing shows up to give us clunky exposition on this crazy world rules, while a giant fish-frog monster attacks the house. It’s a perfect opening for the series (expect for the clunk exposition of course), that gives us all the best elements of Kubo’s writing.
You laugh at the funny moments and you tremble when the blood starts getting spilled, and the transition between these emotions are incredibly smooth and work out perfectly, something that is often hard to do for many other. Too many times, a mood-switch this radical from slapstick comedy to monster rampage gives us readers a sense of confusion, like the plot is schizophrenic and doesn’t know what it wants to be, but BLEACH knows exactly what it wants to be: entertaining. Like many others, I was immediately hooked by the amusing humor, the viciously cathartic action and most of all, BLEACH’s strongest point when put in comparison with any other work of fiction: the instantly likable characters.
I generally like Ichigo better in these earlier chapters than in the rest of the manga. He’s a great character overall, but the more the plot progresses, the more he loses this edge he as at the beginning. When the story starts he’s much more energetic and brash in his actions, wonderfully disenchanted and deadpan in the comedy, and throw tantrums more often. That’s understandable of course, this is before really harsh battles, doppelgangers and grievous injuries start weighting on him, forcing him to grow up in a more mature, contained individual. The same goes for the mood of the story.
Frequently characters and expression are heavily stylized and sketched to generate humour, something that will fade in the background and used rather rarely once shinigami and arrancars start rising their heads.
That isn’t to say there’s a lack of darkness here, in fact, one of my favourite scenes is the chase Ichigo gives a particular hollow, former serial killer, that forced the spirit of a child into slavery. The way our hero sadistically beats and taunts the monster is incredibly cathartic. It shows another side of his personality that will later be relegated to his evil doppelganger, a certain joy in winning battles and delivering some really harsh punishment. The Ichigo of the first volumes has this punkish, slightly antiheroic streak that goes through his personality, that makes him stand out in my opinion, from the one he will eventually grow up into. That’s at least the impression I generally get.
Rukia Kuchiki is also much more amusing in these first volumes and the same goes for Orihime. For the former is her double role as teacher and sidekick for Ichigo that allows her to generate and dispense all the humour and quirkiness. The two of them together work perfectly and are laughing machines you can’t stop enjoying. The same will happen with Rukia and Renji later on in the Soul Society. But when she’s on her own, Rukia is not that particularly thrilling of a character, her primary traits being the sense of guilt and inferiority she feels towards her adoptive brother and her deceased master, making her more suited for drama than for comedy. When put against a straight player (or at least, slightly less crazy than her), then she’s allowed to be funny and energetic and wacky, making her much more endearing.
Orihime has the edge on this department, because she sprouts out madness on her own, making her impossible not to like in these phase. Her joie de vivre and imagination are exhilarating: one of the best comedic moments of the series is her imagining a romantic walk in the park with Ichigo, a fantasy that slowly drifts, turning a marathon, then a boxing match, then a murder plot. All this will be a bit lost in the shuffle of the Soul Society, where she’ll have to though up and fight the fight, and it will be completely shattered in Hueco Mundo, where her character is reduced to a whimpering, whiny and annoying damsel constantly needing rescue, probably the greatest tragedy of BLEACH.
Uryuu Ishida doesn’t do much to leave an impression at first: immediately he’s positioned as the cliché prodigy-rival from an extinct race/clan. Kubo slowly manages to make him more appealing by simply not treating the whole business too seriously. Uryuu may seem just another dark, serious friend-enemy, like Sasuke from Naruto or Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z, but he gets angry and makes ridiculous decisions like anybody else: the idea of fighting Menos Grande with Ichigo’s sword strapped to his head is a shining example.
Of the five core characters, Chad is probably the less interesting from my point of view. Not that there’s anything wrong with him, in fact I quite like the guy, but of all he seems to be the ones that conforms to a role the most: Chad is the big gentle giant and that’s kind of it. Sometimes he reference his past as a guy who used his strength to hurt others, and was straighten up by his granpa, but we never actually see that enough, making us feel the change, and what we’re left with is a calm, collected boy who says way too little for us to care about him.
A collective thought that describes these characters and makes them likable is that they’re all “uncool”. The manga itself is presented as “cool”, the characters wear “cool clothes”, in the covers they’re always posing like badasses, but the truth is, they’re not: they’re a bunch of slightly insane/slightly idiotic players, short-tempered, unfocused, irresponsible. The greatest thing about the first 7 volumes, is that Kubo never forgets this: the situation may be desperate, the battle may become gigantic and threaten the whole fabric of reality, but these people often don’t seem to care, making joke, hitting hollows with light poles, torturing the magical fairies that just appeared from nowhere. The world of BLEACH is instead reasonably dark and serious, therefore, by putting the two of them together, what comes out is a comedic duo. The cast is the funny guy and the setting as a whole is the straight man of their comedy routine. And these are only the five main ones. I could spend pages upon pages talking about all the others that infest Karakura Town.
The hollows are much darker and threatening in this side of the story. Before they were completely defanged and became into generic monsters of the week, the hollows were legitimately scary and they helped construct an atmosphere of horror around the plot. In the earliest volumes, you often forget you’re reading an action adventure shounen, and you’re instead transported in a haunting j-horror filled with foreboding signs of paranormal activity, like a teddy bear breaking up and bleeding. The fact that Kubo’s never shied away from grizzly details and brutal fight-scenes accentuates the mood. In a smart bit of self-awareness, just as we’re about to change entirely focus and ascend to the Soul Society, Kubo will make a mockery of the whole ghost-story style of this prelude by having heroes being gathered through a massage in blood appearing on the walls and streets.
Going back, I nostalgically remember how impressed I was by the sheer size and power that the Menos Grande oozed in the pages once he first stepped out of the giant tear into the sky. The world of spirits and hollows felt much more grandiose and terrifying, a nightmarish land of Lovecraft’s level abominations waiting to be released upon our world. All emotions caused by ignorance of course. We still didn’t know that the Menos is nothing but one of many dumb skyscrapers than tiny little warriors with magical swords can kill off with their bare hands. This is a common problem of escalation in shounen of course. Everything in the earlier chapters always feels bigger and more impressive, and once we get to the point where the characters can swing a sword and cut the planet in half, most of the magic is gone.
Actually the concept of Hollows is kind of wasted in some ways. Being once normal spirits, corrupted by their inability to accept their destiny, these ghosts have the potential to not simply be opponents to slay, but also real characters, with reasonable motivations and sympathetic in their desperation. Yet we only see this in Sora, Orihime’s vengeful and embittered brother, as all the others Hollows are just a bunch of remorseless sociopaths. Another thing that ended up being wasted potential is Hell itself, introduced in Volume 2 in all his ominous glory, as Kubo designs the splendidly terrifying Gate that drags evil hollows down into the hellish realm. It is something we’ll never see again, except in one of the movie, which I usually avoid watching. Back in time, learning that Kubo was a Saint Seiya’s fan, I imagined he was setting up hell to do his version of the Hades Chapter, with old villains and bad guys coming back from the grave for a final confrontation. Volume 7 of BLEACH is titled “The Death Trilogy Overture”, and I always theorized this trilogy would have been Act 1 Soul Society, Act 2 Hueco Mundo, and Act 3 Hell. But no, Hell in BLEACH is just a nice double splash page and nothing more.
Kubo’s style is much different here, and I don’t talk simply about the artworks, which are much less smoother, but angular and sharp on most faces (which I kind of like). The pacing most of everything, is what’s different from the future: in general the manga is much more brisk and quicker. We’re now used to an extremely decompressed, highly theatrical use of pages by the author (something I will get into later), but here, everything is much more tight and condensed, with many more panels, and the amount of information delivered is bigger. It’s a longer, chunkier read, that takes much more time and energy, and because of this, is often much more satisfying on a narrative level.
Like many other shounens, the first volumes are all separated adventures meant to establish the rules of the world, and pretty much all of the are rather interesting, with a few exceptions of course. The whole business regarding Don Kanonji seems to be there to set up Uryuu Ishida’s presence and give some half-hearted lesson about what it means to be a hero, but as a whole, it comes across as white noise. Its quirky, its funny, its entertaining, but it does speak volume that Kanonji won’t appear again for years to come. Another that that seemed pointless was turn the Shun Shun Rikka into an entire legion of elfs. Giving Orihime something cute and little to interact with will result in a lot of funny moments, but as a whole, they’re just a bunch of designs smashed together without any real character to speak off.
After the arrival of Byakuya and Renji, the manga takes a turn changing radically the status quo of Ichigo, now officially a shinigami using a dead body to stroll around the city, and starts the first of many training session to let him learn new tricks to fight. And with tricks, I mean, Getsuga Tensho and that’s all. It’s amusing to notice how “training” in the world of BLEACH is just more fighting, first with kids, then with Urahara. The best part comes while entering the world of Old Man Zangetsu, a rather trippy and inventive scene that plays on our sense of orientation. In lights of the manga most recent astonishing plot twists (you know the ones), one rereads these chapters asking himself “Is it being foreshadowed in some way?”
I can’t help but say “No, it doesn’t”, but we don’t see nearly enough of the Old Man to really understand the exact nature of him, so for now, I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks to a genius mixing of humour and darkness, together with an ensemble cast of charmingly inane protagonists, BLEACH and Tite Kubo succeeds in about every level in entertaining its audience. While in hindsight a lot of the stuff introduced results being kind of pointless in the long run, taken on its own merit, the beginning of the manga is a wonderful joyride from page one forward.
Favourite volume’s cover:
Kubo’s earliest covers all share a common problem that was resolved only later on: each word of the title is in a different colour. That may sound stupid, but it deprives the overall picture of a consistent tone, and with that, hurts the image as a whole. It doesn’t help that Kubo still rusty characters model are often not as attractive as we’re used to, and their poses are often unimpressive.
My favourite ends up being the striking cover of Volume 8. The silhouette of Old Man Zangetsu and his positioning on the cover makes for a unique and striking look, and the choice of title is nice. I would have preferred a higher contrast between black and white, not the blackness being shredded by stains of red, but that’s my opinion.
BLEACH Retrospective, coming soon:
*The Death and the Strawberry (Vol. 1-8)
*The Soul Society Saga Opening (Vol. 9-13)
*The Soul Society Saga Finale (Vol. 14-20)
*The Arrancar Saga Part 1: Invasions and Wizards (Vol. 21-27)
*The Arrancar Saga Part 2: Hueco Mundo & Pendulum (Vol. 28-36)
*The Arrancar Saga Part 3: Fake Karakura (Vol. 37-43)
*The Arrancar Saga Finale: Deicide (Vol. 44-48)
*The Lost Agent (Vol. 49-54)