So I’ve reviewed my fair share of anime on this blog, but it’s not something I’m inherently familiar with.
This is mostly because I grew up on Toonami like everybody else, but when I was 8, we moved and lost Cartoon Network as part of our cable package. So I missed out on a huge chunk of shows and, by the time I got Cartoon Network again a few years later, I had lost interest.
But ever since I got to college and made friends with a whole ton of people who watch anime, I’ve been trying to catch up. Consequently, I’ve made a rule for myself of, every summer, making it through a show that doesn’t run for 200+ episodes (so no Naruto, for instance). It’s usually worked so I’ve kept at it.
But it occurred to me a little while ago that I can’t exactly ignore the existence of long-running shonen (boys’ action) series. After all, it was the success of Dragon Ball Z and its kind that made anime finally break through over here in America. So I resolved to find a show that, in addition to being interesting to me personally, also could be used as an example to see just why people spend years and years following the same genre of show over and over.
Having just finished the first arc, I’m proud to announce a new recurring feature where I examine (almost) every storyline of the long-running, legendary series Bleach!
Why Bleach instead of another, perhaps more mainstream show? Well, to be honest, this wasn’t a show I was ever interested in. It seemed too convoluted, filled with way too many characters, and too long to ever get into.
But I know a lot of people who read the manga and enjoy it (even though they think it should’ve ended a while ago) and when I discovered the show’s excellent soundtracks by composing legend Shiro Sagisu as well as its bevy of fantastic opening and ending songs, I was intrigued. That, and the story did sound interesting.
Plus, the show is over. Or rather, it’s still being dubbed into English and aired on Adult Swim, but in Japan, it ceased broadcasting in 2012. Furthermore, all the episodes are available in Japanese (w/English subtitles) for free on Hulu, another plus; I prefer official subtitles to ones cranked out by some random fan somewhere and Hulu’s setup meant I could easily burn through episodes at a good pace. Furthermore, the times I had tried watching the show in English, I couldn’t get past Johnny Yong Bosch in the main role; he’s a good actor, and I’ve loved him in other roles (his work in Code Geass is legend) but I just couldn’t buy him here.
To that end, let’s talk about the first arc of Bleach, which Wikipedia tells me is called, in English, “The Substitute.” (Individual episodes, at least onscreen, do not have titles; instead they’re marked “Bleach 1” for the first episode, “Bleach 2” for the second and so on.) A note on organizing here: I’ll only be reviewing the arcs once I’ve gone all the way through them, so posts for this feature will be sporadic. It’d be crazy and futile to try and do a write-up of every episode, considering the show’s pacing, and I, frankly, don’t have the time to do so. Furthermore, I won’t be covering the filler (that is, anime-original) arcs, mostly because I don’t want to make myself suffer.
Right; let’s get down to it!
So the show opens in modern-day (well, circa 2004) Japan, where 15-year old Ichigo Kurosaki (Masakazu Morita) deals with his wacky dad, his idiot friends, high school and the things that crop up from having the ability to see and talk to spirits. In the first episode, Ichigo beats down some skateboarding punks who have knocked over some flowers in an alleyway put up in memory of a small child who died there. That sequence tells us immediately everything we need to know about our hero. He’s caring, compassionate and will fight anyone who goes after someone he’s sworn to protect. It’s an instantly endearing action, and I applaud the show for starting out this way.
We learn that Ichigo’s been able to see spirits for as long as he can remember but doesn’t seem fazed by it. At worst, he views the spirits as an annoyance, although, he notes in voiceover, there seem to be more and more of them cropping up lately.
The next day, Ichigo buys flowers to replace the ones that were knocked down but as he’s about to deliver them, he hears the child spirit scream. He runs down the alleyway to find her being chased by a gigantic, mask-wearing monster.
Just as they’re both about to be devoured, a woman wearing a black kimono and brandishing a sword appears and destroys the monster, then vanishes instantly.
Later that night, Ichigo is in his room, wondering who she was, when she suddenly appears to him. Confused, Ichigo wonders why she’s there, but she doesn’t notice him until he kicks her in the back of the head. Surprised that he can even see her, let alone touch her, the woman– Rukia Kuchiki (Fumiko Orikasa)–explains that she’s not only a Spirit, but a Soul Reaper (Shinigami, or Death God, in Japanese), a spirit charged with sheparding souls to the afterlife and demonstrates her power by binding Ichigo, then performing the Konso ritual on a nearby spirit, purifying the spirit and sending it to the other side, to the world of the Soul Society, the group Rukia belongs to.
She explains that the monster she killed earlier is called a Hollow, a soul that has lost its essence, and seeks only to devour other spirits to increase its own strength. She explains that there’s a huge one in the area that she hasn’t been able to locate due to her senses being tampered with.
Suddenly, another enormous Hollow named Fishbone D (Yutaka Aoyama) appears, having chased the same little girl from earlier, and crashes through the wall of the Kurosaki family’s house, attacking his father (Toshiyuki Morikawa) and sister Karin (Rie Kugimiya) and grabs her twin Yuzu (Tomoe Sakuragawa), dragging her out into the street.
Enraged, Ichigo breaks the binding spell Rukia put him under, something she says shouldn’t even be possible, and attacks Fishbone but to no avail.Rukia saves him, but gets injured in the process. She explains that the only way to defeat a Hollow is with the power of a Soul Reaper, but in order to gain it, he has to be impaled on her blade, called a Zanpakuto. Ichigo agrees and gets run through; in the process, he accidentally absorbs all of Rukia’s power, instead of just some of it. Regardless, he easily defeats the Hollow, cutting it in half and purifying it.
Astonished at how easily Ichigo defeated such a huge Hollow, as well as absorb all of her power and the fact that he wields such a large Zanpakuto blade, Rukia resolves to stay in the human world through the use of a false body and train Ichigo as a Substitute Soul Reaper until her powers come back. Wanting to protect everyone around him, Ichigo agrees, thus setting the stage for big things to come.
Most of the episodes in this arc are stand-alone, and focus on a monster-of-the-week type scenario while introducing people like Ichigo’s friends Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto) and Orihime (Yuki Matsuoka), all of whom are interesting characters in their own right.
As far as setups to a long show go, this works really well. Nobody feels underdeveloped, the structure is appealing and the fight scenes are glorious. Director Noriyuki Abe and his team at Studio Pierrot are experts at staging this stuff; the subtle lighting they employ when Ichigo shifts from being a human to a soul (and a Soul Reaper) are a nice touch.
The scripts are well-timed and interesting enough to be entertaining on their own, while keeping viewers hooked for what’s to come next. The cast are all fine performers, with Morikawa standing out for making Ichigo’s dad completely goofy, yet understandable. As Rukia, Orikasa is tough as nails. She resists making the character a cliche, and it’s a fascinating performance to hear.
The real star, of course, is Morita, and he owns every minute. We’re never left with any hesitations as to why we should care about Ichigo; he makes someone who could have been a bland hero into a regular teenager, full of contempt, fears and dreams. It’s as astounding performance, and one can see why he won multiple awards for the rule.
I’m excited to start this show, and I hope you are too. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. The next arc, “The Entry,” is 21 episodes, so come back to read all about that soon!