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Bleach-binge Part 1: Strawberry and the Soul Crushers

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All right, I’ve drank some Mezcal to soothe my dread and am ready to get started! Now, keep in mind these posts will be very unstructured and unedited. I will basically be writing whatever comes to mind as I’m reading each volume of the series. Though I’ll try to sum up the content and themes of each book in a paragraph or two at the very end. My goal for today is to get through the first twenty volumes, or at the very least the first thirteen which I already re-read earlier in the summer. Since I’ve already re-read those volumes recently, I’m hoping I can write about them more quickly.

Each volume of Bleach starts off with some weird poem or poetic phrase Kubo thinks will sound cool. Volume 1’s is “We fear that which we cannot see.” Which is cool and very true, but reminds me how much I’m fearing getting through the pile of Bleach books that I can very clearly see right in front of my eyes. Hoo-boy!

Bleach_1

Chapter 1: “Death & Strawberry”

The very first panel of Bleach is a black butterfly flying through the night sky under a crescent moon. This is a pretty appropriate way to begin a series revolving around death and the afterlife. No, really! Butterflies are a spiritual symbol in japanese culture and represent the souls of the dead. It’s a good touch to have the butterfly fly by Rukia, presumably in the direction of the Kurosaki clinic, when she says she senses spirit energy nearby. A butterfly bursting out of a cocoon also symbolically represents a human soul being reborn from death. That connection and imagery is going to be used later on by Kubo during the Deicide chapters to depict Aizen shedding his mortal coil, so to speak, and his ascend to god-hood. So, now you know why Aizen’s ultimate form is him becoming a weird butterfly man.

The first color-spread is pretty simple, but this imagery of the characters lined up in these boxes with the multi-colored lines bordering them is pretty iconic Bleach imagery thanks to it’s incorporation in the first opening. Characters featured in the boxes from left to right: Orihime, Chad, Mizuro, Uryu , Keigo, Shinji, and Tatsuki. Of these, only Shinji doesn’t show up within the first year of Bleach. According to Kubo’s interview at the end of the second character book, Shinji was originally planned to be just some mysterious transfer student, introduced after the end of Orihime and Chad’s sub-arcs. Instead, Kon gets introduced after Chad’s story, and Kubo just never got around to using Shinji’s character design until he came up with the idea for the Vizards at the end of Soul Society. I gotta wonder what Kubo’s original non-Soul Reaper version of Shinji would have been like. Though I have to imagine he’d be brushed off and forgotten like the rest of Ichigo’s human friends as the Arrancar arc went on, so I guess he dodged a bullet there.

For some reason all the punks Ichigo beats up have the epithet “Li’l” in front of their names. That’s how you know they’re posers.

I do like Ichigo beating up the punks after they answer his questions. It’s an amusing sequence. I don’t understand why Kubo felt the need to repeat Ichigo’s introduction stats twice. It doesn’t give the reveal his special skills is that “he can see ghosts” anymore impact. It’s just repetitive. But that’s a trait we’ll see a lot more from Kubo going forward.

That said, I really like the panel where Ichigo is pointing to the dead girl. The shading really helps convey that he’s scary serious about messing those guys up while simultaneously being hilarious to look at. What makes it funny is the contrast between him and the comparatively unshaded ghost girl, whose nonchalant “wtf” expression on her blood-splattered face says a lot about her character and background without saying anything. Though the will-o-wisp sells the point that she’s a ghost, since otherwise you might’ve mistaken her for being an extremely injured child. Thanks for hand-holding your audience, Kubo! No but seriously, this panel is genuinely great.

Ultimately, this intro sequence is a good showing of Ichigo’s character. The contrast between his brash, violent personality and kind and considerate actions towards the ghost girl gives him a dynamism that while doesn’t demonstrate depth, is the kind of punk-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization that most shonen readers find appealing. To compare, this scene with Ichigo defending the ghost girl and placing a vase of flowers on her death site functions similarly to Yusuke playing with that little kid before the car accident in YYH. Both scenes tell us that while this kid might be considered a violent punk by others based on personality and appearance, they are fundamentally good people who will take time to brighten up someone else’s day.

Originally the Kurosaki Clinic was supposed to be a Mortuary. They changed it because it was too morbid for children, I guess. I dunno. I think it makes more sense for ghosts to be hanging around a funeral home than a first-aid clinic (not even an actual hospital!).

Isshin drop kicks Ichigo as soon as he gets home because he’s late for dinner. Father of the year. To be fair, everyone calls him out on what an irresponsible parent he can be. He’s still endearing because we do see he genuinely loves his children and late-wife, even if his adoration of them borders on creepy at times.

Karin not believing in ghosts even thought she can see them because she simply refuses to believe they exist is kinda amusing, but is also a seriously disturbing way of thinking. Like, those are the spirits of real-people, you know. You’re gonna pretend there not alive? Well, okay, they aren’t alive…but they’re still there!

Ichigo’s door nob has the numbers “15” written on it in reference to his name. It also looks a lot like a Soul Reaper’s badge. Hmm…

The black butterfly flies past Ichigo, drawing further credence to the idea it was leading Rukia to him. Or, it’s a different butterfly that signaled the coming arrival of Rukia to Ichigo’s room. Either works.

Rukia is established with heavy shading across her face to present her character as ominous and mysterious, a mystique that is abruptly and hilariously undermined when Ichigo kicks her across a wide panel with a “WHACK” sound-effect. It’s a cute moment that plays with expectations. In general, the physical comedy in this chapter contrasts a lot with the darker premise and atmosphere, which gives the series an admittedly unique tone that other supernatural-fighting series since have tried to but have never quite matched, and I think it played a large part in giving the series a unique appeal and a following at the onset.

It’s implied that Fishbone D murders/devours the ghost girl from the beginning of the chapter. The sad part is that Ichigo never even realizes it, even though it was probably drawn to her because of him.

There’s a note on the table Ichigo flips over that says “caution: for use in sight gags only!” Assuming that note was is diegetic, that’s a pretty strange way to use a table. Does Ichigo regularly use it for sight gags when people enter his room? Never explained. Though, it does sound like something Isshin would do, honestly.

Using Kido on a mortal and threatening to execute him for insolence? Rukia is a pretty unprofessional Soul Reaper and one seriously immature 160-year old.

Rukia tries to comfort the old man spirit by saying that he won’t go to hell, but Soul Society – “a restful place.” Pft…(chuckle)…heeheeheeheahahahahhahahHAHAHAHAHA! Oh man, now isn’t that a laugh! Yeah, the Soul Society, a place where you’re forced to live separately from your family and loved ones, in poverty, starving, treated like trash by so-called nobility and a corrupt political regime, is a restful place. Not like Bleach‘s version of hell is any better, but the fact that it’s barely worse says a lot about how awful the afterlife in Bleach is. You suffered in life? Too bad son, you’re suffering ain’t going to over even when you’re died (especially since you can die again, somehow).

Rukia’s frame by frame reaction divided by black bars with her thoughts in white text to Ichigo breaking free from her kido really adds a lot of power to what would otherwise be a standard shonen moment, and sells the idea that Ichigo is something unordinary.

The intense shading of Fishbone D, especially on the panel where he holds Yuzu in his hands, helps convey the horror of the monster and the scene unfolding in front of Ichigo’s eyes.

The sequence where Ichigo charges Fishbone D is kind of hard to follow. He runs straight towards him. Fishbone D punches right at him and hits him dead on, causing Ichigo to fly right? Huh?

That misstep aside, the strong point of this chapter really is in Kubo’s art, particularly his shading and use of shadows. The panel where Ichigo reacts to Rukia telling him that Fishbone D was after him, and Ichigo processing are realizing the gravity of that in horror, really speaks volumes with just one panel.

To think, Ichigo would never have become a Soul Reaper if he just let Rukia do her job and didn’t try to interfere. That said, the moment where he realizes the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and that even now his sisters are selflessly concerned about him instead of themselves, is a good shonen call to action moment. Ichigo’s defining reason to become a Soul Reaper in this chapter is to protect those he cares about, and it works here because we see how close he is with his family and how he selflessly defends and sticks up for other people. It’s unfortunate that his characterization never evolves beyond this, though.

Strangely enough, we don’t see a full-view panel of Rukia stabbing Ichigo with her zanpakuto. Kubo wouldn’t shy away from showing people stabbed through the chest like that in later chapters. That said, it’s actually more effective to fragment it, leaving how Ichigo’s transformation into a Soul Reaper exactly happens up to the reader’s imagination, and fully impressive when we see him in Soul Reaper garb in full view. Though, that SPLAT sound effect behind him lessens the cool factor of the image, imo.

Finally, the panel where Ichigo slashes down on Fishbone D conveys great weight in both the direction of Ichigo’s swing, and the broad blade-like cut-effect expertly visualizes the sharpness and power of the stroke. Ending the chapter by re-stating Ichigo’s stat box with his occupation now reading “high school student/soul reaper” is actually a cool use of repetition and makes the events that we’ve just seen transpire feel impactful, like this really is the beginning of something life-changing for Ichigo.

Wow, I wrote a lot about that! I wonder how much time it took me….

Uh oh.

The Rest of Volume 1

Okay, change of plans! This stream-of-consciousness thing is fun but ain’t efficient! No more breaking this down chapter by chapter, scene by scene anymore. I can’t afford to spend that much time if I want to get through the remaining 680+ chapters in three days. From now on, I’m just going to read the entire volume, and then summarize write what I think about it. I’ll make sure to still write 500 words worth for each one, which shouldn’t be a problem knowing me. Anyways, let’s briefly talk about the rest of volume one so I can move on to volume 2 already!

The biggest thing that really strikes me when revisting early Bleach is the sense of humor. In later volumes the series becomes overly serious and so-called moment of humor usually amount to characters just acting weird or arguing with each other. Here, there’s genuinely good and inspired moments of comedy that often hit you by surprise. Orihime, by far, is the most hilarious character, with crazy fantasy visions and weird quirks like calling her stuffed animals strange names or claiming the reason she likes Ichigo because his stern serious face makes her laugh. The best moment of the entire volume is her fantasy sequence envisioning her and Ichigo going out a date in the park, which then becomes a race, which then becomes a competitive race with some Brazilian guy, which then somehow devolves into her winning a boxing match and about to be assassinated by some guy in a trenchcoat. This is the most extreme example, but a lot of these early Bleach comedy moments are genuinely out-there craziness, and it’s a shame we see less and less of it as the series progresses.

As far as monsters go, Hollows are interesting in that they are the fallen souls of the dead who try to fill the emptiness of their souls by devouring the living, the most tragic aspect of them being that they target and hurt their loved ones first. This is a cool premise that the series really wastes, with the fallen souls and hunting loved ones angle really only being used in the Acidwire story. Afterwards, Hollows mostly turn out to be the souls of murderers and scumbags, and the sympathetic tragic aspect to them is left used. At least Kubo’s designs for them all look distinct and intimidating, giving each their own personality and genuinely looking creepy or horrifying at times.

But it’s really effective in this first volume, with most of the length being focused on the Acidwire story. The relationship between Sora and Orihime, with Sora turning into a hollow because he felt betrayed by Orihime’s happiness when Orihime was trying to comfort her brother in the afterlife by showing him she’s been able to move on, is a very compelling and tragic story. You feel for Sora as a villain, seeing his painful regrets well up in his eyes when Orihime sacrifices herself and hugs him to calm him down. The ending of the story is great, with Orihime’s last words to Sora in particular paying off on a very potent emotion context. If the idea of Bleach at the beginning was to save the souls of both Wholes and Hollows, this volume provides great examples of both that later volumes, with their characterizations of Hollows as disgusting, villainous monsters, simply don’t. There’s a maturity in the treatment of the subject matter here that Bleach really loses when it shifts it’s premise to be more of vehicle for fights.

Characterization is similarly simple, but well-established. The main characters have a humorous side to them that contrasts with a more contemplative aspect. Orihime is perhaps the most multi-faceted in this regard in the way her upbeat ridiculous personality is meant to hide the deeper pain and regrets she has towards her brother’s death. Ichigo is a pretty basic shonen lead, but his desire to help people and reasons for becoming a substitute Soul Reaper fit. Rukia works well as a mentor figure that gives sound advice and wisdom, as well as a funny character in her own right through her childish streaks and outrageous non-sequitors. Minor characters like Keigo and Mizuro are pretty one-note, and whatever Kubo might have planned for them initially, they never really receive much in the way of development.

The art is Kubo’s strong point. He’s able to vacillate between goofy comedy scenes, horror moments, and badass moments pretty fluidly and effectively, the Acidwire story being the greatest showing of his strengths. Moreover, just the sheer personality you can gleam from the characters in the linework and roughness of it all feels very passionate in a way that the cold, sterile and overly-polished art of later Bleach just doesn’t. It feels like there’s actually love and passion put into drawing and writing this story, and it makes what otherwise could be considered average shonen action material feel a little more special and worth paying attention to. Overall, I have to say this first volume is a pretty strong start from the series. It shows off the strengths of the premise and characters very well, and I think the Acidwire story is arguably one of the best parts in the entire series. We’ll see how long my appreciation for early Bleach does lasts going forward.

Man, I went on way too long about all this. How did I spend two and a half hours just on the first volume? Things aren’t looking good….

Continue to Part 2 –>

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