The above Mistakes of Youth comic rings especially true for me. Back in my early days as an anime fan, I liked all the same crap that most newbies do – Naruto and the rest of the Shounen Jump gang, the other stuff on Cartoon Network, and hell even a few years later I got really into Death Note when the manga started in the US. At some point these series all just kind of became passe – there was this huge flood of newbies getting into them that I didn’t want to be associated with, and it was painful to see people asking me if I ‘liked Naruto’ when I had gotten to seeing around 200 anime even then (now I’m up to, what, 700?) But I don’t think I can totally attribute falling out with these series to my own aging nor to the increasing popularity of the shows. I’ve started to wonder – do I really dislike overlong shounen action shows? With this question, I turn to an odd case – Bleach.
Bleach was brought to the US a little bit too late for me. I was just starting to fall out of interest in anime and start getting into video games when they started publishing Bleach, but I did manage to get the first two volumes of the series. I never managed to watch Bleach when it started airing on Cartoon Network, and by the time I got back into anime, I just wasn’t interested in the shounen action genre anymore. Bleach gradually gained this association with Naruto and the fanboys of both series that made me instinctively avoid it. Mind you I had a lot more experience with Naruto – I read it long enough to see it turn to shit, and I’d seen enough of the anime to hate it. But not Bleach – that dislike was purely fabrication.
I’ve never read beyond those first two volumes of Bleach, and of the anime I’ve only seen one or two random episodes that are so far ahead that I have no frame of reference for them. I also have a lot of secondhand series knowledge from people who read it. Now, there are a couple of good reasons I was weary of Bleach – for one, the rather large cast of characters that are introduced in the very beginning of the manga seem to loose all importance as the series continues (once again, this is secondhand knowledge) and from what I’ve heard, the characters gradually diminish in personality as the series continues.
And then there’s the Action Anime Adaption (AAA) problem. This is what happens when a long manga becomes a long anime and 20-page chapters that take you maybe 2 minutes to read are being converted into 20-minute anime episodes. It’s no surprise at all that the few random episodes of Bleach that I saw were boring as fuck – they were probably carrying only a single chapter or two worth of material. However, I didn’t really learn about the AAA problem until I got back into One Piece. I love One Piece, but it’s difficult to watch the anime because it takes a series with great art that’s a lot of fun and turns it into a very poorly animated series with shit-ass pacing.
But therein lies the key to my confusion – I do love One Piece. Even though I’ve seen the anime adaption and how much it can suck at times, I have come to appreciate the series a good deal. And with One Piece, I wasn’t even a huge fan of the earliest volumes like I was with some other series back in the day. So if I can give One Piece a second chance and find myself really enjoying it, couldn’t the same happen for Bleach? After all, as I mentioned before, I never actually saw Bleach become bad like I did Naruto – I had always liked the first two volumes of the manga and just never gotten any farther. When I got back into anime and eventually sold all of my Naruto volumes, I instead just gave Bleach (along with 2 vols of FMA and One Piece) to my younger brother – so it’s not like I really got rid of them. It was when I spent some time in my brother’s room the other day and spotted Bleach that I decided to try reading the first volume again.
It’s easy to see the reasons I would have liked Bleach in the early days, a lot of which can be summarized as ‘it’s like Yu Yu Hakusho.’ It has that same punk-kid aesthetic with a guy who can see ghosts and the reaper girl who helps him along. I think I was fairly confused when I started hearing that Ichigo and Rukia had a relationship because I was always associating Rukia with Boton from YYH and Orihime with Keiko, making her the only likely candidate for Ichigo’s affection. Other elements were the very edgy artstyle, the implied lesbianism of some characters, and of course the idea of an action/comedy series involving any kind of large blade. But truthfully, I can see even more stuff to like about it now than even before.
One thing evident from the start is that Bleach has an inherent ‘blackness’ which often comes along with urban stylization in manga. You can see some of this blackness in series like Soul Eater and taken to the extreme in Tokyo Tribes, and Bleach has it from the opening pages of Ichigo beating down some punk fools (above). Bleach has lots of style and loudness that speak for this blackness, and I believe it even introduces some black characters down the pipe, furthering the comparison.
Blackness and urban influences are always a floodgate-opener for highly stylized art. A lot of manga artists with this kind of style like to use the graffiti motif as well as put interesting English phrases on characters’ clothes reflective of punk style. (A really great place to look for that is the Rave series.) In the above image you can seen Ichigo looking quite pimp with an interesting mixture of black street style (rings, watches, sunglasses) and punk style (patches on the shirt, skull zipper). Of course, this also speaks a lot about the Japanese tendency to combine the various elements of urban styles. Incidentally, my favorite T-shirt from the first volume was Ichigo’s ‘Speaking is NOT communication’ shirt, though I’d never wear a baseball-cut shirt myself.
I definitely feel like Tite Kubo is having fun with his art in this volume, which I haven’t read enough to know if it can be said about further volumes of the story. I think the best example of this was in the third chapter, in which Orihime is daydreaming about having fun at the park with Ichigo. Her imagination runs wild, and all of a sudden she and Ichigo are in an Olympic race which then transforms into a boxing match (pictured below.)
Kubo also has fun providing lots of little factoids for the story and furthering it’s personality as well as pouring more of his interests into it. After the third chapter, there is a page noting that Rukia’s manga had been about a French S&M girl and her hard gay sister solving a murder mystery, which I thought was hilarious. I also liked the character notes in the back of the volume where it is explained that Ichigo’s theme song is ‘News From the Front’ by Bad Religion. I had never heard of Bad Religion back when I read Bleach, and I’m sure you can guess that I’m a fan of them now, considering that my username comes from one of their songs.
Interestingly, plenty of people seem to have taken note of this theme assignment and gotten to work – searching for the song on Youtube produces no shortage of Bleach AMVs, which all suck as usual. Something I found interesting, though, was that I’m looking at these scenes from the anime in the AMV while holding the manga in my hand, and the art looks completely different. I feel like the character designs completely loose their edge in the animated version wherein they become a lot more round and less angular like they are in the manga. Once again, though, maybe this improves as the series goes on? I certainly don’t remember the later scenes from other AMVs looking this different from the manga.
And on that note I mention the character designs, which I loved before and still do now. Kubo is able to create some very distinct designs, often similar only in that they are so angular. Everyone in the series seems to have their own style and edge, as if the characters’ personalities were drawing the designs themselves. Ichigo gives the impression of a guy with a definitive look he wants to have, and we see girls who wear tomboyish clothes as well as those who dress normally, people wearing all manner of individualized T-shirts, and Rukia, who is just trying to find anything that actually fits her.
I really love Rukia’s design, as well as Orihime’s for reasons on the totally opposite side of the spectrum (though I find her more cute and Rukia more outright attractive.) Ichigo’s sisters are ultra-cute as well, being totally different styles but still matching together perfectly.
Overall, I’d say the things I like about Bleach are almost always attributed to it’s art, and I can’t really say as much about the actual plot. The characters are interesting just because the way they are drawn is so vocal that you can understand them without having to see them do much, but I don’t know that Kubo grasps how interesting his characters can be because he doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. The jokes are hilarious and the interactions solid, but we’re always being pulled aside for long bouts of expository dialog. Things like this make me want to continue the manga to get more out of the characters and dialog, but I don’t want to go ahead only to realize that the potential exhibited by them will go to waste.
However, I shall. Why? Because I don’t dislike Bleach. If I come to dislike it, that will be it’s own problem, but I don’t like this notion of stopping a series that I don’t even dislike yet for reasons that aren’t really genuine. I’ve got a fuckton of series ‘on hold’ because I only drop a series if I genuinely don’t like it, so while I can’t promise I will read Bleach immediately, I think it’s only fair to keep reading it as long as I like it, and maybe I can even build some fandom for it, because it does have that potential to be something I can really enjoy.