Here it is! The first ever narrative amendment blog. So I have something to admit, in my progress blog I made the bold claim that this post would cover Bleach all the way up until the end of the soul society arc. When I wrote that I’d pretty much written off this initial arc entirely, the last time I watched this show was so long ago and I barely remembered a lot about this opener. Frankly, I’m disappointed in myself, because I consider this to be a very good first arc. Long stories, especially the big shounen manga/anime, really need a solid initial hook to get people invested and willing to catch up on the hundreds of chapters/episodes that await before them. Watching Bleach again, it had that hook and I have a lot to say about it. So, instead of trying to cram a bunch of arcs into this one post I’m going to cover just the first.
Overview and Consensus
Formerly one of the ‘big 3’ of anime alongside Naruto and One Piece, Bleach by Tite Kubo is a case of extremes when it came to what it did right and what it did wrong. Bleach kicks off as the story of Ichigo Kurosaki, a high school student with spiky, orange hair that points towards ghosts. Or, something like that, I’m not certain how genetics work. Either way, his interactions with ghosts result in him becoming the target of spooky-evil-masked-spirit creatures called Hollows. Though some wacky hi-jinks, Ichigo forms a team with three of his high school friends and a dog so that they can unmask these creatures and solve the various mysteries around Karakura town.
Ok, that might not be what happens.
Ichigo ends up meeting with Rukia Kuchiki, a spirit from a place called ‘Soul Society’ who is tasked with guiding the wandering souls from the world of the living and slaying the Hollows that aim to harm them. Things go awry when a Hollow targets Ichigo’s home and Rukia is injured past the point of being able to fight. In a totally illegal move, she just straight up stabs Ichigo and he gains the ability to become a ghost. But, like, a cool sword ghost so it’s ok. He defeats the Hollow and from then on he takes the role of substitute soul reaper, reacting to and defeating the various hollows that appear around his town and maybe even learning a life lesson or two along the way!!!
Then Rukia gets totally arrested for the illegal thing she did and Ichigo plans a jailbreak. These protags are awful examples for the youth.
So, what made this first arc so good that it kickstarted Bleach towards becoming one of the biggest manga of all time? After a bit of studying it’s a little difficult to say why from a story sense, with regards to its dedicated fanbase a majority will claim to have been hooked at some point during the soul society arc. The soul society arc is widely considered to be the high point of Bleach, the highlight before it all went downhill. It seems this first arc, where a lot of the story elements are just being established, gets overlooked or even forgotten often when it comes to reviewing Bleach as a whole. Something I very nearly did myself before my rewatch of the anime.
An analysis by the youtube channel Super Eyepatch Wolf attributes Bleach’s initial success to its more modern and realistic setting, which contrasted with its main contenders One Piece and Naruto. When writing notes for this blog I actually took heed of this myself, the existence of a ‘normal’ and modern setting functions as a way to get modern consumers to place themselves in the world. Even though the meat of the story is coated in supernatural elements, the space to associate with and connect to the world does exist.
While I don’t want these blogs to focus too much on non-writing elements, another major factor noted is Bleach’s art style. I think this point is pretty undeniable, when I said in my progress blog that Bleach heavily influenced how I do character design that was no exaggeration. Bleach’s aesthetic and designs are really cool; everything from the real world fashion to the soul reaper robes to the Hollow designs. Each individual aesthetic within Bleach has its own element of coolness, which makes it pretty clear how it would appeal to teenagers and also me.
Overall, though, seems like the amount of in-depth analysis that goes around regarding this first arc is limited at best. It doesn’t seem like people consider it to be bad, in fact when it’s noted I get the idea that it’s considered a strong start all around. Stronger than the beginning arcs for Naruto and One Piece, which both have arguably pretty slow wind-ups. To get to the bottom of this, let’s begin my analysis of Bleach’s Agent of the Shinigami arc.
What I Enjoyed
- The setting – As prior mentioned, the setting acts as a strong hook for people getting into the series since they can kinda relate to the world to an extent. Bleach isn’t the first story to do the whole “spooky ghost junk that is inconceivable to the normal world” idea but I’m honestly a sucker for that kind of concept. Maybe it’s the escapist in me but the idea that there’s more to the world, that there’s something behind the boring and regular, it provokes a sense of excitement. I want to live in a world where mysterious, giant claw marks rake the walls and inexplicable, inhuman footsteps crush the concrete below. I’m super down.
- Ichigo’s normal life & character development – When I thought about Bleach in my mind I always remembered Ichigo for what he became by the series’ end. I’ll save that analysis for a blog further down the line but I was surprised to see just how likable and three-dimensional he was throughout this first arc. I like Ichigo as this cool, nasty-faced tough guy who tries to maintain an ‘image’ despite being a social outcast. As far as teen characters go, in a story like Bleach which carries the theme of teenagers tackling a world that is terrifying and unknown to them, I think Ichigo is a good character. In an early episode Ichigo isn’t really interested in soul reaper work, he’s moody and selfish and doesn’t grasp the scale of the life he’s come into. This is highlighted when Rukia tells him not to save the soul of a young boy unless he’s willing to save as many souls as he can. Then later on in the arc, when Ichigo and Uryu are battling with waves of hollows back-to-back, we see that his mentality has matured as he scolds Uryu for his competitiveness against the soul reapers and claims to want to save as many souls as he possibly can. He changes, develops and comes into his own; at this point in the story he’s a likable character that I want to see go even further.
- The supporting cast – I didn’t have good memories when it came to the cast of Ichigo’s friends. I always had this perception that they were out of place when it came to the world of Hollows and soul reapers but that mentality has really changed with this rewatch. Orihime, Chad, Tatsuki, Rukia; the side cast of this arc all have unique and likable personalities that makes me want to see more of them. Something I really appreciate is the fact that Orihime and Chad develop powers while Tatsuki doesn’t. This, to me, really solidifies this theme of growing up and being confused by the world that you enter once you’re an adult. Orihime and Chad are directionless, they don’t have clear goals or futures in mind while Tatsuki has the clear future in her mind of wanting to be a vale tudo champion. She knows what she wants to be as a normal person, which is why she doesn’t have to develop powers like Chad or Orihime. This is shown plain as day in a scene that would otherwise be taken as just a joke bit, where Tatsuki shows a clear painting of her future while Orihime just drew herself as a death robot. Actually, never mind, Orihime definitely has the right idea for her future.
The process through which Orihime and Chad gained their powers was even well handled. Since fullbrings are a story element that isn’t introduced or explained until much later, the fact that they developed powers at all could have easily ended up feeling like an ass-pull. Yet, Kubo doesn’t pull the trigger too early, he waits until we know about Uryu and the Quincies before he goes all in on giving both of them powers. This is important because there were opportunities for them to at least hint towards having special powers at earlier stages in the arc, Chad even fought a Hollow with his regular human-ass fists at one point. Waiting until we know about Quincies is smart because they are an invaluable story element for Bleach’s worldbuilding. Until this point we’re left wondering if humans really never took heed of the existence of Hollows when they can really blatantly effect the physical world. The Quincies are our answer, they tell us that not only have humans previously been able to perceive Hollows but they can also develop abilities to battle against these dangerous spirits. If you’ve read or watched Bleach before then you know that Quincies and fullbringers aren’t the same but at this point in the story we have no knowledge of the latter. Functionally they are similar, humans who have developed abilities for the sake of battling against the dangers from the spirit realm. Just having that fuel with which to theorize is an example of good writing on Kubo’s part.
- The humor – The comedy in this first arc is handled really well. It never really takes control of the story or gets in your face, which I guess you could say is represented by Ichigo constantly kicking characters who try to get in his face. When a joke became prevalent enough to really be the focus of the scene, it always felt like it came at the right moments and the bits felt genuinely humorous too. I took a particular liking to the jab Bleach takes at the memory replacement trope, where they have a device that replaces memories but what the memories are replaced with is totally unknown. The only time I felt like the humor didn’t really work was with regards to one particular character.
- The pacing – Oftentimes when you see a review of… just about anything these days, you’re real likely to hear some sort of comment on the story’s pacing. Pacing is a hard thing to get right and in the anime industry in particular it’s the biggest bane for a lot of shows. This can be attributed to a lot of non-writing factors like having to fill an episode’s worth of content or purposely slowing pacing to a crawl if the story is following a concurrent manga. Regardless, pacing can be a major factor when it comes to somebody’s enjoyment of a piece of media. In the agent of the shinigami arc I felt like the pacing was just about perfect, particularly in the sense that every single story within the arc introduced something new. Even though a lot of the Hollows were just mindless creatures, the show never felt like it devolved into just a monster-of-the-week ordeal. The first episode introduced the premise, the story regarding Orihime’s brother shows the process of becoming a Hollow and the ideas that they have hierarchy and intelligence, the story about Chad and the parakeet told us more about how Hollows can toy with souls and introduced the gates of Hell and so on. Nothing felt like it dragged and each story answered questions about and expanded the world.
Another important factor towards the good pacing is that Hollows were not the primary conflict in each story. I wanted to single out the story that centered around Kon as a brief sort-of antagonist when he took Ichigo’s body for himself. This episode not only handled the issue of Ichigo’s limp and vulnerable body every time he became a soul reaper, it deepened the world by creating a threat that was not a Hollow or derived from a Hollow. Every story felt fresh and I can’t praise this arc enough for that.
- Foreshadowing – Boy oh boy, Kubo didn’t just dip his toes into the foreshadowing for this arc, he straight up plunged into neck-deep water. From the very first episode it’s hinted at that Ichigo has dormant soul reaper abilities before Rukia even stabs him. Rukia thinks that Hollows are only targeting Ichigo because of his recent interactions with a ghost but even in that same episode Ichigo’s father notes Ichigo’s ability to see and touch ghosts. The fact that his father knows about this leads to the assumption that Ichigo has done so before, so Rukia’s ghost theory becomes just a real weak mislead. Paired with Ichigo’s giant potential spiritual pressure from the get-go, there’s more than a few crumbs left behind to give you the idea something’s up with this boy. There are bunch of other smaller foreshadowing tidbits in even just this first arc, such as Ichigo’s vizard mask when he regains his soul reaper abilities, but the other one I wanted to highlight was the perception we get of the soul reapers and soul society. At first, we have this perception from Rukia that the soul reapers are a decisively good and heroic faction that is dedicated to saving as many souls as they possibly can. However, when we get into stories like that of the mod souls or about the Quincy extermination our idea of them changes a bit. Without even really seeing the soul reapers (with one exception), we understand that they aren’t a heroic force, they’re a moral grey that fulfills their duty no matter what. This idea becomes pretty clear when they take Rukia away to be straight up executed but I have to give props for the solid lead up to the gotei 13 becoming the enemy.
What Needs Changed
- How Hollows work – This is mostly just a case of clarity because I’m pretty certain that Hollows do function the way I think they do but it’s never really made very clear. In the first episode, Rukia makes the statement that Hollows will indiscriminately target both the living and the dead and we see that they can cause damage to the physical world. My main problem with this is that it’s made pretty clear that the more intelligent of the Hollows are assholes and I don’t see why they wouldn’t just attack living people indiscriminately. You could make the argument that the more feral Hollows would just instinctively go after higher spirit energy targets but for the rest, why would there be no incidents of a Hollow appearing in a crowded area and literally sweeping their arm once. We know that soul reapers need some time before they can react to the appearance of a Hollow, so it just feels like they would cause way more damage in the world than they do and there’s only so much you can explain away with memory replacement. This is an age where TV and news exists, just how much memory manipulation is done for every time a Hollow makes footsteps in the ground?
Unless! The case is that Hollows cannot effect people with lower spirit levels as viscerally, which would force them to do more poltergeist-y things like moving around objects to hurt people. It’s only when someone’s spirit levels rise that they come under more risk, as the more in-tune with the spirit world they are the more Hollows are capable of directly hurting them. It would make Hollows less inclined to go through the effort of trying to farm normal souls and instead just go for the big energies that are ripe for consumption. We know that Hollows even have workarounds, such as when the Hollow of Orihime’s brother pushed her soul out of her body without harming it much physically. Why would Hollows need an ability like that if he could have just killed the body? I feel like just a little bit more clarity is required.
- What’s the truth – In one episode it’s claimed that Ichigo could only see and talk to ghosts recently, then in a further episode they say that it was the case for as long as he could remember. The goal posts changed for the convenience of the plot but I’m onto you Kubo.
- Kon’s character arc – This is probably my single biggest complaint about this arc, which all things considered is probably a good thing. I liked Kon’s character arc when he was initially introduced, he stole Ichigo’s body but he just wanted to have the opportunity to move around and be free after being trapped and scared for so long. He seemed like the kind of character who would be selfish and live for himself at that point but then we find that he has this element of selflessness, a drive to use his mod soul abilities to fight Hollows even while in a regular body. For a story spanning just two anime episodes, Kon was made out to be a solid character that fit well into that time frame.
Then he was turned into a joke. Now, having the hindsight of the entire arc I don’t have so much of a problem with Kon initially being stuffed in the toy lion body. It made for a couple of funny moments and when you consider that he’s still at risk as a mod soul it makes sense that Ichigo and Rukia would keep him close. My empathy for the character takes a blow as he becomes insufferable but from an overall perspective I can understand it. He doesn’t even show up on-screen very often so whatever, it’s fine.
Later on into the arc, just before Rukia ends up being taken by Renji and Byakuya, Kon actually takes issue with the situation he’s been put in. This is good! It makes sense, if this were treated as a genuine sub-plot then I think it seriously could have gone somewhere. Ichigo and Rukia just kinda swept Kon along all things considered and their treatment of him is pretty awful. They keep him stuck in a stuffed doll and holed up in places where he can’t be seen. The fact that he’s a living being is like a non-factor to them, and that feels awful when we know that all Kon wanted was to be able to move around and be free. There’s so much that could be built from Kon wanting to get out of this bound life he’s stuck in and yet when it’s addressed it becomes just a joke. It makes it feel like we weren’t supposed to care about the whole mod soul business in the first place. As much as I compliment Bleach’s use of humor, I don’t think this was the place for it.
- Minor gripes – Chad is a cool guy within the boundary of this arc but he had no business fist-fighting a Hollow. Especially not one that claimed to have defeated soul reapers in the past.
Shun Shun Rikka is weird. Like, it makes sense for a character like Orihime to manifest her powers as six tiny fairy OCs but that form of manifestation is so different than anything else we ever see throughout the series to my memory. Also, from a readability standpoint, the fact that they’re six individual fairies is worthless because they will never be individually developed enough for me to care for them as characters.
Ichigo crushing Renji with his spiritual pressure. We got that Ichigo has a massive amount of spiritual pressure, I think that was represented enough throughout the arc without having him fodderize a lieutenant-level fighter by existing. Having him nearly one-shot a Menos was more than enough to show Ichigo’s potential strength, having him dumpster Renji like that only served to make soul society as a whole seem less threatening rather than making Ichigo seem strong.
This is going to sound a little disappointing considering this is the first narrative amendment post but… I don’t think there’s a whole lot of major changes to make to this first arc. My issues regarding Hollows could be solved with the addition of a couple of lines to clarify the kind-0f-maybe-corporeal state of their existence. The inconsistency with Ichigo’s ghost perception is easily enough fixed, just have Rukia pass off the Hollow’s interest in Ichigo to his abnormal spiritual affinity. Give some garbage throwaway reason for Chad’s ability to punch a Hollow like the wound he took triggers his inner spiritual energy, at least something a little better than ‘very good instincts’. Make Shun Shun Rikka three fairies instead of six, better chance of the viewer even trying to care about them. Have Renji beat Ichigo without Byakuya’s help. I understand that Kubo wanted to show how cool and strong Byakuya was but it really just gives the perception that every non-captain character in the gotei 13 is just potential fodder.
For Kon, it’s hard to suggest much considering he is just a side character and the point of the story where his development would make the most sense is also really close to the climax of the arc. Although, I could argue that Kon’s story doesn’t have to be one that takes place in the window of the main story. Have Kon actually leave, I believe that Kon could open the way for a lot of story potential if he wasn’t bound within the window of Ichigo’s life. We know he can sense Hollows, is capable of fending them off while in a human body and he has the drive to protect people as a mod soul. Maybe the soul reapers do end up finding him but regard him as a success where the mod souls were once considered failures. He could pave the way for a story where more mod souls are created and they become a special reactive force who protect people and spirits from Hollows until a soul reaper is able to come onto the scene. This could even lead into more humor scenes with Kon, where he just inexplicably shows up in soul society and acts like the hottest guy around as the justice hero of mod souls.
Heck, even if he just ended up working for Urahara along with Jinta and Ururu, it would make sense because Urahara is shown to be an empathetic character. This was shown when he reassured Ururu after she accidentally brought Kon’s dispenser out in the first place. Even something as simple as that would have been better than making him a joke.
So we’ve determined that the first arc of Bleach is a testament to how good of a writer Kubo can be. It has a good setting, good characters and good progression; looking at it overall it hits every major plot beat it has to. While there are some minor issues that can be derived, none of them are bad enough to topple the solid foundation that Kubo built for the rest of Bleach to take place on. Everything integral to the viewer’s enjoyment of the story is there and some problems that could be fixed with just a couple of line alterations doesn’t change that. If you’re like me, hell if you’re like a lot of people that look back on Bleach and forget this opening arc in the shade of soul society then I would recommend watching it over again. If you’re someone who hasn’t watched Bleach and only heard the tales of its fall from grace, even then I would recommend having a watch and giving it the chance to hook you in. Maybe the ‘worst’ of the big 3 has more to offer than you think.