Based on the first season, it seems like people are hating on it just because it’s popular. I have no doubt the quality drops over time. When you’ve aired like 15 seasons, that’s bound to happen.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers and possibly peanuts.
|TV Tokyo|2004-2005|20 episodes|30 mins.|
For those of you who have been living under a rock since 2004, Bleach follows an orange- haired teenager named Ichigo Kurosaki, whose family runs a medical clinic. His mother died while he was young, leaving him and his sisters in the care of his father, who is, shall we say, batshit insane. Ichigo has some sort of supernatural abilities that allow him to interact with ghosts, but this seems to annoy him more than anything.
I didn’t really like Ichigo’s name at first. I have enough basic Japanese to know that ichigo means strawberry. That just seemed like a very odd choice to me; the Japanese equivalent of a boy named Sue. Maybe that’s why he can be so grumpy. It later dawned on me that you could read it as ichi go (one five), which makes a lot more sense given his age of fifteen.
Already, I enjoy Ichigo’s interactions with his family, and in particular his father. They have a bit of an adversarial relationship, not mean-spirited exactly, but more like Cato and Inspector Clouseau. Ichigo’s dad is always ambushing him and just acting like a deranged, yet loveable, lunatic.
So one night, a big ugly monster only Ichigo can see attacks the Kurosaki house and fucks shit up. Ichigo rushes outside to see a mysterious black-robed girl fighting the monster, and getting beaten up pretty badly.
Taken aback that he can see her, the girl transfers some of her power into Ichigo, and with her help, he defeats the big ugly. And, surprise surprise, Ichigo is apparently super strong. In a shonen anime? NO WAY.
Turns out, this girl, Rukia, is a shinigami, which is basically a Japanese grim reaper, only there are lots of them. Since she was weakened in the fight, and Ichigo has most of her powers, she had to trap herself in an artificial human body. It’s now Ichigo’s responsiblity to help her with her work.
A shinigami’s job is to get lingering spirits to move on to the afterlife. For good spirits (Plus), this is fairly simple; just send them on their way to Soul Society (heaven), maybe help them resolve some unfinished business. However, the main antagonists are the Hollows, evil spirits who feed on Pluses and humans alike. They’re attracted to beings with high spirit power, which is why one of them went after Ichigo. The best way to deal with these motherfuckers to get your big ol’ Cloud sword and smack em in the face til they die.
For the early part of the season, that’s pretty much the formula. Rukia receives orders on her phone, and she and Ichigo go take care of the problem. One of the best things about the show is the interaction between the two. Rukia is often exasperated by Ichigo’s lack of supernatural knowledge. I like that she tries to explain otherworldly concepts through crudely animated crayon drawings. It’s a very cute and endearing trait.
It’s pretty amusing to watch her try to navigate the human world: living in Ichigo’s closet, masquerading as a new student so she can keep an eye on him at school, and the way she fights the feelings she starts to develop for humanity. She resents being trapped in human form, and being practically powerless. It’s very frustrating for her.
Ichigo, on the other hand doesn’t really want to do shinigami work and bickers with Rukia pretty much every step of the way.In order to become a shinigami, his spirit has to leave his physical body, and experience he doesn’t really care for.
It also creates the problem of having to stash his lifeless body somewhere it won’t be found, though this is solved later in the season by the addition of Kon. Kon is an artificial being who can be inserted into practically any vessel, and takes Ichigo’s place while he’s shinigami-ing. He spends most of his time as a stuffed lion, much to his dismay.
It takes a Hollow attacking a friend, Orihime, for Ichigo to finally take his head out of his ass and realize that with great power comes great responsi—
I do wanna give props to the art department on this one. In a lot of places the colors are a little washed out, but not in a cheap way. It lends the show kind of watercolor look that I find pretty visually appealing. So yeah. That’s cool.
The next episode introduces another main character, Chad. He’s a big strong black guy who likes Hawaiian shirts. I don’t mean strong like hey, this guy can bench press a lot, I mean strong like a steel girder from a construction site fell on his head and he didn’t even give a shit.
He also has some spiritual sensitivity, but not to the degree Ichigo does. He is a somewhat normal human. He can sense the presence of the Hollows but he can’t see them.
He spends his introductory episode protecting the spirit of a young boy, trapped in a parrot, from a Hollow.
So these sort of mostly stand-alone episodes are a lot of fun It’s very engaging urban fantasy. You’ve seen the get up, go to school, save the world trope a million times before, but Bleach does it very well.
About halfway through the season, though, it starts to show more maturity than I ever expected from a series like this, and an ongoing plot really starts to move. It had been implied earlier that the Hollows had some kind of master pulling the string but nothing ever really came of it (yet).
There’s a pretty somber episode where Ichigo and his family visit his mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Mama Ichigo was killed by a Hollow that was attempting to lure him, and he therefore feels responsible for her death. When the same Hollow appears at the grave, Ichigo very nearly gets himself killed trying to exact vengeance.
Meanwhile, Rukia is confronted by another shinigami, from what seems to be a secret police equivalent, demanding to know why she’s been living as a human for so long and why she allowed a human to gain shinigami abilities. This is a serious crime, and Rukia could end up in some serious shit for it.
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Normally, this kind of bullshit really annoys me because most shonen anime don’t have the maturity to deal with things like this effectively, and it ends up being overacted melodrama. But something about the way Bleach handled these developments really impressed me, and I connected with the characters. I had high hopes for the rest of the season.
And then they let me down.
Shit really starts to fuckin’ drag around the midway point. We’re introduced to Ishida, a rival for Ichigo. He’s a human with enormous spirit power, and he fights the Hollows on his own.
At first, I was prepared to hate him. I was convinced that he was just going to be a Sasuke clone. You know, the strong, aloof rival with nothing but contempt for the protagonist, who has a personal vendetta and therefore MUST BE THE STRONGEST.
Thankfully, they humanize Ishida almost straight away. I couldn’t give less of a fuck about his back story or why he has it in for shinigami. But I like that they give him personality quirks like being a god at sewing. I like that his overconfidence causes a huge fucking problem that forces him to work with Ichigo.
What I don’t like is what happens with the rest of the cast during that story arc. It seems like the writers just went fuck it, and decided to give everyone super powers. Orihime can apparently summon fairies that like live in her hair clips because she’s pure hearted, and Chad grows this big Hellboy arm thingy. Oh, and they can both see Hollows now. Yeah.
So that’s retarded in the extreme. I’m not against characters like this gaining abilities over time. They’ve clearly demonstrated sensitivity to the supernatural before.
I also understand the decision to expand the series into a more ensemble cast. It makes perfect sense that you can’t have just Ichigo and Rukia doing everything by themselves forever. What I don’t like is that they do it all at once. It makes it seem really contrived and artificial. It feels too sudden. Maybe one of them would have been okay, but to just give everyone superpowers at once is fucking lazy.
I get that people have to find out eventually. Whether you’re a super hero, a shinigami, a vampire slayer, or just a flaming homo, people finding out about your secret life makes for good drama, and creates a lot of storytelling possibilities. There’s a better way of doing it.
Let’s use Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example, because that show is more awesome than Bleach will ever be. Buffy had herself a gang of Scoobies, and the character roles parallel pretty well. The Buffy/Giles dynamic fits with how Ichigo and Rukia interact, and if you really want to stretch it, you could say that Urahara fills the early Angel role: the mysterious stranger who seems to be in the loop. He turns up to dispense some cryptic advice, but we’re still not sure what his game is exactly.
However, throughout the first season, and much of the second, Buffy and Angel were about the only characters with abilities. Xander, Willow, Giles, and Cordelia were normal humans. Sure they assisted her, but they were no match for vampires. They gained their powers gradually as the show progressed, and it was tied to their growth as characters. Some characters, like Xander and Dawn, remained powerless throughout the entire series.
On Bleach, at least this season, it felt like we didn’t really get any of that. There was some character development over those episodes, but it felt like they just wanted to speed through it. It feels lazy and cheap. A more gradual progression would have been nice. Maybe they could have found out about the shinigami, but remained powerless. Or maybe the could have gained the ability to see them, but developed these other abilities later.
Seriously, though, fucking FAIRIES?
Thankfully, Bleach recovers from this incomprehensible decision in the last few episodes of the season with two shinigami, one of whom is Rukia’s adoptive brother, coming to bring her back to Soul Society to answer for her crimes.
This gets back to the good stuff, with Rukia leaving Ichigo in the night, the two more experienced shinigami absolutely mopping the floor with Ishida. Ichigo is nearly killed and stripped of his shingami powers, and Rukia is taken back to Soul Society for execution.
Ichigo spends the last few episodes learning to regain them with Urahara, while the others receive training from a talking cat (????) to prepare for a rescue mission.
I do want to talk about how impressed I was by the season finale. It actually felt like a climax. You would think this would be a no-brainer, but a lot of anime, especially long-running ones like Naruto treat their season finales as just another episode.
I like having the big event episode to look forward to at the end of the season. Many anime have the climax, if they have one at all, a few episodes before the end and then tack on a couple of fillers or if they do advance the plot, they’re mostly just standard business-as-usual episodes.
Bleach doesn’t do that. It gives you a proper season finale with some good action, effective emotional content, significant plot developments. It pays off the storylines that have been building throughout the season and ends on a cliffhanger that makes you excited to see what happens next. I have no idea why this seems to be so difficult for so many anime series to accomplish, but the way Bleach did it makes them look even worse in comparison.
If you’re a new viewer, by all means check it out. I haven’t yet seen anything that warrants the hate the internet throws its way. The acting is good, the premise is fun, the art is nice, and perhaps most importantly, it’s fast paced for a shonen series. If you’re an old, jaded viewer lay off.
This first season, despite dropping the ball in the middle, is a promising start for Bleach and I’m definitely on board for more.