Other than Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s been quite a while since I’ve watched anime. Though I enjoy the occasional manga, it’s not something that I go out of my way to consume. This is probably because I’m not the biggest fan of either shounen or shoujo. I personally find both these genres much more structured than I would like. All too often, one shounen will feel too much like another, and that goes for me and shoujo as well.
But despite my feelings against this kind of narrative formula, there still remain some aspects of the shounen genre that I really do love. And if there was one shounen that I knew I wouldn’t mind sitting down and rewatching, it was, without a doubt, Bleach.
So for the whole four of you who haven’t watched or at least heard of this show, Ichigo Kurosaki is not your average guy. For as long as he can remember, he has had the ability to see ghosts, due to his own spiritual energy, which is much higher than normal. Unfortunately for him, this makes him a target for all sorts of dangerous creatures. If ghosts don’t cross over into the afterlife in time, they transform into monsters called Hollows, which then fed on people’s spiritual energy. The forces that combat these Hollows and purify their spirits so they can cross over are the Shinigami, which literally means “death gods”, though the anime translates it as “Soul Reapers”. After Rukia, one of the Shinigami, is injured in battle, she gives her spiritual energy to Ichigo so he can act as a substitute Shinigami in her place until she heals.
Ichigo, Rukia, and Ichigo’s other friends who all have abnormal spiritual energy of their own then spend the majority of the first twenty episodes fighting Hollows and learning to control their abilities. Unfortunately, by giving Ichigo her powers, Rukia has committed a great crime in the eyes of the other Shinigami. She is arrested as a result and slated to be executed. The Substitute arc ends with Ichigo and his friends preparing to cross over into the next world so they can enter the Shingami homeland, Soul Society, and save Rukia.
Bleach is definitely one of those stories that encompasses everything I absolutely hate in anime, especially in shounen. We have our obligatory spiky-haired protagonist who for one reason or another harbors secret hidden powers that he will eventually use to save the world. We also have a inconsistent tone: despite all the seriousness of the plot—character deaths, murders, rape themes, etc.—the story engages in random pointless comedy from time to time that doesn’t fit in with anything else that’s happening. And on top of that, we also have a cast of literally hundreds of characters that the story will spend countless episodes focusing on and developing despite how little those characters may contribute to the overall plot.
Yet despite all that, I still really love Bleach.
For starters, even though Ichigo is our generic shounen protagonist with hidden powers and a sense of self-sacrifice, I really do like him. He’s intelligent, he’s resourceful, and he’s also got a lot of flaws he has to overcome. He’s brash and tends to run head first into situations without thinking things through. It’s also through his own actions that Rukia’s fellow Shinigami first learn about her crime. However, as he’s new to being a Shinigami, Rukia also ends up acting like a mentor to him, and since he has to rely on her in order to use his Shinigami powers, we actually end up with a female character in a leadership position for the majority of the first twenty episodes. As a result, even though Rukia is in a weakened state and Ichigo is now the one with the ability to fight giant dangerous monsters, Rukia still has a lot of power and agency. Because of this setup, she and Ichigo are on equal footing and must rely on each other in order to combat Hallows.
Furthermore, Ichigo’s friends all have some very interesting backstories and a lot of agency
. Orihime Inoue is possibly my favorite out of all his friends. Unlike Rukia, she’s not tough, nor does she go out to fight Hollows. First and foremost, Orihime is a healer who tends to think about the safety of others before she thinks about killing monsters. It is nice that we do get a wide variety of well-developed female characters in the series that all have their own unique strengths. Additionally, like Ichigo, Orihime has an atypical hair color, which Bleach then uses to talk about discrimination in Japanese society. Because of their hair, both Orihime and Ichigo experience violence and teasing at the hands of their classmates.
Though Japan tends to adhere to Western beauty standards in their media, in real life, Japanese students who don’t have straight black hair are discriminated against by both their peers and teachers, to the point that teachers will sometimes forcibly dye a student’s hair black. Hair that is naturally a little brown or reddish can cause a lot of problems for students. When I lived in Japan back in the early 90s, a student at a nearby high school was stabbed to death because her hair wasn’t black. I was only around three at the time, so I don’t remember the details, and in most cases, this kind of discrimination is hardly so extreme. Many teachers and students are accepting of those who look different, but discrimination still exists. So it was really nice to see Bleach talk about this issue.
Unfortunately, while Bleach succeeds here and though it does have good female representation, it fails in other regards. Orihime’s friend, Chizuru, who has a huge crush on Orihime, is defined solely by her lesbianism thus far and her attraction is also used as a form of comic relief. Additionally, when Orihime first comes into her powers, it’s while she and her friends are being attacked by a tentacle Hollow. And the tentacle Hollow has the ability to inject seeds into people’s bodies to take over and control them against their will. The entire incident, while powerful for Orihime to see her overcome such a strong foe and save her friends, was one giant rape analogy for me. She could have come into her powers fighting literally any other Hollow.
Regardless of its problems, Bleach’s first twenty episodes were still a really fun watch. I was pleasantly surprised by both Rukia’s and Orihime’s characters, and also by the story’s attempts to explore the discrimination Orihime and Ichigo face. Unfortunately, Bleach’s good start with representation ends after The Substitute arc, but that’s something to talk about next time.