Weeaboo Wednesday: Why It Might Be Okay to Watch Bleach

July 29, 2009


My life can loosely be described as a big fat sausagefest. For one thing, I work for the Heuristic Squelch. Comedy, like most things that aren’t jazz music, is dominated by white men, and the Squelch is no exception. Our female membership has increased by roughly 400% since my arrival– and yet the magazine is still dominated by a ponderously large amount of dick jokes.

For another thing, I’m a philosophy major. The percentage of female undergraduates in philosophy– nationwide– is something like 30%. For a little bit of perspective— the percentage of female undergraduates in the humanities (nationwide) is something like 60%. The gender ratio in philosophy is comparable to the ratio in computer science.

Combine that with my decidedly neckbeardesque taste in music and my dismal, crippled relationship with my cold, cold mother, and what you get is a very good reason to never read shounen.

Look at this way: after a long day of sparring with moleskine-wielding, unshaven, fixed-gear riding douchebags over Kant’s transcendental idealism, would you rather read a childish comic about an awkward and blush-filled courtship with a high school tennis star, or a childish comic about an awkward and yell-y duel-to-the-death that determines whose magic dragon ninja ghost sword is the biggest?

miageta yozora no hoshitachi no hikari

miageta yozora no hoshitachi no hikari

I won’t deny it. Bleach is right up there with Naruto for “absolutely retarded eye-shit for boys,” but let me, just for this one post, try to convince you that the first 30 chapters (and/or episodes) are worth reading (and/or watching).

miageta yozora no hoshitachi no hikari ^_^

inishie no omoi negai ga jidai wo koe ^_^

There are a number of reasons why the first arc of Bleach (defined as the series from the first chapter/episode up to Rukia’s forced return to Soul Society) is highly superior to the rest of the manga/anime, and perhaps to most of the shounen genre.

For one thing, it is obvious that the mangaka only really thought his way up to a certain point in the first arc. He manages to stumble his way past Rukia’s departure and into Ichigo’s regaining of his powers, but from there, everything gets very silly. Thugs riding on pigs, giant gatekeepers, black/blind/dreadlocked Soul Reapers in William Gibsonesque sunglasses… also, giant wolf-cat things Soul Reapers. Also, dudes with feather eyebrows. The plot from there on out follows a very strict JRPG dungeon format, with Ichigo fighting one boss after another after another. The entire second arc (defined as the story from Rukia’s departure up to Aizen’s ascension) can pretty much be described as the (metaphorical) gradual engorging of Ichigo’s already humongous ghost sword, AKA the Soul Cutter, until it finally explodes deliciously all over his captive romantic interest’s oppressive older brother.

Sqlog writer Kyle Smith after a few stiff drinks and a harrowing spider-sighting

Sqlog writer Kyle Smith after a few stiff drinks and a harrowing spider-sighting

The rest of the manga is, despite lacking the awful and unimaginative filler injected like so much cheap silicon into the syphilis ridden whore that is the animated series, not much better. The swords just keep getting bigger in one way or another, with little to no character development. Later Bleach leaves you with the feeling that the mangaka is extremely stressed out. You know the kind of ideas you get late at night after smoking a bowl and eating two servings of La Burrita’s Super Nacho? “Oh man what if there was there was this one guy with white hair and his thing was this ice dragon sword and but he couldn’t maintain it forever and he had this flower behind him and and the flower had these ice petals and the ice petals melt to count down how long he can maintain that ice dragon sword thing? I should put that in my manga.” No, you shouldn’t put that in your manga.

why you shouldn't have put it in your manga

why you shouldn't have put it in your manga

In a way, the strain takes its toll on the manga fairly early on, with the appearance of Inoue’s absolutely inane supernatural talent. Flying flower warriors that detach themselves from her hairpins? Come on.

why would you do this!!!

why would you do this!!!

Flying hairpin fairies or no, the first arc is still very good. I may have set myself up for failure by showing you the above, but hear me out.

Despite the overall work being an unsubtle exercise in an impossible standard of masculinity, the first arc of Bleach is exceptionally good manga. The story– just for those first 30+ chapters/episodes– manages to balance between the modern and ancient, the mundane and the absurd, the comic and the tragic, life and death.

To be fair, none of these dualities are anything new. The mysteries of death have been done over and over again; the juxtaposition of modern Japan and feudal(ish) Japan has been maxed out by everyone from the author of the rather mediocre Inu-Yasha to the author of the even more mediocre Rurouni Kenshin, as well as all of their pathetic imitators.

To be fair, I did like the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs.

To be fair, I did like the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs.

The style that 1st-arc Bleach embodies is best compared to the deservedly lauded Samurai Champloo, which forges an indisputably Japanese identity on the solid foundation of a samurai story, refreshingly carried aloft by an oft-anachronistic hip-hop style. Characters in Samurai Champloo beat-box, break-dance, and even engage in graffiti duels, whilst they wander from village to village on a Holy MacGuffin quest, defeating renegade samurai in the name of justice, turning sword tricks for clinky oval cash, and even encountering the early post-feudal form of yakuza.

Bleach is not quite as over-the-top as Samurai Champloo, but its bright colors, bold style, wonderful sense of graphic design, and the obvious “street” identity of main characters (namely Ichigo and Chad) definitely gives it something that its genre often lacks… Could it be… personality?

Note how Ichigo is dressed throughout the entire intro– he almost unfailingly wears those stupidly huge headphones around his neck. Because he is cool, I guess. Lots of bright solid colors, wonderful vector silhouettes (from a time before iPod ad campaign images got old), even Andy Warholesque portraits of minor characters. Around 0:33 you see a “street” introduction of the main characters, hanging out in a dark tennis court. Because that is what cool kids do, I guess. At 1:07, graffiti. At 1:19, Ichigo is wearing fucken raver goggles.

Interestingly– this intro (which was the intro for about 30+ episodes, I belieive it was around for exactly the amount of time I would describe as the 1st-arc) also contains images of the real gimmick of the series– Ichigo is a Soul Reaper, someone who sends spirits on their way to Soul Society (a heaven of sorts, the home of the dead) and fights Hollows (spirits gone bad) in order to protect both other spirits and humans.

The Soul Reapers wear black kimono, carry katana, and even wear those awful straw sandals– I don’t remember what they’re called. Death and spirituality, in Bleach, is a traditional affair– no matter how bizarre, ecchi, or technologically interesting Soul Society gets, it ultimately carries a distinctively feudal flair. In the above intro, the bits with Soul Reapers are misty, desaturated, and drawn with thinner lines– a definite contrast to the bold and colorful depiction of the world of the living.

It’s that kind of aesthetic balance that is so pleasing in 1st-arc Bleach. 1st-arc’s emphasis on the simplicities and complications of Japanese modernity in terms of death, family, grief, and responsibility makes it more emotionally accessible than any other part of the series– at the same time, the motif of an ancient Japan as embodied by the Soul Reapers adds an element of spiritual authenticity that lifts the series beyond “slice of life” and into serious philosophical territory.

For all its penis-surrogate-flourish posturing, Bleach–1st-arc, anyways– is remarkably sensitive when it comes to ethical issues. Most of the main characters suffer from an overburdening of conscience– the sorts of ethical dilemmas presented in 1st-arc rival even the most morally exacting bleeding heart philosophical thought experiments.

a reminder in case you forgot that Bleach is still pretty lame

a reminder in case you forgot that Bleach is still pretty lame

Peter Singer & the $50 suit

I don’t even have a good background in ethics and I’ve seen this argument in maybe three or four different forms. Basically it goes: You see a child drowning in muddy water but you are wearing a $50 suit or maybe $50 shoes (it really shows how dated this example is when the price seems unreasonably cheap). It’s clear that if you don’t save the child and thus lose the $50 you just spent, you are morally reprehensible. So, if you get something in the mail that tells you that if you don’t send a charity $50, two children in Africa will starve and die, you are also morally reprehensible!

Like all oft-discussed Gedankenexperimenten, the Peter Singer example is pretty awful and poorly conceived. It takes a great deal of suspension of disbelief– you know for sure that the money will get to the right people, etc., etc.– before you can stop laughing at Peter Singer.

Once you get past the niggling details, the really interesting point about Singer is the difference between helping people right in front of you and helping people in distant places. Given what most people consider to be right and wrong, there should be no difference between helping someone in front of you and helping someone far away, but there is certainly a difference in how we feel and act. Speaking of,

click to read

click to read: remember, right to left!

The dilemma that Rukia (the girl with that one strand of hair over her face) presents to Ichigo is one of duty and responsibility. Thanks to life/death emergency, Ichigo had to absorb Rukia’s powers as Soul Reaper. Now Rukia is left powerless and is now trying to get Ichigo to commit to acting as a Soul Reaper. Ichigo, who is easily moved by the plight of others, is no bad guy, but like most men, is not great with commitment.

Rukia brings him to a spot where a Hollow is attacking a spirit. Ichigo moves to help, but she stops him. What is the difference between this spirit, and other spirits? If he doesn’t want to commit, he might as well not help the child in front of him.

Ichigo’s answer is a good answer to Peter Singer– one that refuses moral absolutism and instead retreats into philosophically unacceptable but pragmatically excellent standpoint that treats the subject with authenticity.

once again, click to read

once again, click to read

“I haven’t accepted any commitment… If things get bad I might run away… since I’m not a good enough person to be able to sacrifice my life for total strangers… but… unfortunately, I’m also not trash that can live happily without paying back his debts!”

In the world of Bleach, morality– as terribly exacting as it can be sometimes– is rarely ever a thing of absolutes. It hinges almost entirely on duty and obligiation to those we have relationships with, as who and what we identify ourselves as. Although everyone seems to have pretty much the same idea of good and bad, morality is still relative to one’s sense of self, and judgment rarely gets passed down.

Kon, Buddhism, and Pacifism

For instance, in a series full of blood-thirsty, sword-toting warriors, Bleach finds room for the most crazy, fringe pacificist to express his views– in a coherent, admirable, and unridiculous fashion. In order to act as a Soul Reaper in the world, Ichigo’s spirit must be forced to leave his body and run around with his black kimono and huge fucking katana. After a while, the whole “Wow, Ichigo looks dead” gets pretty old, so Rukia ends up acquiring a pill that’ll stick a placeholder spirit/personality in Ichigo’s body, one that will ostensibly act normal until he comes back.

Unfortunately, the pill contains Kon, a construct designed by Soul Society to animate the bodies of the dead and thus tip the balance in the battle against the Hollows. However, Kon and his kind were determined for extermination long ago, and Kon has barely survived being destroyed. Therefore:

same deal

same deal

yeah yeah yeah

yeah yeah yeah

Perhaps in a country where Buddhism is not a minority religion infrequently practiced by hippie-dippy Northern Californian parents who like to smoke weed with their children, the idea of pacificism and the sanctity of life (the real sanctity of life, not the anti-abortion pro-death-penalty views espoused in the US) might not be terribly ridiculous, but it does seem somewhat out of place in a manga that is essentially about fighting and winning!

Our Relationship With the Dead

Death and grief in modern Japan is what grounds 1st-arc Bleach. Plot points like the manifestation of Inoue’s brother, or the death anniversary of Ichigo’s mother drive character development as well as acting as excuses for elaborate sword fights.

No matter how stoicly one accept the absence of an afterlife for one’s self, it’s a little harder to say, “She’s dead; I will never see her again.” Never is a hard word– no one wants to say it.

In a way, our love and our grief spans over the impossible barrier of the unknowable. It is Ichigo’s ties to the dead– both his regret over his mother’s death and his ability to see spirits (entwined together, you might recall)– that brings Rukia and all the idiosyncrasies of Soul Society into his world.

1st-arc Bleach is simultaneously about both the segregation and the bridging of life and death. Plot points like the appearance of Inoue’s brother drive home the message that there is a place for the dead and a place for the living, and that the living should not grieve too much and try to hold on to their dead. On the other hand, Ichigo steps fluidly from one world to another, purifying Hollows one minute and attending class the next.

Yet on the other hand, he doesn’t— not in 1st-arc, anyways. No matter what Ichigo does, he’s still contained within the living world– he doesn’t truly bridge the gap between the world of the living and Soul Society until 2nd-arc. And that’s where the series goes wrong. In 1st-arc, the theme of death as embodied by Soul Society and all the small realities of the spiritual world acts only as a foil for the mundane but beautiful reality of our everyday living relationships with one another. The death of Inoue’s brother makes her friendship with Tatsuki so much less trivial; the death of Ichigo’s mother defines the bonds between the remaining family members. In 1st-arc, the focus is not on Soul Society, but on the living. The mist of Soul Society only brightens colors of the world.

The moment Ichigo steps across the void and into the unknowable realm of death, everything goes wrong. Wittgenstein wrote:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

He was right.

And that is why Bleach is kind of gay after the first arc.


One comment

  1. I will never live that down.

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