The Six Unlikely Things that Made You a Bleach Fan
When we first fall in love, we do it for the shallowest of reasons.
Maybe you liked someone, because you have a weakness for funny guys and he just so happened to say the right thing once to lighten the mood. Maybe it was because she was nice to you one time and it was a moment you know you won’t ever forget. Or what if it was because they looked particularly fantastic under some kind of lighting you thought was ethereal and cheap at the same time?
I talk about love, because I’d like to talk about Bleach. And when I talk about Bleach, I also talk about my best friend.
My best friend was cool, because he could be cool without looking like he gave a damn about being cool. The purest kind of cool, in other words. The kind of cool I aspired to be.
The kind of cool that sort of looked like this.
My best friend was the one who turned me on to Bleach. He was sort of popular in school and pitched for the baseball team, but he was really just a big introvert who liked to draw. He drew all sorts of things, but most of the doodles were anime-inspired designs for this fantasy epic he always swore he’d start writing. They weren't really the things you’d expect a high school hotshot to like out in the open when everyone else was more into basketball and girls. But see, my best friend had the kind of aura that allowed him to like whatever he wanted without letting anyone else’s comments get to his head. Me, I tried to do the same, but since I was more awkward than endearing, I didn't get the pass everyone else gave him.
My best friend and I no longer talk to each other. There wasn't any big fight that ended the friendship – more a gradual fade-out and a quiet understanding that we just weren't the right kind of people for each other. We had some fun times, of course – he made me try out for the baseball team and let me play some of his video games, even if it was clear I was neither an athlete nor a gamer. Over time, it became clear to both of us that our relationship was one born out of convenience. We first met when we were in elementary – he was the new guy and I happened to be the first person he talked to on his first lunch break alone. From there, it was a steady progression of days where we hung around with each other until we graduated from high school, because that’s what we thought best friends were supposed to do. By the time we got to college, we stopped talking to each other completely, because by then, we’d transferred to different schools and were no longer required to see each other everyday.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Bleach was still going strong. Even if it was my best friend who first thought it was something worth watching, he was the first one between us to drop the show when it got too long for his liking. I stuck with the series and ended up finishing the whole thing, because I’d already become way too invested to let go.
In the highlight reel featuring clips of the memories I made with my first-ever best friend, it’s his recommendation of Bleach that still stands out the most to me. He was my best friend for a great part of my childhood, the same way I was a solid Bleach fan for a good part of my anime-watching stint.
People might have jumped in the way of a rampaging Zaraki for a friendship like ours.
When we first fall in love, we do it for the shallowest of reasons.
I first fell in love with Bleach, because I thought this was a way to get closer to my best friend and become as cool a dude as he was. I’d grow to love it for a lot of other things over time, but it was this overwhelming desire to be just like him that got me down this path in the first place. You’d have to squint hard to find these cool bits now, but back when Bleach first came out the womb of Kubo Tite’s ultra-dynamic mind, you could take out a telescope, relocate to the furthest mountain, and still be able to find specks of the cool from there.
Let’s whip out that telescope now.
Cool Thing #1: The Gear
A surefire way to determine a character’s coolness is to imagine them as drug dealers. If they offered to sell, would you buy? Would you run away? Would you turn them in to the police? Would you ask them to take you in as a valued apprentice so you, too, could learn the dark ways of the underworld?
If Urahara Kisuke was a drug dealer and you were the unlucky schmuck who accidentally wandered into his turf, what would you do?
Anyone who can make a dorky hat look this cool has got to be a dude who means business.
Me, I might seriously think about asking him how much. I mean, I might think about hauling ass, because you could actually get killed for even thinking about drugs where I'm from. I also know Urahara's a shady one whose general aura should be all the warning I need before getting out of there. But he's also so effortlessly cool, I would really, really think about asking him for the price tags.
From there, I realize it’s a delicate slope down a path of more drug purchases and deals, but I guess just being able to talk to the man and hold a decent conversation with him is already a reward on its own. Maybe I can even ask him to take me in as an apprentice or something, see how that works out.
(Don't do drugs, kids.)
In a world full of loudness and Soul Reapers leaping across the sky, Urahara stood out for giving the series that extra level of slimy mysteriousness. When the merchant of your Soul Reaping wares already looks the way he does, then there can no longer be any doubt about Bleach’s level of cool. You knew he was up to no good and all his words go so far between the lines, you’re no longer sure where the bars are anymore. All the same, there was still something about Urahara that made you sit down and pay attention.
Old Hat ‘n Clogs only had to show up to legitimize the unique feel Bleach initially had. He’s also got the laziest fashion I've ever seen on a man, so that already means he’s a hard man to trust. But that also means he was already a lot more interesting than everyone else.
Anyone who refuses to give any shits about the way he looks is bound to have more nefarious things brewing in his mind, know what I’m saying?
And then, there were the skulls.
When I think of Bleach, I think of those little skull designs that used to be on all the things, only to disappear later on in the series. I think about my best friend too, of course – otherwise, what was that long, sappy introduction even for– but of all the designs Kubo ever created for the series, it was the flaming skull that became quite the stand-out.
I guess part of the design’s appeal was that you could have them displayed in public without anyone finding out about your secret otaku life. The symbol wasn't as recognizable as the Leaf Village’s crest and didn't look as cartoony as the Straw Hat Jolly Roger. In a way, Bleach’s reputation as the least popular of Shonen Jump’s Holy Trinity worked wonders for it, in both good ways and bad.
Cool Thing #2: The Zanpaktou
In all of anime’s years in existence, there hasn't yet been a shonen series that didn't love its progressions. The specifics vary, but the general structure of the thing will always remain the same: you must defeat Villain X before taking on Villain Ultra-Boss. In training arcs, it’s the same process that takes your hero through Level X before he can unlock Level Ultra-Smackdown. In Bleach, the progressions are clearly still in place, where Ichigo must first defeat the basic Hollows before going on to beat the shit out of everyone in the Gotei 13.
What’s nearly overlooked by observers is how this same progression can already be found in the weapons the shinigami are armed with. The zanpaktou is your average shinigami’s weapon of choice and it’s not much to look at right away, since its unreleased state takes on the form of a traditional katana. Once it’s released though, that’s when it can really start to rumble.
The main thing to remember about the zanpaktou is that it’s the physical manifestation of a shinigami’s power. There’s naturally a whole lot more to this "harnessing your inner potential" thing than what first meets the eye. Like most things we work to achieve in life, there are multiple levels we have to overcome first before any sword-swinging can commence. Like most beginnings to epic sword-swinging, a shinigami’s zanpaktou training arc begins with getting the spirit’s name.
Sure we’re still talking about the swords.
In true anime fashion, and like that girl at the club, these names aren't easy to get. Once the shinigami gets their zanpaktou’s name, they can move on to the next level: the shikai state. Entry-level shinigami always have the shikai state in mind; otherwise, they’re doomed to get forever stuck with generic-looking faces and flimsy wimp-ass katanas. It’s only when they unlock the shikai that they can take cues from their changed swords and start working to make themselves actual characters that stand out more.
This guy, for example, doesn’t even have to pull out his sword to let you know he’s packing a shikai.
From here, the shinigami can only move upwards to progress to the next level, which is the bankai. A zanpaktou’s bankai state is the ultra-level trump card the shinigamis have up their sleeves. Reserved only for the toughest and most accomplished of fighters, the bankai is the zanpaktou at its peak and achieving it usually marks the final stage in a shinigami’s fighting career. While getting the shikai was an honor usually reserved for the Vice Captains, the bankai was always going to belong to the Captains and other more popular characters.
Even then, a bankai could have several stages, so it was possible for characters to have one of these and still be unable to completely master their zanpaktou.
This guy, for example, already has his bankai pulled out and everything, but you already know he’s only good for beating things up until the main character steps in.
When it came to the art of the weapon, Bleach truly was in a league of its own. It’s a fact you can chalk up to three things: the unique design of the individual zanpaktous, the shared relationship between the wielder and their sentient weapon, and the decision to make these weapons a literal extension of their owners’ personalities. It’s this last point that’s the most important, as to look at a zanpaktou in its released state was considered the same thing as looking at its wielder’s soul.
Of course, Kubo would eventually go on to screw everything up by handing out the bankai like he was handing out candy at a children’s party. But since we’re only talking about good things today, let’s save that talk for another date.
Cool Thing #3: The SoundtrackTo this day, Orange Range’s Asterisk remains a thing of beauty*.
That’s it. That’s all I have to say for this part, thank you very much.
*Also things of beauty: Thank You!!, Tonight, Tonight, Tonight, Velonica
Cool Thing #4: The Eleventh Division
Unless you were the kind of wimp who liked to look down on things people considered fun, then you had no real reason to hate on Zaraki and his boys. It simply wasn't cool to reject the fictional possibility of throwing it down with the Eleventh Division, even if watching the damn anime was already something so uncool on its own.
Zaraki’s Division was a group that liked to fight and drink a lot. Perhaps the only exceptions to the second rule were Yachiru and Yumichika, but that’s only because one of them’s a minor and the other one’s a man of principle. Even if 99% of the members didn't have all the lights on upstairs (except for Yumichika again – he always had the lights on wherever he went), there wasn't a guy alive who hated this fighting group because he found them too rowdy.
There wasn't a guy alive who wanted to play with Yachiru either, because that shit’s lethal.
Make no mistake, these guys were notorious. Everyone wanted to sign up for this squad and prove themselves in a fight. An even better thing about these thugs was that other cool Bleach characters cut their teeth with them before becoming the shinigami they are today. Ikkaku’s the OG fight man, Yumichika has a proven history of being the clear winner at everything (notice I already mentioned him three times now?), Renji was always a real one, and Iba made sure everyone knew he was a yakuza in his past life.
And then, there was Zaraki. His presence on the Bleach character line-up should already be enough to strike the fear of filler plots into all of the other shonen reindeer. With his hulking, lean frame and his habit of giving his opponent the advantage if it meant they could fight longer, Zaraki truly had no real competition when it came to fictional fight rosters.
Finally, you had Yachiru. She was the actual strongest member of the team nobody wanted to fuck with, because to do so meant instant death. Just ask anyone else who took this threat lightly. Can't find them, can you? Exactly.
To think these people fought for the good guys.
Cool Thing #5: The Modern Setting
Bleach got a lot of points back then for its setting, which gave Kubo lots of avenues to really let his creativity loose. Because the series took place in the same universe as ours, it became easier to believe Hollows might be right outside the windows and prowling the streets for depressed, lonely people. Conversely, this also meant anyone had the chance to be a shinigami, provided they happened upon a stray Kuchiki Rukia out on her nightly patrols.
It felt great to lose myself in the Bleach universe. Daydreams of adventures in faraway lands and fantasy scenarios were always fun, but because Bleach’s story took place in our world (well, some parts of it anyway), the dreams got a lot more solid and concrete.
More than anything, it was Ichigo’s status as a part-time shinigami that really got to me. To my young ears, a part-time anything was already something I wanted to be. I was a kid! I wanted to work! Then I’d earn all this money and get my own uniform and look so smart and shit! It would take a lot more years and a lot more growing before I’d realize how wrong this was, but back then, I was already happy thinking up all the perks being called a part-time shinigami would get me.
But just like any other job, you might have to get stabbed first before getting employed.
Another fun thing about getting a modern setting was seeing the characters dressed up in the nicest clothes. It’s kind of hard to believe now, but there was a time people could look at Bleach drawings and not think any of the modern designs looked bad. Real life people looking to anime – anime?! – for fashion advice? When Bleach was still a thing, this possibility wasn't just some weaboo’s pipe dream. A lot of things about the show made it so young and full of life and vibrant, but on its most surface level, it was the clothes that really made it strut on the consciousness of even the most casual anime fans.
Cool Thing #6: The Cigar Blues Mix
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn't a big fan of Isshin Kurosaki in the beginning. Appearances are deceiving, and in Isshin’s case, that’s a thing that comes in multiple layers. He looks big and gruff and serious, but it turns out he’s just a big doof who likes to kick his son out of bed in the mornings. Then, the Cigar Blues Mix happened and his shinigami reveal happened and suddenly, Isshin had shed the doof image completely to become the big, gruff, serious guy he was always meant to be.
When we first meet Isshin, he’s shown alongside the rest of the Kurosaki family, so we get some idea of the way Ichigo was raised. Through this, we’re able to get some insight into the way our main character works, thinks, and acts. Ichigo has two little sisters, so we know he has a hero complex that probably gives him a hernia every time he’s unable to save at least one person per day. Ichigo has a dad whose early morning high kicks are things the neighbors set their times to, so we know he has a victim complex that makes him angry enough to snap back at his dad for this shit, but not mad enough to contact child protection services. Finally, Ichigo has a dead mother, so we know he has a dead mother complex that may or may not make him fall head over heels for the first woman that comes along and even remotely resembles her.
Spoiler alert: It’s not Rukia.
In the Cigar Blues Mix, the Kurosakis trek to the graves to visit Masaki and it’s here we’re able to get our first real hint of tragedy and loss. When we hear the story of Masaki's death, we become privy to Ichigo's hidden melancholia, grief, and guilt, all of which are feelings that enable him to take that first step forward as a shonen hero.
Bleach was never shy about its death-inspired themes, that it always seemed too lively for a series that featured dead people slaying other dead people. But things get more interesting when you consider that things looked this way because the show was actually focusing on the ways people could cope with death. In this case, we see Isshin coping with the loss of his wife by choosing to stand strong for his children. He plays the part of the goofy old dad, because the guy just wants to see his kids happy. It’s obvious in the fatherly advice he gives Ichigo: “Live well, age well, and go bald well. Die after me. And if you can, die smiling. If I can't, I won't be able to face Masaki. Don't hesitate to act. Sadness is a cool thing to shoulder, but you're still too young.”
Of course, Isshin's once-a-year smoking habit only added to the cool gravitas of that speech.
I started to like Isshin a whole lot more after that.
Isshin’s presence in the story was mostly relegated to fringe support roles, where he stepped in only when needed. On the other hand, Isshin played the role of the kooky father too well, that it was easy to overlook the fact that he was the rare shonen dad who was actually... y’know – there. He didn't just show up in the flashbacks and was a real, important part of Ichigo’s life. He isn't majorly helpful for a good part of the series, but at least he was there to watch his son grow before lovingly kicking him awake every morning as soon as the boy came of age.
Is it possible I started to like Isshin more because I saw him as the kind of dad I wanted in real life? Maybe. Now that I’m older, I’m seeing Isshin as the kind of dad I want to be, instead of seeing him as the kind of dad I wish I had. Looking back at the time I started getting into Bleach, I think I partially stuck around to see if Isshin would be showing up in the later episodes. His presence – the whole unshaven, rowdy, and manly bulk of it – definitely lent the show a different kind of attitude and a nice, steady counter-presence Ichigo could ground himself on.
Of course, that’s until the later manga arcs come around, where Isshin gets pushed even further away from the fringe to finally fulfill the role of useless funny guy he must have always dreamed of playing. He also appeared in some key flashbacks that were a nice relief from the shit war that was going on, but that was about it. By the time the series ended, Isshin had done a grand total of absolutely nothing in the supposed Last Great War, only showing up with Ryuuken sometimes to pose in front of their sons and look cool.
Because nothing says "I love you, son!" better than putting on a little Sweet Chin Music.
It’s a real bummer and as someone who rode with this thing until the end, I can only tell you it gets worse from there.
So sorry you had to find out this way.
Got Bleach? is Tonto-banchou's four-part written series for Bleach, aka Shonen Jump’s Bastard Child and Long-Forgotten Member of Manga’s Legendary Big Three. This retrospective comes in the lead-up to the Bleach live-action movie, which comes out on July 20, 2018.
Coming Soon: You think Bleach is bad? Wait ‘till you hear about the rest of the great stuff that made it worth watching first!
Big shouts to @Kuze for the edits and suggestions, as always.
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