What do you get when you mix every trope from action anime with swords, sorcery, horror, comedy, drama, the afterlife, and interesting unique characters? You get a surprisingly fun and occasionally touching TV series for teens and older.
In the fall of 2004, the animated adaptation of Tito Kube’s hugely popular manga Bleach hit the airwaves in Japan. Two years later the English dubbed version hit North America on cable television. Highly successful, the series has over 330 episodes, multiple stage musicals, and four theatrical movies released.
Episode 1: The Day I Became a Shinigami
Bleach opens its first season episodes episodes with an edgy and still stylish main title sequence. It starts with a serious and mysterious mood on one hand then veers into almost psychedelic colored sequences. One thing is sure, and that is it shows attitude from the start. There are a bewildering number of characters shown. I remember first watching this and thinking, “This is going to be bad, isn’t it?”
That mix of disparate elements quickly proves to be an accurate reflection of the content of the show. There are beautiful moments of moodiness and sudden transitions into comedy, which is often of the Looney Tunes violent kind. But just as suddenly, a genuinely emotional scene will appear to tug at the heart strings.
The hero of the show, Ichigo Kurosaki, is introduced in a comically violent scene that ends with a poignant surprise. It also serves to let us know that we are dealing with a world filled with spirits of the dead, which the fifteen year old can see. It is an ability he finds annoying. Actually, it seems like the orange haired boy finds everything annoying.
His family owns a small pediatric hospital in a small city. Upon coming home, he’s immediately assaulted by his buffoonish and cheerfully abusive father. No wonder Ichigo is cranky. Also introduced are his younger sisters, Yuzo and Karin. The latter has some wonderful lines and seems to be the voice of reason. Well as much as someone officially in denial can be.
On his way to school, our protagonist sees something he hasn’t seen before – a monster. Before he can do anything, the mysterious black robed figure seen in the beginning comes to the rescue and then vanishes just as quickly.
Later that night, guess who walks into his room through his open window? Oddly, she ignores him – until he kicks her in the back and sends her sprawling. No wonder Ichigo doesn’t have a girlfriend. It is antagonism at first sight with results that don’t go well for the teenager.
It is an amusing spoof of all the magical girls appearing in the main character’s bedroom and demonstrates a sly subversive undercurrent of mocking the genre. Eventually, she identifies herself as a 150 year old Soul Reaper who fights monsters and escorts ghosts to the afterlife. We have arrived at exposition time.
Exposition accompanied by some of the worst visual aids you’ll ever see. Her artwork is rather… unique. She does not handle art critiques well, but you have to admire her viciousness.
At this point I gave in to the weirdness and allowed myself to go with the flow. Bad things ensue and Ichigo finds the lives of his sisters in jeopardy. Demonstrating unusual strength he finds himself in a mortal fight with a monster called a “hollow.” One big mistake by him leads to the Soul Reaper being badly wounded and a desperate sacrifice is made by her…
Which changes Ichigo’s life forever. With Rukia Kuchiki at his side, the orange haired boy will find challenges and adventure in an epic journey through the supernatural.
Episode 2: The Shinigami’s Work
The next day greets Ichigo with two feet to the face. Oh wait, that was his father, Isshin, doing the greeting. Only Ichigo remembers the attack from the night before and his family thinks a truck ran into the house. This perturbs him and he wonders if Rukia went back to Soul Society, the place spirits go to.
At school, he shows once again what a gentleman he is by bumping into a classmate, Orihime, and knocking the pretty girl down. Rude only begins to cover his behavior and their mutual friend Tatsuki dresses him down for it. But the buxom redhead is completely flustered by the boy’s presence and retreats. She is a stereotype of moe, which can be loosely translated to being a childish cute girl. This is a very common type in anime.
In the classroom, a mysterious transfer student shows up. You guessed it, Rukia has returned. I love the way she threatened him when she pretended to not know him. Ichigo’s reaction was priceless as well. It makes me want to use the method some day. She yanks him out of class and explains she is currently inhabiting an artificial body, called a gigai, because she’s lost almost all of her powers.
Being a fan of the original Japanese with English subtitles, I must mention that the original voice actress is far better than the American one. This scene really hammers that home as Rukia affects a demeanor totally unlike her real personality.
All business, Rukia forces his Soul Reaper form out of his body and takes him to where another hollow is loose. What follows is a war of wills as Ichigo wants nothing to do with any of this and Rukia is determined to mold him into a proper Soul Reaper. Stubborn doesn’t begin to describe the boy. There are a few words that do, but this is a family friendly blog.
The focus shifts over to the pretty girl from before and it appears strange doings are afoot. A near collision by a car with Orihime leads to a scene that goes from serious to silly to mysterious in quick order. It also is the origin for the leek spinning meme that was all over the Web for awhile. She is an odd girl.
One thing that struck me originally watching these episodes was how the show could go from serious to silly on the drop of a dime – and pull it off. That’s a real tightrope walk for a genre that normally favors mindless action.
Things get progressively darker as the episode goes on. Evil hasn’t just reared its ugly head, it also has a plan and it revolves around the innocent girl. We get her back story to a limited degree and it turns out the character isn’t as one dimensional as expected. Tragedy haunts her difficult life and there are reasons for her to have some screws loose.
A new threat and a new revelation about hollows lead to the first of many cliffhangers in the series.
The first two episodes of Bleach do a very good job of establishing the setting and introducing three of the main five characters. There is a feeling of a wide open universe about to be unveiled and mysteries abound. A surprising amount of time is given to fleshing out the characters, which gives them more personality than expected.
Bleach is very entertaining, with a rare mix of comedy, horror, and drama that actually works. It is bloody and violent, so it is suitable for the 12 and up crowd. There are plenty of fights to keep the kiddies happy and enough character development to ensnare adults.
I first heard about it from a teenager at church who was determined I should watch it. While I’m not anti-animation by any means, I did have the memory of having to watch Dragonball Z when I was assigned to moderate a movie message board. That did poison me against the shounen (boys action) genre pretty thoroughly and most anime in general. But a sick spell in the winter months several years ago meant I had a lot of downtime to kill, preferably with something along the lines of having brain dead content.
So I saw Bleach was on Hulu and decided I’d give it a few episodes. To my surprise I kept watching and got hooked. The bigger surprise was that I didn’t find myself mocking it ala Mystery Science Theater 3000. Unlike the younger types, the draw for me wasn’t the fights, but the interesting characters and mysteries unfolding around them. I’ve been watching it ever since.
This review and subsequent ones will be from the DVD box sets for the first three seasons put out by viz Media. In an effort to streamline things, I’ll be reviewing two episodes at a go. Yes, I actually think highly enough of the series to own the best of it as it went downhill in subsequent stories.
The presentation is 4:3 aspect and I was surprised how heavy the interlacing was. I had to tweak VLC to get rid of the very apparent lines. Fortunately for me, my PC has the horsepower to handle the most advanced deinterlacing. Those lines won’t be apparent on an old TV set but might on an HD set.
Audio is nice and clean, with both the original Japanese and the English dub present. English subtitles are optional.
I recommend watching it in Japanese with subtitles. Viz took some liberties in translation that lost some of the nuances, though it is nothing major. The original voice cast is superior by far with the American cast sounding like they are reading to children.
Disc 1 extras include production art, previews of the manga and Shonen Jump magazine, and a clean version of the end title. The latter is particularly nice as is the song, Life is a Boat.
The DVD case itself is fairly good quality with separate plastic leaves for each disc. The pages are held together by tape and I can see that breaking over time. But since it is tape, that is easily fixed! Inside the slip cover, you will find easter eggs of Kon and Ichigo’s hollow mask printed.