In sixth grade, John Ehler and I waited over four hours for Cell to be defeated. The promise that Cell’s story arc in Dragon Ball Z would conclude was true, though Cartoon Network gave no hint as to how long and drawn-out the process would be. Long, drawn-out monologues were bookended by Nerf gun commercials. My mom would eventually call us upstairs to eat some dinner, and by the time we went back into the basement, Cell was still talking into the camera. That was anime for me, for a long time. If it wasn’t Pokemon, it was DBZ. I had a DBZ BIG DOGS t-shirt, though, thankfully, I never ventured into the button-up variety. At some point, children of 2001 heard that anime was stupid and dumb and our anticipation for the daily Toonami was easily released.
Later, I would learn that DBZ was an example of the shonen anime style. Shonen focuses on young males aged ten and up. The ridiculous length of story arcs, along with the ridiculous abilities and ridiculous muscles on the heroes, is obviously enrapturing to a sixth grader and not a twelfth grader. Part of growing up, I feel, is picking the bones of youth. Understanding what was a fad and what carries sentimental value is important to the adult consumer. I’ve picked up the manga Bleach because I want something enjoyable to read, because I’ve wished to satiate an eager fan, and because I need to pick the bones of sixth grade. It might not be Dragon Ball Z, but the structure is similar.
Bleach starts off with light-hearted enjoyment, even while the terminology is going bonkers. The premise, that of Ichigo Kurosaki becoming a Soul Reaper to protect his family from what basically amounts to “evil ghosts,” is entertaining and borderline incredible. Much in the same way I’ve always assumed Dragon Ball is incredible (without ever having watched it), the beginning ten volumes of Bleach construct scenarios that continuously cause me to empathize with the principal characters. Your basic Japanese dress-school and perverted friends appear, as do familiar stories including the flamboyant television host without a lick of skill and the passionate remembrance of an anime character’s deceased mother. Tite Kubo, Bleach’s lone author and illustrator, has a knack for characters. Humor shines from each one, though in a variety of ways. The same wacky situations exhibit different responses, and even the same primary motivations for similar characters won’t stop Kubo from giving each a personality and silhouette all their own. Not knowing the full picture, I hesitate to say that the initial setting of Bleach is its best. Another ten volumes later, up to twenty, I do say that it leaves a fantastic first impression. Kubo does not reinvent the wheel with this series. It’s a joy because of it.
As soon as the cast enters the Soul Society to save Rukia Kuchiki, Kubo’s ambition explodes into a blinding ball of fire. While Bleach already had a large cast of characters on Earth, the “Heaven” of the series more than doubles that amount. Rather than doling out each new character as need be, they are presented all at once in a splash page. When Momo Hinamori cries over Sosuke Aizen’s death, you, the reader, are also expected to cry, despite not having a chance to properly meet either character yet. As the series continues and spends more and more time in this one story concerning the rescue, one does develop feelings for the assorted Captains and Assistant Captains through a remarkable intimacy. Even the primary cast of the first ten volumes, the heroes on their way to save the day, are sometimes left entirely out of volumes, what constitutes a real-time eight or ten weeks’ worth of content. Characters you thought would be important until the end are cast aside. As soon as Uryu Ishida seems important he’s ignored in favor of Shunsui Kyoraku. Then Kyoraku is ignored in favor of Kaname Tosen, and so on. The new terminology for this realm flows like a damn rapid, repeating “bankai” and “reishi” despite never making them seem directly important to story. The information will rush nonstop, but the actual ramifications are slow. By volume ten, the steadily rising line of the Bleach story becomes a vertical bar.
The setting Kubo has constructed reminds me of one of my own nerdy interests. I’ll read a Star Wars anything, no matter how poorly done it is. At a certain point I stop looking at the specifics of a film’s plot and simply enjoy spending time in my favorite fictional realm. I imagine fans of Bleach share the same sentiment. This isn’t to say the plot of Bleach is poor (it’s actually quite enthralling), but the pacing takes a backseat. If Kubo weren’t so good at drawing cool-looking people and giving them fascinating characteristics, the pace of lots of things happening with nothing really happening would be infuriating. Instead, I can’t help but smile while reading. Sure, this one battle takes seven chapters, or most of a lone volume, but it has characters I enjoy, being enjoyable. He’s all-too conspicuously making this up as he goes along, which is a tactic difficult to control. The creativity in Bleach is at a constant, though, so it overwhelms most negatives.
I have nostalgia when reading Bleach. I remember so vividly the equal measure of whimsical enjoyment and cries for a faster story while watching Dragon Ball Z, and I feel many of the same emotions here. Here, however, Tite Kubo has a series that I don’t think I could give up on if someone on the internet points out some flaw in Japanese cartoons and comics. Bleach adheres to a formula. Yet unlike Akira Toriyama, who never could make more than five compelling characters at a time, Kubo has a party of dozens. At Volume 20, I’m not even close to finishing the series, which has continued up to Volume 56 and is ongoing. I would be completely amazed if the series’ ending wraps any part up with a neat bow. Instead of stomping and complaining about an entire genre’s perceived flaws, it might be best to accept them. Yes, Bleach does what Dragon Ball Z did, but it does so in a more compelling way. Perhaps I’ve gone soft, but I now find those pacing issues a bit charming. I find a whimsical, often melodramatic, often serene and beautiful, manga series endearing rather than frustrating. Who cares about pacing when you’re this entertained?
No media should be given a free pass, but Bleach does deserve to be understood for exactly what it is. Nothing more and nothing less.