Now I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes here, but think back to Bleach when it was in its beginning, this arc (of again, smaller stories) and the second, bigger arc (the Soul Society Arc) are frankly brilliant, it’s only during the endless Arrancar Arc where things started slowly turning south, and then… yeah. But this isn’t an overall look at Shonen Jump! series, this is debut arcs, and I honestly think Bleach did it best (of the ones I’ve seen / read). With these first fourteen episodes you get a good feel for not only our lead protagonist, but for nearly all his surrounding cast, meaning we truly feel like we know the unit when they then have to jump head first into danger in the next arc. Let’s take a closer look and round off this Top 5!
Ichigo Kurosaki is a teenager from Karakura Town who can see ghosts, a talent which lets him meet supernatural trespasser Rukia Kuchiki. Rukia is a Shinigami, or soul reaper, and their meeting leads to a fateful transference of power, and the birth of a Substitute Shinigami…
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
Cast of Characters:
An iconic shot, and the start of a long adventure…
Ichigo Kurosaki (Masakazu Morita / Johnny Yong Bosch) – Ichigo is a regular high schooler… apart from the fact he can literally see dead people. He’s gotten used to it though, even befriending certain unfortunate people who had passed away. All these strange abilities will soon become nothing compared to the world he’s soon to step into…
Rukia Kuchiki (Fumiko Orikasa / Michelle Ruff) – Rukia is a Shinigami who is just starting her first full-time assignment based in the real world. All she needs to do is keep the Hollows in check and help the spirits pass into the next life… Sounds easy, right?
Orihime Inoue (Yuki Matsuoka / Stephanie Sheh) – Orihime is currently living by herself after her brother passed away, the two having ran away together in the past. Still, she remains cheery, and will continue to be cheery despite what… odd events may happen…
Yasutora “Chad” Sado (Hiroki Yasumoto / Jamieson Price) – Chad, as he’s been nicknamed, has found himself bounced around the world from Japan to Mexico and back, and during this time he has learned to use his large, powerful body to protect his friends, rather than to specifically hurt others…
Uryu Ishida (Noriaki Sugiyama / Derek Steven Prince) – Uryu is among the last of his kind, his kind being the Quincy, a group of humans who have the ability to manipulate energy and use it to slay the demonic Hollows. Uryu has a grudge against the Shinigami that goes beyond his clan’s natural hatred of them, and he’s looking forward to the day he can act on it…
Kisuke Urahara (Shinichiro Miki / Michael Lindsay) – Urahara was once a Captain in the Shinigami ranks, and their top scientist. He was expelled from Soul Society and now lives his life in Karakura Town, looking to help wayward souls, dead or alive, and to one day stop the plans of the man who put him in this position…
Grand Fisher (Chafurin / Paul St. Peter) – Grand Fisher is a Hollow, a demonic creature that was once human but became corrupted after death due to his misdeeds while he was alive. He is a powerful specimen and particularly cruel, as he like to use a lure that looks like an innocent girl to “hook” his victims to where he can strike them down…
Ah, the old “using the image of your dead mother” trick! … What a git.
Let’s start with the our lead protagonist, as we often do when looking into these debut arcs. Ichigo isn’t your typical Shonen Jump! hero and lives in a world that is very much based on “our” world. Instead of being over-enthusiastic and a displaying a weird eating habit, he’s instead quite gloomy, but with a strong sense of justice and will always look out for his family and friends. The fact he can see ghosts had lead to him forming friendships with them, like the little girl who was killed on a street corner that he visits and refreshes her flowers. As the story progresses we see that when he was boy his mother was killed right in front of him, and he inwardly blamed himself for it. His father and two sisters are really nice (and in the case of the father, overly energetic!) so it makes it harder for him as he believes somewhere inside that they should hate him. It’s a very grown up, multi-layered personality, especially for a Jump! protagonist (though his loyalty to his friends is certainly in keeping with the genre).
Ichigo soon meets Rukia, a Shinigami who is trying to kill a “Hollow”, or a corrupted soul that had turned into a demon, either thanks to their sins when they were alive, or by being corrupted by a desire to stay in the real world due to “unfinished business” and losing their “soul chain”. A lot of jargon, but it’s a fun set up. At this point the Shinigami are a mysterious force, Rukia is one and she ends up making Ichigo one by giving him her power. That’s all we find out until the last little chunk of this arc (which I’ll cover whenever I cover the Soul Society arc, as they’re strongly linked). Speaking of Ichigo getting Shinigami powers, he is powerless when his little sisters are being attacked by a hollow, so when Rukia becomes injured he accepts her offer to get the power to help them. It’s a great scene, and makes for an impactful first episode.
Rukia is a great character here. We don’t know so much about the world she came from, or why she is so attached to Ichigo, and while we find all that out in the next arc, here she works as pretty much the only “unknown quantity” in a group of close friends, plus plenty of “fish out of water” type jokes with her not understanding how things in the real world work, having been raised in the Soul Society. Before we look at Ichigo’s friends, we need to talk about his battle with the Grand Fisher, a powerful hollow who was responsible for killing his mother many years ago… wow is this ever great. A tense, moody graveyard battle, lots of Ichigo doing whatever it takes to get revenge (powering through pain and blood-loss to get a critical strike in… that will be a common theme…) and although Fisher survives, it’s still a great battle. Plus Rukia and Ichigo’s relationship is built up well here, with the former getting a lot wrong when it comes to trying to cheer him up during such a sad time (this takes place on the anniversary of his mother’s death…) Great stuff, mostly (see the only bad down below!).
Then we get to his friends, including Orihime, who is living by herself after running away from her parents with her brother (as they were being beaten / mistreated, not that Orihime remembers any of that…), only for her brother to end up getting killed. An early episode sees her confront a hollowfied version of her brother and manage to sooth his soul and bring him back round enough to be saved. Her cheerfulness in the face of all that’s gone wrong is a really endearing character trait, and makes for a good match with Ichigo, who let all that’s gone wrong in his world change him. Chad, the very embodiment of the “strong and silent type”, makes a good first impression, willing to put his body on the line for strangers (or a parakeet with a human soul inside it…), and although most of his backstory is revealed in the next arc, he still connects with everyone well. Both Chad and Orihime get special powers during a latter part of this episode group, with Chad getting a powerful arm… cannon… thing, and Orhime getting to control little people who can create powers like shields and healing. It’s all during stressful hollow fights, and makes for good watching.
The reason so many hollows are around at that time is because of our next introduced character: Uryu Ishida. He’s a Quincy, someone with spiritual powers who can see all supernatural beings and even attack them by firing arrows made of energy. Uryu is among the last of his people, so when he finds out that one of his classmates ends up being a Shinigami, he baits a bunch of hollows to where he and Ichigo are and challenges him to a “who can kill more hollows” competition. One of my favourite scenes, and the one that made me nod my head and say “Yep, I love this!” is when a “Menos Grande” appears, a skyscraper-sized hollow that suddenly arrives by pulling the sky open like it’s made of glass, or it’s a pair of curtains. Ichigo and Uryu work together, and the former manages to strike a blow on the colossal beast and drive it back. Such a great pair of episodes.
This is the thing as well, there are more great characters to speak of. Kon, who is a “modified soul”, an artificially created being that can inhabit a Shinigami’s real world body when they go into their spirit form. Sadly for Kon, he was considered defective and was scheduled to be destroyed but escaped, and it ends up that Ichigo keeps him by putting him inside a stuffed toy. Urahara, the mysterious store owner who knows all about spirits and what Ichigo and Rukia are going through, is a master of being a funny idiot, and then deadly serious (though again, most of that is to come later). Then we get his staff, and Ichigo’s family, and a few more of Ichigo’s powerless friends… it’s a hell of a cast, and they’re all either great and well developed, will be developed soon, or are just supporting characters. This is why Bleach comes on top, it manages to tell great stories and develop all its cast, not just the lead or just the support characters, while also subverting a lot of genre clichés. It really does get off to a great start.
Oh, and the artstyle, character designs and the opening? EXCELLENT. The background music? Possibly my favourite ever, with only Cowboy Bebop coming close (that would be a hard choice, actually…)
Brother and sister share a loving embrace.
The only bad I can think of is that the studio was clearly worried about the battle with Grand Fisher and how dark it is, so they created their own Shinigami character who’s a bit of a joker to lighten the mood. It’s… unnecessary, and an insult to the source material it was supposed to be adapting.
Ichigo takes on the Menos Grande, the first Spanish-named foe of many!
Bleach creates several great, multi-layered characters, sets up an interesting and down-to-Earth setting and mixes it with the supernatural, and has great character designs, animation and music. I can’t praise it enough, nor can I stress how nice it was to get a reminder of why I fell in love with this show in the late-2000s. The first two arcs of Bleach are a must of any anime fan, or just a fan of good supernatural, action based drama in general. I’m looking forward to getting around to the Soul Society arc sometime!