Bleach Season 1
Sometimes, it is impossible to review a show and not compare it to something else you've just seen. Perhaps this is bad form, but television programs are not islands unto themselves; what we think of one is often based on what we've thought of something else. My faithful readers know that I just completed watching 2nd Gig, the second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Although the series featured great technical aspects in terms of animation and music and a strong, intricately woven plot, I gave it a B+. Why? Because, quite simply, I felt nothing. The characters weren't nearly as well developed as they were the first season, and I just found myself less drawn in, though I appreciated all the skill on display.
In almost every way, Bleach is almost the polar opposite in terms of a TV show. The animation is sometimes haphazard, and the character designs are nothing special...even verging on ugly at times. The opening theme is very catchy, but the music beyond that isn't memorable. The show at times is painfully slow and follows far too many clichéd conventions of the shonen genre, and some plot holes are achingly obviously. And yet...while this is not a great show by any means, it is a good one, and it's precisely because it has heart. I can't describe any better why I got wrapped up into seeing this tale of a demon hunter, but it has a resonance that 2nd Gig just didn't have.
Ichigo is a relatively normal (if morose) teen who started seeing spirits a few years back. Most of the time, it wasn't an issue...just an annoyance, really. But when he and his family are attacked, through a series of circumstances he is granted the power of a soul reaper. Soul reapers, it turns out, are a sort of gatekeeper to the netherworld, and they fulfill a few roles. One of their tasks is to help souls who have, due to personal attachments to this world, stuck around rather than passing over into the "Soul Society." Most of the time, these spirits are harmless, and they may wander around for a long time since soul reapers are usually busy with a far worse problem: hollows. Hollows are nasty creatures that like to eat souls, and their bone-white masks often conceal the spirits of those whom they've overtaken to become more powerful. Soul reapers have the thankless task of defeating them and sending them (and their intended victims) over to the "other side."
So Ichigo now has more problems than he ever thought possible. For one, hollows recognize his incredibly strong spiritual energy and think he'd make a tasty snack, so they show up often. Second is Rukia, the soul reaper from whom he received his powers. When Ichigo gained his powers, Rukia lost most of hers, so for now she's stuck living in his closet, explaining just what the heck is going on to Ichigo and trying to keep him from getting himself killed. Add in two sisters and a wacky dad, a girl with a crush on him and a gaggle of friends who start catching on to his spirit-fighting abilities, a wacko substitute soul that resides in a stuffed tiger, and a guy whose business acts as an arms dealer for soul reapers, and Ichigo's got far more than what he can handle.
As I was saying before, Bleach does not have a great deal on which to recommend it, at least on the surface. Quite frankly, what would be the first DVD's worth of material is just plain junk, full of formulaic pap that was so easy to predict that I almost gave up. The opening has Rukia acting as an omniscient narrator, explaining every last strange thing that Ichigo experiences. It's unnecessary, and it lessens the mystery of the moment when this kid gets himself into this strange, fantastical, and scary world. For a while, even past the first few episodes, Bleach seems too interested in defining terms rather than creating a world.
There's also the problem that none of the hollows that Ichigo faces are interesting villains. They have their own peccadilloes, but there is no sense that the hollows are anything but self-interested stomachs. They certainly don't work together, and they do not pose that great of a threat as stand-alone baddies. For too much of this first season, hollows exist to fulfill the shonen need to have at least one or two fight scenes every single episode. On top of all this, Ichigo is a rather bland character. Yes, he has parental issues stemming from his mother's death, but what shonen character doesn't have something similar in his past? He doesn't seem to have any interests or character qualities other than being sullen and dismissive, yet that appeals to many of the girls who find him a mystery. In many ways, though, he's a blank slate. I also have to say from a personal perspective that the show's viewpoint on the afterlife is really disturbing and depressing. It is very Japanese, to be certain, but if this show was an accurate picture of what happened after death, I'd prefer just to stay dead, thank you very much. I admit that as a future pastor, it may be something I notice more than others; nevertheless, this show did somehow bother me more than many other supernaturalistic anime.
So why can I still give a basic recommendation to Bleach? It's because the show is watchable, for one. It doesn't take itself too seriously and winds up, despite its repetitive nature, being a lot of fun. I found myself coming back morning after morning to catch another episode, and I believe it's due to the strength of the ensemble cast and their support of Ichigo. From obvious girlfriend interest Orihime to Japanese/Mexican gentle giant Chad, the supporting members of Bleach are really what make this show interesting. They are the ones that I really wanted to learn more about, and thankfully that happens. About midway through the first season, we get some episodes that barely involve Ichigo, but for me they really established the larger network of characters. Now that isn't to say that they always handle these characters correctly. For example, the constant jokes about Orihime's large bustline are really out of place, especially considering that she is a sweet, kind character who would probably be embarrassed and burst into tears if anyone made those comments to her face. But again, this is a shonen program meant to appeal to 13-year-old boys, and sometimes that audience wins out.
That said, though, I found that almost all the expanded cast did get good moments to shine, and at least a couple of them who appear to be one-dimensional get the chance to improve over time. One thing is certain: not every character is what he or she appears at first glance, and I like that a lot. In fact, it's Bleach's radical turns in its final episodes of the season that made me interested in continuing. The hollows almost fall out of the picture entirely as events surrounding Rukia lead us somewhere entirely different and unexpected, and it leads to a variety of characters stepping up to their destinies. I had no expectations of this from the first half of the season, and I was pleasantly surprised to say the least.
It's been said that all shonen shows need time to "get better." It's almost a cliché in and of itself that long-running epics sometimes take longer to get off the ground, and that's true here. If I were to judge the show off the first several episodes, I wouldn't be sure whether or not I'd skip it. But if you can get through the twenty episode mark that ends season one, my guess is you'll be hooked. I can't say that I'm going to run out and find season two soon; other shows have captured my interest more that I still need to finish. However, I've given recommendations to other shonen shows (like The Prince of Tennis) that aren't nearly as interesting and don't show nearly as much promise. And that, friends, is probably why I think the first season of Bleach is worth watching -- the show is slowgoing at first, but it looks ready to take us all sorts of interesting places in future seasons.
Bleach Season 1 -- violence, profanity, occult elements, mild sexual innuendo -- B