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Death & Strawberry

Reading and watching a lot of Bleach lately. The writing is impressive. At its heart, under the Fashion, the death gods and magical mayhem, Bleach is very much a traditional swordfighting drama, with fitting conflicts about honour, heroism and justice. Being that it is a series about death gods (shinigami), the story does deal heavily in death, with a stress on Taoist and Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and karma. While by no means mired in its own angst like say, Death Note, it's not entirely light either. Kubo Tite-sensei punctuates jokes with mature and believable characterization. Each of the characters have all dealt with death at some point in their lives, and are hence joined by death. Many of the early volumes begin with poetry or poetic verse by Kubo-sensei that dramatically frames the emotional impact of the book from there on out. The balance of death and living portrayed is virtually zen, a beautiful assumption of eternal life as a cycle of fear and love not unlike the lives we first live.

From a lighter angle, Kubo-sensei makes a lot of neat snarks about popular manga themes in the series. Magic girls, cup sizes, idol photo books, cute furry animals, "ridiculously large swords" and even the correct jiggle factor for console game female ninjas all take a hit. I admit my thing for Violent Girls is rather satiated by everything this manga has to offer -- Bleach has more violent girls ready to beat the snot out of anyone per square centimetre than many a series out there. It's actually hard to find a girl who isn't somehow violent, disturbed or psychopatic, or at least the twin of one. Don't get me wrong. I said violent, not exploited. These girls, they're tough. And they fight at exactly the same level as everyone else. As far as characterization goes, I never got the idea, not even once, that the female characters were somehow at a different level than their male counterparts in their capacity as people -- this was something I've appreciated in only two other series before: Chrno Crusade and Fullmetal Alchemist. If anything else, pretty much all the characters judge each other as people by their own worth. When and if a character does get "old-fashioned chivalrous", they're called out on it. It's very heartening to see.

The characters are awesome and memorable. With a cast of main recurring characters numbering at least 50 personas, I can only salute Kubo Tite-sensei for creating individuals with the kind of tiny quirks that stick them to the brain, so that even if one forgets a guy's name after a few chapters, one can still remember who that person was. If you're in it for that, it's a solid swordfighting title for just the swordfighting. The art and movements are a treat to see on the page -- very stylish art, amazingly focused battle scenes with a lot of great expressions and nuances on the characters. Techniques are clever and imaginative. One of the worst things a swordfighting drama can do, and especially one with magical attacks, is to have battles happening at long range or lots of swinging a sword and hopping about, with very little stress on the actual swordfighting. Not only does Bleach keep the focus on the swords, the characters often prefer to handle attacks at close range, doing away with annoying "Kaze no Kizu!" at a few miles out to sea.

Bleach has that perfect combination of a strong cast, an engaging and dynamic story to tell and great fights that I just can't get enough of. All the little mid-fight analyses, honourable slashing-to-death and heroic dialogue just add up. The manga chapter covers are gems, often pin-ups or outright fashion shoots that are reasonably unrelated to the plot. Kubo-sensei has a thing for Fashion as he does for pop art, which actually keeps his style on its toes -- there's no telling what he'll come in with next, and it's a real treat to see my favourite characters looking "cool" before the next battle. (Also: see what I said previously about idol photo book snarks.)

For me, a lot of Bleach is Rurouni Kenshin reloaded. There's a lot to be nostalgic about. I haven't seen or read a swordfighting series at this level since Kenshin. I will say after reading to the current manga, that I do prefer the manga over the anime. Like Kenshin, the first two major anime arcs are close adaptations of the manga, with a flourish. In many ways, the animation added a new depth to the manga. It was a real pleasure to hear characters on paper, often with quite unexpected voice combinations, and almost surreal to watch them fight. In the same way it took my breath away the first time I saw the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu Ryuutsuisen (Soaring Heavenly Sword's Flow Dragon Hammer Strike) , I was completely impressed the first time I saw the Senkei Senbonzakura Kageyoshi (Scene of a Massacre, The Vibrant Thousand Cherry Blossom Display). That, and well, you gotta love techniques with horribly long names about massacres. Especially when a thousand glowing swords starts circling some poor sod who's about to die (example of this at the bottom of the page). The unfortunate thing about the anime is that exactly like Kenshin, the two seasons of great manga adaptations goes into a year of fillers, as the producers run out of manga to work with. The filler arc is the worst of fillers, featuring characters taken out of context and often out of character, which derails one of the very best aspects of the series. They're also quite badly animated, barring excellent opening and ending sequences. There's a good chance that unlike Kenshin, we might yet see the current manga arc take to the screen, though one wonders how long this can be sustained.

Having said that, there is a lot one could miss by not watching the anime. For example, the Memories in the Rain one-hour special is to Bleach what the Tomoe revelation was to Kenshin, and certainly, the entire Soul Society Arc is a Kyoto Arc equivalent. One could almost say the latter has a Shinsengumi-like atmosphere with its shinigami (death god) squads. It's also where the plot really takes off as a swordfighting series per se, and can almost be watched on its own for that bit of action, if one so chooses. The manga has its own set of faults, namely that the fighting can get extraneous, and typical of a swordfighting series, it's easy to have a fight lasting two or three chapters. There's far too many fights in general, particularly for the Soul Society Arc, and most of the early Arrancar fights. Though this is, after all, a swordfighting series. And I do think, ultimately, Death & Strawberry has got to be the best darn manga chapter title I've ever heard. (Pity making that the manga title would've given people the wrong idea though...)

One final point worth mentioning. It is one of my pet peeves that good anime should come with great soundtracks. The bias began a long time ago with Rurouni Kenshin, whose soundtrack I still believe is a great primer for late 90s Japanese rock, and was primarily responsible for starting me on the stuff and my favourite musicians ever, The Yellow Monkey. I don't shun finding music from animation -- and I actually believe quite a lot of effort goes into promoting musicians through anime. It's really a good medium to leap off. Having said that, a lot of anime soundtracks out there can be art (think Evangelion or any Ghibli). Most won't be. Bleach reverses this trend somewhat by being a manga with a great soundtrack. Kubo Tite knows his music, and he certainly knows his rock. Every collected manga volume puts the spotlight on two characters at the end, and each article comes with a recommended theme song for the character in question. The choices he makes are worldly as they are extremely appropriate, spanning a range of styles, languages and continents. I had a great deal of fun looking up all the songs mentioned, and found myself enlightened as a result.



Dec. 26th, 2006 04:31 am (UTC)
LJ forgot to send me emails about your reply. Sorry! :)

Bleach 50 was the one extra in the very long Soul Society arc. If you'd watched 5 eps before or after that number though, you'd have hit some of the best eps in the entire series (including some of the best fights). I'm watching the anime hodgepodge too. The series is just so long, it actually helps to pick at will.

I need to get started on Ayakashi Ayashi -- I have the whole thing, but never started watching it. Mokes has been saying interesting things about Ghost Hunt. NHG eventually lost me after the second ep or so. It has that mid-90s air, like Twin Peaks. Didn't have nearly the level of cynicism I was looking for. :)