Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

Hello everyone, and welcome to Wrong Every Time. Today we’re going to be engaging in a somewhat unusual exercise, as I’ve been assigned a unique request: expand this tweet on Bleach characters’ Ichigo and Rukia’s suitability as a couple into an entire article. I was initially intending to decline, because it was a tossed-off tweet about a series I hadn’t fully read in decades, more intended to be an emotionally charged stab of nostalgic resentment than a critical thesis. But upon further reflection, it does feel like there’s a bit more meat to this feeling than “the couple I liked didn’t get together.” Framed more generally, the narrative failings of Bleach stand as a handy example of the narrative pitfalls of shonen storytelling altogether – so let’s dig into this topic a little, and see what we can suss out.

First off, to articulate the ultimate failure of Bleach’s narrative, we must first start with how it succeeds. The first couple dozen chapters of Bleach are, in structural terms, undoubtedly the manga’s high point. Kubo’s first inspired choice comes right at the beginning, with his decision to frame Ichigo’s power not as “seeing invisible monsters,” but the more general “seeing departed spirits.” Monsters are inhuman and inhumane, beasts that only allow for one angle of conflict: outright battle. On the other hand, ghosts are ambiguous and emotionally resonant, creatures with diverse desires and lingering attachments to the mortal world. By introducing Ichigo as someone with high spiritual sensitivity, Kubo opens the door to modes of drama and conflict beyond the strictly adversarial.

The early chapters of Bleach use this choice to brilliant effect. The formal introductions of Ichigo’s companions are framed not as simple, binary battles, but as ambiguous ghost stories, with the context of lingering spirits like Orihime’s brother or Chad’s bird friend revealing fundamental truths about their characters. These stories would ultimately resolve in battles, as the genre demands, but the road to those battles involved dips into a variety of other genres, while naturally illustrating the home lives and moral character of Ichigo’s companions. Bleach’s Karakura Town segment is one of the most effective openings to any shonen ever, and Kubo’s ability to construct character-establishing, mystery-tinged mini-arcs for all of Ichigo’s companions is one of the central reasons why.

Of course, Bleach didn’t become a worldwide phenomenon because of the structural perfection of its opening act (though I’m sure it certainly helped). It’s also so beloved because it’s simply Cool As Fuck, the indisputable style king of the shonen landscape, combining Kubo’s incomparable mastery of black and white visual composition with his love for fashion and pop art. Kubo’s leads are the teens you hope to be cool enough to hang out with, and in Karakura Town, they rampage over the countryside with the electric energy of restless youth. Lounging on title pages in an impossible variety of capital-a aesthetic outfits, Bleach’s heroes didn’t embody the strength you wish you possessed, so much as the confidence to grasp the quintessential adolescence you always dreamed of.

And in this era, this brief period of intelligent dramatic writing and stylistic/worldbuilding cohesion, Kubo tended his one compelling romantic flame. There is nothing fanciful or fated about Rukia and Ichigo’s relationship; they collide into each other by accident, and spend much of their time bickering about whatever they should do next. Rukia is oddly fascinated by the random ephemera of human adolescence, while Ichigo is utterly unimpressed by Rukia’s soul reaper heritage, and treats her more like an unwanted freeloader. There is no tension or artifice in their interactions; they are free to be their petty, messy selves together, comforting each other through the good times and the bad.

In other words, they actually possess all the necessary ingredients for genuine romance. From the start, they embody the lesson that Toradora! takes twenty episodes to reveal: the person you love is not the one you obsess over from afar, but the one who has seen you at your worst, and still cares about you. Their moments of genuine solidarity are meaningful precisely because they come after so much disagreement; with the discord of their base dynamic established, the audience can feel the sincerity when either of them dispenses with their bluster, and admits their feelings to the other. Through the combination of Kubo’s emotionally resonant early storytelling and his knack for expressing teenagers as their earnest selves, he seems to almost accidentally stumble into a genuinely compelling romance, one defined not by fanciful, distant longing (the only form of romance that most shonens allow), but by immediate chemistry and emotional give-and-take.

Unfortunately, once Bleach’s story expands beyond the scale of Karakura Town, it also expands beyond Kubo’s ability to write compelling character drama. Like so many other shonens, Bleach is undone as a narrative by its simplistic vertical scaling. When you’re fighting otherworldly threats that could destroy your home with an idle glance, there is little room for stories of spectral parakeets and absent big brothers. And when the kids of Karakura Town are divorced from their real-world grounding, they lose the sense of earnest adolescence that enriched their early adventures. Eventually, Bleach is reduced to a series of otherworldly fighters stacking up against other otherworldly fighters, the perpetual series of “and then an even stronger guy appears, invalidating all of your prior accomplishments” escalations that eventually turn most shonens into tournament arc assembly lines.

The ways in which Bleach fails are the most common failings of the shonen genre, and thus not of that much interest to me. Frankly, you could sketch out the trajectory of its failures by going back over my various One Piece/Hunter x Hunter structural articles, and asking yourself how Bleach handles each of these same challenges. But for a brief period in its early chapters, Bleach was something truly special, and the relationship between Ichigo and Rukia stood at the core of that distinction. Though the journey since has drawn us far astray, we’ll always have Karakura Town.

Further Reading on Shonen Development:

How to scale your drama without making characters/components irrelevant:

One Piece and Roleplaying Games

One Piece and Team Dynamics

One Piece and Scaling

How to diversify your conflicts and maintain a sense of scale in your world:

Hunter x Hunter’s Genre Blend

One Piece and Geography

The Brilliance of Nen

Hunter x Hunter and Lateral Thinking

One Piece and Training Arcs

How to sculpt major themes across the course of an ongoing shonen adventure:

Hunter x Hunter and the Chimera Ant

The Journey of Usopp the Liar

The Madness of Gon

One Piece and Family

Luffy’s Call to Adventure

By admin