Synopsis: Ichigo Kurosaki is a 15-year-old boy with the ability to see spirits, something that he considers more of a bother than a gift. One day he meets a Shinigami (Death God) named Rukia, who’s on the run from a Hollow—a destructive spirit with unfinished business on Earth. As a last-minute measure, Rukia transfers her powers to Ichigo, whose abundant supply of spirit energy makes him a far more potent Shinigami than she ever was! Soon Ichigo is vanquishing Hollows left and right, and meeting other friends at school with similar abilities. However, Rukia’s transfer of power is forbidden by the Soul Society (the official name of the spirit world), and when their agents come to Earth to dish out the consequences, Ichigo finds that he might have to challenge the entire world of the dead to save her.
The colorful characters, numerous fights and high episode count make such comparisons tempting, and fans of one are often fans of the other. With the acclaimed Studio Pierrot handling animation duties, a storyline that dishes out cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and a rapidly growing fanbase, Bleach is clearly the Next Big Anime License. It doesn’t aspire to be high art, but it doesn’t need to—this is high entertainment, swords out and spirit energy blazing, ready to bring a modern sensibility to the classic shounen themes of friendship, challenge, and victory.
In no way is Bleach, Naruto with zombies fighting the forces of evil.
The story starts out like most others of its kind: take a boy in his mid-teens, bestow unique abilities upon him (a cool sword helps, too), and send him out to fight some nasty monsters. For the first several episodes Bleach goes through this methodical hack-and-slash, with sprinklings of comedy for good measure. Things start to pick up when Ichigo meets fellow classmates with Hollow-killing capabilities, adding some firepower and variety to their battles. Generic and boring so far? Good. That’s when the real challenge kicks in, and boy does it kick: Soul Society infiltrates the human world, stirs things up, and suddenly Ichigo’s on a mission to save Rukia. If you want to know where the series gets really good, it’s right here. Ichigo isn’t fighting souped-up spirits a few blocks away from his house anymore; now he’s in the underworld with only a few friends as allies, facing trained warriors who could damn well kill him. With all of Soul Society as a battleground and no limitations on fighting style or attacks, it takes the familiar tournament formula to the height of creativity. This isn’t just training and fighting anymore. This is adventure.
But wait, isn’t there plenty of fight-centric adventure anime already? Yes, but Bleach sets itself apart with a cast of characters that couldn’t exist anywhere else. Imagine the usual stereotypes, but skew them with odd traits, and give their personalities an extra edge of attitude: that’s what makes these characters special. Ichigo isn’t just an excitable, sword-swinging hero—he’s a hero with a smart mouth and a chip on his shoulder. Rukia’s equally strong personality is the perfect complement to that; together the two of them exchange some of the snappiest dialogue in the show. Ichigo’s allies are just as interesting: pretty boy Ishida is cool in every way, from his attacks to his demeanor; girly-girl Orihime discovers her power through fashion accessories; strong and silent Chad proves that the only thing bigger than his frame is his compassion. Call them two-dimensional if you must, but these are some very unique dimensions. And that’s not even bringing up all the entertaining side characters and opponents, like stuffed-toy sidekick K-ON!, eccentric shopkeeper Urahara, the thirteen battle squads of Soul Society (learning them all is easier than you think), and that shining example of modern-day parenting, Ichigo’s father.
Studio Pierrot makes this show visually pleasing with a bold, mainstream style that most eyes will appreciate. Like the story itself, the animation doesn’t pick up until the later episodes, where the budget increase becomes apparent: the second opening sequence is a flurry of high frame rate showboating, and the fight scenes become increasingly elaborate and dynamic. Through it all, the storytelling is always clear—if someone swings a sword, you know exactly who swung it and where it’s headed. There are still plenty of shounen clichés like speedlines, special effects and time-dilated multi-episode fights, but the look of the show is one that isn’t easily reproduced.
Chalk that up to manga-ka Kubotite, whose artistic style still shines through despite being watered down for the sake of animation. Who can forget the funny logos on Ichigo’s t-shirts, Rukia’s single bang hanging over her face, Ishida’s rectangular glasses, Orihime’s hair clips, Chad’s scraggly features, Urahara’s green-and-white striped hat, Renji’s visor that looks like a sleep mask… well, this could go on for a while. Although the staff does try to match some of the manga’s style in the angularity of the artwork, their true strength is capturing the sheer energy of the series through animation technique.
The soundtrack also has its own distinctive style, employing electronic instruments and modern genres in a way that’s easily as effective as a symphonic, full-orchestra track. Even if it’s just waveforms out of a synthesizer, the music of Bleach is diverse enough to support the many moods of battle: tension to confrontation to all-out attack. The oft-changing theme songs also make for a fine primer on the world of J-pop; many fans can attest to discovering mellow-voiced singer/songwriter Rie Fu through the first ending theme.
So is it really just Naruto with dead people? Or is it an epic saga in its own right? The unique characters and look of Bleach guarantee that it will, at the very least, rise above the muddle of interchangeable shounen series and march on with its own unique vision of the afterlife. There are plenty of cool guys with swords out there, plenty of spirit worlds to explore, and plenty of Death Gods to vanquish, but there is only one Ichigo Kurosaki, one Soul Society, and one incredibly entertaining anime that will grab you and refuse to let go. For classic adventure with a slick, modern attitude, go no further than Bleach.
Here’s a battle from the series featuring; Ichigo vs. Grimmjow