For the first time in my life I've actually caught up with a TV show as it's being shown in Japan. And now I'm stuck, because I have to watch it week-in, week-out rather than caning eighteen episodes in a single day, which happened a few weeks ago and has been proceeding at an obsessive pace since.
The premise, at least to begin with, is deceptively simple. The bright orange-haired hero Ichigo can see dead people. All the time. He's from a dysfunctional family of spirit-sensitives but his own particular gift has been developing at a faster rate since he reached his teenage years. His hair isn't the only strange thing about him…
As his ability to see spirits increases he becomes a target for the Hollows, the hungry, angry ghosts of people who have died and become twisted into hideous shapes. They look a lot like No-Face from Spirited Away. But despite his powers Ichigo is just a human, and has no means to defend his family when a Hollow attacks his home.
Into his life at this point comes Rukia, a sword wielding psychopomp known as a Shinigami or Death God. She's powerful enough to make a stand against the Hollow, but is horribly wounded in the battle, leaving only Ichigo left to face the enemy. As a last resort, she sacrifices what she intends to be half her power to give Ichigo enough fighting skill to defend his family…
That's all in the first episode, so it's not greatly spoilerific. What ensues for the next sixteen or so is like an anime Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's set in and around a high school, Ichigo's friends are introduced, there's a magic shop run by a mysterious man with his weird employees, and it seemed at the time that the story would continue on this level for years, in much the same way as Buffy.
Nope. As of episode seventeen it darts off breathlessly in another direction. The stakes are raised far higher and it complexifies at a dazzling rate. In the space of the next twenty episodes or so an extra thirty or forty characters are introduced as the main characters storm heaven on an insane suicidal mission that none of them are ready for. What Buffy used as a basis for seven years, Bleach is done with in seventeen episodes.
It's unashamedly within the conventions of standard anime. Mysteriously super-powerful central character? Check. Teenage cast based around a high school? Check. Talking animals and cuddly toy characters? Check. Attention to detail in breast sizes? Check. At least one incurably pervy character? Check. Character based writing and epic convoluted plotting? Check. Insanely imaginative character design and powers? Check. Multiple changes to theme music? Check. Fight sequences in which the opponents taunt each other and brag about their techniques and special moves? Check. Storytelling comprised mainly in still images with sparse animation? Check. Bizarre and unsignalled shifts from character moments to puerile and or/oddball humour to surprising violence to high-tension eeriness? Check.
But any form can be elevated by good writing, and crucially characters that you genuinely care about. It's been a while since I shouted at the telly, crying out my support for the heroes as they face off against opponents who seem far beyond their abilities.
And what fights. There are some insane battles that last as many as four episodes. And some enemies with horrific powers that seem unbeatable. But to tell you about them would be to spoil what happens, as abilities and how they are gained are closely tied to character and character development, and in almost all cases the weapon used by an individual is a character in its own right.
To make things easy it's all up for download, so rather than put up with the rubbish non-animated telly that America spews out each season you should all be watching this until Dr Who starts up again. Click here to find nicely fansubbed downloads.
I warn you, it's hopelessly addictive.
Guide to Watching Bleach: which episodes are canon, which are filler?
Bleach is adapted from Tite Kubo's ongoing weekly manga series in Shonen Jump. For the most part it's extraordinarily faithful to its source material, with the comic practically being the storyboard for the show.
However, if your source material is designed, written and drawn by just one guy for a 2000AD style weekly manga publication then your adaptation is going to catch up pretty quick. Throughout the first sixty three episodes of the series the ratio of comic issues in each episode was roughly 3:1. The other problem is that Bleach is extraordinarily popular, with Studio Pierrot deciding with the network that it will air roughly forty five episodes every year with no season breaks. As you might expect, the reasons behind that decision are financial. But what happens when you run out of story?
The answer is filler: stop-gap storylines to allow the manga to get far enough ahead. This presents major narrative problems. People want to see their favourite characters each week, but in filler material those characters cannot be developed for fear of contradicting what happens in the comic. Nothing of major consequence can happen in the plot. In short you have a series in stasis, which kills virtually all drama and suspense. A lot of the humour gets sapped out of the show, it frequently veers into pomposity, and the stop-gap writers sometimes don't have a handle on the characters (the most severely effected being Abarei Renji). Almost invariably the quality of the series drops considerably during these filler arcs, and the only thing that gives us fans hope is that we know it'll become great when it starts adapting the comic again. When it does get back to the comic it picks up exactly where it left off, so you're never watching a show with story edited out or changed, you're only ever watching a show that has been extended, largely for commercial reasons.
After episode 110 filler material is integrated into the main story, but it's from this point the quality of the additional material improves, with a couple of the inserts being as strong as the best moments of canon material (and in a couple of cases represent things that Tite Kubo really should have included himself in some form).
So here's the deal. If you're just getting into the series then we'll watch the filler for you so that you don't have to. You won't be able to avoid it all, so we'll prime you for any stuff that you might need to know (of which there isn't much). Our guide to which episodes are canon and which aren't can be found below, and it'll be periodically updated as the series progresses.
What to watch - the quick guide: 1-63, 110-127, 132, 133, 138-167, 190 onwards.
What to watch - the slow guide:
1 – 63: This is virtually all canon material with practically no changes from the comic. It is full of awesome.
64 – 109: All of this is filler, and all of it can be skipped without losing any sleep. It's called the Bound Arc. It is simply not very good for the most part, and despite flashes of joy in its later stages doesn't comes close to the material adapted from the comic. There are, however, a few characters that you'll need to know about who are summarised in the spoiler text below. You can be sure that whenever one of these characters crops up later on it's an insert, as none of them come from the comic.
[+] [-] Spoiler The Three Stooges (Ririn, Cloud and Nova): These are three new modified soul characters. Unlike Kon they each have their own humanoid gigai, but they divide their time between these and cuddly toys (at least Ririn finds being a plushie a lot more comfortable). Each has their own power; Ririn can cast illusions; Cloud can shapeshift; and Nova can teleport. They were originally created by Urahara to detect Bound, a race of vampires created and subsequently disowned by Soul Society. These three continually crop up in canon material post episode 109as they live at the Urahara shop, which was also Abarei Renji's temporary address throughout the Bound storyline.Kariya Jin: The leader of the Bound, the aforementioned vampire race created by Ran'Tao, a former Shinigami Captain. Soul Society turned on the Bound and nearly wiped them out, so to get revenge Kariya gathered up the last survivors and led an assault on Soul Society with the stated intention of destroying it. Needless to say he failed and appeared to die under rather ambiguous circumstances, which is fitting as he was a rather ambiguous character. His power was controlling the wind.Koga and Ran'Tao: Koga was Kariya Jin's right hand man who got a crisis of conscience at the last second and betrayed his boss. As with most Bound his power involved partnership with what they referred to as 'dolls,' which in his case was a female were-scorpion thing made out of metal that shot bits of itself as bullets (nowhere near as cool as it sounds). Ran'Tao is the aforementioned Shinigami who invented the Bound. Not much about her was ever revealed (I can't remember her using a zanpakuto), but I believe I'm remembering correctly when I say that she previously held the Captain position in 12th Division. Both Koga and Ran'Tao unexpectedly survived the Bound arc and were last seen in each others company, but their present whereabouts are unknown.So is any of the Bound Arc worth watching? Sadly no. Not really. There's some great moments, particularly in episode 109, and a fantastic recurring Shinigami character called Ichinose Maki who isn't in the comic. But these moments are few and far between. Best avoid.
110 – 127: Back to adapting the canon material, and back to being utterly, utterly brilliant. There are brief additional sections of non-comic material interspersed in and around the adapted story, but it is at around this point that the quality of the filler writing improves quite dramatically. The missteps can be written off as out-of-canon, the good stuff is often an interesting and worthy addition to the story.
128 – 138: This is all filler. However... don't write it all off. 132 is one of the standout best Bleach episodes of the entire run, almost made better because it's additional material that isn't in the comic. 133 is hilarious and recommended viewing too. And 135 isn't half bad either, although opinions may differ.
138 to 167: Returns to canon material, again with inserted additions here and there, some of which are as good as any of the canon material, and is at least mockingly self aware of its own nature as series padding. 147 – 149 is a quick three episode filler arc that is actually pretty good (apart from some clumsy writing in 147), which is fortunate because it's been inserted in a manner than can't really be skipped.
168-189: Return to filler. It is very skippable, but has a few good episodes if you're an addict, and you should definitely watch it if you're a Kira fan.
190: Back to canon. Weeeeeeeee!
Movies and OVA
(Note: OVA stands for Original Video Animation, a fairly rare format for anime these days. While it essentially means that the release is direct to DVD without getting a television airing or cinema release that's not necessarily a statement of quality, with studios like Gainax putting out some of their greatest works in the OVA format.)
Memories in the Rain: An interesting retelling of episodes 8 and 9, which are the only episodes in the early run that differ significantly from the comic. This version drops the main misstep in the original adaptation but also loses a crucial exchange between Ichigo and Rukia.
The Sealed Sword Frenzy: A throwaway tale that takes place out of continuity. Pretty inconsequential.
Memories of Nobody: Bar some great humour in the first five minutes, the first Bleach cinema movie is utter rubbish. That is takes place out of continuity is acceptable (continuity is getting rather mammoth by this point), that it clearly doesn't understand character relationships and the show's cosmology isn't. Cash-in garbage.
The Diamond Dust Rebellion: Garbage, no respect for the story's cosmology and pretty much dismissed out of hand by Kubo himself in the promotional flashback Hitsugaya issue he put out for the movie. Still, the finale features insane levels of property damage...
Help with Translation
Lunar Anime and Dattebayo are the two most commonly found fansubs for Bleach. The former handled the Soul Society arc, the latter has pretty much done everything since. There are a few terms that Lunar translate that Dattebayo leave in Japanese as follows:
Shinigami = Death God/Soul Reaper
Zanpakuto = Soul Slayer
Reiatsu = Spirit power
Shunpo = Flash steps
Kidou = Magic
For a discussion of the comic click here for comments and analysis at a pornographic level of detail, full of spoilers for stories and characters that haven't yet seen adaptation into the anime.