Living out in the Arizona desert, the only manga offering I'm able to consistently buy off the shelves has been the ultra-popular Naruto, which has regularly been popping up in the book section of our local Super Wal-Mart. With holiday gift-giving in half-swing, however, I recently came across a batch of Viz manga gift boxes at Wally World. Each set contained three titles: the first volumes of Naruto, Bleach and Dragon Ball Z. All three series are well-known to anime fans as they are manga readers – the volume of Bleach, for instance, makes a point of advertising that it's "as seen on Adult Swim" – which presumably was a factor in the store's including the box among its holiday offerings. "Is this the show young Fremont's always watching?" you can see some befuddled aunt or uncle wondering as they weigh the package in their hands before ultimately putting it back on the shelves and heading over to Electronics.
I've been happily following Naruto for some time now, but seeing that first volume of Tite Kubo's Bleach reminded me that I had several books in this series that I hadn't read. Enjoyed the first two volumes, but while I went on to buy four more in the series, I still hadn't cracked 'em open. We all have teevee, book or comic/manga series that elicit this response, I suspect: once we get into an entry, we find ourselves thinking, "This is fun – wonder why I didn't get to it sooner?" But when we reach the conclusion, we hang back and take our own sweet time before dipping into another one.
To be sure, the basic concept behind Bleach is a perfectly durable one. Surly, strawberry-topped high school student Ichigo Kurosaki is a member of a knockabout family whose children are all capable of seeing ghosts. This ability also makes Ichigo privy to other creatures that lurk beyond normal human sight: most significantly, otherworld enforcers called Soul Reapers, who police the netherworld of Hollows, monstrous once-human creatures who devour the souls of the living. When a Soul Reaper named Rukia shows up at the Kurosaki Clinic, attracted to the siblings' "spirit energy," our hero is drafted into battle after Rukia gets seriously injured by an attacking Hollow.
What is meant by the Soul Reaper to be a temporary transference of powers turns into something more lasting. As Ichigo takes Rukia's massive "ghost-cutter" sword and uses it to slay his first Hollow, Rukia becomes stuck in human form, losing most of her mojo. Looking like a slender schoolgirl, she takes up residence in a closet in Ichigo's home and becomes his mentor. One of his first tasks is to rescue a large-breasted classmate named Orihime, whose older brother became a Hollow after dying in a car accident. "Hollows," Rukia tells out hero, "don't eat souls because they are hungry. They eat souls to ease their pain." The creatures are first attracted to their own family members, which is why so many widows and widowers frequently follow their spouses so soon after their loved ones' death.
Kudo's renderings of the Hollows – huge demonic figures with masks that cover everything but their massive toothy mouths – are suitably imposing. In one memorable panel in the first volume, for instance, we see Orihime's monstrous brother chomp down on her head and shoulders as she kneels before him begging forgiveness for hiding her grief from him. There's an intriguing subtext of survivor's guilt in Bleach that appears also appears in other manga ghost stories, and it's neatly delineated in this sequence. The books' fight scenes are as burstingly frenetic as any in Naruto, though not as extended.
Where Bleach falls down for me is in its comedic sequences. As a Western reader, I still admit to being thrown by Kudo's reliance on cartoon simplification during some of the jokier sequences. Too, the series contains a dubious set of slapstick moments where our hero physician father picks a fight with his 15-year-old son. ("You're over 40 yet possess the emotional maturity of a pre-school," older daughter Karin states to her father at one point.) Here in the States, a scene like the one of Doc Kurosaki drop-kicking Ichigo for being late to dinner ("The rules of my house are iron! You break 'em, you bleed!") gets me wondering whether Japan has a Department of Child Protective Services or not. In its way, the series' blend of pratfalls, lovingly detailed hero fights and melancholy moments reflects the kinetic mood swings of its primary target audience – young teen boys – but for anyone older, it can be a bit distancing.
Still, I'm heartened to see the first volume of this series being sold in a package at my local megalo-mart – if only for the possibility of it broadening some young manga readers beyond the world of the almighty Naruto. Too bad the first volume ends on a chapter opening up a storyline that won't be resolved until the second book. Maybe young Fremont can talk his aunt or uncle into getting him an Amazon gift card for his birthday.
As for me, last weekend I pulled the four unread books off the shelf and quickly plowed through 'em all. Had a good time reading each one, particularly the book where our hero fights the Hollow responsible for the death of his mother. Some day – couldn't tell you when – I may actually get to volume seven.