Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Bleach": A Window to Japan's culture

[Note:] I am sorry the images are so small. It is either that or monstrocities that jump over the post, which is not pretty. Also this contains spoilers as to later developments, so those that are already reading the series, best be careful for I will reveal some of the world building details and images that appear later on. However the spoilers are inclusive and if you haven't picked up the series and would want to the concepts will be vague enough to not spoil the fun.
While the “Japanese Reading Challenge” yet has to reach the finish line and I am yet to pick the books I have included in my reading list I decided to take a stab on Japanese culture with a critical overview slash essay slash review on the second longest running manga series Japan’s produced “Bleach”. What I am about to do here is using "Bleach" as a large enough basis to try and paint a cultural picture of Japan.

But first some statistics to illustrate why a conventional review with blurb and plot nitpicking here wouldn’t be functional. “Bleach” published its first issue back in 2004 and since then it has amassed more than 40 volumes, which translates to 383 issues and when we do the math we arrive at the staggering total number of 8’043 from its first to latest issue. Do I need to say that the series is in no way nearing its end? These pages mean that there several major story arcs that propel the series and numerous minor story arcs, which enrich story and world. I’m quite certain that if one would start to count the number would pass the one hundred mark.

Here I would begin with my exploration in Japanese waters. Even from production you can spot the obvious differences with the West. Japan is built upon productivity, perseverance and consistency. Tite Kubo is both writer and chief artist and has been on this project from issue one, which is something unthinkable to happen in the US for instance, where all major comic book series change several artists and writers, which also reflects on the series’ tone and the arcs. With “Bleach” everything is intricately spun together, each detail put with care and with meaning and the consistency with world, characters and background is faultless. To me this is a highly evolved plotting that surpasses most of what I have read in novels.

“Bleach” begins small scale in order to introduce the reader to the setting and what we have is a Good vs. Evil world inhabited by Hollows and Shinigami. The equation is quite simple. The Shinigami [typically spirits in Japan mythology which are death personified] are the spiritual enforcers, which give human souls spiritual burial and send them off to Soul Society, but also have the task to locate and exterminate all Hollows. Being the primary threat in the series the Hollows are corrupted spirits bound to Earth, suffering from hunger for human souls.

Images below portray how the typical Hollow looks like. Although they vary in size and form the most common elements in the Hollow appearance are the mask that conceals the spirit’s identity, the skeletal exoskeleton and no human resemblance.

The Shinigami can be recognized for the samurai uniform and the sword [Zanpakuto] they carry, which is the manifestation of their souls and thus has unique capabilities. I also need to point out that each sword has a name and knowing the sword’s name is the key to access the rather awesome super powers stored within.

Enter Ichigo, a loud mouthed teenager with a Melinda Gordon thing going on for him, who is forced into a battle for his family’s safety with a Hollow and becomes a Shinigami, when the one assigned to kill the Hollow [the obnoxious and equally loudmouthed Rukia] fails and has to bestow Ichigo her Shinigami powers.

A bit long winded, but understandable in the manga. From this moment on Ichigo has learn the ins and outs that come with bearing a big magical sword and the lessons occur through a mixture of drama and slapstick, both over the top grave and hilarious. Which leads me to the second point about Japanese culture. Emotions and personality traits are never subtle and are intense, over the top and punch through the reader. Something mildly sad is taken with the emotional response one would show when someone has died and actual death is met with some kind of detonation inside the character’s heart. An extrovert is a hyperactive bouncing ball that spurts verbal diarrhea at high decibels. A promise is an actual almost physical bond, which must be kept at the cost of everything. The list goes on and on.

However if one wants to learn about Japan mentality and emotional culture, it would be best to focus on the Shinigami, which as stereotypical good guys embody every virtue that can be found in Japanese society. Honor, loyalty and friendship are the persistent elements here and are proven to be sacred through each battle, conversation and flashback. Hierarchy is met with respect and is not oppressive, shown through character dynamics and the general devotion the lieutenants express towards their captains without following orders blindly, but being partners to the captains. It may be a bit farfetched, but “Bleach” preaches the virtues of obedience in the perfect hierarchical society, also not unlike the social reality in the country. Not only this, but is also not random that the Shinigami are modeled after the samurai, who are famous for their bushido codex, which binds the individual to live and show frugality, chivalry, mercy. In that sense the good guys in this story are the concentrated essence of the virtues the Japanese believe in.

Pictured: Shinigami attacking the traitor Aizen

Ichigo is not quite a Shinigami, but as the plot thickens he’s grown to be accepted and shown respect, which is yet another model, which reflects Japan’s mentality and reality. In Japan the focus heavily falls on education, since Japan is highly modernized and it can offer much to those with the intellect for it, hence why so many geniuses seem to spring there and why a fixation with high school stories in manga and anime exists. The youth is treated to rigorous mental preparation to enter the best schools, universities and later on land the best positions. And this is not achieved by playing video games, but by hard work. This is what Ichigo as a character represents. With perseverance, hard work and focus one can achieve anything in the world. If you can steel your will, believe that a task is in your power to perform and do it because you have to, then no obstacle in life can stay in your way for too long. Of course withstanding the high tides has to be done with honor, fair play and respect towards who is your enemy.

Pictured: Ichigo with his sword in Bankai mode.

As the story steams on and the world complicates the reader is introduced to another face that is Japan and this is the dark side so to say. Enter the Arrancar, which are a Hollow breed with Shinigami powers and become the main antagonists in the series. Unlike the original Hollows what we have here are humanoid beings with enough intellect to reason and are not led by a blind hunger for souls. The Arrancar are not animalistic in that sense. They have a sense of self and know what they are doing, which makes them cruel murderous bastards, each of the deadliest top ten incorporating a certain negative trait that can be found in humanity. There is no loyalty between them. They like to quarrel and when one falls it is welcomed as wonderful show and is usually staged by fellow Arrancar. Their function beyond the story is to act as a contrast and underline and emphasize on how abiding the moral code and holding sacred the virtues the Shinigami embody. Plus the fact that Shinigami always have the upper hand and do prevail most of the time show that Good is always going to win over Evil.

Pictured: Arrancar

I think I did a good job at deciphering the moral blueprints, but let’s move on to imagination and intellect. First, Japanese people are all for symmetry, which is shown through the thesis and antithesis principle in the world building department. The Shinigami and the Hollows are on polar ends. Both fight, but the latter do it because it is in their instinct to do so, while the former do it because of necessity to preserve peace. It’s the usual order vs. chaos. Civilization versus savagery. On an idea level we have Arrancar and Vizard. As I have stated the Arrancar are Hollows, which managed to develop Shinigami characteristics. The Vizard have once been Shinigami, who have cultivated Hollow masks and so augment their original powers. It is this genius juxtaposition, which has me entirely enthralled within the series and once again proves that the Japanese know no boundaries, when it comes to creativity.

Pictured: The Vizard

Last point I would like to illustrate here would be the massive scale, on which “Bleach” is functioning. This is a whole theme for Japan, which for a land so small is actually a country fascinated with HUGE [yes, I do believe they are overcompensating for something]. It has humongous buildings, big robots and their culture has spawned Godzilla and the mechas, so it’s no wonder that “Bleach” has 384 chapters, that the cast features more than 50 characters, that the swords’ capabilities can outrank a nuclear bomb in devastation and battles are bigger and flashier and more apocalyptic with each chapter. This story is swallowing steroids and engorging itself into Biblical proportions, which is why I love it. It climbs a mountain top, blows my mind completely and then I wait in anticipation how it will top that and for the run I have had here I know that it is capable of being bigger.

Pictured: Bad Ass Bankai [the final level of power a sword can manifest]

This concludes my exploration of “Bleach” as a dense guide book to Japan as culture and country. Thank you for bearing with me.


Onimaru said...

Ahh yes. At last a new Bleach Convert.
By the way, could you do a blog comparing Bleach to Naruto? That would be pretty awesome!

Harry Markov said...

I have reread Bleach, all 300 chapters, read twice! I am relatively new though. Started 2008 and have been tempted at writing fan fic.

And I need to reread Naruto to be able to do so, but yeah, I can see something like that springing around next March. Thanks for the idea.

Anonymous said...

You did a great job in trying to explain Bleach what with its complicated plot, numerous characters and length! I just discovered Bleach this year and have been devouring it including the animation. Kubo Tite had said in an interview that he specifically wanted to write about shinigami that were specifically Japanese in style and tradition and I think he did an incredible job. Don't you just love Japanese manga?

Harry Markov said...

Yes, I adore it, but to be honest it seems to be suffering as of late. I am not able to find worthwhile reads for some reason.

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