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Let's Talk Bleach! Part 16 - The Substitute Shinigami Arc

Hey y'all, it's Mrlmm0605 coming to talk to you about Bleach! This is not a discussion of individual episodes or chapters; rather, it is a look at the main ideas of Bleach, illustrated using examples from the story to prove a point. It is to be noted that, as this blog uses examples from Bleach fiction to make its point, there are unmarked spoilers contained throughout, so read at your own risk. Also, this blog is NOT a replacement for the Wiki's pages on the subject of discussion; I will not tell you what something is, but I will discuss what I think it means. The thoughts portrayed below will not be embraced by everyone, and I welcome dissenting opinions in the comments. Please, keep all responses within the confines of Bleach Wiki's Policies and the Wikia Terms of Use.

Song of the Blog: [Afterlife] by Avenged Sevenfold

Well, y'all, it's getting to be that time. Our adventures in the Bleachverse are coming to an end. With the manga's final chapter seemingly hours away, I figured that now is the best time to talk about the beginning. This will be a discussion on the themes and developments of Bleach on an arc-by-arc basis, starting with the very first arc, the Substitute Shinigami arc. These discussions assume that you have read or watched the content being dissected, so, as always, unmarked spoilers abound. That being said, let's get it started.

This is the first arc in the series, so logically it is almost entirely exposition. We are introduced to the protaginist, 15 year old Ichigo Kurosaki, a stereotypical tough guy with the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead. One day, a ghost girl with which he had become acquainted is attacked by a strange, vicious creature the likes of which Ichigo has never seen. That night, Ichigo encounters a Shinigami named Rukia Kuchiki. Rukia explains that these monsters are called Hollows, and that they are the spirits of the dead that were unable or unwilling to pass on to Soul Society, a utopic afterlife where souls await reincarnation. One of these Hollows attacks Ichigo and his family, and in a last ditch effort to save those he cares about, Ichigo takes on Rukia's powers and becomes a Shinigami himself.

Unfortunately, the power exchange seems to be much harder to reverse than it was to do in the forward direction. Ichigo is therefore prompted to become an unofficial Substitute Shinigami and protect his hometown. In doing so, we meet a couple of Ichigo's closest friends: Orihime Inoue, an annoying perennial damsel; and Yasutora 'Chad' Sado, a gentle giant who had grown up with his grandfather in Mexico. We also meet Kon, a Modified Soul meant to occupy Ichigo's body while he is out Shinigami-ing; Rukia acquires Kon from a man named Urahara, owner of a candy store that also happens to sell spiritual goods. Ichigo's first true challenge comes on the anniversary of his mother's mysterious death. He is faced with a Hollow named Grand Fisher, who says he killed Ichigo's mother as she sought to protect her son (more on this in 600 chapters). Though Ichigo's Shinigami abilities are enough to force the beast back, he is unable to finish the fight, and Grand Fisher leaves, nursing his wounds and swearing vengeance.

Ichigo's battle with Grand Fisher has the unfortunate consequence of making more spiritually aware beings notice his existence and potential. One such being is a Uryū Ishida. Uryū is a Quincy, a member of a race of spiritually aware Humans who had made livings as Hollow killers. Unfortunately, the precise manner in which Quincy powers operate led to an imbalance in the number of Souls in each world, causing Soul Society to send the Shinigami to eradicate them. Uryū's family was among the last survivors, and the young man harbors a grudge against Shinigami which he displaces onto Ichigo. Uryū challenges Ichigo to a Hollow killing contest, using a lure to attract the beasts to Karakura town. This is fine for Uryū and Ichigo, two individual who can protect themselves and deal with the threat, but let's see how it affects other townspeople.

Orihime is attacked at school; a Hollow named Numb Chandelier possesses several of her classmates and wreaks havoc with a parade of zombies (inb4 Giselle 1.0). In her fear and desperation, Orihime unlocks her latent power in the form of the Shun Shun Rikka, six sprite-like beings who can create reality-rejecting shields for use in defense, healing, or combat. Meanwhile, Chad is attacked by Bulbous G, a massive Hollow. Chad's will to defend those around awakens his own hidden power, an armored right arm that allows him to attack with crushing force.

On the front-lines, Ichigo and Uryū are relatively evenly matched. Unfortunately, a combination of the bait and the high amounts of spiritual power being thrown around willy nilly attracts a Gillian-class Menos, a massive Hollow that Rukia has only seen in theoretical texts. The mysterious Urahara mobilizes to defeat the threat, which is way outside the scale of anything we've ever seen in the series, but miraculously, Ichigo manages to force it back with a single swing of his blade.

The thing is, Gillians don't just pop up in small Japanese towns. This event, coupled with Rukia's unexplained and extended stay in the Human World, prompts Soul Society to dispatch two enforcers to the town: Captain Byakuya Kuchiki and Lieutenant Renji Abarai, Rukia's brother and best friend. The two find Rukia and arrest her, intent on bringing her back to Soul Society to be tried for violations of Shinigami law. Ichigo and Uryū both try to stop the seizure, but both are defeated. During Ichigo's attempt, Lieutenant Abarai reveals that Zapakutō have names and enhanced forms that augment the power of the Shinigami, and Captain Kuchiki incapacitates Ichigo by removing his Shinigami powers altogether. The battered Ichigo is left for dead, but is rescued by the passing Urahara.

A short time later, Ichigo awakens in Urahara's care. The mysterious man reveals that Rukia has been sentenced to death for her crimes against Soul Society, and that her execution is approximately one month away. He then sets to training Ichigo to unlock his own latent Shinigami powers. During these Trials of the Shattered Shaft, a restrained Ichigo begins to undergo the Hollowfication process, but emerges as a full-fledged Shinigami with both a Zanpakutō and a strange mask. Further training reveals that Ichigo's blade is named Zangetsu. After a short period, Ichigo is deemed ready to face Soul Society, but he will not be going alone. Uryū has undergone rigorous training himself, and both Orihime and Chad were taught how to use their abilities by Yoruichi Shihōin, a talking cat. The team of four youths and a cat set out for Soul Society, intent on rescuing their friend.

With the short summary out of the way, let's get discussing. As already mentioned before, this is the exposition arc. We get introduced to the major characters and plot points, and the narrative gets kicked into gear with Rukia's arrest. That aside, there's so much more to this arc than just introductions.

On a fundamental level, this arc is about tearing down boundaries, or about exposing the lack thereof. Think about it, our protagonist is someone who, from day 1 minute 1, can see ghosts. He can see and interact with things outside the boundaries of everyday life. He then acquires the powers of one of these extranormal beings, in essence destroying the separation between the two worlds at the point in space time that he occupies. This sets off a ripple effect that draws numerous people in and invites massive monsters into the world of the living. The line between life and death, human and other, is so frequently blurred or destroyed in this introductory arc that it straight up ceases to matter on any meaningful level. We see this most clearly at the end of the arc, when Ichigo undergoes his Hollowfication. While this scene has a significantly different meaning to us all these years later, back then it was meant to show how little separates the Souls from the Hollows. At the end of it, we end up with Ichigo, a being who possesses attributes of at least three different races.

More than destroying boundaries, though, this arc destroys facades. Almost everything in this arc is revealed to be something else. Masaki Kurosaki's death is revealed to be a murder; Urahara goes from a store owner to enigmatic sensei; Uryū's hatred of Shinigami goes from racial paranoia to a justified if reckless revenge plan. Most tellingly, we see the facade of Soul Society get torn down. I've already talked about how the Shinigami are the heroes of the story due solely to perspective rather than true morality, and how several Shinigami of note are just as bad, if not worse, than several of the nominal antagonists (Aside: That was my first EVER blog on this wiki, and if you've been keeping up since then, thanks! Tell me how I can continue to improve because I've come a long way but I still have a while yet to go). The thing is, that perspective of the Shinigami as 'good guys' has to come from somewhere, and the origin is Rukia. In episode/chapter 1, Rukia goes to great lengths to explain that Soul Society is a paradise governed and protected byy the benevolent Shinigami, and that it is a far preferable choice than any of the alternatives. The kicker is that Rukia KNOWS this isn't true. She grew up, poor and alone, on the streets of the Rukongai, living in fear of the Shinigami and acquiring a disdain for their rules that only vanished when she was literally plucked from the gutters and made a noble Shinigami herself. Rukia's explanation is the definition of hypocrisy, and it comes back to bite her during her arrest. Here, Soul Society's Gestapo tactics are in full display, and we get our first real view on the situation in Soul Society. Later in the arc, we see Captains squabbling and fighting, showing that even the Shinigami hierarchy is fragmented. By the end of the first arc, we as the reader are meant to have stopped liking the Shinigami as a whole. Talk about falling facades, eh?

Lastly, this is the arc that sets up so many questions in the series. Why can Ichigo see ghosts? What's up with the Quincy? Why, exactly did Rukia get arrested? What the hell is Urahara and how does he know so much? These and other questions drove the narrative for years, and some of them haven't gotten entirely answered to this day, and the supposed 685th and final chapter of the manga comes out in like 4 hours. I haven't seen an introductory arc in a Shōnen series have such lasting and far-reaching repercussions since Dragon Ball, and that's impressive.

Well, that's my take on the very first arc of the series. Next installment will either be a continuation to my Sternritter Alphabet series or a discussion on the Soul Society: Infiltration arc (up to the Zaraki Fight). Either way, the series might be leaving us, but y'all are stuck with me for a while yet.

What do you think about the Substitute Shinigami Arc?

The poll was created at 06:46 on August 4, 2016, and so far 20 people voted.

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