Let me start by saying how much I love this manga. It truly is a phenmeonal experience through its characters, plot, twists and turns and its balance of action and comedy. I do find it odd returning to “The Substitute Arc” as it really does feel like a completely different manga in terms of its tone and style, showcasing just how far the characters and the narrative has come. One things for sure Tite Kubo, artist and writer of the series, certainly knew how to grab our attention through a simplistic serious of events that left us invested and wanting to know more.
The basic narrative of the first arc is about the establishing of all the main protagonists, namely Ichigo Kurosaki and Rukia Kuchiki. Ichigo is a teenager with the abilities to see spirits whilst Rukia is a Soul Reaper, Kubo’s interpretation on Angels. He establishes a unique universe where the Living World and the Afterlife, which is called the Soul Society, is governed by the laws of the 13 Court Guard Squads. He also establishes that the Soul Reapers are constantly at war with the Hollows, Kubo’s interpretation of Demons. Hollows are souls that become lost, either refusing or unable to pass on and later become consumed by their emptiness and wish to feed on souls to sustain their despair. It is a very interesting concept but strangely enough becomes pushed to the side fairly quickly in order to move the plot into more complex scenarios and greater battles.
Ichigo gains the ability of a Soul Reaper after Rukia is injured in battle and she is forced to transfer her powers over to him. This begins the slow (and I mean slow) build-up to Ichigo’s importance as we are constantly left with questions as to how he is able to do the things he can do. Kubo is good at leaving you in suspense and that is the key to why Bleach is such a success because it actually leaves you wanting more, meaning you are invested in the world that Kubo has crafted.
I do love Ichigo as a character due to his noble nature through wanting to protect others, always feeling the need to bare the weight of the world on his shoulders until he has done enough to bring a stop to sadness. This even stems to him blaming himself for his mother’s death and the consequences that came about, namely his broken family. But this is balanced through his comical outbursts and his awkwardness around certain situations. Then there is Rukia, again another personal favourite of mine. Not only is she beautiful but she is intelligent and brave. Plus, like Ichigo, she also has her comical moments. But above all else I love Ichigo and Rukia’s chemistry and this is the core of “The Substitute Arc” and goes on to become an important plot-thread in the consecutive arcs.
We also have other characters introduced, like Orihime Inoue, Yasutora Sato (nicknamed Chad) and Uryu Ishida. Each of these character bring about a unique characteristic and become a huge part of the line-up, as well as loyal friends of Ichigo’s and Rukia’s and generally good characters to follow. I will admit they aren’t my favourite but they each have their moments to shine and battles to fight which are exciting to read. Orihime is an all-over-the-place character due to her strangeness and clumsy nature but she has a lot of heart and care for those around her, namely Ichigo who she slowly falls in love with. Chad is quite bland as a character but again he has a lot of heart and his backstory is well constructed in showing how his size got him into trouble, making him a rotten kid that lashed out but his Abuelo taught him how to uterlise his strength for defensive purposes, which is ultimately used to help out Ichigo.
Uyru certainly has the most story to tell out of these three due to him being a Quincy. Their backstory is important to the mythology of the Bleach universe, especially in the final arc. Quincy’s are a race of humans that gained special abilities to combat Hollows but this method led to them disrupting the cleansing process of the Soul Reapers, meaning the World of the Living and the Soul Society were becoming unbalanced with souls. This ultimately led to their downfall as the Soul Reapers had no choice but to terminate them after they would not heed their warnings. Uyru has a massive hatred towards Soul Reapers due to the death of his Sensei whom was killed by Hollows and wasn’t aided by the Soul Reapers, with them appearing only after he perished in battle.
Naturally the arcs in “The Substitue Arc” are small and easy-going in order to pull you into the universe before getting the ball rolling. We have some mini-arcs which help to introduce the characters. Orihime is introduced through the tragic tale of her brother, Sora, becoming a Hollow and his despair causing him to stalk her. This battle was sad to read because you learn about Orihime’s connection to her sibling and how he raised her like his own daughter after he took her away from their abusive parents before he unexpectedly died in a car accident. Orihime’s sadness was brought to the surface through her feeling guilty about their last encounter, which resulted in an argument, but to redeem this she constantly wore the jewelry he bought her. In the end Sora finally got to pass on and their relationship was given a happy conclusion.
Chad’s introduction revolves around a parakeet that has a boy’s soul trapped within. The boy is forced to play a sadistic game of tag by a Hollow that killed his mother when he was alive, now pissed at the boy because he caused his death. The Hollow in question blackmails the boy into believing that he can bring his mother back if he continues to play the game, which always results in the death of those he comes into contact with. Ichigo finally manages to bring an end to the murderer’s twisted game, ultimately sending him to Hell, and allows the boy to finally pass on and have a chance at seeing his mother again.
My personal favourite part of “The Substitute Arc” is Ichigo’s confrontation with the arc’s main antagonist Grand Fisher. This particular Hollow holds a personal threat to Ichigo through it being his mother’s killer. This battle is torturous for Ichigo as his pride is put on the line as he desperately tries to bring an end to this vile creature and avenge his mother’s memory which was tainted by the Hollow. The battle itself was bloody, and vicious, showcasing that Kubo’s series isn’t always light-hearted and could become serious and gritty when it needed to be, as well as emotional. Ichigo really started to gain an understanding of his spiritual abilities and began his journey towards becoming a real Soul Reaper as he pledges to protect those around him and never let them experience the despair that he has had to endure.
The turning point of this arc comes about through Uryu’s arrival, to which he attempts to exact his vengeance through proving the Quincy’s are better than Soul Reapers. This game results in him placing innocent civilians in danger, to which angers Ichigo. Ichigo explains how his actions dishonour his Sensei, as he wished to have Soul Reapers and Quincy’s working together. He also explains how he himself is a victim of the Hollows and also wishes to use his powers to protect other’s from them. The two of them team up and face against a Menos Grande, a giant Hollow merged together by the bodies of thousands of Hollows. This battle has a brilliant pay-off of showing us just how powerful Ichigo is as his spiritual pressure is released upon the Menos, causing the creature to retreat back into Hueco Mundo.
This ultimately leads to the events that change the journey of the series forever. The Soul Society finally track down Rukia, sending in her old friend Renji Abarai and her step-brother Byakuya Kuchiki. It is strange looking back at these characters as my original impression of them was quite different to how I look at them. To begin with they were deemed villainous in their actions, with Renji appearing to be arrogant whilst Byakuya came across as heartless. It was an emotional scene for both Ichigo and Rukia as the two of them are separated in the cruellest of terms. To make matters worse the scene showcases how small Ichigo is in comparison to a fully-fledged Soul Reaper, to which Ichigo is unable to correctly use his spiritual powers as well as call upon his weapon, the Zanpakuto, and release its true capabilities.
Despite the depressing conclusion of this encounter, which left Ichigo near death and removed of his powers, whilst Rukia got taken away as a prisoner, this leads to Ichigo growing as a character as he is placed with the decision of rescuing Rukia. This heroic moment sets up Ichigo’s character perfectly and showcases what he is willing to do in order to save those he loves. In this moment we are introduced to Kisuke Urahara, another of my favourites. This guy is just hilarious in both his appearance and his dialogue, as well as being known for his witty one-liners and being an annoyance to other characters. What I love most about him is his mysterious nature, which slowly gets revealed over time, and how his hidden past hints at just how powerful he really is, which is increased further by his intellect.
Then begins the most clichéd section of any manga, a training period. But in Bleach‘s defence we have some good training segments with this being my favourite because it shows us how Ichigo receives his own Soul Reaper abilities and his very own Zanpakuto. The training by Kisuke is gruelling and pushes Ichigo to the absolute limit as he is reduced to an Konpako before eventually having to escape from the Shattered Shaft after his Chain of Fate is severed. This eventually starts turning him into a Hollow where he enters his inner-world and meets his Zanpakuto, Zangetsu, to which he ultimately transform into a Soul Reaper. In the meantime Orihime and Chad have been training their new abilities, born from their encounters with Ichigo’s spiritual pressure, and prepare to join Ichigo on his dearing mission into the Soul Society and rescue Rukia from her fate.
“The Subsitute Arc” is certainly a great introduction to Bleach and sets up enough information and intrigue to leave you wanting more. It’s also great how it incorporates all the human aspects of these characters lives through their activities at school, their families and their friends which get expanded upon as the series goes on. I will admit there are some lesser content in this first arc, such as the Don Kanonji mini-arc (to which serves to create Bleach‘s own Hercule, only mercifully less annoying and less frequent).
We also had the introduction to the lovable Kon, who’s character formulates Bleach‘s comical relief through his iconic stuffed animal appearance and his pervert personality which often leads to him being beaten up by one of the female characters, mostly Rukia who he adores. But as I’ve said throughout this review, it merely gives you a taste of what is to come with everything onward expanding further to create greater narratives and intense character moments. It’s fair to say that the series would never look back and be the same again as the road ahead gets harder and harder.
What do you think of Bleach’s first arc? And if you haven’t read it yet I hope this review inspires you to give it a go and I hope it draws you in like it did me. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below or on Twitter page! Join me next time as I review Vol 9-21: “The Soul Society Arc”.