Weekly Shonen Jump in particular, and the Shonen Jump brand in general, has reached a peak of exposure to the American market at the dawn of this new millennium, thanks to a little anime known as Dragonball Z, the sequel series to Akira Toriyama's Dragonball saga. Essentially, Shonen Jump is an anthology manga(Japanese comics), where many manga serieses share space in the book, often becoming famous as a result. Thus, many of the long anime(those with episodes stretching into the hundreds) that are now in many of the video stores, and on Cartoon Network on Saturday night, comes from manga based in this one anthology.. . such as One Piece, Naruto, the forementioned Dragonball, and Bleach.
Bleach is about death...but it is not at all as morbid as you think. The core concept is essentially based around Japanese personification of death, which is not the malevolent Grim Reaper of Western culture, but the Shinigami(death gods)...a loosely referred-to death deity that could be of any association(good/evil), and can take on a variety of tasks and forms. A mainstay of Japanese culture, Shinigami have appeared in a large range of anime like Boogiepop Phantom, where the Shinigami is a protector of mankind, and Death Note, where these beings kill humans to extend their own lives. However, only in Bleach is the Shinigami, or Soul Reaper in the English manga and anime translations, an otherworldly samurai with a superpowered sword and the ability to control spiritual energy or Reiatsu(known as Spiritual Pressure in English dub)!
The gist of the story focuses on Ichigo Kurosaki, an orange-haired 15-year old Japanese young man who lives with his two younger sisters and his widowed father, all living at and working out of a small medical clinic in Karakura Town, Japan. Ichigo, a target of bullies while growing up because of his strangely-colored hair, has a talent for seeing ghosts. While helping out a young girl ghost, Ichigo encounters two supernatural beings that would change his life forever: Rukia Kuchiki, a Soul Reaper assigned to protect Karakura Town, and a Hollow...the being or beings that Rukia protects the citizens and the city from. Hollows are one of the main antagonistic forces of the series, malevolent deceased souls of former humans that are transformed into monsterous beasts with masks, and a hole in the center of their chests(thus, giving them their names).
Of course, both Rukia and the Hollow are invisible to humans, the secret war between the two often manifesting in monsterous damages caused by unseen phenomena. However, when a Hollow is drawn towards Ichigo's house and family, Rukia tries to fight the creature, only to get deeply wounded while trying to save Ichigo from certain death(Ichigo blindly trying to save his two sisters from being crushed by the creature). As the two heroes stand defenseless before the monster, Rukia decides to lend Ichigo some of her Soul Reaper abilities. A pact is made, and the powers are transferred...however, Ichigo draws too much of the power. After defeating the Hollow that threatens his family, he becomes the "Substitute Soul Reaper", as Rukia has to regain her powers with the help of a artificial body called a gigai(thus, becoming a human to some degree), and cannot perform her Soul Reaper duties.
The first arc of the anime, "The Substitute", deals with Ichigo getting use to his duties as a Soul Reaper, battling various Hollows while balancing his life and school duties. It is revealed that his Spiritual Pressure is massive, so much so that it "leaks out", causing spritual powers to manifest in a few of his classmates, Yasutora Sado/"Chad", who develops an armored arm with the ability to fire a powerful blast of energy, and Orihime Inoue, who develops powerful healing and defense abilities, which manifest as six fairies from her hair ordament. A rival of Ichigo also surfaces in the bespectacled Uryu Ishida, the last Quincy, a clan of spritiual-energy manipulating humans that were rivals to the Soul Reapers at one point in time. Said rivalry almost causes the destruction of Karakura Town at one point, when Ishida summons an army of Hollows in a challenge with Ichigo to see who is the greatest between the two factions.
Other characters are introduced as well, some more intergrated into the main plot of the whole series. One such character is Kisuke Urahara, the owner of the Urahara Shop, who is known for his perchant for a striped hat and geta. He is introduced when Rukia approaches him to purchase a gigai, as well as "Soul Candy"(used for Ichigo to pull his soul out of his body to become a Soul Reaper). However, there is more going on with him, revelations that are revealed in the arc after "The Substitute", the "Soul-Society" Arc, where Ichigo and his friends have to travel to the Soul Society, the world where most souls go after death, and where the Soul Reapers originated.
But, I'll let you check that out.
If you're a fan of samurai anime, then this anime if for you...although, in all honesty, the Soul Society Arc is where the true samurai action is at. But monster-slaying is prominant in the first Arc. Also, if you're a fan of DC Comics' Green Lantern...you'll love this. Seriously, the Soul Reaper concept, with their individualistic uniforms, swords, divisions, and juridictions, remind me of the Green Lanterns, their sectors, and classifications as true Space Cops.
Check out the First Opening:
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