If Bleach really does end up going wildly downhill as every other fan I’ve talked to tells me, it will be really disappointing because I have thoroughly enjoyed (with no sense of irony) these first two volumes. I like shonen fantasy series, and this one has a pretty cool premise, and Tite Kubo has done a really cool job of slowly introducing more and more aspects of this world’s mythology. I’ve got an admitted soft spot for urban fantasy so that also probably has something to do with the fact that I really like the story so far. I mean, let me qualify what I mean by “really like.” I’m enjoying this as much as I can anything that’s primarily meant for like kids (that’s what shonen means as a demographic. for “young boys” though as virtually every anime fan in America will tell you, shonen programs (like Dragon Ball Z or Full Metal Alchemist) have plenty of cross-demographic appeal. I’m not getting any intellectual stimulation from this series at all (unlike say, another shonen franchise, Death Note) but it’s fun, and I still haven’t gotten to the part where it supposedly gets terrible, so I’m going to enjoy this series while it lasts.

The first volume ended with Ichigo’s school friend Yasatoro “Chad” Sado adopting a parakeet that is actually the home of a “whole,” a spirit that has yet to be sent over to the Soul Society. The parakeet’s soul is a very young boy who watched his mother murdered in front of him by a serial killer. The young boy accidentally caused the serial killer to fall to his death, and when the murderer came back as a “hollow” (evil spirits that haven’t been sent on), the Hollow murdered the boy and has mentally tortured him since then by promising to bring his mother back to life if he could avoid the Hollow for three years (which is something the Hollow can’t do. Because Ichigo is forced to momentarily care for his ailing sister Karin (who was injured by a psychic blast from the tortured mind of the young boy’s soul), Rukia is forced to temporarily battle the Hollow alone, even though she’s using her “gigai” (human form) and isn’t at full strength. Eventually Chad helps her but since he can’t see the Hollow, their effectiveness isn’t very high despite Chad’s enormous strength. When it looks like Chad and Rukia are getting the upper hand despite their limitations, the Hollow pulls a trick out of the manga bad guy playbook 101 by revealing an ability he had been hiding the whole fight. He summons these frog like creatures which spit leech like creatures which the Hollow could remotely detonate as bombs. Just when things are looking hopeless, Ichigo shows up and promptly kicks the Hollow’s ass. Because the Hollow was evil in his past life, he is sent to Hell by a massive door that opens up which draws a knife-wielding disembodied fist that drags the evil spirit away.

The last half of the volume is the beginning of a new story arc which introduces another layer of Soul Society life and technology which is starting to show that maybe they aren’t quite as good as the heroics of Rukia make them seem. Whenever Rukia uses her glove thing to force Ichigo’s soul out of his body so he can be a Shinigami, his body is just lying around unconscious and is therefore completely vulnerable and very suspicious. Rukia visits the shop of a man named Kisuke Uruhara who sells weapons and technology to Shinigami. Rukia thinks she’s bought an artificial soul to place in Ichigo’s body when he’s fighting Hollows. However, it turns out to be one of the last remaining mod-souls, a group of scientifically bred warriors that the Soul Society had created to fight Soul Reapers. However, it didn’t work out and so the Soul Society abandoned the project and destroyed every mod-soul they could find. This one escaped somehow, and when he enters Ichigo’s body, he absconds with it as Ichigo is fighting a Hollow. Ichigo (in his Shinigami form) and the mod-soul inhabiting Ichigo’s real body are forced to work together to fight another Hollow, and eventually Kisuke Uruhara shows up and forces the mod-soul out of Ichigo’s body. However, Ichigo and Rukia decide to spare it because they know that they’d be killing something that just wanted to be free by destroying it.

I”m one of those people that is really into universe building. I know several people who tire of George R. R. Martin’s never-ending descriptions of the politics, geography, religion, and history of Westeros but that is 50% of the enjoyment I get from his A Song of Ice and Fire books. So, I really appreciate how Tite Kubo is making the Bleach universe seem like a pretty multi-faceted place. Yeah, occasionally, we’ll spend like four damn volumes of the book on just one fight, and this is a fairly early Hollow in the series (so I can’t imagine what it will be like when we fight enemies that are actually supposed to be threatening). However, I always feel like I’m learning something new about the world where this series takes place, which is essentially our own but with magic teeming behind the veils of perception we can’t see past. And at no point have I felt like any of the twists about the events of this world are dumb or uninteresting. Yeah, there have been plenty of standard anime conventions used (especially during the fight scenes), but they are part and parcel to this particular genre, and while I know they are derivative, it isn’t really keeping me from enjoying the series yet.

I’m starting to wish that I knew more about these characters. I really like Chad. The whole gentle giant trope is a favorite character archetype of mine, and Rukia always tends to make me laugh, but Ichigo still seems pretty ill-defined. However, this is a shonen manga and character development is almost never very important. That tends to only really matter in shojo or seinen pieces (though Full Metal Alchemist had pretty satisfying character development as did Death Note), so I may be disappointed if I expect too much from this series. Anyways, I’m only two volumes in out of the 52 that have been written thus far, so I’m obviously still far too early in the series to make any judgments, but so far I’m having fun reading it, and that’s what really matters.

Final Score: B