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Having just finished re-reading and watching (for the first time) the first arc of Bleach, I've determined that the two versions are such different beasts that they deserve separate reviews. Let's start with the manga.
I've read through this arc a few times before during my first read and subsequent re-reads of Bleach when I was a kid/teenager, and each time I enjoyed it well enough but was mainly looking forward to all that Soul Society/Arrancar stuff that really kicked the series' popularity into overdrive. I never really understood why a certain portion of the fandom loved it so much, some even to the point of ignoring every arc that came after it, because to me it was just okay. That changed with this read, where I read each chapter multiple times to really look at what was going on rather than just skim through the pages.
This arc, and the initial setting of the story by association, really is unlike most past, contemporary, and present shonen stories. Ichigo doesn't have the ambition of becoming the strongest there is or attaining some lofty title - he just wants to protect the people he cares about and the residents of his town. There's no big journey the protagonists are embarking on (well, yet) - everything's confined to Karakura Town, and so everything feels grounded with lasting consequences as a result. Rukia's a pretty groundbreaking female character (for the time this was coming out, 2001-2002) - there's no UST between her and Ichigo, she can hold her own despite her weakened state and doesn't take shit from the pervs in the story, she's got realistic emotional struggles and flaws as she adjusts to the human world. And most notably, this is really the only arc where Ichigo's non-powered human friends (y'know, the ones that don't get people to buy merchandise) get a proper spotlight, mainly due to the complete lack of the money-maker Shinigami for 95% of the arc. While pretty much all shonen is about escapist fantasy, the first arc of Bleach offers a different kind for the genre - rather than focusing on power and training and being a badass and the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP, it's about teenagers dealing with spiritual weirdness alongside their own day-to-day issues and having quirky, memorable friends and dealing with personal trauma and so on. Reading it as an adult, it really makes me nostalgic for the simpler days of middle and high school, when I didn't know how comparatively small my problems were. Honestly, reading it made me sad that Kubo was pressured to cut it short in order to get to Soul Society; for one, Tatsuki was clearly gearing up to get her own powers, and never getting to know what that would've been like hurts.
It's also funny. Really, really fucking funny. Way more than any of the later arcs, due to the aforementioned increased focus on fighting and being a badass and so on. That doesn't make them worse by default, but I'd forgotten a lot of the great gags Kubo wrote into this first arc (like Sado's affection for cute things and Urahara's "message" to Ichigo and his friends) and how much of a fiendish troll Urahara was before his intellect and experience started getting more focus - the page where he brags about his underground training area to a completely unimpressed and critical Ichigo is perhaps the greatest summation of his pre-SS character. Even if I somehow forget everything else I've read here, I'll always remember the comedy.
In summation, this arc is good. Not my favorite arc overall, but definitely ranked pretty high after my thorough evaluation, and Kubo's character writing and ground-laying for future revelations shines through on review. While I don't quite fall into that camp, I now much better understand the faction that prefers to think of this as the first and last of Bleach.
I remember really, really enjoying the drama of the entire volume dedicated to Grand Fisher in a little mini story arc. And I remember being deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with how it was ultimately adapted to animation.
Pity it ultimately kind of went nowhere...
Memories in the rain is a fantastic mini-arc. I had the good fortune of actually getting to read it while it was raining like the author\'s note suggested, and as someone who\'s lost a parent at a young age (not to an attack from a spirit demon, mind you) Ichigo\'s grief and his struggle in assigning blame really hit home. Full marks to Kubo on that one.
Might I interest you in Patlabor? 'cuz it's a shounen series that's firmly grounded in the reality of late 80s/early 90s Japan, despite the inclusion of mecha. No one has special powers, there isn't any journey to get stronger, or any of that other nonsense. Instead it's an animated police procedural dealing with the day-to-day realities of police work. And if you like comedy, Patlabor has it in spades. It's even been described as: "Police Academy with mecha".
That said, I'm part of that group who feels the early chapters of Bleach (up to the conclusion of the SS arc) was the manga at its best. I liked the character interactions between Ichigo and his friends at school, it made me think Bleach was going to be different by not focusing on escalting power levels and whatnot.
Had I known then what i know now, that's where I would have stopped reading it.
@Miin U: I figured that there would be at least a couple series I hadn't heard of/read that offered a similarly unconventional approach and setting, so I figured "pretty much all" was a safe compromise between "all other" and "most other" there. But I'll give Patlabor a watch, your description sold me.
And judging by what I've read, I think Kubo was ultimately intending to go down the road you were expecting - reading these first 70 chapters, I could tell how much he enjoyed the style of the series where he didn't have to focus on training arcs and power-ups (like everything part of Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure after 2, as stated by Araki). But in the end, the more conventional approach proved to be the much more popular and better-selling one, and this was Shonen Jump during the peak of its money-grubbing attitude toward series...so we all know what happened next. I completely get where you're coming from.
@Xilinoc: If that's true, then it's a shame that Kubo wasn't allowed to write it the way he originally intended. I certainly would've preferred it that way.
That isn't to say that there's anything inherently wrong with series where power levels and escalting tension are the primary focus. But sometimes, I just want to read or watch something without all of that. Hope you enjoy Patlabor btw.
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