Content warning: sexual violence, queerphobia, transphobia
Spoilers for Bleach
Bleach came out in 2001 and alongside One Piece and Naruto, became one of three tentpoles of Shonen Jump’s financial success in the 2000s. The manga follows Ichigo, a fifteen-year-old high school student who can see ghosts and ends up fighting monster “ghosts” called Hollows. The manga starts off as a monster-of-the-week action series before developing into a full blown saga to save the world. You know, typical shounen shit.
The art style was bombastic, and the pages were snappy. It’s often considered to be the most stylish of the Big Three that dominated manga sales and discussion during the mid-late 2000’s and 2010’s. And that style is what drew me to the series as a fifteen year old myself. One Piece was too long, and I was too obsessed with not seeming cringe to read Naruto, so Bleach it was.
I didn’t want to admit this then, but one of the things that drove me to read it was one of my earliest queer memories: Volume 17’s cover, which features Yoruichi crouched in a pair of grey leggings so tight you could see her ass crack. It was also the volume that gave us one of the most homoerotic female fights in shounen manga.
Bleach means quite a lot to me. It’s the foundation for so much of my work as an artist and writer that breaking it down into its smaller parts would be very difficult. Reading it carried me through high school as a deeply insecure, deeply in-the-closet teenager, and even through early college when the series ended in 2015.
Like a lot of people, I came into my own in college. I was more open with what I thought was my bisexuality at the time. With these realizations and new friends, my perspectives on so many things changed. And with them, so did my perspective on Bleach. I had a long love affair with Tumblr and Black feminist books, and a lot of Bleach’s humor now felt stale and uncomfortable. Characters like Kon were no longer funny, instead feeling painfully outdated for so many reasons. As I came to terms with the sexual violence I endured as a teenager, this once tongue-in-cheek, “boys-will-be-boys” trope became completely unacceptable to me. You either have consensual sexuality in media, or get out.
I also lost patience for the way female characters in Bleach were routinely sidelined in favor of male characters. From Orihime being reduced to just a healer and damsel in distress after the Soul Society arc; to Momo, the fifth company vice-captain, reduced to a fangirl of Aizen’s; to Rukia’s character arc taking a major backseat throughout the series, this was clearly an ongoing problem I could no longer ignore.
However, when it comes to the misogyny in Bleach, nothing made and makes me more upset than how Nemu, Kurotsuchi’s vice-captain and experiment, gets treated in the narrative. So let me get this straight: a mad scientist makes a very conventionally attractive doll. That’s pretty normal. A little weird and has some implicit issues with literal objectification, but the hot/cute Frankenstein’s monster trope has been done before. Nemu is violently abused multiple times, and is nearly killed (or actually killed) on multiple occasions. She is even raped by her creator and it’s treated as a joke. The worst part is that she’s killed (permanently) almost as soon as she finally has some agency over herself.
After confronting this level of misogyny in the work, I put it down for a while and stepped away. My feelings for this series I loved so much were suddenly much more complicated. If it was just the misogyny I had to contend with, I could chalk it up to typical shounen bullshit.
But there was also the queerphobia.
I grew up in the ‘00s in the Deep South, so rampant homophobia was common. It was the era where “gay” was the go-to description for anything bad. Getting into college, though, changed my perspective. I stopped hanging around people who made snide remarks about how I was hurt by men and that’s why I liked girls, or viewed my queerness as an invitation to express their sexual fantasies. Upon surrounding myself with people who affirmed my queerness, I ended up reexamining Bleach after another read.
On that reexamination, what stood out were the jokes and the way Yumichika, the flamboyant fifth seat of the 11th company, was handled and treated in the story. Yumichika is an interesting case when it come to queer rep because one one hand it’s nice to see a very openly feminine gay man get into a high position in the hypermasculine environment of the 13 Court Guard Companies. However, there’s a cost. He is routinely ridiculed for the femininity he expresses. Some of his moves (particularly in his fight with Shuhei Hisagi) are played off as sexually predatory.
But the main thing that stuck out to me is how the narrative treats this character, whose sexuality is a punchline, as the only acceptable queer person in the entire cast. Even then, I could’ve gotten through it if that were the worst of it. At least he’s a hero, right?
But he isn’t the worst. Giselle Gewelle is.
I had almost finished college when this infamous character stepped out on the scene in chapter 544. As a writer myself, I understand in capable hands (such as Manhunt author Gretchen Felker-Martin) the fraught trope of the demented trans woman could be reframed into something insightful, like a villain that is so obsessed with acceptance from cis society that she ends up controlling people. Also, as a writer, I understand that good writing/bad writing is a thinner edge than people think, even thinner when you’re trying to flip problematic tropes—almost impossible when the writer isn’t someone those harmful tropes have hurt.
But this? Giselle hits almost every hateful portrayal. She’s a queer trans woman who’s a sadistic villain and kills her friend after suggestively sucking her blood; she’s misgendered by the only other queer character in Bleach, and he compares her to a gay man, in keeping with the longtime false assumption that trans women are just very femme gay men (or vice versa). This is some of the worst queer representation I have ever seen.
With all this being said, after all these years, what’s the point of reading Bleach then? If it’s this flawed, what keeps me coming back after all these years?
Here’s the thing.
When Bleach wants to tell a story and write good characters, it can tell a story and write good characters. For example, let’s talk about Yoruichi.
Yoruichi is a Rosetta Stone of all the good and bad of Kubo’s female character writing. Her design is eye-catching, making her one of the few black characters in the series. Her confidence, and rebellious attitude toward the Soul Society, is earned in her combat abilities. She’s a well-respected member of the Soul Society as the former captain of the 2nd company, and a well-known Black female character in the anime fan community. She gave up her prestigious titles to help her friend and 12th company captain/shady salesman, Urahara. As a Black woman myself, I have long loved Yoruichi for the representation she brought to shounen (which neither of the other Big Three really had) and for the fact that she was one of my first queer anime crushes. There’s a lot to like about her.
In fact, there’s a lot to like about the story in general. The way that Kubo can do fast-paced, impactful character-driven stories is amazing.
One moment that exemplifies this for me, is chapter 98, at the end of the second fight between Renji and Ichigo. Up to this point, Renji was just Byakuya’s henchman. He knew Rukia, and it was clear they cared for each other in some way, but the specifics weren’t discussed. It would have been easy to make him just a simple fight before the final boss, but no. He’s his own character. In the span of just nineteen pages, Renji goes from being a henchman to a man trapped under the Soul Society’s thumb and rules, driven by a need to survive that stems from a childhood marked by food and housing insecurity.
Having grown up barely surviving the worst district in the Rokungai, he and Rukia managed the near-miracle of getting into the Soul Reaper Academy. However, even in a new place, that survival mindset is still ingrained.
This hits a fever pitch when Rukia, literally the only surviving friend/family he’s got, ends up getting adopted into Byakuya’s wealthy family. He congratulates her on no longer having to think about whether or not she’ll go hungry rather than acknowledging her fears about her future and comforting her. This fractures their relationship for decades, and the guilt he carries at watching his friend wait for her pending execution becomes palpable when he loses to Ichigo. Mind you…all of this was conveyed in just nineteen pages.
Like I said at the beginning, Bleach meant a lot to me when I was a teenager. Over the years, I have changed immensely, and learned new things. One of them is that even if you love something, there’s always going to be something problematic about it. No piece of media is exempt from this truth. That doesn’t automatically mean throwing it out, but it does mean acknowledging those problems and not standing in the way of the push for future stories to do better.
Bleach has been influential to my life, and to my queer awakening. I was drawn in by Yoruichi and Soi Fon. Their relationship was built on admiration and betrayal. Yoruichi left Soi Fon for aiding her friend Urahara, who was a criminal. For Soi Fon, she worshipped the ground that Yoruichi walked on as a bodyguard. Sure, all of their interactions are textually “straight”, but for me (and many others) they were definitely read as queer. And who could blame her though, if I had to work under someone as fine as Yoruichi, I’d be the same way.
Yoruichi and Soi Fon’s relationship isn’t the only one that is read as queer. I know many queer folks that saw Tatsuki and Orihime’s friendship as romantic. The idea of Tatsuki, a butch-coded character, falling for her straight friend can remind many people of those types of friendships they had when they were young (or not so young).
Bleach means quite a lot to me. Looking back at it is a time capsule of outdated tropes and nostalgia for a time when I was just discovering shounen manga. Reading it has been a comfort for me since I was fifteen years old.
I’m almost twenty-eight now. That’s thirteen years of reading this manga, poring over its pages and cringing at some of the outdated tropes. I still admire the stylish art and gorgeous designs. I’ve changed a lot since then and now I view Bleach for what it is: junk food. It’s like Captain Crunch: it tastes good, it’s a classic, but it jacks up the roof of your mouth and has some truly questionable ingredients. But sometimes, it’s nice to just sit down and have a bowl.