When it comes to anime there are numerous examples of the controversial genre surpassing the many preconceived notions of what an anime can be. Most notably, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop, but even still, the general consensus remains that anime is considered entertainment for children, perversion for stunted adults, and not much more than that. I think the reason that this belief continues to this day is that most of the "adult" anime is limited to either movies or to a brief limited run. There are very few (if any) "mainstream" anime that provides a sort of long term and layered thematic storytelling that you'd think would benefit from the long-running format that anime can provide.
I’ve been wanting to do a bit of a deep-dive into Bleach for a while now, but because it’s such a dense manga/anime, it’s taken me a lot longer than I had originally intended. Just like with Batman v Superman, the more I look at it, the more layers I saw, and the longer it took me to straighten out my thoughts on it. The many parallels, analogies, motifs, and the heavy symbolism behind Bleach. It’s not particularly uncommon for many of the respected anime to feature quite a bit of symbolism that’s inspired from of Japanese mythology, Naruto would be an easy example of this, but I think where Bleach separates itself from a lot of them is in the subtlety of its symbolism, motifs, and also in its use of analogies. Be warned though, there will be plenty of spoilers below, so if you're thinking about reading or watching Bleach, I'd recommend skipping this and maybe coming back to it after you've finished it.
The symbolism and allegories of Bleach
The first thing I would like to emphasize is that unlike the majority of other mainstream shonen, Bleach ostensibly takes place in the real world. Out of the “big three” (Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece), Bleach is the only one that concerns itself with grounding itself in “our” world. I like that, though this is a matter of preference. I like how it doesn’t take place in some far away fantasy land, although Soul Society could certainly be considered a “far away land”, but the anchor is always set in the human world. In this sense, Soul Society is analogous to our concept of heaven. The Shinigami aka Death Gods, would be the western equivalent of Death aka The Grim Reaper. The themes it deals with is religion, spirituality, philosophy, Japanese literature, war, and even poetry. I’ve always had a fascination with religion and mythologies, and maybe that’s why I’ve been so drawn to Bleach.
The Shinigami in Bleach wield a weapon called a zanpakuto, a sword. The zanpakuto serves as the main source of strength for a Shinigami. It's said that the idea for their zanpakuto was inspired from the legends that surround the infamous Muramasa blades. In "Bushido: The Soul of Japan", the Muramasa blades were said to contain the "Soul of the Samurai", exactly how a Shinigami's zanpakuto contains a manifestation of their own soul.
Muramasa himself was said to be mad, volatile, and prone to bouts of violence. Legend has it that he passed these qualities onto the blades of the swords he made. Driving its owners to similarly violent and destructive fates. That the blades would actually "possess" their wielders. This is why Shinigami require many years of intense training to control their zanpakuto and their latent power. If a Shinigami didn't have enough willpower, resolve, and internal fortitude to control their zanpakuto, then their zanpakuto could end up controlling them instead. Truly a dangerous weapon that takes decades, even centuries, to fully understand and master. The Muramasa blades were rumored to contain a sentient demonic presence with malicious intentions. Hence, the zanpakuto.
I think it would be best to try and start from the top of the Bleach food chain, and that would be the Captain Commander of Soul Society, Genryūsai Shigekuni Yamamoto. I believe Yamamoto can be seen as being analogous to the concept of “Yama” aka The King of the Underworld. Although the specifics of “Yama” varies from religion to religion, Yama is a concept that's prevalent in many Asian mythologies dating back to the oldest of religions, especially in pantheistic religions. Interestingly enough, Yama is thought to have been descended from the Sun God, and what is Yamamoto’s power? Literally, the strength of the sun. Yamamoto’s bankai also has the power to raise the dead. Rather befitting for the king of the underworld. Wouldn't you say?
However I think the analogies also run parallel in a more historical sense too. While Yamamoto was likely fashioned after the belief of “Yama”, I also think that Yamamoto has more than a few deliberate similarities with the Yamato rulers of Japan. The Yamato Period was known as the birthplace of the Japanese political state, much like how Yamamoto founded the Soul Society as we see it in Bleach. The Yamato state unified Japan and also began a bureaucratic system that oversaw Japan with positions being given only to the strongest clan leaders who were then incorporated into the Yamato Court. Not unlike how Yamamoto founded the Gotei 13 and handpicked only the strongest leaders and warriors to become head captains.
The Yamato clan also believed that they were descended from the sun goddess Amateratsu. The aristocracy of the Yamato ruling elite also mirrors the Five Noble Families within Bleach, of which Kuchiki Byakuya is the current head of one such clan. The Yamato period also introduced the concept of a central ruling body, of which the Central 46 could represent in Bleach. It was during the Yamato period where Buddhism became popularized within Japan, and as I'll explain below, the concept of Buddhism permeates almost every single aspect of Bleach.
Many aspects of Chinese culture were also incorporated into Japan during this rule ie Taoism and Confucianism. A Ministry of Magic aka The Bureau of Divination was run by Taoist monks, which again, is similar to the Research and Development Institute in Soul Society. The latter may sound decidedly more scientific than the Bureau of Divination does, but both deal in magics and the supernatural. The Yamato rulers suppressed many clans by sheer force. I could go on, but I think there's enough similarities there to at least propose that Yamamoto has some basis in mythology and history.
Shunsui Kyoraku is another interesting captain in Bleach, one that's based firmly in Japanese literature too. At least in regards to himself and to his zanpakuto. Shunsui's bankai is based on a famous Japanese play that's based on a true story called "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki". It's about a man who inadvertently stole a sum of money for him to marry a woman, only to then refuse her hand in marriage because he was already in love with someone else. When he realized that there was no way he could regain his honor, he and his love killed themselves at the base of a pine tree. It's definitely a tragedy.
Shunsui's shikai imitates children playing games, while his bankai imitates the structure of a play, even going so far as to classify his attacks as acts. Kyoraku also describes his bankai as being "a man makes a promise but doesn't keep it... and a woman that couldn't forget her love for him". It's not hard to see the parallels between Kyoraku's zanpakuto and The Love Suicides at Sonezaki. The flashbacks that we saw of both of them with a pine tree in the background was an especially nice touch too. Not to mention that the chapters featuring Kyoraku and his zanpakauto were called "The Theatre Suicide". I think you'll see as well that the chapter titles can often reveal much more than maybe you had originally thought they did. I know this was true for me in retrospect.
While talking about the literary significance of Kyoraku's zanpakuto, it would be incumbent to discuss his vice captain's zanpakuto as well. Nanao Ise is based on the historical "Ise Shrine" that's one of the holiest sites in Japan, and is also said to hold the "Yata no Kagami", the sacred mirror. The Yata no Kagami mirror purportedly exists to lure out the sun goddess Amaterasu. Nanao's "Divine Eight Mirror Sword" that is handed down from generation to generation has the ability to absorb the power of a god and to disperse it.
Mayuri Kurotsuchi is apparently Tite Kubo's favorite character in Bleach, and Tite Kubo himself has made allusions to the fact that Mayuri is, at least on some level, based on the sabbatic goat and (eventual) poster child for the Church of Satan, Baphomet. In Mayuri's battle against the Espada Szayel Aporro Granz, seen below in the umistakable crucifixion pose. No doubt a nod to Jesus, and perhaps to his status as a false idol. I don't think Kubo was calling Jesus a false idol, just to clarify, only that Szayel Aporro falsely believed himself to be a god. Szayel Aporro's abilities also mirrored Jesus' own, especially his "resurrection" technique. I'm sure I don't need to explain why.
Another interesting point is that earlier on when Szayel Aporro was fighting Ishida Uryuu and Szayel Aporro was referred to as the "Phoenix", while Uryuu's name literally means the "Rain Dragon". The same Phoenix and Dragon that make up the world famous Yin and Yang symbol. And when I look at both their characteristics, they are extremely similar to each other. Both men are extremely intelligent, cautious, proud, arrogant, neither like using brute strength, and on a more visual level, they both wear glasses. Not to mention their odd obsession with clothes and mending them, even going so far as to repair them in the midst of battle.
If Uryuu and Szayel Aporro were meant to be seen as kindred spirits, then Mayuri would undoubtedly been seen as the antithesis to Szayel Aporro, at least philosophically. Very similar, yet very different. The notion of dualism defines Baphomet, or has come to define Baphomet. The drawing by Eliphas Levi, as seen above, and is also the one that Tite Kubo used as a reference for Mayuri, is full of dualism. Baphomet has one male arm, and one female arm. Part human, and part animal. The light, and the dark. As above, so below. Phallic imagery, and feminine imagery. I think it's safe to say that Mayuri was at least born a man, but has most likely since discarded any belief about gender. Curiously enough, Mayuri also keeps his zanpakuto in the same place where Baphomet's strongest phallic imagery is seen, his crutch, not his hip, like most others.
Tite Kubo is often, and unfairly criticized for pitting two opponents against each other who are similarly suited for combat, but aren't those conflicts always the best kind? When it's not simply two opposing forces merely trying out muscle each other, but when it's two opposing philosophies and ideologies that are contrasted against each other. Batman v Joker, Light v L, Superman v Lex, Luke Skywalker v Darth Vader, Professor X v Magneto, Dr Doom v Reed Richards, Sherlock v Moriarty, etc. All of them have remained as the quintessential conflicts in their respective universes because they're more than the typical 'who can push harder' against the other trope. There's a psychological edge to their rivalry. Baphomet is well known as being representative of adhering to the Left-hand, just like the mad scientist, Mayuri.
Mayuri is also characteristic of a man who's absolutely committed himself to the path of the left-hand. The path of the Left-hand and the path of the Right-hand is a dichotomy that exists based on the approach one uses towards using magic. Adherents of the Left-hand path are often amoral, they reject any societal norms in their quest for knowledge, and are generally licentious. Followers of the Right-hand are seen to be more submissive to authority, more pious, and more dogmatic. This dichotomy is evident in Bleach when Ukitake sacrifices his own life for 'the greater good' of the Soul Society. Generally speaking, the Left-hand approach is thought to be inherently devious, evil, and malicious. While the Right-hand approach is said to be more well-intentioned, righteous, and subservient. Most world religions follow the Right-hand approach, while some other religions follow the Left-hand approach ie Paganism and Satanism. Basically, Right = Good. Left = Bad. I was going to delve into all the captains and lieutenants as I have done already, but that would seriously take too much time.
One of the overarching problems that Soul Society has had to answer for throughout Bleach stems from the genocide of the Quincies by the hands of the shinigami that took place a thousand years earlier. The Quincies had been established in the very first arc of Bleach as being heavily inspired by German culture, with their vernacular, their attire, their surcoats and so on. Much like how the Shinigami are obviously influenced by Japanese culture, with their kimono's, their katanas, motifs, and Japanese mythology as well. While the Hollows were all inspired very heavily by Santeria and Spanish mythology and culture, ie, their names, dialect, motifs and imagery.
Some people have theorized that the Quincies are fashioned after the Nazi's because of their attire, but personally, I think they're modeled after the Teutonic Order, the Teutonic Knights, or simply Crusaders. Truth is, they have probably have shades of quite a few German organizations to them. The Quincies have their "Wandenreich" (Hidden Empire), a group is called the "Jagdarmee" (Hunting Party), and the "Stern Ritter" themselves translate to (Star Knights). Not to mention that Yhwach enacts a plan that's called "Auswahlen" (Selection), in which he kills (absorbs) all the impure Quincies in order to boost his own power. Feel free to make your own conclusions on that one.
I think the Quincies have always been based on Christianity, or more to the point, Christianity in Japan. The Christian imagery in Bleach is plentiful in many regards. From the Quincy cross, that was originally a crucifix, but evolved to become a five star cross over time, which is meant to signify the birth of Christ, or his incarnation. I have to wonder if the plight of the Quincies wasn't analogous to the persecution that Christians faced in Japan, specifically culminating in the Shimbara Rebellion that saw approximately 40,000 rebels killed, and many more suppressed.
To me, Bleach has always felt like the more mature manga out of the big three, and maybe that comes from how steeped it is in mythology. And not just superficial mythology, but a mythology that supports the entire narrative of Bleach in ways most people probably didn't even realize. Even from the first volume I picked up, I was struck at how poetic and lyrical it seemed with the poems at the start of each volume that would give an insight into said character. I've always felt like Bleach was a seinen manga trapped in the pages of a shonen magazine. I'm sure people would dispute that, but that's always been my impression of it. Read some of the poems that were written by Tite Kubo himself and would open each volume with, and set the mood for each character and their personality and circumstances.
Another allegory of Bleach is Ichigo's constant struggle to control his inner hollow, and to master his own hollowfication process. This is a big theme throughout the Arrancar arc, learning to control his inner hollow, but what's the analogy behind it? Hollow Ichigo originally represented Ichigo's struggle to maintain the balance of his "ichirei shikon", all the souls that resided within Ichigo. However Ichigo didn't know the truth of his heritage at this point, but that's neither here nor there. The analogy is that Ichigo's fear of his inner hollow is one that's based on his own fear of failure, but even more tangentially than that, I think the struggle with the duality of his shinigami/hollow - good/bad dichotomy is based on Japan's own fear of modernism and immigration after centuries of feudalism and agrarian lifestyle. After Ichigo had learned to reconcile his own fears, he was able to take control of his inner fears. Put another way. Once Japan had accepted that it was better off being a part of the modern world, than it was being isolated from it in a strictly feudal system, Japan would be stronger than ever.
The philosophy of Bleach
There's no doubt that Bleach is replete with religious imagery, mythology, and symbolism, but what does it all mean? It's all well and good to draw on visual inspiration from various mythologies, but if it doesn't have a greater point, then it can all seem rather shallow, and even pretentious. Naruto borrows a lot from Japanese mythology as well, but it's mostly all surface level references. I don't mean that as a knock on Naruto either, it's a fantastic manga, but I don't think the mythological, religious, and philosophical elements are as interwoven as they are in Bleach. I find that Bleach is more nuanced and focused with its imagery and its Eastern philosophy. At the heart of Bleach is the immutable conflict between Eastern religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism, and Buddhism) and Western religions (Christianity, and its many denominations).
Almost everything you need to know regarding the philosophy of Bleach can be found within the tenets of Buddhism, and more importantly, within the circle of life. The circle of life is a central belief of Buddhism, and once you have an understanding of it, I think it can help shine a new light on Bleach. It's not just an excuse to have many 'predictable' sword battles among a backdrop of weak storytelling, as the most vocal critics would have you believe. It's actually an allegory for Buddhism itself. Some other renowned manga like Fullmetal Alchemist, another superlative manga, use a lot of Western (Christian) symbology and motifs almost exclusively, but Bleach is, possibly, the only one that bases its entire concept around Buddhism. Although Buddhism has many similar, but different iterations, however Bleach is largely based off of Shingon Buddhism, and they generally had 13 Bodhisattva's = 13 Captains, the Gotei 13 that run Soul Society. Even the "Bleach" logo has the same style of thick and bold flames that is constantly associated with Buddhism. To a Westerner I doubt they'd even notice it, but to a Buddhist, they're strongly evident of Buddhism.
As in Buddhist teachings, there are generally considered to be five, sometimes six, planes of existence, of which beings are born and reborn among them. Where is dependent on the kind of life they lived in their previous one. The object of "nirvana" is to reach spiritual enlightenment through many lifetimes of righteous living to achieve. Nirvana is attainable through meditation, and in that sense, a shinigami's spiritual power is comparable to that of their spiritual awareness. This is important. This is what separates Bleach from the many other shonen manga that it's accused of following. Shinigami achieve greater levels of spiritual power by meditating, and in time, achieving their "shikai" and their "bankai" by successfully communicating with their zanpakuto.
This technique of communicating with their zanpakuto is called "jinzen". Shinigami can increase their spiritual power by entering a dimension that's unique to their own zanpakuto. As I touched on above, character development and spiritual growth often come through quiet meditation, communication, and understanding their zanpakuto. Since a zanpakuto takes the form of the wielders soul, it is essentially teaching that by better understanding themselves, they will unlock greater powers of spirituality, ie, power. Take Ichigo as an example. When his mind is calm, at peace with himself, and in a controlled state, his inner world is full of sun and skyscrapers, but when he falls into confusion and despair, his inner world is raining, even being completely submerged at some points, and the skyscrapers have become conspicuously smaller.
This is what differentiates Bleach from the many other shonen manga on offer when it comes to "leveling up" or "getting stronger". In most other shonen manga, strength always seems to depend on how angry one can get, or with how many friends they have, or there's always the useful "zenkai boost". Take Dragon Ball as a prime example of these tropes. There's nothing that can't be achieved if you get angry enough, but Bleach is the counterpoint to that approach. The more you try and force your zanpakuto to cooperate with you, the more it will resist your tyranny over it, but the angrier you get in many shonen manga, the more strength you will unlock through sheer desperation and determination. Strength, in Bleach, is achieved by looking into ones own soul and in asking questions of yourself, or of your zanpakuto, which is an extension of yourself, and coming to a realization and an understanding with it.
A enduring (and wholly unfair) criticism of Bleach is that it relies too much on the formula of getting beaten, then training, getting stronger and then defeating the previously invincible enemy through power-ups, or "ass-pulls" as I've seen them erroneously called. What people miss is that these "power-ups" come through a greater understanding of themselves. A zanpakuto is a reflection of their soul, so their own power is tied to their own spiritual awareness. Shinigami certainly train themselves in various forms of combat, mostly basic weapons training and kido (magic), but that is all considered very basic training for shinigami. What really separates the weaker shinigami from the captains and vice-captains is in their ability to perform shikai, and eventually bankai. This is achieved through introspection, calmness, and a quieting of the mind. It cannot be achieved through trying to force their zanpakuto and themselves to the next level. To be fair, I do think that there's something to be said for the necessity of determination in life, but in Bleach, strength comes through inner communication and a greater understanding of themselves and their zanpakuto. All shinigami seek spiritual transcendence, and all the strongest shinigami have achieved enlightenment, to some degree.
The lowest plane of existence in Buddhist teachings is said to be hell. Where only the people who have lived the worst lives go. When a shinigami catches a soul who committed heinous acts in their human life, this is where they go. The second plane of existence is Preta aka The Hungry Ghost Realm, but in Bleach it's known as Hueco Mundo. This is where the fallen souls of humans go. Also a part of the second plane of existence is Tiryak aka The Animal Realm, known as Las Noches in Bleach. Tite Kubo purposefully blurred the line between the Preta realm and the Tiryak realm, resulting in the arrancar. The outskirts of Heuco Mundo are full of hollows with an insatiable hunger, or, hungry ghosts. While Las Noches is full of more evolved hollows. First they were gillian, then they were hollows, then they were adjuca, then a vasto lorde, and lastly they can unleash their ressurecion, their most powerful technique that merges their sword and hollow together.
All of the Espada have a release that is based on an animal that harken back to their primal beginnings. Yammy = caterpillar. Aaroniero = cuttlefish. Szayel = parasitic worm. Zommari = sea urchin. Grimmjow = jaguar. Nnoitra = praying mantis. Ulquiorra = bat. Halibel = shark. Barragan = skeleton(?). Starkk = Wolf. The characteristics, beliefs, and attacks of the Espada are also based on the Ten Aspects of Death. Meanwhile the biggest difference between an arrancar and a shinigami is that an arrancar's sword is meant to restrict their power, while a shinigami's sword is an extension of their power. Hollows are essentially animals, but shinigami, and more importantly, their zanpakuto, are Boddhisattva's. The Human World and the Soul Society can also be considered to be connected to each other, since a shinigami's primary duty is to guide souls to the Soul Society via Konso, a purification technique they use before a soul enters Soul Society. The sort of life they lived in the human world will determine what part of the rukongai they'll be born into, or reborn into. But they are able to improve their societal standing based on their spiritual pressure. The more spiritually aware someone is, the more they will be rewarded in Soul Society.
The zanpakuto realm/dimension, and the precipice world are oddities among all the other realms in Bleach. The zanpakuto realm is an inner world that's only accessible through meditation, and it's also different for every shinigami. While the precipice world is a plane that exists between the human world and Soul Society. Neither realm is able to accessed through the Buddhist beliefs about life, death, and rebirth. Unlike the other realms. One is able to improve or diminish their standing in any of the five realms, bar the zanpakuto world and the precipice world. The Soul King's Palace could be considered the equivalent of a Buddha-Field or a Pure Land. A Pure Land is watched over by a Buddha, and others who have achieved "nirvana". If The Precipice World could be a Pure Land, then it makes sense, because after Aizen kills the Kototsu that cleans The Precipice World, Ichigo is free to meditate in there. This is in-keeping with the Buddhist belief that only one Buddha may inhabit a Pure Land at any one time. Had Aizen not destroyed the cleaner, then Ichigo never would have been able to learn the "final" Getsuga Tenshou. Aizen's hubris was his downfall.
Sajin Komamura, one of the captains of Soul Society, can also been seen as coming from The Animal Kingdom. Komamura has also been ostracized by his great grandfather for choosing to live with, and to protect the humans in Soul Society. Komamura's great grandfather reveals that their clan was cursed because of their sins in life, and if that isn't the Buddhist concept of samsara, then I don't know what is. Also, when Komamura achieves his most powerful form, he transforms into a human, but at a great cost, spiritually. Afterwards, he reverts back to a mindless dog. For seeking the power for revenge, Komamura fell down the ladder of rebirth even further.
The Soul King's Palace is watched over by Squad Zero, and Squad Zero is led by Ichibei Hyosube, a man who looks an awful lot like a Buddha who's probably achieved nirvana. If the Soul King's Palace is a Pure Place, as I'd think it would be, then he would be the Buddha who overlooks it. Ichibei's power is the ability to see "truth" and to alter "truth" as he sees it. A fitting power for who is arguably the most powerful Shinigami in existence. Ichibei could also be seen as a "Michael" character, leading God's (Soul King) forces (Squad Zero) against Satan (Yhwach). I wouldn't rule it out yet. Tite Kubo does like to draw heavily contrasted and unconventional characters. Look at the visual dichotomy between the Shinigami and the Quincy. The Shinigami are clad in black and are the "good" guys. Quincy are draped in white and are the "bad" guys. So maybe the Monk could be a Michael type character from Christianity. It's possible that Haschwalth took on a Judas role as well, betraying Yhwach at the last moment. Conversely, Ichibei also uses very Buddha-esque attacks, ie, the Buddha palm, and so forth.
The parable of Bleach
The obviousness of Bleach being a parable of Buddha and his path towards enlightenment becomes more evident when Aizen reveals his master-plan to overthrow the corrupt Soul Society, as he sees it. At the heart of his grand plan is the wish-fulfilling hogyoku aka the cintamani of Bleach. The hogyoku is mostly used in a way that corresponds to Japanese Buddhism, not surprising considering that Tite Kubo is Japanese. Similarities include the gem being hidden inside the body of a woman, the gem being stolen, repeatedly, the gem being made by a master, then being passed down from the master to the apprentice, the gem being man-made, serves to connect mankind to the divine, and has a will of its own. All in all, there's plenty to suggest that hogyoku is acting as a parable to the cintamani in mythology.
In one famous Japanese story called "The Tale of Heiji", there's a dragon king that guards a jewel in an underwater palace. The one character who immediately jumps to mind is Toshiro Hitsugaya. Toshiro has the only dragon type zanpakuto in all of Soul Society, and is the one who's probably most incensed by Aizen's betrayal in stealing the hogyoku for himself. Toshiro's bankai is called "Daiguren Hyorinmaru", which translates to "Great Crimson Lotus Ice Ring". The Crimson Ring is symbolic of Buddha, and it's also said that Buddha was sitting on a Lotus when he achieved nirvana. Toshiro calls upon Hyorinmaru's power by calling "Sit upon the Frozen Heavens", which indicates that Hyorinmaru is, in some sense, a deity.
Toshiro Hitsugaya was the only captain who suspected Aizen of betrayal. Toshiro's suspicions led him to the Central 46 room where he discovered that Aizen had massacred everybody there, and briefly crossed swords with the traitor after Aizen had cut down Hinamori. The Toshiro Hitsugaya character is, in all likelihood, a parable for the dragon guardian of the jewel that was in The Tale of Meiji. A lot of people think that Tite Kubo was pushing Toshiro because he was a fan favorite, and that may be true, but I think it's equally true that Toshiro is meant to be the guardian of the hogyoku. Even though Toshiro didn't invent the hogyoku like Aizen and Urahara did, Toshiro did take the brunt of the responsibility to get it back and to make Aizen pay for his crimes.
To understand these men's motivations, it's important to understand Soul Society itself. Soul Society is based on an aristocratic Samurai like society. I've always equated the shinigami in Bleach to be supernatural samurai more so than they are traditional "Death Gods" in the mythological sense. Soul Society is not like Heaven as people in the West think of it. Great inequality exists there. People suffer and are estranged from their loved ones, and every day is a struggle to survive as they live in slums while the ruling elite live in white towers, literally. A shinigami's duty is to protect souls, but they do very little to elevate a souls situation in a day-to-day basis. Every major villain in Bleach is someone who rejects the rigidity of the established order of things and wishes to overthrow the current system of ruling. Even Ichigo was rebelling against Soul Society's austere society by fighting to free Rukia who had been sentenced to be executed because she transferred her shinigami powers to Ichigo so he could save his family. Any system of governance that would seek to execute a fellow comrade for committing such a selfless act was absolutely worth fighting against.
As Ichigo fought the strict beliefs of Soul Society, and continued to fight for Soul Society, the Captain Commander slowly began to emerge as a more understanding ruler. Ichigo had changed Soul Society. This became especially evident in the Fullbringer arc (an unfairly maligned arc) when Captain Commander Yamamoto allowed all the captains (including himself) to donate a portion of their spiritual pressure to help restore Ichigo's status as a shinigami. The very crime that they were going to execute Rukia for only a few years earlier. Even still, it's evident that Yamamoto and the original Gotei 13 were made up of killers who ruled through force and intimidation, and those methods bore dissension that created Aizen's disillusionment with the system, and further on, Yhwach. Aizen never actually wanted to kill anyone, anyone except for Yamamoto, who he saw as the figurehead of the old governance of Soul Society that most likely committed some heinous acts under his rule. Yamamoto was the only person that Aizen couldn't forgive because Aizen saw Yamamoto as the "embodiment of Soul Society itself".
Aizen seeks to make a better Soul Society, and also implies that there's something sinister about the Soul King. Aizen is morally and ethically against the Soul King because he sees the Soul King as being the linchpin of an archaic institution that's indifferent to suffering. Aizen is willing to sacrifice a number of people in order to create a better system. Good intentions, but bad execution. While Ichigo seeks to save everyone he encounters, and to influence those in power, albeit inadvertently. Ichigo and Aizen are both seeking enlightenment to save souls. Aizen relies on external powers, ie, the hogyoku, while Ichigo looks inwards, to himself, for the power to stop the hogyoku enhanced Aizen. But Aizen falls into his own excessive pride and arrogance once he gains enlightenment through the hogyoku, and is subsequently transformed into that hydra-esque monster where he takes the shape of Myo-o himself. Aizen is constantly seeking the knowledge to overthrow the Soul Society and to usurp the Soul King, and he is close to achieving spiritual enlightenment with the aid of the hogyoku, but can never quite grasp it. This reminds me of the speech Kuchiki Byakuya gave to Abarai Renji.
No matter how much Aizen evolves towards becoming a transcendental being, it's no use. Aizen will forever be the monkey staring at the reflection of the moon. If Aizen is meant to be a Wisdom King (Myo-o), then he is not the natural enemy of Ichigo (Buddha), only that they have different ways of doing things to achieve a better, fairer "balance" throughout the worlds. Aizen starts out as a benevolent ruler, which is why Tousen follows him, but Aizen soon starts conquering and subjugating many worlds. First it was Hueco Mundo, then Las Noches, then the Precipice World, and then he moves on to the Human World, with the intention of forcing his way into the Soul Palace to kill the antiquated Spirit King. Aizen is ultimately trying to create his own Pure-land as an enlightened Bodhisattva.
Adding credence to the claim that Aizen is comparable to Myo-o is the fact that Myo-o was often depicted as holding a wish-fulfulling jewel, just like Aizen was. It's easy to notice when Aizen gets intoxicated by power, as many people have pointed out, Aizen started out as being highly strategical, calculating, and deceptive, but after acquiring the hogyoku, he discarded such tactics. This is probably because, at the time, Aizen had acquired all three pieces of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The sword, the mirror and the jewel. This cemented his status as a deity. And what use has a deity of tricks and strategies? Coming up with strategies and employing tricks is only necessary for someone who needs them to win. Aizen doesn't. At least he doesn't believe he does, anymore.
Myo-o often sought to make people believe through fear of their wrath. Also, Aizen believed that the Soul King ascended on his own to become the Soul King. Even the shinigami don't know the truth of the matter, they just follow, blindly. Just like how Samurai who would obey without question, while never seeing the Emperor for themselves. While Tousen uses deceptive methods in his fighting style, Tousen also has a legitimate reason to rebel against the hierarchy in Soul Society when they failed to administer the "justice" that he is always prattling on about. Aizen and his cohorts can see that Soul Society is a broken system, while the others remain either ignorant or complacent of its shortcomings.
Throughout Aizen's many evolutions towards becoming a higher being (transcendental), Aizen also acquires a third eye, which is indicative of having an otherworldly perception and consciousness, able to see the truth of things that others can't. This is yet another visual similarity to Myo-o. Aizen's ascension to some form of a Deva after he merges with the hogyoku is an obvious one. Mara is often thought of as being a counterpart of Buddha too. Both Myo-o and Mara use cruelty, deception and intimidation to further their own cause, and just as deception is often their modus operandi, Aizen's zanpakuto is "perfect hypnosis", the most deceptive zanpakuto in all of Soul Society. Aizen claims to want everybody to know the truth, but uses his deceptive methods to deceive all. Aizen works from the shadows, where no one can detect him. This is like the Buddhist parable that states that everyone starts with ignorance and must seek awareness of deception to avoid deception. In Buddhist mythology, Myo-o is a powerful deity that controls countless unenlightened souls before Buddha challenges his sovereignty over them. I would even go so far as to suggest that perhaps there was an influence of "Psyche" from Greek mythology present in Aizen's famous "butterfly" transformation.
In keeping with Aizen proclaiming to see the "truth" of matters by deceiving everyone around him via his zanpakuto, another of his defectors from Soul Society, Tousen, the blind swordsman, has a bankai that blocks all of the five senses. Are we seeing a pattern yet? A theme? Aizen and his followers all have abilities that block or obscure ones senses. Deception, or a deprivation of knowledge, in other words. Gin also utilized deception to his own end. Aizen is a deity who gains his enlightenment through impure methods. A false spiritual awakening. There is a reason that Aizen is considered to be one of the greatest villains in manga/anime for a long time. Myo-o is also known as a guardian of Buddha, though they often utilize fear, and intimidation to shock people into belief. At first, this may seem contradictory to what I'm saying. That Aizen (Myo-o) is battling Ichigo (Buddha), but remember that Aizen never took aim at Ichigo. In fact, Aizen guided Ichigo to become the fine shinigami that he did. Aizen's goal was to overthrow the Soul King, not to kill Ichigo.
Then there's Ichigo as Buddha, specifically the Shakyamuni Buddha who defeated the Wisdom Kings. From the frequent visual suggestions of Ichigo being a representation of Buddha that are present in almost every form that Ichigo takes. Starting with Ichigo's bright orange hair that's the same color as most monks wear. To his crimson red sword hilt after he takes Rukia's powers, that's the same color that Tibetan monks wear. Then when Ichigo gained his "own" shinigami powers, he was mostly adorned in black (death) and white (life), but also wore a red rosary-like (love) strap across his chest. Then in bankai mode, Ichigo retained the color crimson in his sword handle and inner coat.
When Ichigo acquired his hollow powers, he kept all the bankai markings, but crimson designs began adorning his mask as well. Then when Ichigo went into Vasto Lorde mode, all four colors came into much more prominence. When Ichigo attains the "final" form of Getsuga Tenshou against Aizen, his eyes are crimson red and is covered in black. Then once Ichigo loses his shinigami powers and is training to regain them, Ichigo regains a flaming shihakusho and a yellow juban and obi. Once completing his "fullbring", Ichigo is much closer to that of his original shinigami robes.
After Ichigo learns the truth of his heritage and comes into his own powers, he wears a predominately white shihakusho with a shoulder covered in red. This is hard to see because the final arc where all this happens has yet to be animated, but it should look something like you see below on the right with his dual swords. Was this all accidental? Perhaps, but I honestly don't think it was. The similarities between Ichigo being Buddha doesn't stop at his attire either.
The hilt of Ichigo's zanpakuto is also a clue as to his status as Buddha. In all forms of Ichigo's bankai, whether it be his normal bankai, his hollowfied bankai, his Vasto Lorde bankai, his fullbring or his fullbring bankai, the hilt always remains much the same. And don't worry, Ichigo's not a Nazi. Damn Nazi's had to ruin the symbol for everyone!
The swastika is one of the oldest symbols in the world, and is also one of the most polysemous symbols in history. Almost every ancient culture has their own interpretation of what it means. With meanings ranging from 'good existence' to 'eternity' to 'permanent victory' to 'infinity' and to 'all of creation', and that's the translation in Japanese Buddhism. When Ichigo cuts down a foe, he's cutting them down with the power of "all creation". Nowhere is this more evident than when Ichigo unleashes his "final" Getsuga Tenshou.
I think that there's enough here to suggest that Tite Kubo was at least alluding to the fact that Ichigo is a Buddha figure in this allegory of his. Ichigo is Shakyamuni Buddha, wants to end suffering, overcomes those (Myo-o) who would seek to deceive and disrupt him on his way towards achieving nirvana. Born of nobility, like Prince Siddhartha was, etc. It's also possible that Isshin had achieved enlightenment as well, knowing about the "final", but returned to Earth as a Bodhisattva to help Ichigo awaken his spiritual powers and to grow. Ichigo gains steps towrds spiritual enlightenment, often with the help of other spiritual beings, and is never afraid to do whatever's necessary. Ichigo goes to Hueco Mundo to fight demons. Ichigo goes to the human world to subjugate a king. Ichigo goes to the Soul Palace to slay a god.
This is "Bankai" written in Japanese Kanji. Notice anything about the first symbol? Bankai translates to "final release" and I found it rather interesting that the first character in Bankai, is also the shape of Ichigo's hilt while he's in bankai. Ichigo's name is also translated to the "one who protects". The final arc of Bleach hasn't been animated yet, and I do emphasize "yet", but it looks like the hilts are gone from both his swords. When you look at the etymology of the way many words are written in Bleach, many secondary meanings become apparent, but I'm only a novice at this. We didn't get much of a look at Ichigo's new bankai in the manga though, so it's too early to say one way or the other. But...
Moving on from the symbology behind Ichigo's zanpakuto, let's take a look at Tite Kubo and his poetic foreshadowing, which I've already shown you in his preludes for his volumes. But that's really only the tip of the iceberg. Look at what Aizen's zanpakuto and Ichigo's zanpakuto have in common, or, how they contrast each other. Aizen's zanpakuto "Kyoka Suigetsu" means "Mirror Flower, Water Moon". Flowers in a mirror, and the moon in the water. Both things have no real substance, they're illusory. Ichigo's zanpakuto, Getsuga Tenshou, means "Moon Fang Heaven-Piercer". Ichigo breaks through Aizen's illusions into the heavens, temporarily attaining enlightenment by defeating Myo-o. This was also the last challenge of Shakyamuni before he reached enlightenment and became Buddha.
Somewhere along the line people will usually criticize Bleach, and specifically Ichigo, because of how many transformations and powers he has, but these are all consistent with the story Tite Kubo is telling. Shinto beliefs hold that a concept called "mitama" posits that it's possible for one spirit to house numerous souls within. Taking that concept even one step further "Ichirei Shikon" is the belief that one spirit can house four souls. In Ichigo's case, that would be the Human/Shinigami/Hollow/Quincy powers/souls inside him vying for supremacy. It's a lot to take in, I admit, but it's not Kubo just making shit up as he goes along. Credit where credit is due. The man knows how to plot a story.
Ichigo learns the 'Mugetsu' attack from Tensa Zangetsu in his inner world, the personification of his Quincy powers, unbeknownst to him, of course. The "Final" Getsuga Tenshou in other words. Tensa means "Heavenly Chain", so when Ichigo uses that "Final" transformation to defeat Aizen, it cuts his chain that connects him to heaven, or, to Soul Society. Ichigo loses all his attachments to transcend to a higher level, the "final" level, if only for a moment. Ichigo truly becomes what Aizen had so desperately sought to become, a transcendental being. Ichigo is nothingness, but is also heaven itself. If their swords are to define their place in the story, as they often do in Bleach, then Aizen's zanpakuto would represent the white side of the moon, while Ichigo's zanpakuto would represent the dark side of the moon. As far back as Ichigo acquired his own shinigami powers, he's had black reiatsu. Ichigo's final attack in this form "Mugetsu" literally means "No Moon".
The height of Ichigo's spiritual awareness, and the pinnacle of his spiritual power, thanks to Ichigo communicating with his zanpakuto and merging with his Bodhisattva (zanpakuto), is all gone in an instant, never to be attained again. Just like how Buddha trained and prepared himself to reach enlightenment, only for it to be over in a moment. After Ichigo had achieved his "final" form and saved the day, Ichigo loses all his friends from Soul Society, but not his memories of them, and his time with them. Ichigo is Buddha.
Throughout Bleach, Ichigo and Aizen are both emblematic of two people who are trying to change an imperfect and unjust system, and both using two different methods to attain enlightenment and righteousness. They both want to end needless suffering, but Ichigo seeks to change Soul Society through striving for personal betterment and in helping others. While Aizen wants to change Soul Society through terror, force, and innocent sacrifices. Ichigo uses compassion. Aizen uses fear. Just like Buddha and Myo-o each did.
The appearance of Yhwach and his Quincies starts to divert from the philosophy of Buddhism, slightly, and starts to take on a more psuedo-history of Christianity in Japan. I mentioned before how I thought that the massacre of the Quincies at the hands of the Shinigami could be considered a parallel to the, often violent and murderous persecution that Christians faced when they first came to Japan. The name Yhwach is a clear reference to the tetragrammaton, YWHW. Yhwach bestows his powers to his followers who drink his blood from a cup. Now if this isn't setting up Yhwach up as some sort of messianic figure, I don't know what more Tite Kubo could do. Thwach is also referred to the "Light" and as the "Almighty", both are words used to describe God.
When thinking on what Yhwach represents in the spiritual hierarchy in Bleach, it's highly possible that Yhwach was the Anti-Christ, a false messiah, and not Jesus himself. I think this can be left up to interpretation as there's enough evidence to support either theories. Yhwach also endows his Stern Ritter with a technique called "Vollstandig" (complete) that is probably comparable to a Shinigami's Bankai. The Stern Ritters are bathed in light and adorned with a halo above their heads when they're in their "complete" forms. And if that kind of imagery doesn't conjure up thoughts of "angels" or "apostles", then I don't know how much more obvious Kubo could have made the parallels.
Yhwach also launched his assault on the Soul King (God) from a building that had an upside down cross featured prominently on its side. Somehow I don't think that was an accident. It was probably more indicative that Yhwach was indeed the Anti-Christ who was launching an attack on God and its rule over all of creation. Maybe Yhwach is to be seen as Lucifer, a fallen angel who's also known as the "Bringer of Light" and "Morning Star". Considering how much the Quincies are always talking about the "Light" and notions of theology, this could be, yet another interpretation of what Yhwach represents.
Yamamoto is the personification of the sun in Bleach. Yhwach is the personification of the moon, or more specifically, the dark side of the moon. The Quincy hid in a shadow realm where the sun couldn't reach, or see, for 1,000 years. Ichigo can be seen as being representative of the Earth, given Buddha's spiritual connection to the Earth. It was the Earth that witnessed Buddha attaining enlightenment after all. The sun and the moon represent the two clans of spiritual warriors, ie, Shinigami and Quincy, while the human stuck in the middle of their war, represents the Earth.
I especially liked Tite Kubo's foreshadowing of the end of Bleach. "Zangetsu" means "Moon Slayer", and Byakuya had remarked earlier that it was a rather impudent name. But when facing the final villain of the series, one that had been foreshadowed ever since the beginning of Bleach, about fifteen years ago now. Ichigo cut him down in a way that was reminiscent of Zangetsu living up to its namesake. Ichigo did, in fact, slay the moon.
There are many other parallels, analogies, themes, and motifs that all draw from various places, mostly Japanese mythology and literature, but this is enough for now, lol. Yachiru licking blood off Zaraki's sword the first time they meet, only to have Zaraki release his shikai by saying "Drink, Nozarashi" and it most likely being a reference to "Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field Nozarashi Kiko" by Matsuo Basho, but all that and the case for Yachiru being Zaraki's zanpakuto can be another editorial. All the captains could fill their own editorial if I had the inclination, even the villains. Take the brilliantly written Ulquiorra the nihilist for just one example.
Tite Kubo suffered the ignominy of being forced to cram five years worth of development, growth and story into the last few chapters of Bleach, so naturally, there are some loose ends, but don't hold that against Kubo. Bleach is surely one of the more richly layered and ambitious long-running manga out there. I'm not even sure if I've got all my arrows in a row here, and I feel like I've only touched the tip of the iceberg in regards to all the subtext, symbology, references and analogies herein. But I do think that Bleach certainly deserves to be thought of as more than a simple "hack and slash" manga for boys. Bleach is Buddhism, with action, and it serves to tell some of Japan's history and religious civil wars through its analogies.
The Shinigami and the Quincies are analogous to the clash of the Shinto religion and the Christian religion in early-ish Japan. I think when you read or watch Bleach with a bit more scrutiny and perceive it through a Buddhist lens, then the story takes a very different shape as it being a metaphor for spiritual growth, maturity, and an understanding of mythology. Even a rudimentary one. I started out writing this editorial knowing a little about Buddhism, and having finished writing this editorial, it's clear that I know even less about it now. But still, for me Bleach remains the most spiritually substantial and significant "mainstream" manga/anime out there. And yet, it gets very little love and respect from a lot of people. Maybe, it deserves a second (or a first look) look, with a different perspective...
Written by - The Sentry - 18/05/2017