To those of you who have been wondering if I can avoid spoilers this week--ha HA! So far I have! I've also bitten my lips bloody and banged my head against the filing cabinet a few times.
Thank you to those who have been reading, nodding, disagreeing, squeeing and writing long marvelous responses to this essay. You electrify my inner fangurl; you make my schoolmarm persona take off her glasses and twinkle with shoujo sparkles.
The following is the concluding third part of the essay. Part One, which discusses the concept of unrequited love in Japanese culture, is here. Part Two discusses the Tanabata theme here.
This part looks at ways fans approach panel interpretation and textless images, Kubo’s love of parallelisms, and what it means when characters touch. This part is image-heavy; I blinded myself uploading to photobucket.
To restate my obvious bias, I’m an IchiRuki shipper and I believe that Bleach will end as it began; the plot will converge on the relationship between its two main characters. I entered the Bleach fandom believing that Kubo’s story contains, among other things, a nuanced romantic subplot between its male and female leads, the two characters given the most panel time (so far) in the manga. This belief informs the way a majority of fans read Bleach, so I’ve never felt the need to defend the IchiRuki ship systematically. This essay was not written to detail or advance well-known IchiRuki arguments. Besides being written to clarify a few ideas about a long, complicated manga to myself, this essay was written to answer IchiRuki fans who asked, “Debbie, why are you so confident that recent chapters didn’t imply romance between Ichigo and Orihime?”
Unlike some of my friends, I was not unsettled by the absence of Rukia (she’s not dead, people) and the presence of IchiOri innuendo (it’s deliberate, sadistic Kubo-clever innuendo, people). I can not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that IchiRuki is the intended pairing of Bleach, but I can present an argument for my conviction that IchiOri is not. Besides wanting to pat-pat fellow Ichi-Rukiers, I wanted to remind them not to forget the six years of Kubo’s invested in the growing intimacy between two primary characters merely because Ichigo gave Orihime a tender smile in chapter 286.
This essay was also written to address a very recent swelltide of opinion that an IchiOri romance is an inevitable consequence of recent chapters. This intent was not borne out of malice or to spite people who disagree with me; the issue is topical Bleach. While the IchiOri ship has been dwindling in popularity in Japan since the beginning of the Hueco Mundo art, here in the West (where I live and write and Instant Message) the IchiOri ship has had a growthspurt since Orihime’s confession to a sleeping Ichigo in chapter 237. If I weren’t writing this essay, I would be arguing my points, albeit less coherently, in discussions with other Bleach fans. My opinions would be scattered about the forums. Also, here on my own LJ, I don’t have to worry about forum restrictions on shipping discourse. (I understand moderators need to avoid nasty escalations; I don’t like them either, but one board has banned ship fanclubs and another chides fanclubs to discuss other pairings “only when absolutely necessary”).
The main reason I wrote this essay, though, is I wanted to further a few points I’d made elsewhere in the fandom (usually at Bleach Asylum) and to elaborate on material I hadn’t seen discussed elsewhere.
Whereas in previous sections of my essay I argued that those who see strong IchiOri implications in the Hueco Mundo arc overlook the Eastern concept of unrequited love, the strictness of the shounen literary form, and the flexible use of mythological allusions or theme in any given story, in Part Three, I will argue for the relevance of contextual interpretation. I’ll look at individual panels in context with the rest of the manga. I’ll argue that the parallels between the Hueco Mundo arc and the Soul Society arc are too obvious not to be intentional and while looking at some paralleling panels, I’ll also continue to pursue the concept of authorial intent (Some romantic ambiguity in the Bleach plot, as well as stirring up animosity among the fandom’s most fervent shippers, has served to tickle Kubo’s readership with suspense).
For the record, I want to state that the purpose of this essay has not been to “put IchiOri shippers in their place.” I’m all for encouraging civil discourse and not one statement in this essay was intended to insult any one particular person. I understand that there exists a recent IchiOri manifesto containing many of the approaches to symbol-interpretation that I disparaged in Part Two; for what it’s worth, I base my understanding of IchiOri ship arguments from posts I read in forums and I haven’t read this essay. I’d probably disagree with it strongly if I did read it, but I would refute the essay and not the person. People matter more than their ship opinions. To direct nastiness and ire towards a shipper simply because he or she expresses an opposing opinion in a post or essay is … ugh, an immature expression of fannishness but it’s also an unavoidable one. We all capslock hyperbole in the heat of fandom we may regret later. The key to sanity is in the regretting.
Maybe one day I’ll write something addressing the bizarre psychology of the shipper (I’m one myself--and I tell you, some days I feel truly bizarre) but for the meantime I’ll concentrate on what Kubo Tite draws and writes.
As always, spoilers for the manga abound in the following.
Authorial Intent in Shounen Manga Or Why Recent Chapters Don’t Mean Luuurve for IchiOri, Part Three.
Those Tricky Panels with Facial Expressions and No Thought Bubbles
When chapter 282 of Bleach was released, a friend IM-ed me, “That look between Ichigo and Orihime! How romantic!” Not a supporter of non-yaoi pairings, my friend nonetheless saw one panel in 282 as a definitive indicator of canon-to-be. For her, this one panel was a foghorn calling all fans to board ship IchiOri.
I thought she’d gone crazy and, laughing, told her so.
We’re all familiar with the scenario where two people exchange intense looks and the moment is charged with amour and sexual tension. For me, though, the IchiOri “their eyes meet!” panel had only one interpretation, and that interpretation was far from romantic. Even if I were to presume that Ichigo and Orihime were already madly in love, I couldn’t read the panel as “I love you; you love me; it’s a romantic epiphany.” What I saw in this IchiOri moment was fear in Orihime’s eyes and Ichigo’s pained recognition of that fear. The strong emotional dynamic of fear and disappointment ruled out a romance dynamic.
Didn’t my friend catch Orihime’s look of regret following her locking eyes with Ichigo? Why were some readers still insisting that Orihime was not afraid of Ichigo but afraid for him? They claimed that Orihime’s look following the eye-lock was one of her usual lovelorn state. Ichigo’s one eyeball behind his mask, of course, spoke of love for the one he wanted to protect.
My interpretation was not based on one panel; it was a contextual interpretation based on previous chapters. First, Orihime was trembling at the beginning of the Grimmjow battle; fear was already her primary emotion. Second, Ichigo had his own fear to grapple with, and that fear didn’t have anything to do with losing a battle. Because Hirako Shinji had foretold that friends would abandon a Visored Ichigo, Ichigo would naturally worry about being rejected should one of his friends see him assume the Hollow mask. Third, when Ichigo did assume the mask, he tried to assure Orihime that he would win despite his appearance. The fear factor seemed foremost in chapter 282, not the love factor--even for Orihime, who is undoubtedly in love with Ichigo.
After I explained the above, my friend conceded, “You’re paying more attention than I am.” Of course, she was an IchiIshi shipper with little emotional investment in IchiOri beyond her love for Orihime’s character, so maybe that’s why she didn’t challenge my interpretation. I didn’t dare discuss the chapter with ardent IchiOri shippers; they were still defining “their eyes meet!” as a moment of idealized love and hormonal urgency.
Two weeks later, it was clear that context made all the difference. Chapter 283 showed an Ichigo clearly shaken by Orihime’s fear of him; a man who’d just had a romantic epiphany would’ve been inspired to fight harder for the one he wants to protect. Instead he hit the ground; his mask broke. Nell noticed the turnaround in Ichigo’s battle performance. Orihime admitted in her own thought bubbles to being afraid--even though she didn’t want to be.
Then chapter 284 gave us Orihime shouting her mild version of encouragement to Ichigo (“You don’t have to win--just don’t get hurt anymore”) and most fans predicted that a re-enlivened Ichigo would end the fight with one blow. That’s what a hero does for his lady, right?
Ichigo’s blow wasn’t enough to finish Grimmjow, and Grimmjow took a surprise swipe at our hero:
With that one swipe, Grimmjow’s pummeled the idea that Orihime’s influence was the source of Ichigo’s power; she hadn’t given Ichigo the classic upgrade fair maidens inspire. Orihime had merely weakened and then “un-weakened” Ichigo.
Because Ichigo was better than Grimmjow from the beginning of the fight, Orihime’s encouragement did not ipso facto cause Ichigo to fight with the dramatic renewal that is typical of heroes fighting for their ladies. Even before Orihime was spooked by the mask, Ichigo had been maintaining his Hollow form for longer than eleven seconds. He eventually won because he was the better fighter, not the more inspired one. In fact, Grimmjow, with his motivation-revealing flashbacks and his cocky declarations of killer intent, was the one with indefatigable spirit and will. This is an inversion of the standard shounen battle where the hero gives it his all but still loses to the stronger fighter (e.g., Ichigo versus Renji and Byakuya when they came to the Living World to take Rukia).
All exchanged looks between Ichigo and Orihime? If the exchanges were intended to be romantic, Kubo certainly hid them well behind Ichigo’s Hollow mask and Orihime’s expressions of fear and doubt.
Context Makes a Difference
All people are equal. It is not birth; it is virtue alone that makes the difference.
To paraphrase Voltaire and to continue to grind my ax with the “all interpretations are valid” school of thought, I must note here I’ve heard some creative but plausible, some implausible but highly entertaining, some implausible and utterly banal interpretations of the Bleach story; all interpretations may be borne of equal fannish enthusiasm but context makes all the difference. Some readers place too much importance on surface plot; others too much on implications of a squiggle here or a squiggle there in a drawing; still others ignore facial expressions and rely solely on what characters, reliable or unreliable sources they may be, actually speak in the story. Others over-emphasize sidetext.
The one most common over-emphasis among shippers, I’ve discovered, is the tendency to make much ado about facial expressions and body language of drawn characters. I raise my hand and acknowledge my weakness here. When writing my two IshiHime essays at the LJ community, ship_manifesto, I relied heavily on Ishida’s facial expressions to provide support for his crush on Orihime. In retrospect, his actions and thoughts supported my thesis (“The boy’s got it bad”) just as well.
Maybe shippers and other people curious about romantic subtext are attracted to facial expressions for very good reasons; Romantic feelings (unless you’re Kon) aren’t usually declared openly--certainly not in your typical shounen high school full of self-conscious teenagers or while doing battles with supernatural forces. It’s only in a shoujo that a boy will come out and declare his feelings; in a shounen, actions speak louder than words, and in the case with Kubo Tite’s drawings, facial expressions convey a lot of emotion.
Anyone who’s followed a serial manga is used to hearing differing interpretations of facial expressions in panels. Usually it’s a matter of degree in question--such as, how tender is that look Ichigo gave Orihime and is it more tender than any look he’s given anyone before? Any reasonable interpretation can be supported or refuted by contextual panels or comparing images in one chapter to images in another. Matters of degree can be happily argued.
An occasional interpretation will completely defy context. I once read that Orihime’s expression in the middle of her dialogue with Aizen meant that he had just kissed her in an off-panel moment between panels. I’m not kidding; this interpretation was put forth without irony in a Bleach forum I frequent. The interpretation was based on one facial expression and had no support from previous panels, subsequent panels or anything ever shown us about Aizen’s character or Orihime’s character (the reason I mention this interpretation over and over in my journal, posts and Bleach essays is that I’m still psychologically traumatized; I didn’t know the extent to which shippers, outside of writing a fanfic, could distort an author’s story).
More frequently, interpretations of a character’s expression are based on contextual evidence but it’s bad evidence. Let’s take a look at a popular interpretation of a single expression.
Renji’s disputed look. (Hey, whatever the man is trying to communicate, he looks mighty good-looking doing it).
Some readers claim that an expression Renji gives Ichigo in chapter 238 has to do with Renji’s sly acknowledgement of Ichigo’s love feelings for Orihime.
This interpretation is based on a presumption that Ichigo loves Orihime in the first place and that when Ukitake suggests, without proof, that Orihime might be dead, Ichigo’s typical outburst indicates fear for Orihime’s safety. Ichigo himself, however, tells us that he is angry over Ukitake’s premature assessment of death. Ichigo has no reason to fear Orihime’s death; an enraged Ichigo argues evidence for his belief that Orihime is alive: she healed his injured hand the night before.
Are we to question Ichigo’s certainty that Orihime is alive? Ichigo’s emotional state at this time appears to have more to do with contradicting Ukitake than it does with any panic about Orihime’s disappearance. Note that Rukia also responds with loud indignation (and similar pen marks of alarm around her body) to Ukitake’s words and that she responds before Ichigo. Does Rukia love Orihime? Or are both Rukia and Ichigo similarly shocked and outraged?
Let’s look at further context. When General Yamamoto suggests that Orihime might be a traitor, Ichigo responds with “bullshit.” Then Renji grabs Ichigo by the collar and tries to salvage the situation. He shows Ichigo how to properly address Shinigami authority and without calling the traitor assessment into dispute, Renji addresses Yamamoto with the offers to go to Hueco Mundo and bring the traitor back to justice. Ichigo is shocked--why would Renji offer such a thing?
Why would he? For me, the answer is plain. Ichigo helped Renji save Rukia in Soul Society, and Renji owes him one. The gesture reveals a lot about Renji’s noble nature and the extent to which he’s allied himself with Ichigo.
Does Renji’s half-smiling cocky glance towards Ichigo say that Renji the warrior is acknowledging Ichigo’s blatant romantic feelings for Orihime? Or does it say, “Hey man, I just showed you the way to get one over on old man Yama,”
Let’s suppose that Renji is taking notice of romantic feelings. Why the look as if he’s trying to urge a buddy to approach that pretty girl in the bar and buy her a drink? Given actual dangers facing Ichigo’s supposed love object in Hueco Mundo, one would think that Renji would look a little more sympathetic.
Seriously, given what we know about Renji’s character, would he be considering Ichigo’s love life in chapter 238 when the characters are assembled in such a serious situation? Renji is allying himself with Ichigo while pretending to support Yamamoto. Hence, the smile that goes “I’m so clever.”
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall; the Manga-ka is Fooling Us ALL….
It’s commonly said that shippers see what they want to see in panels. This is certainly true; readers are self-projecting beasts. They are also rational thinkers; it takes some intellect to keep track of a busy plot and a zillion characters and to recognize authorial intent beyond one’s own wishful thinking. I can not accuse any one fan faction or group of suffering from mass hypnosis or delusion because any good serial manga-ka’s intent is to toss red herrings to the seals and to keep us guessing. IchiOri interaction thus far in the Hueco Mundo appears to be a deliberate parallel to IchiRuki interaction in the Soul Society arc; Kubo intended to provoke debate over to which girl was the one for the hero.
“Stop comparing Rukia and Orihime so much!” I used to scold fans acting up in forums. The comparisons only started dumb wars that disintegrated into bitchiness, neg-repping and an indulgence in logical fallacies. I believed that it was best to see the two girls as archetypes and to leave their pretty opposing dichotomies at that. The choice as to which girl was “right” for Ichigo seemed best left up to the character. It wasn’t until my head started wrapping around the concept of authorial intent in Bleach that I realized how much of the story itself provoked comparisons. Black and white, inner world and outer world, Life and Death, the soft girl and the harder one. Any good story makes use of parallels, but after Kubo built an arc around the rescue of Rukia and proceeded to do the same with Orihime, I thought: GEEZ Louise, Kubo--not same old, same old. Either you’re a genius or you’re a SCHMUCK.
I expected a tepid reworking of the story that had proved financially successful for Jump. I expected a lazy author to re-do elements of the Soul Society arc the way directors churned out Rocky sequels. A few hilarious parallels later (Pesh “Are you in love with me?” Gatieche was partnered with Ishida instead of Orihime, Mr. Eyepatch Nnoitra was running around in circles looking for a fight like Kenpachi) and I thought Kubo was parodying his earlier work. By the time Orihime was high on a precipice the way Rukia was in her tower, I was back to believing Kubo was the genius story-teller I’d first taken him to be. Fan reactions were all over the place--strong disapproval with the storyline, impatience with it, obsessive analysis of it, altogether a “what the fuck is Kubo doing?” attitude among readers.
Ah, the manga-ka I fell in love with at the height of the Soul Society arc was back---the exasperating Kubo Tite towards whom few could feign indifference.
And the rabid comparisons of one arc to another began.
Either/Or, And/But, Maybe/Maybe
While shippers are fond of comparing and contrasting panels from different chapters to support claims like “Ichigo responded more intensely to news of Rukia’s death than to news of Orihime’s” and while these comparisons carry validity, they are not as strong as arguments for an interpretation that include both words and pictures. The story, the textless expressions and the spoken text are all important in interpreting manga; any reader who ignores one of these elements is missing part of Bleach. Kubo Tite, once asked how he would envision Bleach as a movie, responded that he’d meant for the story to be a movie, he would not have written a manga.
And that statement reminds us that any manga needs to be interpreted within the literary restrictions of its genre form. There isn’t room for a lot of textual exposition or internal monologue in a shounen story; actions speak louder than words, the pacing is based on fights that have expected chapter lengths the way movements have a certain number of measures in a concerto, and facial expressions matter a helluva lot.
Kubo is a damn fine artist. He’s one of the best out there. People who aren’t interested in the plot of Bleach read the manga for the art alone. A picture, the saying goes, is worth a thousand words, but a picture and one thousand words are worth more.
Usually Ichigo is drawn as a frowning boy so when his face is relaxed and unguarded, fans take notice. Let’s look at some random images of Ichigo’s many “tender” looks. A close follower of the manga could tell you what image comes from what chapter, but a casual reader wouldn’t recognize the faces or be able to interpret their level of intensity without context.
One argument in support of the IchiOri-ness of recent chapters maintains that Ichigo has never looked at anyone so tenderly as he looks at Orihime following the Grimmjow fight. A casual sweep over the above pictures and you may have trouble distinguishing the most tender look.
My attention is drawn to #2 and #5 because Kubo chose to put these faces in shadow. Kubo himself has said that when he wants to call attention to the emotional drama of a moment, he uses a blank background. A similar visual contrast between background and foreground happens when he darkens the foreground figures--even if a background is drawn.
The two shadowed pictures, #2 and #5, are from chapter 286.
Shadowed picture #2 shows us Ichigo looking at Nell following her declaration “I’m so happy Ichigo didn’t die!” and shadowed picture #5 shows us Ichigo looking at Orihime. It is interesting to note that this tender look isn’t the first one Ichigo gives Orihime in the scene--that look would be #1, when Ichigo asks Orihime if she’s okay.
Tell me, doesn’t #1 expresses less emotion than #5? The vast majority of non-Bleach readers I asked about these pictures saw #1 as the most casual and “least tender” face of all. I myself saw a tired and relieved Ichigo following a hard battle.
Panel #5, where Kubo deliberately shadowed the face to draw attention to it, occurs at the moment Orihime thanks Ichigo for saving her. I would argue that because of this text included next to the facial expression, the “thank you” is very relevant and adds context. It seems to me that Ichigo’s feelings of tenderness have less to do with Orihime than with his fulfillment of his duty as a protector. Context from previous chapters tell us that since the first arrival of the Arrancar on Earth, Ichigo has been worried about his ability to protect people; before the Hueco Mundo arc, he swore to protect Orihime and then she was kidnapped--oi, the guilt!
One should also note Ichigo’s inability to protect Rukia when Grimmjow shot his fist through her stomach and then later when Grimmjow aimed a cero at her head. As the plot stands at this writing, we have heard each girl (Orihime swearing to herself and Rukia declaring to Ichigo) say she doesn’t need Ichigo’s protection. The plot requires resolution of the protection issues--there’s one between Ichigo and Rukia as well as one between Ichigo and Orihime.
Ichigo’s first look towards Orihime--picture #1--should be the one with most concern if romantic feelings were primary in this chapter. Instead, picture #5 shows more emotion, apparently by design of the manga-ka, and happens when Orihime says “thank you.”
Ichigo has fulfilled his duty and lived up to his name which means “protector.” Everything we’ve been shown about Ichigo up to this point in the manga supports the idea that his protector role is crucial to his identity. Previously he’s dealt with issues of sexuality with extreme discomfort (witness his freak-outs before a naked Yoruichi, Matsumoto about to disrobe, and Rukia--heaven help us--daring to sit on his bed), so if there were romantic subtext between Orihime and Ichigo here, one would expect a flustered Ichigo. Orihime is flustered in these panels but Ichigo isn’t. (More observations about Ichigo’s innocent and laissez faire attitude to Orihime’s beauty later).
So, does this tender look Ichigo gives Orihime tell an audience that he loves her? I can’t rule out the possibility but when there is a more reasonable interpretation based on context and 200 chapters worth of character information, I go with the reasonable interpretation: Ichigo is just plain glad that he was able to protect Orihime and that, instead of being scared of him, she is grateful for his help.
Orihime isn’t the only one Ichigo gives a tender look after the fight with Grimmjow. For ten chapters we’ve seen Ichigo in Hollow form, looking like a grisly villain. During the battle, Orihime has been frightened of him and doubting his true motives for coming to Hueco Mundo (did he come to fight Grimmjow or to rescue her?) That Ichigo is drawn especially boyish and vulnerable-looking after the Grimmjow fight reassures an audience of his humanity (or either lulls us into a comfortable place from which Shirosaki will make his grand entrance!) It’s significant that Ichigo gives tender looks to Nell, Grimmjow AND Orihime following the battle; it’s not his demeanor towards Orihime that’s undergone a significant transformation, as IchiOri shippers claim; Kubo is paralleling the difference between the Visored Ichigo in a struggle of identity (to lose or not to lose his chocolate?) and the innocent teenager we all knew was under the mask.
Contextual Identification of the Tender Looks and Some Observations
After the Grimmjow battle, Ichigo looks at Orihime and asks her if she’s alright. The expression judged the least tender of the lot by my non-Bleach friends.
After the Grimmjow battle, Ichigo looks at Nell. Ichigo’s face is drawn in shadow as often is the case when Kubo wants to call attention to the emotion there (the expressive picture of Renji I discussed earlier was also drawn in shadow). I find it interesting that Ichigo gives Nell, an Arrancar, sweet looks in the Hueco Mundo. Clearly we’re meant to sympathize with the Hollow entities that were the monsters in the previous arc.
Arguably the most expressive face of the bunch. Is it angry? Tired? Sad? Heavy with concern? Here’s where Ichigo grabbed Grimmjow’s arm to break the Espada’s fall at the end of the battle. Ichigo is frowning, but the sympathy in his eyes for the enemy who tried to kill his friends and who seemed hell-bent on killing him in unmistakable. First sympathy for Nell and now sympathy for Grimmjow? . The Arrancar themselves, the presupposed villains of Hueco Mundo, may not be who they appear to be--how very Kubo of you, Kubo.
The face that launched a fandom wank. I was there. Last year. I started the topic on at soul_society about what this chapter could mean for a romantic subplot in Bleach and in no time, the ships were gunning at one another. Ichigo looks with tender concern at an injured Rukia while Orihime responds to Ichigo’s expression with a pained look. Some fans claimed Ichigo was not looking at Rukia but staring into space in this panel. Even if one were to accept that preposterous interpretation, there’s no denying that Ichigo’s really upset about something here.
Ichigo looks sweet and happy. He’s just heard Orihime thank him for protecting her. It’s a romantic moment out of context, but as I’ll show later, Ichigo’s subsequent behaviors nullify romance and are in keeping with his previous attitude of asexuality towards Orihime. I like the very fact that Kubo used these panels to tease his audience with romance.
Ichigo looks tenderly at Nell and pats her on her little Arrancar head following Ichigo’s first encounter with Ulquiorra. If you ask me, Ichigo expresses more emotion towards Nell and Grimmjow in the Hueco Mundo arc than he does towards Orihime.
Soul Society arc, after the battle with Byakuya. Orihime breaks down in front of Ichigo and says she was worried about him. I find it very interesting that Kubo only shows us Ichigo’s eyes in this crucial scene. Ichigo’s “thank you” to Orihime is then a lone speech bubble with no accompanying picture. I’m still not sure if the usually clueless Ichigo didn’t get a clue here about Orihime’s feelings for him; if he did, he didn’t return the intensity of her emotions. First we’re shown a startled face when Orihime says she’s sorry for not having protected him. Then, when Orihime cries, we get these soft, sympathetic eyes. No tension. Tension, as I’ll argue later, is the first requisite for romance.
Speaking of Eyeballs
There are so many parallels between Ichigo’s responses to Rukia here and Ichigo’s responses to Orihime there that I could fill a book on the subject.
For fun, let’s look at panels showing Ichigo’s immediate response to the news that Orihime is dead and his reaction when Ulquiorra told him that Rukia was dead.
At first I thought that the singular eyeball on both pages was the same. It’s not. One eyeball shows Ichigo bruised on his cheek following the Doldoni battle. The hair pattern over both eyeballs isn’t the same. For all intents and purposes, though, the eyeballs are identical; both convey shock. Size-wise, the eyeball panels are the same on their respective pages. As for the other panels that show Ichigo’s face, the Orihime situation shows the appropriate response for someone who is getting information second-hand--Ichigo looks dazed, stunned. When Ichigo gets the second hand news from Ulquiorra (and this is already after Ichigo himself has sensed Rukia’s reiatsu drop), the reaction takes up the better part of the page and is emphasized with a giant exclamation point.
You tell me. Which reaction is stronger?
Then add that Ichigo’s reaction to Rukia’s death included three previous panels of shocked eyeballs.
Now, if facial expressions were all I used to base my argument that Ichigo’s feelings for Rukia are stronger than his feelings for Orihime, I would have a so-so case. As I stated earlier, there’s only so much pictures can tell you and then one is playing the self-projection game and masturbating over symbology.
Ichigo’s actions at this point in the manga are crucial for me. Upon feeling Chad’s reiatsu drop, Ichigo sufferingly continues pressing forward in the mission to rescue Orihime. Upon feeling Rukia’s drop, Ichigo stops cold and turns around to go to her. This action took even IchiRukiers by surprise. Ichigo appears to abandon the mission and to choose Rukia’s safety over Orihime’s (Orihime’s state is unknown at the time--she could’ve been being raped or tortured or experimented upon by Szayel for all we know). It’s isn’t until Ulquiorra confronts Ichigo, taunts him (first with Rukia’s death then with the fact that Ulquiorra was the one who kidnapped Orihime) that Ichigo’s patience vanishes, his famous recklessness emerges, and he stays to fight with the Espada who was clearly not going to allow him to leave.
THEN, after Ichigo believes he’s won the battle with Ulquiorra (IchiOri shippers will tell you that Ichigo fought that battle for Orihime and that it was Ulquiorra’s taunt about kidnapping her that broke Ichigo down), Ichigo tells Nell they have to keep going and it appears that Ichigo is going to continue with his plan of abandoning the mission’s purpose; he again chooses Rukia’s safety over Orihime’s.
It’s not a choice he deliberates; the Kurosaki Ichigo that Kubo Tite has given us in Bleach is a very in-the-moment person. Unlike Ishida, Ichigo doesn’t plan or consider strategies. He acts on impulse and fights with instinct. Despite Ichigo’s apparent lack of forethought here and his being unaware of having made an ethical choice (he simply forgets Orihime until Ulquiorra mentions her--he doesn’t even ask Ulquiorra where she is or if she’s alright), Ichigo’s actions, in conjunction with previous shocked-eyeball panels, make a case for Ichigo’s affections lying with Rukia. The parallel seems deliberate; the drama of the moment is laid plain. Then, of course, Ichigo is knocked down by Ulquiorra, and Ichigo’s unconsciousness absolves him of having to actually follow through on his choice.
The next people Ichigo sees when he regains consciousness are Nell, Orihime, and Grimmjow.
Oh Hi There Inoue
Chapter 237, the one that fueled the IchiOri burst of the Hueco Mundo arc, ended with a moving speech made by Orihime to a sleeping Ichigo. Kubo was a tease in that chapter--Orihime leans forwards to kiss Ichigo. Even though I’d read spoilers before seeing the panel, I remember the moment making me gasp--is she really? The intimacy of the moment was already highlighted without a kiss--Orihime was holding Ichigo’s hand, her lips were millimeters away from his. The panel was more explicit than many sunset kisses in shoujo and many canon get-togethers in shounen. But Orihime can’t go through with it.
Orihime’s feelings are framed in rococo; the moment is violin strings and high melodrama.
Oh what will the moment be like when Orihime (inevitably) sees Ichigo again? IchiOri shippers predicted romance; myself and IchiRuki shippers said, “We know Ichigo--he’s going to be as unconscious then as he is now.”
We were literally right.
The reunion happens in chapter 277. Kubo makes us recall the last time the two were together because Ichigo is lying the same way Orihime last saw him. There’s even a close-up of his nose and mouth as when Orihime tried to kiss him.
Orihime leans over to heal Ichigo this time and when he wakes up….
The reunion is about as dramatic as a Hueco Mundo sandpile.
Fans know the rest; his back turned to Orihime, Ichigo tells her to heal Grimmjow and thus begins a prolonged battle during which Grimmjow teases Ichigo (and Orihime and the audience) about Ichigo’s true reasons for coming to Hueco Mundo--did Ichigo come to save the girl or did he come to fulfill some vendetta with Grimmjow? Is Ichigo’s first instinct to fight or is to protect? What, exactly, are the boy’s priorities?
Orihime, taking on her usual role as interpreter of events for the readers, senses Ichigo’s conflict and expresses her doubt in him. Nell has to shout some sense into the girl; Nell, in this instance, becomes an unreliable narrator of reliable facts. She tells Orihime that of COURSE Ichigo is there to save her, that Ichigo went insane when Ulquiorra mentioned her name and that he charged the Espada.
What Nell doesn’t mention (or doesn’t understand) is that Ichigo was heading in the opposite direction of Orihime when Ulquiorra stopped him. His priority appeared to be to protect Rukia. Ironically, the moment that Nell precisely identified as the one Ichigo chose to prioritize Orihime is one an audience has to wonder about in context of the Grimmjow battle: Was Ichigo more swept away by his fighting instincts and Ulquiorra’s challenge than he was over either Rukia or Orihime?
One only has to recall the first IchiRuki reunion of the Soul Society arc, though, to realize that Ichigo’s determination to save Rukia back then seemed unconflicted. There were long glances exchanged between the pair. I could post the pictures again, but they’re the fixed standard of forum signatures and fan-colorings; no one following Bleach during the Soul Society arc forgets them, and any IchiOri reunion, in our eyes, has a good deal to live up to.
In this essay, as in Bleach shipping discussions before, I wanted to avoid comparisons between Rukia and Orihime, but when it became clear to me that Kubo was inviting comparisons between Ichigo’s reactions to either girl, I wasn’t going to shy away from the parallels.
If the black/white, living/dead, rukia/orihime dichotomies weren’t already heavy-handed in Bleach, parallels between the Soul Society arc and the Hueco Mundo arc became nearly parodistic. To complicate the overlapping comparisons (I’m reminded of Aaroniero Arleri’s two voices clanging eerily against one another), Kubo pulls off another poetic device in Hueco Mundo--the repetition of phrases to call attention to context. (Or as I used to like to remind my students, "Repetition is relevant, repetition is relevant").
On a single page above, the accusatory “who could have done this?” links Orihime’s thoughts with Ulquiorra’s. Orihime is concerned about the trespass against her beloved, and Ulquiorra is concerned about the trespass against his charge. Some may see romantic subtext in Ulquiorra’s interest in Orihime; so far I see an unusual interest that goes beyond his duty to Aizen-sama. The irony, of course, is that Ulquiorra is the one who injured Ichigo, and Grimmjow, the one who took Orihime away, is once again set up as a rival--to Ulquiorra this time--even before the Sexta Espada’s rivalry battle with Ichigo has begun.
Before the Hueco Mundo arc, Ichigo seems to ignore Orihime an awful lot. He’s decent and gentle with her and certainly not rude, but at crucial times when she needs his attention, his back is to her.
Not counting his surprising act of turning around from running to save Orihime (I find moral flaw with Ichigo in that--still, what are heroes without flaws and what are romances without dramas like these?), Ichigo doesn’t appear in tune with his friend before the Grimmjow battle. In two instances, he addresses Nell, who he’s just met, before addressing Orihime.
After the drama of Orihime’s doubting him and then cheering him (albeit so lamely--this tells me that Ichigo didn’t need her passionate unquestionable approval the way she has always seemed to need his), a connection is made. After the fight, Orihime and Ichigo look at one another honestly in the eye. The moment, even to someone who dislikes the pairing, is tender. Kubo works the moment before interrupting it with Nell comedy, and then the tenderness is resumed. “I’m glad Inoue is not hurt,” Ichigo says, curiously referring to her in the third person, and Orihime thanks him. Another tender look. Another teasing moment--Ichigo’s hands on Orihime’s waist! WAIT! A blush from Orihime! What’s happening here? Is this actual sexual tension?
Nope. No sexual tension. Sexual tension requires two parties. While Orihime is clearly flustered here, Ichigo is innocent as pie.
Some IchiOri fans will tell you here that Ichigo has slyly found a way to put his hands on Orihime. Never mind that the quickest way down is to carry her because she can’t fly or that Ichigo has been carrying Nell all over Hueco Mundo. Kubo, they say, lingered on Ichigo’s hands on Orihime’s waist in order to suggest something sexual….
I agree that the panel was a tease, but the sexual tease wasn’t coming from Ichigo’s crafty groping--it was coming from Kubo’s crafty story-telling. As with Orihime’s aborted kiss, the next panels veer away from an IchiOri romance.
Ichigo is touching Orihime alright but quite matter-of-factly, without emotional subtext. One could argue that each time Ichigo grabbed Grimmjow’s hand (four times during the battle--the yaoi fangurl in me counted), there was more emotional expression on Ichigo’s part.
There are parallels between Ichigo and Orihime throughout this arc. For example, Orihime spares her enemies when she heals the Arrancar who beat her up. Ichigo spares Grimmjow not once but twice. The goodness of these two people is made plain; both have good intentions and so far there’s been no loss of chocolate for either.
The very fact that there are parallels between them (too many to list here--someone else write the essay!) means that they are being placed one against the other for comparison and not with one another as a team. Similar parallels have been made in fandom between Ichigo and Rukia (both are fierce champions for what’s right, etc) but the difference here is that Ichigo and Rukia were often paired as partners whereas Ichigo and Orihime have yet to demonstrate working together against opposing forces.
In the Karakura Hollow arc, Rukia and Ichigo were equals--with Rukia having superior experience and information in the Hollow-battling area. She was his intellectual mentor. In the Soul Society arc, Rukia is a victim;Ichigo rescues her but then she does the same for him when she returns to the Living World and kicks him out of his malaise. Throughout the Hueco Mundo arc thus far, Orihime has been nothing but the damsel in distress but she's not the only one whose life Ichigo has saved.
Ichigo breaks Grimmjow’s fall after defeating him. These panels touched me so much--and no, I’m not talking about my inner yaoi fangurl being moved. Ichigo’s generosity of spirit is what it always has been, even after Orihime (and presumably, we the audience who feared that he would lose himself to his inner Hollow) doubted him.
Getting back to the pair without the sexual tension, I have to laugh every time I read fans’ descriptions of Ichigo’s proximity to Orihime’s voluptuous ass. To hear the IchiOri version of it, Ichigo, that sneaky bastard, was taking advantage of the moment. He instigated the whole thing with lascivious intent, of course. He put his face right next to her buttcheek.
Does this sound like the Kurosaki Ichigo of the past two-hundred-and-eighty-six chapters to you? The Ichigo who spazzed at the very mention of sexual things (Nell made him blush by calling him a virgin no less--never mind his reactions to Yoruichi and Matsumoto or that the mere presence of Rukia’s ass on his bed invoked one hundred times the anxiety as Orihime’s ass next to his very face).
Not a blush on his face. Imagine Ishida in this situation. Ishida would’ve blushed himself right out of his famous low blood pressure into a brain hemorrhage.
The fact that Ichigo is shown in one panel as looking away from Orihime’s lovely rear in one panel and casually saying “Oh well, now I have to find Rukia and Chad” shows you where the boy’s priorities were. His hero’s mind was focused on helping people--so much so that his sixteen-year-old hormones were not in evidence at all? Maybe Nell’s two punches to Ichigo’s Shinigami family jewels had something to do with that or maybe Orihime just doesn’t turn Kubo on. In any event, Kubo makes his point. Ichigo has no sexual response to Orihime.
The way Ichigo carries Orihime in this arc immediately recalls the way he carried Rukia in Soul Society (albeit with much sexual tension--eyelocks and more importantly, arguing, that sure indicator of romance in manga). Maybe Ichigo doesn’t know how to carry a woman (or maybe his sword was still in shikai and he had no choice).
A key difference between Ichigo’s carrying Orihime and Ichigo’s carrying Rukia is that Kubo devotes a giant page to Rukia’s rescue. Ichigo looks dashing, capable and heroic. Rukia’s looks dumbstruck With Orihime, Kubo shows us a few small comedic panels with Nell interruptions and a slack-jawed, innocent-looking Ichigo. Ichigo looks like a boy in the scene with Orihime. There’s no doubt, in the shounen presentation of Rukia’s rescue, that Kubo is presenting us with a heroic man.
He still holds a woman funny, though, and that in itself reminds us that Ichigo is our hero.
Ichigo is, of course, only a boy on the verge of manhood; he’s the classic shounen hero, a little sharper than Goku, a little angstier and less naïve than Naruto, but his innocence and good will are meant to speak to little Japanese boys trying to learn about life. The way Ichigo carries a woman is meant to be laughable, but it’s also supposed to distinguish him. His heroic mind isn’t distracted from its purpose to protect.
Other characters, Renji and Ishida for example, can look more dashing when protecting a woman, but in the end neither one of them will be the one standing to fight the ultimate villain.
Renji carries Rukia all over Soul Society in the “over the threshold” manner.
Ishida saves Orihime the same way.
I don’t expect anything on the order of a true IchiRuki romance resolution until after Ichigo has fought that last villain. In the meantime, the IchiRuki separations and reunions will continue and each time, as before, their bond will grow.
What I Really Said
Finally, I’d like to respond to one forum remark about this essay. I expected IchiOri criticism of my arguments in my LJ but I haven’t gotten any--only good-natured disagreement from the home team. So naturally, I went poking around in fanclubs to see what the strong negative remarks against this essay might be. The strongest I found was from a literate and thoughtful fan who, other than mocking for the nth time my stand on the Japanese attitude towards unrequited love, made an interesting observation.
How, she asked, is it that I don’t expect Ichigo to fall in love with Orihime and change his two hundred or so chapters of behavior when I do expect Orihime to fall in love with Ishida? “Talk about a double standard,” she said.
If I’d actually said such a thing, it would be a fair point. If one will look back over this essay and others I’d written, I’ve said time and time again that I don’t expect to see Orihime go through the painstakingly realistic process of falling out of idealized love with one boy and falling genuinely in love with another. (Actually, if Orihime were an actual teenager she’d fall out of one infatuation into another; given that we’re talking a shounen story here, I expect some form of idealized happy ending for the girl). I fully expect Orihime to grow closer to Ichigo as a friend and in that way feel herself fulfilled in a way she couldn’t be when she desired a more intimate relationship. Maybe Orihime, coming to understand the Ichigo and Rukia bond which, even if utterly platonic, would be an impediment to any other bond he tried to form with a woman, will do what she does best. She will wish for another’s happiness and no longer worry about her own.
I believe that Ishida has already achieved this level of caring for Orihime (You’ll recall the moment that he watched Orihime suffering through the Ichigo-Byakuya battle and gritted his teeth, angstily proclaiming “If you don’t win, Kurosaki, I will never forgive you!”). Ichigo and Ishida, it’s been noted through clever parallelism in Bleach, are very much alike in crucial ways. One significant difference (and here’s where I definitely part ways with the IchiOri shippers who claim that Ishida--and Rukia, Renji and everybody’s uncle for that matter--ship IchiOri) is that Ishida already has strong romantic feelings for Orihime as well as insight into her motives and personality; he pays attention to her whereas Ichigo doesn’t. Another significant difference is that while Ichigo may have known Orihime peripherally for a few years, he isn’t close to her, and Ishida, who spends days and nights with her in the Seireitei, comes to know her very well. (She, in turn, knows Ishida well--she’s demonstrated this from the chapter where she explains Ishida’s true kind nature behind the rudeness to Ichigo). Another difference between Ichigo and Ishida is that the latter has been shown to work well with Orihime; Ishida and Orihime made a great team in the Soul Society arc. At the present time, I’m still waiting for Orihime and Ichigo to work together; their relationship at the moment is anything but egalitarian. Orihime herself recognizes that she’s too dependent on Ichigo.
So, although I’d be happy to see a canon romantic bonding occur with Ishida and Orihime within the scope of the story, I don’t expect it. What I expect is that Orihime will resolve her issues, grow up as all the kids will in this coming-of-age story, and that she will standing as a self-sufficient person by the end of Bleach--only with Ishida standing a little to the side of her, perhaps with his arm around her as in those famous panels where he protects her. And the IshiHime relationship will be implied as one-to-be.
I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Kubo--who’s already dared Orihime to kiss an unconscious Ichigo--doesn’t pull something similarly exasperating for audiences with the much beloved IshiHime pairing (IchiOri has never made the top ten pairings in Japan but IshiHime consistently has). Sometimes I wonder if Orihime isn’t meant to finish that aborted kiss--only in a true Kubo parallel, her lips will land on ones that are ready to kiss her back.
But that’s the wishful shipper in me talking.My arguments for IshiHime being a more compatible pairing than IchiOri can be found elsewhere. Insofar as presenting evidence for an eventual IshiHime match, I will have to be given more manga, more character development, and then, trust me, I’ll write the essay. For the moment let me leave you with what, if you’ve read Part Two of this essay, you know I believe is an inadequate method for understanding a story--a little symbology.
Thus far, despite long chapters apart, Ishida and Orihime have touched more often than any other couple in the Bleach manga. There is one interesting parallel between the first time Ishida touches Orihime and the first time Ichigo does. Both times involve an accidental ponk.
I just think its interesting that in this moment between Ichigo and Orihime, when Orihime was rushing towards a connection, some sort of connection was indeed made--and Ichigo’s back was to her once again (Ishida's face was on Orihime's breast--too bad we don't see his reaction!)
The End Is Near
As I’ve said before, I cannot with absolute certainty make predictions as to where the manga will go. I can, with logic, contextual interpretation, a basic understanding of the shounen form and some Japanese cultural mindsets, make fair guesses. The uncertainty of any prediction I make is not going to stop me from making it. Half the fun of serial manga lies here; the author’s intent is to keep me and you guessing.
Ultimately the romantic subplot of Bleach will resolve itself the way stories with a strict form do--neatly and without ambiguity--and IchiRuki shippers will be satisfied with the conclusion. The reason that the overwhelming majority of het shippers in the fandom support IchiRuki, I believe, is because Kubo Tite did a good job developing the relationship between his two main characters and coloring romantic nuances between them.
I’m just trying to be patient. That, and trying to have fun. I realize once Bleach is over, I’ll miss these days of trying to predict the next week’s chapter.
(will point back to the IchiRuki beginning!)
A FATED UNION (Ichigo and Rukia in Bleach, Chapter One):
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this essay as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. As always, they who catch typos and dropped words, grievous errors in grammar, sentence construction or interpretation, will be blessed with all the Hebrew blessings I can remember and pelted with candies.
Comments welcome. Polite discourse encouraged. Flames or trolly comments intended to provoke controversy will be deleted.