In which I babble about my impressions of UnMasked...
My long-awaited copy of the third Bleach databook UnMasked arrived last Monday with more than enough minutae for any fan to rage, marvel, and argue over. My first disappointment was that the touted 仕掛け (gimmick) for the cover wasn't a holograph where if you tilted Ulquiorra just so you could see him naked (drat) but a mere cellophane wrapping with a white fleur de lis-like pattern. I promptly photographed my copy with my custom Ulqui plushie and started scanning pages. Now, it really was raining cats and dogs in my part of the universe and the barometric pressure was wreaking havoc with my propensity for migraines, but I'm blaming my ensuing 4-day headache on the hysterical over-attention I gave to this little book. I wasn't alone though--fandom was churning as translations of the book emerged (maybe it's calming down now though--I know I am).
The first thing fandom made grabby hands towards was the new chapter by Kubo--the only bona fide, uncontestable canon material in the book. Scanned by MzD and translated by Cezaria, it was put up here to much spazzing from the Ulquiorra and Orihime shipping factions of fandom. The chapter itself was said to be the deathknoll for Ulquiorra by some fanbois ( the ones who've noted a rule that getting a backstory in Bleach means that you're dead and gone). The chapter didn't really give a complete backstory though--there was nothing about how or why Ulquiorra chose to follow Aizen. It told a lyrical, symbolic tale about Ulquiorra's essential character and his aspect of nihilism.
Did you know that nihility is a real word? That's one thing I learned from UnMasked. Another is that fans can come up with definitions of nihilism that would make Nietzsche turn over in his grave.
Not surprisingly, Orihime figures in the short chapter (that fandom now refers to as "the UlquiHime doujin" because its resemblance to such), She's watching over Ulquiorra sleep and smiling at him in way that defies the characterization of Ulquiorra as the terrorizing jailor. One of the best analyses of the UH relationship from the chapter I've found was by hinodeh and is here. She describes the tension within a character who appears to want to have nothing to lose and also wants to be accepted. As always, Kubo-sensei's work is rich with ironies. The very use of the word "happiness" in a panel transitioning Ulquiorra from the VOID to Orihime's pretty!gasping!comedy!face was enough to split a crack right through my ready and willing heart. Ugh, the gorgeous pain. Kubo really knows how to work it.
One of the things that later struck me (upon reading the chapter for the oh 44th time) was that Ulquiorra's original form was mouthless--and aren't Hollow beings supposed to be ravenous devouring creatures? Ulquiorra slays his fellow Hollow in the chapter but I do wonder if he absorbs their energy without actually eating them. He wanders to a thorn bush and throws himself into it in a gesture like surrender and suicide and is born there. The beauty of the scene is classic Kubo. For someone like myself who believes in Ulquiorra's eventual return to the manga, I revel in the theme of rebirth, ashes, etc etc etc in Ulquiorra's story. And I hope, as any fan would, that all this promotion for him isn't, as some fanbois claim "a way to let down Ulqui fans easily" but a sort of red carpet being laid out of his eventual return.
The funniest interpretation of the Ulquiorra chapter I've found is http://carrinth.deviantart.com/art/Bleach-Unmasked-Scan-w-Dialog-211951142
Ulquiorra fans like myself who have pinned a lot of our hopes on Ulqui's eventual return on the fact that he has to fire his Lanza del Relampago successfully (because in shounen no spiffy weapon is introduced and then shown to fail--we have to see what it can dooooo) searched HIGH AND LOW throughout UnMasked for mentions of the lanza. Tellingly, there were none. Not even in the attack listing section where obscure techniques such as Ryuuken's klavier bow attack against Uryuu were named was there a mention of Lanza del Relampago. Why? To quote my dear Rosencrantz, "Either he failed at it so badly his mortification struck it from record, or SPOILERS."
Boo-boos or Retcons
As soon as UnMasked was released, know-it-all fans discovered errors. Some errors are glaring--like fraccion being called Espada or Shunsui being named the Captain of the Ninth Division. Others were arguable, like an omake conversation between Gin and Kira that mentioned Kira eating persimmons even though Kubo had written previously that Kira hated persimmons. I wondered why the numerolgy/bloodtype game in the book didn't use the original bloodtypes that Kubo had used for Orihime, Ishida and Isshin in original character pages and saw fit to change them (it was explained to me that the Japanese can refer to "blood personalities" that are different from one's actual medical blood type--in other words, I may call myself more of a "B" even though I was born an "A"--but when speaking of fictional characters, why not be consistent?) To date, some of the errors aren't decisively errors or retcons--such as the much ballyhooed "Urahara put the hougyoku in Rukia's gigai" of page 131.
I myself had barely finished spazzing over the Ulqui chapter when I had a mini-heart attack over this apparent retcon. For some reason, this issue has always give fandom apoplexy. Lots of fans assumed that the hougyoku was put in Rukia when the guy offered a gigai after she lost her powers on earth, but the second databook states decisively otherwise : "Because the Hougyoku was a dangerous substance Kisuke decided to hide it somewhere, and that somewhere was in Rukia’s soul. And after a few years when Rukia came to the human world..." And manga canon supported that fact too with Aizen stating that he noted that Rukia had gone missing after he figured out where the hougyoku really was.
My beef was really personal--some fans have their dreams of ships becoming canon. Mine was getting a hougyoku backstory. Three years ago, before my friend jaina interviewed Kubo at SDCC, I spent lots of excited nights w/her wondering about what questions she would ask. Everyone really wanted to know about the truth about the hougyoku and she asked him point blank: "when was the hougyoku put into Rukia?" He answered, smiling ever so coyly, "it's a secret." When chapters 00 came out and showed that Rukia had a missing memory about her time spent on earth with Isane, many fans speculated that the hougyoku in Rukia might be told in flashback about then. Or in a TBTP 2 miniarc.
Guildenstern responded to the new databook news with a casual "eh retcons happen" attitude and amended the first post of her famous hougyoku thread at BA with the byline PWNED IN THE FACE.
Gah! I would not have this hougyoku story taken away from me! Or else I would have it properly retconned, with much pomp and expository text, in the manga proper, the way Kubo explained the powers of Chad and Orihime to be due to the hougyoku instead of (or in addition to) Ichigo's mighty leaking reiatsu. I couldn't reconcile the tender care with which Kubo had written Ulquiorra's chapter and the way this retcon was plopped in on a corner of a panel in a databook.
It took me some days to calm down. There were enough fun details in UnMasked to amuse me (although Szayel's Hollow hole being in his penis? Who DIDN'T call that one?) and eventually the release of chapter 451 convinced me that Kubo will always draw pretty and he hadn't lost his mojo as far as writing an exciting battle goes and yeah, I would ALWAYS be as faithful to Bleach as Yammi's dog.
Japanese fans have been tweeting Sensei about the hougyoku tidbit since the book came out June 3, but so far not a peep from Shisou. I've sworn to myself like Renji that I would ask him myself and that if my fang so much as grazed his cheek I would be satisfied but I haven't worked up the courage yet. For the moment, all the databook boo-boos and revelation that Kubo isn't even listed as an author of UnMasked like with previous databooks (he's listed as Artistic Director) have mollified me a little. Posts in fandom like Spiderkiss' here have addressed that while Aizen has always been a big fat liar, his information about the hougyoku has been consistent with the plot. So I be chillin and reasoning that time will tell. The hougyoku story, after all, has been more or less THE star of Bleach. Like Ichigo and Rukia who've had a farewell scene to close every major arc, the hougyoku was explained to us by Aizen at the end of SS and then re-explained at the end of the Arrancar arc. I fully expect a juicy juicy tale about the little superstar orb (and its Aizen-made cousin) somewhere down the line.
After the Ulqui chapter, the only other unquestionably canon material in this book is the novel co-authored by Makoto Matsubara and Kubo Tite. The whole novel was beautifully and originally translated into English by Estella May here. The novel is significant because it confirms the deaths of Barragan and Yammy and also confirms that Harribel and her fraccion are alive. Beyond those absolute confirmations, fandom can probably argue forever about the rest--although Gin is more than surely confirmed to be dead by the way Rangiku and Gira speak of him in the conversation obviously not written by Kubo, and many other Espada are shown in their moments of kicking the bucket. Death in Bleach, of course, is always a trick of mirrors, a game of semantics, a configuration of personas as easily inverted and reversed as fanboi logic....
I always thought that puppy!car, now fully named Kukkapuuro (credit to aizome for discovering that like other Arrancar puppycar may be named after a designer--Yrjö Kukkapurro, a furniture designer/architect) would be adopted by Neliel and her merry band. Instead he's destined to stand eternally waiting for his master--the Hachiko of Hueco Mundo. *choked sob*
Makoto-san's previous novels have always had her unique mark--they are slice-of-life stories with poignant details and this one is no different. The Kubo illustration above is worth the price of the book if the Ulquiorra chapter isn't. The rest of the book is recycled panels and summaries of battles told with less emphasis on characters' thoughts and feelings than previous databooks. There are stats that fanbois love and this or that text for shippers to squish into meaningful context, but it's nothing new. I do encourage buying the book for the stickers if only to support the manga industry and Japan right now in its time of need, but I'll confess that I've already given my stickers away :)
There was false advertising for UnMasked. Ads promised a Kubo interview and a poster that didn't materialize. That's more evidence there for the book being thrown together at the last minute. Kubo also tweeted days before the book's release that he was pleased to discover the stickers based on the drawings he made for once coveted 10th anniversary cork coasters. More evidence that the man didn't really look over the book's production much. But hey, if you're among Bleach's most hardcore congregation of fans, you're not buying databooks for goodies like stickers or info like battle names--you're a shipper and you want something to squee about.
Besides the ten stickers of ten solo characters, you get an extra sticker of the "Bleach My Soul" farewell scene between Ichigo and Rukia. The now iconic scene gets its own page and graces the heading of chapter titles but other than that, there's no real shipping verification of anything for anyone anywhere in the book. There's even a little bit of a downer for a couple ships--the section on Nnoitra emphasizes his hatred for Neliel even though canon was more ambiguous about his feelings towards her. There's a section about Gin and Rangiku that translates the pair as having lived together "modestly" although certainly, when they were children, that should have been the case despite all the fanfics that throw the pair in one another's arms at puberty.
Elsewhere the book confirms the same old same old: Ichigo and Rukia mean something to one another. Gin does what he does for Rangiku's sake. Sui Feng and Omaeda work as a team despite their differences and so on; any squee about "canonz!" is the usual shipper's overreaction. I got my happy shoes on for UlquiHime over the "doujin" but my top ships of Ishida/Orihime and Ichigo/Ishida got mostly ignored, mainly because Ishida's heroics on the dome (his clasping the IchiBeast with his one good hand in a plea for Ichigo's humanity and subsequent canon penetration by IchiThing) got left out, and there were no panels of Ishida's longing looks at Orihime. Orihime was conspicuously absent for a lot of the summaries too--in what was supposedly her rescue arc--but nonetheless Ichigo and Orihime shippers did find a line of text on the lust arc summary that set off their bells and whistles: (translation by Sheetz from page 135) "The perfectly hollowfied Ichigo ruminated over Orihime's screams and was bound only by that." <----note boring uncontested fact in fight summary.
Supposedly this sentence was enough to jumpstart speculation of Ichigo's eventual confession to Orihime and was the definitive end to a debate I wasn't aware of existing. When I starting going wha wha wha WHAT DEBATE to friends of mine, I was given the following scenario:
You know, it was that debate where...
-Person A: It doesn't imply romance if IchiThing rises because Orihime cries; It only implies that Ichigo unconsciously answered to a call of a friend.
-Person B: Aha! I see where you are coming from. There's just this one point you forget dear; If he didn't rise for Orihime, why would it react at the same moment as she screamed? So it rose for Orihime.
-Person A: ...Right, it did rise because she screamed like I said, and I'm saying that it doesn't deduce romance, because it would've been Ishida or anyone else as well.
-Person C: If IchiThing didn't rise for Orihime, then why would it say "I protect you" as in answering her call? So it goes to show it did rise because Orihime screamed for help. Some people are just :facepalm Ichigo rose for the Teletubbies is what they're trying to say.
-Person A: Yeah, I get it, I also said that it was her scream which made him rise, what I meant is...
-Person D: i think is clear that he rose for HER even though you people say there are no pronouns in Japan but ofc we can not no maybe he doesn't love her but i say he love her cos is clear he rise for Orihime ^_^ moeee
-Person A: ''... ok let's forget it.
-------2 YEARS LATER---------
Person B: THERE! I told you that he rose for Orihime. Guess I just took this debate home, no hard feelings though!!!!!11
Person A: ...
Where's Ichigo in the Arrancar Arc? And Lonely Lonely Aizen
One thing I noticed while reading this book (done as I scanned the pages) was the largely diminished role of the main character of Bleach until the final showdown with Aizen. UnMasked itself showcases Ichigo in color pages of ridiculous cosplay (don't get me wrong--the boy's really a cutie, especially in that pirate get-up ) but I remember those many months when Ichigo was missing from the manga, and the databook itself doesn't give him star treatment. There's extensive data on the Arrancar, naturally, but Ichigo's role in his own lifestory seems to pass without reflection or narrative. Gosh, if I had a nickel for every time either I or one of my friends said during the Chinese water torture that was the past four years of Bleach: "I wish Ichigo would just have some internal monologue!"
And maybe that's apt. When Allon was introduced, some of us thought his appearance seemed like filler--then it became clear that his monsterous mindlessness and ARRRRRRGH was meant to foreshadow Ichigo's transformation on the dome.
The lust chapters seem skimmed over in the databook, and that both disappoints me and makes me hope that Kubo may revisit the scene of many crimes later in canon. Ichigo wins his fight there but not the way he wants to, and the idea that Ichigo rises to protect Orihime is, like all Kubo concepts, an ironic one. There's no getting around the fact that the perfectly Hollowfied Ichigo becomes like all Hollow and is a manifestation of one basic instinct (in this case, the urge to protect gone haywire as karenai argues really well in a notorious shipping essay). He wants to protect but nearly ends up killing everyone up there when he aims that cero at Ishida. Sure enough, he does kill Ulqui, stab Ishida, and even doesn't effectively protect Orihime--in all the "he rose to protect only Orihime" arguments, I've never heard an apt answer as to why as IchiThing was powering up, he didn't take pains to avoid bouncing Orihime on her face and nearly killing her. I've heard it claimed that he threw her on purpose like a volleyball to Ishida, but really now--I buy that as much as this beast throwing a bouquet of roses to his beloved in the chapter.
So many unresolved issues there. Fandom has craved more from the dome story since it happened--and maybe, just maybe, the databook's slight treatment of the story, like the missing Lanza del Relampago, means that the lacunae are being left for the master to fill.
If the beast on the dome was really the antithesis of the hero of the SS arc, then what about the Mugetsu form? That's the form that concludes the arc and is the appropriate savior of the universe. Not quite. Ichigo needs a lot of help from Urahara to (literally) wrap this baby up and toss the antagonist to the proper authorities. Mugetsu looks pretty and packs a wallop but it's Aizen himself who gets the lingering character analysis in UnMasked. What was a passing observation in canon from Ichigo about the hougyoku maybe granting Aizen's wish to be just an ordinary shinigami (sometimes the boy has insight but we don't always know if he's right, do we?), this book canonizes (translation by slmcknet on MangaHelpers):
誰よりも強かった藍染は、 誰にも理解されこと無い孤独の世界を抱えていた。 強き者故の孤独 は深く、 哀 しい。
Aizen was stronger than anybody else, and because of this, he was lonely and misunderstood by everyone. The loneliness that came with this strong isolation was very deep, and very sad.
This whole "misunderstood" by everyone business has already brushed fandom the wrong way. Wah, wah, cry us a river, oh Evil One. We're not all willing to be told what to feel about a character yet, especially in such absolute terms, when that character hasn't earned those feelings yet in manga canon.
"It's lonely at the top" is a villain cliche, but it's also a hero's. Maybe when Aizen (inevitably) returns, we'll get more parallels between the biggest bad guy ever in Bleach and Ichigo too, but for now, I haven't seen any interesting contrasts made outside of esoteric fandom speculations. The best "you are me and I am you" story in the Arrancar arc belonged to the lust chapters and to Ulquiorra and Ichigo trading places as Hollow and Human on the dome.
The gigantic elaborate array of Arrancar, fraccion, Espada, Hollow puppies in this book is a testament to Kubo's imagination for character design. On the one hand, so many characters stole the spotlight from the hero's story. On the other hand, the characters support the theme that Hollow and Human are more alike than different. As with all dichotomies in Bleach--Black and White, Shinigami and Human, Life and Death, Good and Evil, the story of the Arrancar arc was mostly about blurring the lines.
To Be Continued
There's a teensy bit of the so-called Lost Readers arc tease in this book--just enough to introduce Ginjou and show off Ichigo's timeskip sideburns. Volume 50 with Ginjou on the cover is advertised all over the flap page and insert For me, given that the Ichigo first introduced to us in the manga was a mopier than usual shounen lead, I found the psychological insight into his character in the last four years to be REALLY lacking. Now we're in new arc in the manga--the Lost Agent Arc--and Ichigo's identity crisis is at the center.
Who is this Ichigo?
Looking over UnMasked, the one thing that stands out for me is how Ichigo's drive to protect was challenged the deeper and deeper he went into Hueco Mundo. Ichigo fights Dordoni and is told to leave his chocolate behind, Ichigo's will to to protect is then challenged by Grimmjow who asks him if he's fighting for the sake of the fight or to rescue the girl. Ichigo's "must protect" hard-on gets hollowfied and perverted on the Dome, then streamlined and ultimately exhausted in the final battle.
This new arc starts off with an especially grumpy, powerless Ichigo a few months from high school graduation and on the verge of some life's passage. He doesn't even seem to come alive again until (ironically) he decides that he really misses being dead and fighting to protect.
Of course the being dead part was incidental to Ichigo's identity--it's the protecting that Ichigo is all about.
Just to rub in another boring uncontested fact confirmed in the databook, the real Ichigo fights to protect. From page 68 (translation by mezzo_marinaio ):
People to be protected
(Image from chapter 212, when Ichigo told Renji that he had lost after Rukia was pierced by Grimmjow)
As far as Ichigo is concerned, fighting is the same thing as protecting the people close to him. If the people he must protect are wounded, that becomes the same thing as ‘losing’.
(note that by this databook definition, Ichigo loses his fight against Ulquiorra)
(Image from chapter 282, when Ichigo throws himself in front of Orihime and Nell to protect them from Grimmjow's attack)
In the middle of the fight, the moment an attack is aimed at Orihime’s group – who he must protect – he bravely protects them with his body.
I'll be adding little bits and pieces of translation here and there as I get them. I have some already I haven't posted as well as some translated tweets from Sensei but it's getting close to dinnertime already as I type this, and it's only been my first full day since UnMasked came out that I haven't felt A DAMN DISCO BALL PULSING UNDER MY LEFT EYE.
I've got a little of my charityfic about Kenpachi and Unohana done and I'll be catching up with RL chores if the hougyoku grants all my wishes and checking back in later. See ya~~
eta: UnMasked ranks 14th in Japan's manga sales this week with 62,680 copies sold