I’m not particularly known as a “romantic” writer (at least, in the sense that I don’t particularly focus on romance in my stories). So, this may seem like quite a deviation for me… as a talk about a romance in a just concluded manga series.
Yes. I occasionally follow manga. Yes, they tend to be “mainstream” ones because those are the ones my local bookstore gets. Sorry if I fail to meet your hipster requirements.
Now, in the spirit of fairness, I rather stopped following the series around volume 10 (after said local bookstore stopped carrying manga of any sort). So a few weeks back, when I learned that Tite Kubo was being pushed to wrap the series up, I decided it was time to catch up.
(Author’s Note: I’ll have to buy the other volumes at some point somehow… I don’t like freely consuming another creator’s work without compensation.)
Anyway, the ending was a rushed, narrative mess, which is to be expected, and I’m not going to go into that as some of my readers might be expecting. No, I’m going to focus on the fan fervor wildfire of the endgame “shipping”, because… I honestly find it interesting.
I didn’t particularly have a dog in the fight (I rarely do, my tendency, being an author myself is to respect the will of the creator on this score), but I’ll be honest when I say that… I can understand the revulsion that longtime readers might have had to the “canonized” pairing of Ichigo and Orihime.
To be fair, at the start of the Bleach manga, that “relationship” had damn near all the signs of a really bad romance. As in both in a literary and realistic sense, narratively cliché and by all initial observation done by a creator who didn’t seem to understand what a healthy relationship really is.
Orihime was the airheaded, cloud-cuckoolander girl, who happens to be absolutely gorgeous even though she doesn’t see it, with a figure at fifteen that most supermodels in their prime would kill to have. She had every appearance, by the tendency of mangaka, to be the literal manufactured woman who exists solely to be the hero’s girlfriend. Her entire early development was centered completely around the hero and how much she crushes for him.
So yes… I completely get and understand that initial revulsion by a large chunk of the fanbase. This is a story we’ve seen play out many a time, one that has crossed many bounds of time and culture.
But ya know what? At some point, Kubo somehow pulled out of that potential engine fire, and not only kept that plane from crashing and burning… actually plotted out a pretty breathtaking course.
If there’s one thing Kubo did well in Bleach (and trust me, it wasn’t closing narrative holes; he was pretty notorious for leaving hanging threads even without the threat of impending cancellation) it’s that he managed to have remarkable character development despite a (seemingly unwise) burgeoning cast.
Honestly, he managed to give depth and feeling to over a hundred featured characters. I personally wouldn’t even dare try a tenth that number at any given time. And Orihime… weirdly happy, potentially deranged, quasi-stalker, Orihime… arguably benefited the most from Kubo’s hand.
We learned the heart of her seemingly fake bubbly happiness. And in possibly the best sort of character twist because it’s the obvious one, it’s because a good portion of it was fake. From being abused by her parents… to a brother that turned into an undead beast and tried to kill her… this poor girl spent her formative years with pretty compelling reason to believe she cursed everyone she cared for.
As someone who survived parental abuse, this… is actually a very real reaction for someone who suffers at the hands of people who are supposed to care for them. You construct a mask, and you wear that mask every damn day. You pretend to be happy because if you show your pain, people will want to know why. But you can’t tell them. You can’t let anyone in. Because, remember? You’re fucking cursed. Anyone who gets close to you gets hurt. And the last thing you want is anyone getting hurt because of you.
That’s something you’re taught as a victim of abuse. That it’s your fault. The pain that you are being subjected to is because you did something. “This hurts me more than it hurts you. Why do you misbehave?” This is bullshit you are taught, and it’s the bullshit you believe.
That’s also why she can’t have a normal relationship with Ichigo for so long. Because when you care about someone that much, but know that if you tell them… and especially if they actually return that affection… you will directly curse the person you care for. You will hurt them, and it will be your fault.
I think back to the “Lust Arc,” and how much that really gnawed at me. Look at that girl through that particular storyline, and you see it. She’s blaming herself for all the harm happening to her friends. The guy she’s crushing on… transforms into the personification of the series’s equivalent of a demon… and it’s because of her. All because… she let him get too close.
How she is attacked by hollows, and doesn’t even fight back? Yeah… that’s what abused people do. They don’t think they’re worth fighting for, especially for their own sake. She was getting what she deserved, as far as she was concerned, and I went back there with her, and for the first time in a long time, I wanted to hug a fictional character, and tell her that it gets better… it’s not her fault… she can’t keep believing that…
So yeah, her character really resonated with me, especially as she grew and learned those lessons I did. And damn if I didn’t cheer when she finally accepted and internalized that the bullshit she had been programmed to believe was in fact bullshit, and that she wasn’t going to keep shying away from people who needed her as much as she needed them. That she could provide care and support just as much as she needed it… that she was a person with value, damn it, and people deserve some happiness in their life, and that the only thing that was actually hurting her… was her own fears, insecurities, and self-loathing.
So, kudos to you, Mr. Kubo. On this score, you did good. You did real good.