I have a love hate relationship with the Bleach manga. Every Friday is the same. I'd go read the latest chapter online. Then I'd rant to my friends about how poor the plotting has been recently or complain about other niggling details. I dig the colorful cast of characters, but dislike the recent story arcs. Reading it sometimes frustrates me. Yet I come back every week and will continue doing so until the series ends. It defies logic. It mystifies me. It is fandom.
Bleach chronicles an invisible war unknown to most humans, between the goodly soul reapers (or shinigamis to Bleach purists) and the hollows, creatures that devour human souls. Protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki is a high school student who can see ghosts, as well as soul reapers and hollows. He encounters Rukia Kuchiki, a soul reaper designated to protect Ichigo's city from hollows, and he witnesses her desparate battle against a hollow. In a twist of fate (and a sword), he winds up becoming a soul reaper himself. He usurps Rukia's powers and defeats the Hollow. Having lost most of her powers, Rukia entrusts Ichigo with the task of protecting the city from hollows. Eventually Ichigo's friends and classmates get caught up in the conflict, as they also develop a sixth sense and their own unique sets of abilities to combat hollows.
The man that crafted this story is Noriaki Kubo, better known world-wide as as Tite Kubo. The first full manga serial he created while still in high school, Zombie Powder, was a moderate success, lasting four volumes before it was dropped. Undeterred, he began work on Bleach and pitched the idea to Weekly Shonen Jump, the preeminent manga publication in Japan. Bearing several thematic similiarites to another successful Shonen Jump series, YuYu Hakusho, which also features a lead hero that can see ghosts, Bleach was rejected by the publication. Famed Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama recognized Kubo's talents and sent him a letter encouraging him to try again. The letter gave Kubo the extra motivation to rework his draft, resubmit it, and eventually get the green light from Shonen Jump. Bleach became an instant success, thanks to its edgy art style, dynamic action sequences, and appealing cast of characters.
It even inspired an epic rock musical that blows my mind every time I see it.
As one of this generation's successors to Dragon Ball Z, Bleach has become a global phenomenon, a fixture at every anime convention. Overnight, his work inspired a global fan base, male and female. These fans, like more and more anime fan nowadays, are particularly expressive. Anime fans can be competitive, too, searching for ways to tell other fans: "I'm a bigger fan than you and I can prove it!" Some express their fandom through fan art, where they render their favorite characters and post it online through sites like Deviant Art. Others write short stories, fan fics, about their favorite shows and characters. Some even combine fan art and fanfics in the form of doujinishis, manga created by fans and amateur artists, often in tribute or parody of existing franchises. Then there are the fans that actually dress up as their favorite characters and galavant off to the latest anime convention. This is known as cosplay, a portmanteau of the words costume and play. As a Bleach fan, I happen to fall into this particular category.
What drives a fan to don a ridiculous costume on a scorching hot summer day? What compels a fan to spend weeks slaving over homemade costumes and prop weapons? Some do it to show off, loving the attention of flashing cameras and adoring fanboys and fangirls. Others do it to meet and befriend fellow hard-core fans. The most pure reason could be for the love of the character they cosplay. As an avid Bleach cosplayer, I never quite understood why I've been so drawn to the particular character I always cosplay as and why I always go through all the trouble and discomfort. There wasn't a particular moment where the inspiration began. It just happened. So when I found Tite Kubo was going to make his very first US appearance at San Diego Comic Con 2008, I knew what I had to do. Hoping to find a better understanding of this zeal, I made it my goal to meet Tite Kubo at Comic Con.
His appearance at Comic Con was a huge surprise to many Bleach fans. As Kanara Ty noted in her report, it would have made more sense if he had attended Anime Expo instead. By far, Kubo is the most prolific manga guest Comic Con has ever had, simultaneously a coup for Comic Con and blow to Anime Expo, which had a rather lackluster guests-of-honor lineup this year. Despite the fact that Comic Con heavily favors Western media and entertainment, anime fans attend every year in large numbers. Anime companies like Viz Media recognized this and have provided booths, anime screenings, and even industry panels for these fans. Unsurprisingly, the room where Kubo's panel was held was immediately filled to max capacity, leaving many disappointed fans outside.
After a smattering of applause, the panel kicked off with Kubo describing his first taste of America. Kubo noted that the sunlight in California felt stronger than in Japan, making everything seem more colorful. Maybe that explains why he wore sunglasses, veiling his eyes and making him slightly mysterious. His soft spoken, low energy manner of speaking contrasted the loud, boisterous characters he's know for creating.
Then he presented an exclusive video tour of his studio. Immaculately clean and white, Kubo claimed it wasn't cleaned for the video. He also showcased his massive CD collection that dominates an entire wall, with over 1200 CDS available for his perusal, drawing massive applause from the audience. His love for music shows, as Bleach has nods to his favorite bands, Radiohead and Social Distortion. Kubo gave each of the lead characters a favorite song that reflects their personality. It's rumored that Kubo even named the series after his favorite Nirvana album, also titled Bleach. Then he showed off several PVC Bleach figurines, primarily the busty female heroines from the show. He also displayed his collection of sketches from fellow Weekly Shonen Jump contributors. He capped off the tour with a glimpse of the second floor, where he sketches and plots out each chapter with his three assistants.
The video was followed by a Q&A session. The audience submitted their questions via index cards, which were then answered by Kubo through his translator. Most of the questions pertained to specific trivia, with Kubo's answers eliciting many oooohs and aaaahs from the crowd. It was his desire to draw soul reapers wearing kimonos lead to the creation of Bleach. The Q&A also provided a bit of insight on his mentality. He confirmed what I had long suspected: that he put puts his characters ahead of the plot. He explained that the reason why he often draws his characters in stylish outfits was to create clothes he wished he could have. He also revealed that he draws 19 pages a week, which is submitted 2-3 weeks before publication. Finally, he stressed an important bit of advice to aspiring artists. "It is important for you, the artist, to enjoy it, otherwise it's dishonest to charge someone for your art and story."
After the panel ended, it was time to wait in line for his autograph session. After an hour of waiting, we were face to face, the creator and the cosplayer. He autographed my sign board and we exchanged polite thank you's. He was very quiet and even seemed a bit shy. I didn't come away with the answer I was looking for, to explain why I still follow the series so religiously and masquerade at conventions. But it did reiterate an old feeling. Being amongst so many fellow fans and friends, some younger, some older, reminded me how enjoyable participating in fan-centric events like these can be.
I then realized that it was probably better if I didn't have any specific rationale for it all, that I should just enjoy the feeling, because I'm having way too much fun irrationally cosplaying as a fan.