Bleach Week – Symbolism and Mythology in Bleach
Written by: ClayDragon
Like many manga series, Bleach draws heavily on religious and cultural symbolism that is common knowledge in Japan. In fact, it even won the Shougakukan Award, which is given to manga series that highlight Japanese values and culture (some other notable winners include InuYasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic). However, the downside is that foreign readers who aren’t clued up on Japanese folklore can completely miss the references (at best), or see them as confusing or out-of-place (at worst). As such, I figured it’s time to write an article in order to enlighten people.
To start off, it’s probably easiest to look at the concept of a Soul Reaper, and then move on from there. The basis for Soul Reapers is what’s called a Shinigami, or Death God (the closest approximation for this in Western culture is the Grim Reaper). In mythology, Shinigami typically invite humans towards death and, depending on who you listen to, either kill people themselves or guide them towards the afterlife. As a fun side-note, the King of the Underworld in Japanese religion is known as the Yama. And who is the ‘king’ of the Soul Society? Old Man Yama.
|Left: A Yama. Right: Old Man Yama. Don't get them mixed up.|
Moving on to the concept of Zanpakuto, it’s a little different, as most descriptions of Shinigami don’t really talk about them having weapons. Instead, it seems as though the Zanpakuto references swords made by the two legendary Japanese swordsmiths, Gorou Masamune and Sengo Muramasa (in fact, there’s even a filler Zanpakuto named after the latter).
|...I have to say, when I imagined an insane, bloodthirsty Zanpakuto, this was not what came to mind.|
Apparently, Muramasa was so insanely ill-tempered that people thought his swords were similarly insane, and stories tell of Muramasa swords that were impossible to sheath without first drawing blood, and some even apparently compelled their owners to commit suicide (again, another parallel to the Bleach Muramasa). However, Bleach’s sentient swords aren’t crazy or bloodthirsty. Mostly.
|Their wielders, on the other hand...|
So that’s the Soul Reapers and Zanpakuto, but what about the Soul Society itself? Well, both the Soul Society and the backstory of Saijin Komamura are a reference to the religion of Buddhism. Buddhists believe that living creatures go through a continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and every time this happens the creature is reincarnated into a different body in one of six realms. The first realm is the Human Realm (obviously, this is represented in Bleach by the World of the Living). There’s also the Preta Realm, whose inhabitants are invisible to most people and it sometimes overlaps with the Human Realm. As such, it’s somewhat obvious that this Realm partly inspired the creation of the Soul Society. However, the denizens of the Preta Realm are said to have been bad people in life, and as they’re driven by an intense hunger, the Preta Realm and its inhabitants could also be the basis for Hueco Mundo and Hollows.
|Naruto's Six Paths of Pain are also named after the six Realms. |
From left: Naraka, Animal, Deva, Asura, Human, and Preta Paths.
Next is the Naraka Realm, which (in both real life and Bleach) is essentially Hell. The Asura Realm is said to be the home of Demigods, who are a mixture of malevolent beings and well-meaning beings, so it’s possible that the Soul Society is based off of a mixture of the Asura and Preta Realms. The Deva Realm is apparently home to incredibly powerful spirits and deities, so this Realm would seem to have inspired the Spirit King’s Palace – the home of Squad Zero. Finally – and this is where Komamura comes into it – there’s the Animal Realm. It seems that Komamura’s clan were reincarnated into the Animal Realm, and from there managed to move into the Soul Society.
|How they managed to get into the Soul Society is a different question altogether.|
It would appear that Hollows were inspired by an odd mixture of the inhabitants of the Preta Realm and the Mexican holiday known as Day of the Dead (and no, that’s not the same as the George Romero film). Whilst their concept may have come from Buddhism, their design – or more specifically, the idea of Hollows having masks – came from the masks people wear when celebrating the Day of the Dead. Also, Mexican and Spanish-inspired names are used, both for Hollows (although it’s mostly used for Arrancars) and their techniques.
|Ulquiorra's Cero Oscuras being a prime example.|
Going from one group of enemies to another, it’s very obvious that the Vandenreich are heavily inspired by German soldiers during the Third Reich (i.e. Nazis). Not only do some of their members have German-sounding names, like Jugram Haschwalth, but the main attack force is called the Sternritter (German for ‘Star Knights’), they have a subset group called the Jagdarmee (German for ‘Hunting Army’), and their name is even German for ‘Invisible Empire’.
|The typical uniform of a Vandenreich soldier. Doesn't it just scream 'Third Reich'?|
As if the parallels weren’t obvious enough already, their leader utilised a plan called Auswählen (German for Selection), which involved him killing off every mixed-blood (or ‘impure’) Quincy just for existing, and used them to boost his own strength. I know for a fact I don’t need to remind you what real-life event that represents. Furthermore, the comparisons even extend to their appearance. Every member of the Sternritter wears a heavy trenchcoat with the Vandenreich logo emblazoned on it, and some members (most obviously Bazz-B) wear an armband with a symbol on it that could very easily be replaced with a Swastika.
|Whoa there, Bazz-B. You're getting a little too close to the mark.|
Interestingly, the Vandenreich leader, Yhwach, doesn’t just embody traits of Adolf Hitler, but he is also inspired by the Tetragrammaton. This is one of the names of the God of Israel used in the Hebrew Bible, which is commonly transliterated into the letters YHWH. Some other transliterations are YHVH, JHVH, and JHWH, which all correspond to different translations of Yhwach’s name. His roots in the Hebrew Bible (which is a collection of Jewish texts) are surprising, and more than a little ironic, considering his other inspiration.
|If you want another comparison to Hitler, they both have facial hair (though Yhwach's is better by miles).|
Beyond that though, Yhwach is also somewhat of an evil counterpart to Jesus himself. Both were babies born under strange circumstances, both have the ability to perform ‘miracles’ and heal the wounded, and both were revered as Gods. This even extends to Yhwach’s followers – two of the main symbols of the Vandenreich are crosses and light, both of which are also associated with Jesus. Going even further, the Quincies’ Vollständig usually gives the user wings and a halo of light, giving them a superficial resemblance to angels. The final comparison is that Yhwach gives out his power by having his followers drink his blood from a cup. If that isn’t symbolic, I don’t know what that is.
|How on Earth does he of all people have the protection of the light of the Lord?|
Finally, something which annoyed a lot of Bleach fans recently is actually another reference to Japanese mythology – that is, the fact that Ichigo is a Shinigami/Quincy hybrid. To be more accurate, Ichigo is a fusion of four ‘souls’ – Human, Soul Reaper, Hollow and Quincy, and whilst this was seen as annoying and over-the-top by some fans, it actually refers to the Japanese concept of mitama, which means the soul of a dead person. There are different definitions of the word, but most definitions agree that a ‘spirit’ consists of several ‘souls’, with each soul being somewhat independent of the others.
|Ichigo's rude, harmonious, happy and wondrous souls. It must get awfully crowded in Ichigo's spirit.|
The most developed theory is the ichirei shikon, which theorises that a human’s spirit is made up of four souls. See where this is going? The four souls are the rude soul (Hollow), the harmonious soul (Human), the happy soul (Soul Reaper), and the wondrous soul (Quincy). According to the theory, each of the souls has its own personality and function, and they all exist harmoniously. For example, the rude soul is rough and violent, and the harmonious soul is considered a complete opposite to the rude soul, in the same way that humans are the opposite of Hollows. The wondrous soul is said to be able to cause transformations and cure illnesses, both of which are things that Quincies (and especially Yhwach) excel at, and so the happy soul must represent the Soul Reaper aspect of Ichigo’s spirit.
|The final result of Ichigo's souls working in unison.|
There are more aspects of symbolism and real-life mythology in Bleach, but I’ve covered the main points (besides, this article is getting long enough as it is). It’s easy to deride certain plot elements of Bleach as being pointless or overly complicated, but with a bit of research you can see that they may actually represent something after all.
|Take that, ignorance!|
And finally, the name of the series was originally meant to be called Black, due to the colour of the Soul Reaper’s uniforms, but Tite Kubo felt that the title was too generic, so he changed it to White in order to suggest black as a complimentary colour. Finally, he settled on Bleach, due to the way the word evokes the impression of the colour white and isn’t too obvious.
|They don't have the same ring to them, do they?|
Thanks for reading!
ClayDragon is currently studying Physics at university, and is constantly bewildered by it. The main method of contacting him is his Gmail account at firstname.lastname@example.org. The alternative is his Skype account at kyleroulston1993, but he doesn’t use it that much. When not playing games or reading, he can be found with his head in his hands whilst trying in vain to understand quantum physics. Dawn of the Second Day: 96 Hours Remain...