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Ichigo x Rukia: The Victim of Soap Opera Tactics?

Warning: Bleach Ending Spoilers

I’ll be upfront: I shipped Ichigo x Rukia.

From the very start of Bleach I loved their dynamic. The continuously growing friendship, the humorous arguments, and both the establishment and reinforcement that their bond was something special made me feel that, if anything was true about Bleach, it was that they would end up loving each other and being closer than anyone could possibly imagine.

While romantic love is not the only kind out there, it’s clear from the ending of Bleach that creator Kubo Tite had a different idea in mind. As seen in the final chapter, Ichigo ends up with childhood friend Orihime, and Rukia ends up with a childhood friend of her own, Renji. While those two relationship paths were certainly developed throughout the series, it still seemed jarring to me because I still found the connection between Ichigo and Rukia to be so much stronger and more profound. Because I wasn’t deeply invested in Bleach by the end, these canon pairings didn’t jar me into any sort of indignant fervor, but they nevertheless left me a bit puzzled.

In a conversation with Kate from the Reverse Thieves anime blog about when fans and creators disagree in terms of romance in particular fictional titles, she pointed towards the soap opera community. As love triangles and changing relationships are hallmarks of soap operas, they inevitably create strong groups of shippers for any and all combinations. However, when there is a particularly fervent fanbase that the creators disagree with greatly, one common tactic is to separate the two characters so that they are not allowed any on-screen time together. The hope (though often a futile one) is that it will quash the support base for that particular pairing and promote the ones that are being shown.

Upon first hearing about this, I laughed at it as an amusing quirk of soap operas, but the more I thought about it the more it started to sound like exactly what happened with Bleach. If you look at early chapters of the manga, Ichigo and Rukia are around each other often, and their interaction is the core of what what makes the series endearing. When Rukia gets taken to Soul Society and Ichigo follows to rescue her, there’s a sense that something has been kindled between them, even if it might not necessarily be romantic feelings. It’s no wonder so many fans (including myself) latched onto this idea.

However, when looking at later developments in Bleach, Ichigo and Rukia are rarely seen together. I might be mistaken, but I think the last time that they spent any significant time together is after Soul Society when Rukia is supposedly gone but shows up at Ichigo’s high school once more, new and improved. While seeing Ichigo’s reaction to Rukia’s return is another “evidence” moment, what’s more important here is that, in just about every arc after this, Ichigo and Rukia are usually fighting separately. More often than not, Ichigo is with Orihime, and Rukia is with Renji. While Rukia had her own arc of being taken away to another world, Orihime gets the same treatment in Hueco Mundo. Even in the final battle against the ultimate villain of the series, Yhwach, these combinations are perpetuated.

Of course, I don’t actually know what went into Kubo’s thinking, but it just plain stands out to me that Ichigo and Rukia have so little page time together after a certain point in Bleach. Although ultimately how a relationship develops in fiction is the product of how creators write the characters, it’s as if Kubo had ended up smothering any additional opportunities for fans to enjoy and revel in the Ichigo/Rukia dynamic which made the series so strong initially. It feels like the only time we see them together again is in that final chapter when the two are already happily married to others and with kids of their own. The other remnant of their bond is when their respective children meet, but that is only a fragment of a new potential beginning between two similar-yet-different characters.

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I Heart Ira x Mako

I’m not really a big “shipping” sort of person, but I love the idea of having the giant Gamagoori Ira and the hyperactive Mankanshoku Mako from Kill la Kill as a couple. So far, the show’s featured various interactions between them, and the surprising level of respect Ira shows for Mako as well as Mako’s own ability to catch Ira off guard makes them come across to me as “equals” even if you can’t call them opposites. They do both operate heavily on loyalty, so maybe they have some similarities after all.

If only Mako had kept her 2-star uniform and its delightful delinquent-ness, they’d be a pretty fearsome combination. Of course there’s always still hope for them to bring it back.

Though, don’t ask me how that masochism stuff is supposed to fit in.

Postignorism

I like the postmodernist idea that when given a work of art,  fiction or anything with any degree of abstraction, everyone interprets it and enjoys it their own way. The artists have power but so does the audience. That said however, I do feel that there is a distinct danger in becoming too wrapped up in your own interpretation, particularly at the expense of what is actually there.

In the case of anime fandom, this often takes the form of watching something through the lens of esoteric criteria such as a set of rules for enjoying (or not enjoying) a series established by a fan community for a fan community. It’s okay to watch Inuyasha because you really like Sango, but it’s another matter entirely to judge a given episode’s merit almost entirely on percentage of Sango content or that the series would be objectively improved by more Sango screen time. Shipping can often become a similar beast. Having a favorite pairing is very reasonable even in series without a hint of romance, but the game changes when a series’ ability to provide ammo for that specific coupling is considered the most vital criteria of success.

There is a delicate balance in terms of arguing for the sake of the creator vs the sake of the audience. It may sound like I’m faulting the viewers for not going along with what the creators have laid out, but I understand that creators are not infallible gods even when it comes to their own works, and what they think happens in their own story can play out very differently on the page and screen. I encourage people to really understand their own tastes and to not treat their personal criteria as frivolous, but at the same time if your rubric for enjoyment is too narrow, then it starts to reach a point where what you’re demanding from a work of fiction is that it caters to you, even at the expense of the work itself. On some level it’s not even about like or dislike, good or bad, but rather making an opinion on what’s there rather than what doesn’t exist.

I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to tell people they need to enjoy their shows a certain way, as I don’t believe in that. However, what I do believe in is having some sense of how you approach fiction and to acknowledge the whole of the work when thinking about it, and then taking steps from there to express your mode of enjoyment. Indulging your fantasy is okay as long as you don’t confuse it for the “reality” of the story. If you’re going to be ignoring an aspect of a work, at least be somewhat aware that you’re ignoring it.

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