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Characters are perhaps even more important than the story in fiction. While they go hand-in-hand, along with the world-building and themes the author wants to explore, characters are the ones who can truly sell a series, a movie, a book, a comic, a manga, or what have you. People are usually more drawn to the characters than the story itself.
Bleach is a very interesting case in the sense that it’s more character-driven than the story and Tite Kubo’s characters are usually the big selling point of his series. While there are several characters, such as Aizen, Hollow Ichigo, Ulquiorra, and many more that deserve their own analysis, Rukia Kuchiki is a unique case.
The tag “shonen female character” is often one that comes with a lot of ramifications. Due to the way the manga and anime industry is run and how Japanese culture views women, it is difficult to see a lot of variety when it comes to female characters. However, much like Jolyne Cujoh at JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Rukia is very peculiar, and, in her case, its because she manages to combine both the traditional with something a bit more modern. She’s a phenomenal character who deserves a lot more praise.
Rukia appears in the first chapter or episode of Bleach in both the anime and the manga. She is a Shinigami that comes from Soul Society, which is the series’ afterlife, and she is tasked with taking down a Hollow, which are creatures that feed off humans. A lot of things happen and she ends up giving her powers to a teenager called Ichigo Kurosaki, kick-starting their friendship and bond that would last for the remainder of the series.
For the remainder of the first arc, Rukia serves as Ichigo’s aide and teaches him about the role of a Shinigami, which also serves to teach the audience about the series’ world-building. She is eventually arrested by her brother, Byakuya Kuchiki, and her longtime friend, Renji Abarai, for giving her powers to a human, and she is taken back to Soul Society to be executed.
After she is rescued by Ichigo in the Soul Society arc, she decides to stay there and work as a Shinigami, slowly climbing the ladder to become a Lieutenant and later on a Captain after the series’ conclusion. She is a major backup to Ichigo for the remainder of the series and plays a pivotal role in getting his powers back during the Fullbringer arc.
It’s interesting that, according to Tite Kubo, Rukia was the first character he drew for what was going to be the Bleach story and was meant to be the main character. Because it shows throughout the story in the way that her character goes about things and, more importantly, because of her dimensions.
Dimensions are a very important part of a good character and are something that most authors, especially in anime and manga, tend to struggle with. Anime characters, particularly the female ones, are usually focused on just one trait or element and authors run with it, which can make sense for less important ones that are going to show up for one battle or one arc, but the main ones need a bit more.
Rukia is a great example of a well-written character because she has dimensions. She can be serious, funny, stoic, emotional, and many other things across the series, which makes her all the more interesting. The Substitute Shinigami arc sees her as Ichigo’s mentor and the audience builds a connection as well, which makes her role as a damsel-in-distress in the Soul Society arc work because the readers and viewers care for her–they want the main character to save her.
Later on, she becomes an active fighter in the series, although Kubo’s treatment of her post-Soul Society arc is a bit inconsistent. Sure, she is still very tridimensional as a character but she appears a lot less in the plot, which I thought was a bad decision on the author’s part as she adds a lot more contrast to Ichigo and their dynamic together is quite entertaining.
How Her Past Molds Her
Further emphasizing the part of Rukia being able to show emotions while still being strong and capable, her past is a very good example of that. She came from nothing and worked to become a Shinigami with Renji, only for the Kuchiki family to adopt her because of Byakuya’s request. She was judged for getting everything on a silver platter because of her recent role as a noble but that only added insecurities and a sense of overcompensation to her character.
This was developed with her friendship with her Lieutenant, Kaien Shiba. It was through Kaien that she learned the value of being brave and going all out to protect those you care about, which is something she later notices in Ichigo (which, funny enough, is eventually revealed he is related to Kaien). This is important to understand Rukia’s character and why she eventually connected to Ichigo in the earlier episodes of the series.
Rukia goes from a person who feels that she doesn’t matter, coming from the slums of Soul Society and now having an older brother in Byakuya who is emotionally detached, which is why she is willing to accept her death when she is about to be executed. And just like she gave Ichigo the means to protect others at the start of the series, he saves her and inspires her to live on, which is one of the key aspects of their bond.
Her battle with Aaroniero during the Arrancar arc makes all of this come full circle. As the Espada is emotionally manipulating her by using Kaien’s face, she eventually decides to let the past go and kills Aaroniero with a technique that her Lieutenant didn’t know, which is a nice detail of defeating your past demons with something you learned in the present.
Her Fighting Style
It’s a shame that Kubo didn’t give Rukia a lot of fights to work with because they are usually quite compelling. In many ways, all of her battles are a good representation of her progress across the series and how she has become a stronger character in every arc.
The most noticeable example is against Aaroniero but when she fought As Nodt in the Thousand-Year Blood War arc that was when she truly shined. It is understandable that fans wanted Byakuya’s death to remain as such because it would have made this encounter all the more memorable with Rukia facing fear itself, but her Bankai was a great example of power mixed with visual impact, which is, of course, something Kubo excels at.
It’s not unusual for anime female characters to be sexualized but the interesting thing about Rukia’s fighting style and her Zanpakuto, Sode no Shirayuki, have a sophisticated element of beauty to it. She is not a character that is focused on her looks but the element of elegance displayed by her attacks and Zanpakuto is something that makes her quite unique, not only in Bleach but shonen as a whole.
Rukia is a very good example of what it means to have dimensions as a character and not stick to just one trait as that can get old very quickly. The many different layers to her character, plus the fact that her personality has a lot of range, have made her a fan-favorite in Bleach, and understandably so.