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by Faye Hopper,

Bleach: Can't Fear Your Own World

Bleach: Can't Fear Your Own World Vol 1
The 1,000 Year Blood War between the Quincies and Soul Society is at an end. Though the lives lost are countless and the damage done unquantifiable, the repairs needed numerous and the wounds still yet to heal, a kind of peace has draped itself over the high walls of the Seireitei. It is a false peace. Tokinada Tsunayashiro, a noble who committed a crime long ago for which he never faced consequences, has violently placed himself at the head of his own family, one of the five founding families of Soul Society itself. And his schemes do not stop there. He wants to form Soul Society into a new order, by giving the throne to a mysterious child named Hikone. Standing at the center of a fate he has yet to realize is Shuhei Hisagi, the editor-and-chief of the Seritei Bulletin and the co-captain of the 9th Division. In covering the end of the War and Tokinada's rise to power, he is searching for the truth amidst all the lies and obfuscations and the fundamental unjustness of his world, in a way few others are. Though he is certainly not the ultra-powerful son of destiny Ichigo Kurosaki, Hisagi will come to decide the fate of the world and gaze upon the dark, terrible truth of Soul Society, just as his mentor, Kaname Tosen, once did before he decided to betray it forever.

Though as a preteen I adored Bleach, it's undeniable that it had one of the most severe drops in quality and popularity in Shonen Jump history. And yet, there is still admiration for it; a nostalgic affection amongst me and its other former fans. To this day, people still talk about the Rukia rescue arc, and not just because of the series' unique sense of style. That arc was a novel, sincere coming-of-age story about reckoning with a corrupt and unjust social order…themes that got pushed to the side as Kubo was more and more burnt-out by Shonen Jump working conditions and the story shifted to padding out its worldbuilding with profuse details and underwritten characters. But with this new light novel, I'm reminded of that arc. I'm reminded of why Bleach once spoke to me so, so much. With Bleach: Can’t Fear Your Own World—a light novel sequel to Bleach's final arc authored by Ryohgo Narita of Durarara!! and Baccano! fame—the series returns to these themes of coming to terms with a corrupt society in a profound way, revitalizing the series and making it not just interesting but emotionally resonant once again.

In a lot of ways, Ryohgo Narita is the perfect writer to harness Bleach's squandered potential. From the violent, over-the-top sociopathy of Ladd Russo to the sly conniving of Izaya Orihara to the neurotic anxiety of Jacuzzi Splott, Narita knows exactly how to write a diverse cast-of-thousands, each with fun personalities and striking, complex motivations. This is something Bleach was desperately lacking. Bleach, while having a roster of literal hundreds by series' end, often struggled to supply its characters with distinct identities or even offer a reason for why they did what they did (something Narita himself has to do, like clarifying in full why the Fullbringer Ginjo turned against Soul Society).

Narita takes this huge, oftentimes underdeveloped cast and fills them out with dynamic desires, emotional relatability and—in the case of Bleach's most iconic characters, like Grimmjow, Yoruichi, and Aizen—carefully written reminders of just why people were enamored of Bleach's world and key players. There's an attention to character detail in every scene (like the opening one where Aizen is locked back up inside the prison Mugen, a thematically crucial scene where Hisagi, Kyoraku, Aizen, Soi Fon and several others all have their own, unique things to add to the central conversation, navigated so the reader can always tell who is speaking and why they say what they say) where every character reacts specifically according to their own their own internal compass and has a distinct voice. And while Narita can't make every character interesting (not even he can make the surviving Quincies of the Blood War more than violent stereotypes), the fact that he manages to make Ginjo—a previously unengaging main villain—into not just a compelling character but an important part of the novel's anti-Soul Society themes is representative of how Narita is able to take the leftover, broken remains of Kubo's messy narrative and turn them into something not just engaging but fresh and relevant.

And the story of the book is extremely relevant. The main villain—Tokinada Tsunayashiro—is a sadist whose only joy is found in watching people suffer, fostered by his aristocratic upbringing of always getting what he wanted. Though an archetype Narita has worked with many times before (he's basically if Ladd Russo were a member of the upper classes), he's a direct representation of the moral rot at the center of Soul Society. After all, he could have been punished for murdering his wife and friend. He wasn't, though. Like the monsters of privilege in our own world, Tokinada's class insulates him, perpetuates his violent and terrible behavior. It's what allows him to construct his scheme to oust the Soul King unimpeded, a scheme which hinges on a literal child. Hikone, the kid in question, worships Tokinada for reasons yet unknown. But the moment a brutalized Hikone appears—their limps broken, bleeding out from a fight with the Arrancars—and expresses more concern for not being able to fulfill their mission than for their own pain and suffering, you know something is deeply, deeply wrong.

This is the moment where the novel takes a turn. While the previous chapters were set-up, this is the conceit. A child is hurt, and Hisagi is prevented from finding out why. He is prevented from helping them, all because the aristocrats have the power to not have their authority questioned, to do as their whims dictate. This is unjust. This is unfair, and cruel. And yet, Hisagi must obey. The nobles are too powerful, and he cannot risk his position. As a contrast to this, the final scene of the novel is one of the only moments of real kindness in the book—featuring Kaname Tosen, who has been beaten to within an inch of his life for daring to seek justice for his murdered friend—and it's one that just happens to be at the hands of the series' main villain, Sōsuke Aizen; a monster who was bred right under the Seireitei's nose, able to harness Tosen's valid rage against Soul Society for evil ends. Soul Society, from Aizen to Ginjo to Tokinada, has only bred its own monsters. Its injustices allow a child and so many others to be manipulated and hurt, the privileges it affords Soul Reapers and its aristocratic class allow them to commit atrocities and never be brought to justice. Tokinada may be the main villain, but he's only a symptom. The real evil, all along, was nested deep in the foundations of Seireitei, feeding into every act of violence, every injustice, like the roots that nourish a tree.

But Narita—as good a writer as he is—has problems in his approach that directly compliment Tite Kubo's own writing issues. A cast-of-thousands circling around a labyrinthine plot is a difficult thing to write no matter who you are, and Narita has made it a part of his style. This means that a good chunk of a 250 page novel is spent getting to know characters who feel tangential to the main stories of Tokinada and Hisagi; whose relevance to the main plot has yet to show itself in full. This is problematic when most of the novel is set-up, as the reader doesn't have much of a reason to invest themselves yet because the plot hasn't truly begun in earnest. The foundations for the plot are still being laid out, meaning that a lot of the characters are harder to care about (especially the unending scene with tertiary Arrancar Rubodon and the Quincies) as their role in the story has yet to be outlined (though I recognize that this is also a problem of having the first book in the series be mostly dedicated to exposition). This is a problem compounded by how Narita has to constantly stop to clarify a previous plot event from the manga so people remember who characters are; how he has to constantly pause the story to explain how powersets work and the kind of Zanpaku-to a given character is using. These lore dumps, while necessary to fit this story into the broader of universe of Bleach, grind the pace of the narrative to a halt. Top it off with a somewhat awkward translation that forces the reader to occasionally stop reading to parse sentences, and you have a release whose strong narrative is occasionally hampered by execution issues.

If I had to summarize the themes of Bleach: Can’t Fear Your Own World in just a word, it would be truth. As a journalist, Hisagi strives to collect all the facts and varying, conflicting perspectives to form a full, complete picture of his story. This is necessary, because Soul Society was founded on lies. The Soul King is dead but his demise hidden from the denizens of Soul Society, his origins—as implied by the end of the book—dubious and sinister. Tokinada is allowed to murder his family in a bloody war for succession and have it covered up. Ginjo, a previous villain, was, in his own words, victimized by Soul Society, his friend murdered. It was the same for Tosen, who turned against Soul Society to seek justice only to further the megalomaniacal dreams of an evil man. No one knew. Their stories were not allowed to be told, hidden beneath to keep the engines of Soul Society burning. Until now. With this light novel, the ugly truth of Soul Society and the beating heart of Bleach as a narrative have finally come to light. And though, like the awful, evil things that rest deep at the center of our world, it is sometimes unpleasant and requires us to rewrite our every perception, it is something we must gaze upon to truly understand our surroundings. It is something, like the title says, we cannot fear. Because the truth is there whether we like it or not. And as with Tokinada, our greatest evils often stand at its decaying middle.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A-

+ A compelling exploration of the ways a sick, broken society continuously breeds its own monsters and how a society covers up its injustices; makes characters who were initially underdeveloped interesting and their struggles emotionally resonant; takes the squandered potential and leftover, destroyed remains of Bleach's story and turns them into something bold and engaging and revitalized
Cast-of-thousands and focus on exposition means some characters and arcs are less interesting that others; strict adherence to convoluted Bleach lore can sometimes put a damper on pacing; somewhat awkward translation sometimes requires a bit of thought to figure out the ideas its communicating

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Production Info:
Story: Ryohgo Narita
Original creator: Tite Kubo
Original Character Design: Tite Kubo
Licensed by: Viz Media

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