Creator Tite Kubo surprised by 'Bleach' success

BOOKS & IDEAS

 

Noriaki Kubo, who draws under the name Tite Kubo, is the creator of one of the most popular manga series in the world. "Bleach," his long-running fantasy-adventure, has sold more than 40 million books in Japan and topped sales charts in America.

"Bleach" is the story of Ichigo Kurosaki, an orange-haired high school misfit who becomes a Soul Reaper charged with slaying soul-devouring monsters and other feats of supernatural derring-do. The animated series aired on the cable network Adult Swim in America, as well as in Canada, Europe and Latin America, and it is selling briskly on DVD. "Bleach" has also been adapted to three theatrical features, a rock musical and a number of video games. EBay and Rinkya, the Japanese auction site, offer hundreds of "Bleach"-related items, including T-shirts, plush toys, models and "Cosplay" costumes.

Kubo seems a bit nonplussed by the runaway success of his creation. Slim and soft-spoken, the 32-year-old artist discussed his work in a recent interview at the San Diego Comic-Con -- his first visit to the United States. Speaking through an interpreter, he explained: "When I started 'Bleach,' I thought if I were really serious, it might run for five years; it's now in its eighth year.

"I never think of my work as being targeted at certain readers or at readers in certain countries. I hope as many people as possible will enjoy what I create. I never imagined when I started writing 'Bleach' that it would be published in the U.S., but I'm really glad American readers have taken to it."

Kubo, the son of a town council member in Hiroshima, decided he wanted to become a manga-ka (manga artist) as an adolescent. He cites Masami Kurumada's long-running "Saint Seiya," the tale of a boy training to become a "knight of Athena," as an influence: "When I was in my early teens, I started reading 'Saint Seiya': That's when I decided to become a manga artist.

"The summer of my third year in high school was the first time I'd ever written a manga," he recalled. "I didn't have any experience or knowledge of how to draw manga. I submitted it to Weekly Shonen Jump for a contest. I didn't win, but I got a phone call from one of the editors, who suggested we work together."

Kubo's first manga short story, "Ultra Unholy Hearted Machine," appeared in Shonen Jump in 1996. In 1999, he launched his first serial, "Zombie Powder," which ran until 2000.

"Bleach" began when Kubo drew a picture of the girl who would become Rukia Kuchiki, the Soul Reaper who helps Ichigo realize his powers. "The first time I first drew Rukia, she was not wearing the black kimono that is her costume now," he recalls. "She was wearing a high school uniform, but it was black, and she was carrying a nasty-looking sword with a huge blade. That's when I knew she was going to be a Soul Reaper."

Shonen Jump initially turned down "Bleach." Kubo grew discouraged, but a letter of encouragement from Akira Toriyama, the creator of the landmark hits "Dragon Ball" and "Dragon Ball Z," buoyed his spirits. The editors at Weekly Shonen Jump soon realized their mistake and published the first installments of "Bleach" in 2001. It scored an instant hit.

When asked about the process of creating his popular manga, Kubo explained, "Sometimes, I have ideas for the characters' appearances, sometimes for their personalities. The first time I drew Chad's face, I thought, 'He's Mexican,' so I start creating a story around him. Once you get the characters set, then the story kind of moves on by itself. The key thing is that I come to love the characters, as if they were real."

Millions of readers share Kubo's affection for his characters, especially diamond-in-the-rough Ichigo. "I think fans like Ichigo at first because he looks cool," Kubo continued, stroking his minimal goatee with long, delicate fingers. "As they read 'Bleach' and learn about his character, they discover that underneath he's really, really warm and has a kind heart. That's what attracts lots of fans."

In recent years, rumors have proliferated within the U.S. entertainment industry about deals to make popular manga into live-action films. Kubo dismissed the idea of turning "Bleach" into a film with real actors. "If it were possible to do 'Bleach' as a live-action movie, I wouldn't have drawn the manga. I want to draw something that can only be done as a manga."

Charles Solomon's most recent book is "Disney Lost and Found: Exploring the Hidden Artwork From Never-Produced Animation."

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