Bleach (the anime)

Spoilers scattered throughout, but no big plot points discussed past the first episode.
(if you want to keep from spoiling anything, which is how I like to do it, quick summary: Watch it. Watch it now.)

Ichigo Kurosaki is a fifteen-year-old Japanese high school student who was picked on as a child for his bright orange hair. It made him tough; working in the town's family-run medical clinic, particularly after the death of his mother in front of him when Ichigo was very young, certainly didn't help. (ouch)

All that's well and good, but here's the thing: Ichigo can see ghosts. So (to a lesser extent) can his two sisters. Their ham of a father can't, but that would make the whole thing even more complicated.

Okay, so Ichigo's in the center of town when on one particularly ghosty day, he runs into a ghost being attacked by a hideous masked monster that nobody but him can see. Only the intervention of a young woman in a black robe with a bigass sword keeps him from being, apparently, eaten by the thing.

The young woman's name, if you can call three-hundred years-old young, is Rukia Kuchiki, and she's a Soul Reaper - Ichigo discovers that when, later that night, Rukia walks through his wall and is mildly surprised when he tackles her - she's actually more surprised that he can see her at all.

Soul Reapers, she says, are kind of like the garbage men of the spiritual world. There are two kinds of souls who find themselves wandering the earth after their death, Wholes and Hollows. Wholes are souls who need to have a ritual performed on them to have them sent to the Soul Society, and Hollows are hideous and vaguely animal-like monsters who try to eat them. Soul reapers save the Wholes and destroy the Hollows.

...and then Rukia stabs Ichigo with her sword in a desperate attempt to transfer half of her spirit energy into his body. Ichicgo somehow absorbs all of it...and reappears in a robe like Rukia's with a sword twice the size of his body and carves a Hollow in two to protect his sister. The bigger the sword, the bigger the spirit force of its wielder, and Rukia's never seen one that huge before. Ahem.

Here's the thing: That's the first damn episode.

Bleach is the densest and most thoroughly thought-out anime I've ever seen. The mythology is intricately conceived, from the powers of Ichigo and his friends to the characters themselves.

Oh my god, the characters.There are dozens of them of varying types - Ichigo and his magical and non-magical classmates, Rukia and the Soul Reapers, denizens of the Soul Society, Ichigo's family, Ichigo's teachers, a wandering collection of spiritual fireworks experts, a spiritually-infused television personality (kinda like John Edward on amphetamines), the vendors at the local spiritual supply store, the little stuffed lion cum marketing accessory that Ichigo stores his soul in when he's not using it (see what I mean?) and even the monstrous Hollows all have distinct personalities and drives.

The Soul Reapers in particular are well-conceived. The soul society is hierarchical in a militaristic sort of way, and every single one of them is immediately identifiable as a unique character, from the one who never opens his eyes to the one in the metal mask to the mad scientist, every one of them has a place within the story.

And did I mention it's gorgeous? There's a toned-down FLCL vibe to the whole affair, and the show is stylized to the extreme in a way that's, surprisingly, not intrusive at all.

Watch it, from the beginning if you can, in Japanese with English subtitles (unless you're lucky enough to be fluent in Japanese. I envy you.) - the English voice acting, while passable, doesn't hold a candle to the original cast.

- - -

Addenum, much later:

There are problems with this anime not initially gleaned the first time through.

No one dies. Ever. With a cast of characters as large as the show has and considering how epic some of the battles are (in some cases lasting over numerous episodes) everybody, even the bad guys, manage to limp away, heal themselves and come back for more. I understand why that would be the case but it takes a lot of the fulfillment out of the thing, knowing that the fights have no real consequences.

Also, the pacing gets thrown for a loop after awhile - there are whole episodes devoted to training, to getting from one place to another or to lighthearted backstory, non of which is particularly welcome in the middle of a boss fight. It feels like the writers were killing time, which is a problem with any anime without a definitive arc but is particularly noticeable here. Last Exile and Haibane Renmei do it right - they have a story to tell and they do it before taking their bows and walking off stage, but Bleach goes on and on and on without a hint of character resolution. It isn't as bad as, say, Inuyasha, but it's close.

It's still worth it, but be prepared for a long haul if you dive in.