Tite Kubo’s Secret to Memorable Characters: Music!
It probably goes without saying, but music is magical. For many people, important moments and times of their lives are pinned to certain soundtracks. You've likely seen those memes about your taste in music in high-school, your first playlist, your usual driving music, what songs you listen to the most, what your Spotify playlist says about you, and so on. Put simply, music is a huge part of the human experience, and we tie our identities to the music that punctuates our lives and the moments that surround it. And when it comes to our love of anime, we’ve all probably made our own playlists of songs that remind us of characters and series, interspersed with opening and ending themes. But what about when the author of a series does it themselves? Well, that happens to be the case with Tite Kubo, and it’s worth thinking about whether this is why Bleach’s huge, diverse cast is so memorable.
Like many long-running series, Bleach is long; the anime ended after 300+ episodes, and the manga ran for 74 volumes. The issue with a lot of long series is that eventually, characters start to get sidelined or forgotten, and we start to lose sight of exactly who they were or why they were important; a character we might have loved at first suddenly becomes barely recognizable. Throughout Bleach’s run, though, I never found myself having that issue. Kubo’s visual designs help, as he’s always masterfully created unique and interesting designs that all stand apart from one another, but I started to realize that it was a bit more than that. Bleach’s character roster didn’t just feel like characters in a story, they felt like people, and a large part of that was the way Kubo rounded them out so completely that he attached specific, real-world songs to each of his designs. (If you’re curious about the list, we wrote about it here). These songs add an extra layer to each character that few other creators come close to and help to not only make Bleach’s characters visually memorable, but also helps to create fuller profiles in our minds of who this character is or was and what makes them tick.
But does it really matter that much, you might ask? Well, at least in my humble opinion, the answer is yes. Because this goes beyond simply designing a character by color and shape, it leans into viewing them as a complicated collection of personality traits. A pretty specific and interesting aspect of this is that these songs never changed, which leads to questions like, “Did he really have Kenpachi’s character arc designed the whole time?” or "How far in advance was most of the major storyline developed?" But more importantly, it made me want to listen to all of these songs from disparate groups of musicians and genres. Personally, music has always been a big part of my personality and I’ve loved listening to and exploring music throughout my life. So, when I first encountered Kubo’s character design notes and saw the songs, you better believe I burnt a CD right then and there to listen to in my car. But what I also realized is that looking back at Bleach, all of the side characters — especially Ichigo’s classmates from Karakura town — stayed memorable. Whereas in series like One Piece and Naruto where I can struggle to remember one-shot or forgotten characters, I still know exactly what Tatsuki's and Don Kanonji’s deals are in Bleach. They’re people, just not the ones the series focuses on, and in large part, these songs play a big part in that memory.
Perhaps the biggest aspect of this design choice, though, is how well these songs fit the characters. In some cases, it takes a few listens to recognize what exactly Kubo’s intentions were. Some of that may be conjecture or interpretation on our end, but it really starts to make a character’s personality and “idea” click in our heads when we get it. The songs aren’t totally about the lyrics, either. It’s important to think about the music, melody, and theme and consider the ways in which all of these things play in to being the “theme song” of a character. The songs also help turn seemingly one-note characters into more well-rounded ones; for all of the villains that vanished after a single battle, thinking about their song choice makes them suddenly much more interesting and fulfilling, and lets us think about the various, complex ways Kubo went about designing a character that was only meant to accomplish a single thing and then disappear forever. Further, playing these songs during re-reads of the manga makes certain scenes just that much more impactful and powerful; playing a theme song during a character’s big moment or fight really heightens the tension in a way that I can’t get from other series, even those where I’ve built my own playlist. Knowing that Kubo selected these songs gives them purpose and makes the impact that much bigger.
On a different level, though, these theme songs also forced me to engage in something that wasn’t entirely related to the anime or manga — the music and songs themselves. I don’t think it would be a mistake to say that following Kubo’s list of songs forced me out of my own musical comfort zones and made me learn to appreciate and even become a fan of various musicians and styles of music that I’d never really listened to before. And for me, I think that speaks to something even more important in terms of what Kubo’s done: Bleach isn’t just a self-contained thing, but a piece of art and culture that exists and is influenced by other pieces of art and culture. We can trace Kubo’s thought processes and ideas to the things he listened to, saw, and engaged with as he was working on the series — and this music is an aspect of that. Let’s be fair, a lot of these songs are fairly dated today, but they encapsulate certain pieces of the history of Bleach and the early '00s that round out the full picture in such a beautiful and unusual way. I don’t think one needs to become a fan of every song or artist on Kubo’s list, but I do think this is something so unique and special that I wish every creator would engage with it, just once.
Of course, we’ll never know the full intentions behind every song unless Kubo ever wants to explain them to us, but I think one of the most troubling aspects of appreciating characters and design decisions for fans is authorial intent; we can never know the true answer. These songs, however, give us something that few other creators have ever attempted, and really makes Kubo’s ability as a character designer and author stand out in the crowd in a way that was easy to overlook before. Considering how deep the ocean of music really is, it’s fascinating to think about all of the songs that he must have listened to or thought about before selecting each of these specific, singular titles for characters. In the end, Bleach will always remain an amazing series to me, and the characters still stand out to me while others have started to fade. Part of me wonders if it’s because of that playlist I made where I first heard the band Hellacopters and made Chad one of my favorite characters ever once everything just “clicked” in a way that I doubt it would have otherwise. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect every creator to follow in Kubo’s footsteps here, but sometimes, just sometimes, don’t you wish you knew what your favorite character’s theme song was?
Who’s your favorite Bleach character, and what do you think of their song? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Nicole is a frequent wordsmith for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries
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