Chapter 686 of the Bleach manga, created by Tite Kubo, caused a controversy among fans of the online scanlation of the popular comic series mainly due to Mr. Kubo’s choice of how to pair off several of the main characters. But ultimately, this controversial ending was suitable to the series and satisfied the main heroic arc.
Romantically pairing protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki and his sidekick and friend Rukia Kuchiki has long been a fan favorite. The pairing known as “IchiRuki” appears often in fan art and fan fiction. Many fans expected that Mr. Kubo would use this arrangement to end the series. But he didn’t. In the final chapter, Ichigo Kurosaki married his old high school classmate and friend Orihime Inoue, and together they had a son name Kazui, who inherited his father’s Soul Reaper power. At the same time, Rukia Kuchiki married her childhood friend Renji Abarai. With both parents being Soul Reapers, their daughter, Ichika, inherited their powers.
Like so many others, I was rooting for the IchiRuki pairing. So, why do I find the final chapter ideal for the series?
Pairing Ichigo and Rukia presents what I like to call the “Doctor Who problem.” This refers to when Rose Tyler, a companion who fell for the Tenth Doctor, was spurned because in the Doctor’s own words: “You can spend the rest of your life with me. But I can’t spend the rest of my life with you.” The Tenth Doctor’s lifespan far outstrips that of an ordinary human like Rose Tyler, and the same is true of Rukia. Being a spirit, she will outlive Ichigo by centuries, and that alone dooms the relationship in the long term, and until then, would cast a shadow on them both. Orihime, being an ordinary human like Ichigo, has no such problem.
On a similar note, the two characters’ roles in the world are vastly different. Throughout the series, Rukia got herself acquainted with Ichigo’s mortal life, such as high school, computers, cars, and so on. Ultimately, though, she has her official job and its duties as a Soul Reaper, and her loyalty to that cause makes it unlikely that she would abandon it to stay with Ichigo. In fact, by chapter 686, Rukia was promoted to Captain rank among the Soul Reapers, proving her loyalty to her work rather than a mortal such as Ichigo. And in the final chapter, Ichigo is shown running the Kurosaki family’s medical clinic and living happily with Orihime. There was no sign that he wanted to run off to be with Rukia, and at any rate, he fought alongside the Soul Reapers during the series, but never showed any inclination to actually live among them. And multiple times, the Soul Reapers emphasized how Ichigo is unlike them and doesn’t truly belong in their world.
What’s more, aside from a little teasing from a background character very early in the series, the Bleach manga gave no real sign that Ichigo and Rukia were romantically attracted to each other. Their constant bickering, and sometimes uncomfortable behavior with each other is the type that sometimes segues into romantic involvement in other stories, but the characters never did take the next step in that direction. They remained friends and trusted allies, but little to no romantic tension was shown, aside from minor comedy relief in the earliest chapters.
By contrast, in the chapter Storm Warning: Chapter 8, Goodbye, Halcyon Days, Orihime Inoue approached Ichigo in his sleep, and openly confesses her love for him, and nearly kisses him. (I should note that this scene was probably a tribute to a similar scene in Yu Yu Hakusho.) She even states, in the American Shonen Jump translation, “There are lots of people I’d like to say goodbye to. Tatsuki, Chad, Uryu, Rukia…” But she is in Ichigo’s room instead, and makes her confession. Earlier in the same chapter, Rukia had stood guard while Ichigo slept, but her only comments were tactical analysis of Ichigo’s supernatural power and the enemies that he had fought earlier.
What does all this add up to? Tite Kubo set up several clear signs that Orihime had a strong romantic interest in Ichigo, and that Rukia and Ichigo, while brought together by unusual circumstances, were never meant to move further than being friends and partners in combat. Ichigo and Rukia, while friends with an amusing personal dynamic, were beings from two vastly different worlds, and beings of two very different natures. Chapter 686, while disappointing fan fantasies of Ichigo and Rukia overcoming their differences to become lovers, followed the signposts that Mr. Kubo had set up. Ichigo has none of the obstacles with Orihime that he would have to face with Rukia, such as the difference of lifespans or differing careers.
The final chapter of many narratives is designed to bring closure, and Ichigo remaining in the mortal human world with Orihime closes him off from further supernatural adventures with Rukia and other Soul Reaper characters, giving a sense of closure. After all, the final chapter shows both Ichigo’s son Kazui and Rukia’s daughter Ichika as being apprentice Soul Reaper, giving a sense of passing the torch to a new generation. Ichigo, by marrying Orihime and having a young Soul Reaper son, concretely shows that his heroic arc is finished and that Kazui’s will soon begin.