For a series as high energy as Bleach, there’s a surprising thread of loneliness that consistently runs through the anime. Each of the main characters have experienced either loss or abandonment, and themes like adoption and abuse affects others. The first ending song, “Life is Like a Boat,” hints at this tone, beginning with solitary piano notes and combined with the visual of a red string tracing its way to the lonely Rukia Kuchiki, as Rie Fu voices these lyrics: “Nobody knows who I really am.”
Almost fifteen years after it premiered, “Life is Like a Boat” remains a key part of the experience of Bleach, one anime’s most enduring series here in the west. With lyrics noteworthy for being primarily in English, the song could be immediately understood by a generation of English-speaking fans. It also conveys a topic that many know intimately, which Rié, as she goes by professionally now, believes was critical in connecting with fans. “I think the reason why people still remember the song is because it starts with a very personal, lonely phrase. When I wrote the song at age seventeen, that was really my honest thought.”
The song doesn’t remained anchored in loneliness, though. The voice calls out in the sadness (“And if I ever need someone to come along, who’s gonna comfort me and keep me strong?”) and moves toward a response, matched by the animation, which shows glimmers of hope for Rukia in the form of loving classmates and particularly of Ichigo, who will rescue Rukia in the second arc when she is imprisoned in solitary confinement. And answer, also, comes in lyrics that impart the illustration of a rowboat to express both sorrow and surprise. The imagery of waves and of the rower fighting them juxtaposes with that sense of loneliness. There’s some force seemingly working against the rower—or is it working for her? Rié explains:
When you’re rowing a boat, you’re not actually facing toward the direction you’re moving—you’re facing backwards. You can never see the future. You only see the past, and even if there is an island ahead of you, you’ll never know until you reach it. That image really stuck in my head and that became the origin of the song.
The story that Rié relates was taught her by a minister. She attended Christian primary and secondary schools, and while living in America, went to a Baptist school where she was baptized. That influence (“Christianity has been quite a strong part of my life”) found its way into the song, as she recalls, “One day a preacher was talking about the journey of life and I remember him drawing this illustration on a blackboard and it was somebody rowing a boat.” The dissection of that analogy, as she explains, what was inspired the lyrics to “Life is Like a Boat.”
That illustration provides nuance and layers to the song. Besides the meaning in context as an anime ending, on a surface level, most prominent is the idea that as we battle the torrents of life, we’ll reach our goals. But there’s something even richer spiritually when considering God: we might think of why we row facing backward and what that means in our spiritual development; the importance of the waves in showing us our failures and the value of faith; and the role of God in the illustration, as the provider of the island, the maker of the waves, and as maybe the boat itself.
Unpacking the analogy is part of the wonder of the song, even as its not specifically about God. However, the spiritual inspiration and imagery work together with the poetic wanderings of a lonely 17-year-old girl and Japanese lyrics that emphasize, too, the power of nature (“The moon in its new cycle leads the boats again”). When combined with Rié’s calming voice and a melody that grows in confidence and strength as the lyrics progress, the song reveals an experience both personal and encompassing, particular and spiritual. Rié and Rukia’s song belongs to all of us—and to God, too.