Monday, August 29, 2011

Ukitake Taichou

I have been a huge fan of the Bleach manga by Kubo Tite for 4 or 5 years. I find the story, characters, & artwork absolutely fascinating, & even when things stray into typical shounen (fighting) manga territory, Kubo always has a twist in the story that keeps my interest. I also watch the anime, & really enjoy the Japanese voice-acting, but the quality of most of the animation suffers terribly by comparison to the original artwork. However, watching the Bleach anime with Charlie & Brendan has been a lot of fun & a good way to share the story as a family, so I'm still a fan of the anime, although with reservations.

I've found a lot of inspiration for my Nerd Wars 2 projects from the Bleach manga (for team spirit points, my challenges had to be themed to a manga or comic series). Two of my summer projects were inspired by the character Orihime (the Orihime Scarf and the Tanabata Tawashi, which I made & posted from Japan) & two more were inspired by Ukitake Taichou, Captain Ukitake of the 13 Gotei Bantai (13 protection squads) of Soul Society. In June I made a shifuku, a bag to hold a tea cannister, for him. Yesterday I finished a 3-week project to make an amigurumi of Ukitake, which also completed my last 2 Nerd Wars 2 challenges & this month's team unity project. Whew!
 Ukitake Taichou is not a major character in the Bleach series, but Kubo does such a great job of fleshing-out even minor characters that he really comes to life for me. The 13 Gotei Bantai are the protectors of Souls Society, which in the Bleach universe, is where souls go after they die to await rebirth. There are predators that consume souls & interfere with the rebirth process, so the shinigami (literally "death gods", but usually translated as "soul reapers") of Soul Society protect the souls from predators & also help souls that have yet to pass on to Soul Society (& are stuck on earth) to cross over. The Taichou, or captains, lead the 13 squadrons & are the most powerful of all the shinigami. One of the things I find interesting about Kubo's vision of Soul Society is that, although there is a definite hierarchy, there is a lot of individualism among the different squadrons & individual shinigami. They all wear the same uniform, called shihakusho, but nearly all shinigami have individualistic embellishments, hair styles, & other distinguishing factors that make them all easy to tell apart (which is not common in manga, let me tell you! Sometimes you have a lot of trouble telling even main characters apart). All of the Taichou wear white haori coats with the number of their bantai emblazoned on the back over their shihakusho as a symbol of captaincy, but there are variations among the haori & how they're worn, from captain to captain. And you can often tell a lot about their personality by how shinigami wear their uniforms. Some of the things I like best about the character of Ukitake Taichou is that he balances being strong with being flexible. His character has suffered from tuberculosis for at least 1000 years (!) but he is recognised as a strong person & excellent fighter in spite of having this physical weakness. He runs his bantai as much like a family as a military squadron & his squad respects & adores him. He is very wise, but also can be silly sometimes. And above all, he is very kind. Oh, & very cool :D

So, I decided to make an amigurumi of Ukitake Taichou to complete the "Guilty Pleasures" & "Necessity is the Mother..." August challenges for NW2. For me, the pleasure is dreaming something up & then creating it pretty much as I see it in my mind's eye. I also was intrigued by the idea of knitting the traditional kimono & accoutrements. The other challenge involved making a tool relevant to your fandom, so part of making Ukitake involved making his katana (seen in the above picture), called "Sougyo no Kotowari" ("refusal of the twin fish"). But I'll start with the creation of the amigurumi...
I decided to crochet the body from KnitPicks Wool of the Andes sport weight wool yarn, using a size D crochet hook, because I wanted a firm fabric, but I didn't want the ami to be terribly large. I thought sport weight wool for the body would allow me to use fingering weight yarn for his kimono (or lace weight, if I had to really make things finer). I looked around in some of my amigurumi books to get an idea of how to start the head, but from there it was all my own creation. Although the head is oversized (like many anime-inspired dolls) I wanted the rest of the body to be in proportion, so I just kind of eyed things as I went along. I took only very sketchy notes because I didn't want to obsess over reproducibility. I really wanted to just create. I took notes on arms, feet, sandals so that the second one of the pair would match. When it came to his hands, I needed them to be able to hold his swords, so I divided the work in a mitten-like fashion & then sewed the little thumb to the rest of the hand. It ended-up working really well.

When I stuffed the body with polyfil I added a sodalite gemstone heart to his chest :) something I often do when creating amigurumi. I also decided to crochet his tabi socks right onto his legs, rather than fuss with separate socks, & I'm really glad I did because it gave me time to fuss with the sandals instead :D In the photo above you can see the body plus the hair, wound around an American manga version of Bleach, which turned out to be the exact size I needed to make his hair. I used about 1/3 a skein of KnitPicks Gloss lace weight yarn to make the hair. To make it into a wig, I measured over the top of head to get an idea of how wide it should be (I had already measured the length, adding some extra for styling purposes), then I machine-stitched it all (using a very short stitch) to a piece of paper, off-set because his part is on one side, not in the middle. The paper, perforated by the sewing machine needle, came apart easily & left me with the mass of hair ready to sew to the head with the same yarn as the hair. I styled it & then cut the front hair like Ukitake's. 
Then came the clothes (I felt funny putting the face on before he was clothed :). I decided to use KnitPicks Comfy (cotton/acrylic blend) fingering weight yarn for the kimono & hakama. I swatched it on a size 2 knitting needle & liked the fabric (~6.5 stitches/inch) so that's what I used. I decided to knit the clothes because crochet is bulkier & less drapey than knitted fabric. I also used a mix of traditional Japanese kimono making techniques & knitted shortcuts. In "reality" there are 2 layers of kimono worn, a white under-kimono (& actually, under that would be fundoshi underwear) & then the black over-kimono, but I realised that if I knitted all of the layers he'd look more like Santa Claus than a lean fighting guy :) So I suggested the white under-kimono by crocheting in white along the edges of the neckline & sleeves. I also suggested the kimono lapels with strategically placed decreases, rather than knitting on another piece like a kimono usually has. I made the kimono to fit the crocheted body by measuring, adding ease & using the swatched gauge to calculate it all.
Next came the hakama (trousers). Again, I had really wanted to make them with all the pleats that make them look so cool in real life, but that would have made them impossibly bulky, so I made decreases to the waistline instead.
I did add the traditional ties, with the black ones in front & white ones in back, wrapping around to the front (the white obi belt is a particular characteristic of the shihakusho worn by shinigami & not usually found on Japanese hakama). The decreases are actually openings in the side of the hakama, which is just how they're usually constructed. All of the kimono sleeves are also open at the under-arm which is traditional.
Next I made the waraji sandals, which are woven from plant materials in real life (kind of like a basket). I crocheted them from 10/2 pearl cotton with a size 6 steel hook, using manga depictions as a guide.
Then came the face. I was a bit worried about the face, but I drew a picture of what I was aiming for (an intense look, rather than cute, since he was going to be holding swords, for goodness sake!) & used fingering weight wool to get better detail. I used black & brown (his eyes are a lovely brown in the anime :) & the embroidering went very well. I like how it turned out.

Since I was waiting for the wool for his haori coat to come in the mail, I decided to make his katana next. This is another one of those parts of this project that I thought hard about before it all coalesced in my brain. In the Bleach story, all shinigami have special katana called zanpakutou, or soul swords. These zanpakutou look like normal Japanese katana, but they have particular powers that resonate with the inherent abilities of the shinigami. They allow the shinigami to become more powerful over time, if they train well & have a good relationship with their zanpakutou. Eventually shinigami learn to "release" their zanpakutou into more powerful forms, their shikai & bankai. The zanpakutou actually change shape with each release. Ukitake is one of the oldest of the shinigami taichou & his bankai has not been seen yet (he's so powerful in shikai he hasn't had to use it yet :). His zanpakutou is the only one in Soul Society to actually split in two when he releases his shikai (by reciting a poem: "Wave become my shield, Thunder become my sword!"). The two swords are connected in the middle by a long strap that has metal tags hanging from it. When in shikai, Ukitake can absorb attacks & then turn them back on his attacker. 
To make the zanpakutou, I used 10/2 pearl cotton & the size 6 steel hook again, plus 2 wooden skewers, some wire & jump rings, & some metal beads which were the closest thing I could find to the zanpakutou's metal tags in the Fire Mountain bead catalogue. I have yet to see a colour picture of Ukitake's zanpakutou in the manga, so I went with the colour scheme from the anime. The handles & strap are maroon, the parts below the jutte (prongy bits) are grey, & the rest of the katana & jutte are black with grey edging along the main katana. I crocheted the handle & grey areas in the round, to fit the skewers, then crocheted the rest of the length of the skewer in black, back & forth in rows, attaching it to the grey as I went, & then wrapped it around the rest of the skewer & crocheted it all together lengthwise with the grey. I did the jutte prongs similarly, but around wire, which I bent at the end & slipped into the crochet around the skewers, sewing them into place. The guards are in gold, crocheted in the round. The strap with its metal tags is attached to jump rings sewn to each katana by little wire fasteners that I made. I had to add the fasteners or he wouldn't ever be able to put the zanpakutou down :) These took all day to make & nearly burnt me out, all that tiny crochet work in the round. Whew. But I did it!
Last of all was the haori coat, symbol of being a captain in the 13 Gotei Bantai (& my team unity project for August). Haori are usually lined, & according to the Bleach character books, Ukitake's lining is a reddish brown colour (which is why I had to order yarn, since I didn't have the right colour on hand). I used KnitPicks Palette fingering weight wool yarn & size 1 needle (gauge ~7 stitches/inch) to make it. I wanted a finer fabric than the kimono because the lining would add bulk to the whole thing. As I was watching the Bleach anime for ideas I noticed that the haori were split in the back, which really gave me pause. Making the thing in one piece with the lining (which is the traditional way to make a haori coat) was going to be tricky enough without a split in the back... Luckily, when rereading the manga I saw that the haori are NOT split... big sigh of relief!!! As with the kimono, I measured the ami, added ease, did my calculations based on the swatched gauge, & cast-on. I used a crocheted provisional cast-on, knitted a few rows, then made purl turning row for the hem. Before I started the decreases for the fronts I added the black decoration that all the captain's haori have, using fair isle technique. I split the knitting at the underarms, knitted sides & back separately, then left everything at shoulders & neck on waste yarn to deal with later. I did the embroidery on the back next, before there were too many things hanging off of it (I like to leave long tails for sewing or grafting, so there were already many hangers-on). 
The back embroidery was much more difficult than the face, for some reason. The diamond shape has the kanji for the number 13 in it, because Ukitake is captain of the 13th squadron. Then I pulled-out the provisional cast-on & started knitting up in hazelnut, decreasing a total of 4 stitches at first to make it slightly smaller inside, & then mirroring the shaping of the outside of the coat. Then I kitchenered shoulders (4 of them!) & picked-up for sleeves (4 of them!) & did my best not to let this last bit of knitting do me in... I kitchenered the lining to the outside at the sleeves & neckline, & then sewed the rest together. The haori took 3 days to make. But it fits him, & it works!
So here he is with all of his accessories :) 
And put-together again. All-told, I spent 3 weeks making this amigurumi. It's one of the largest projects I've made in a long time. I am very pleased with how he turned out & feel very satisfied by the creative process of making him. For fellow ravelers, the project page is here. Thanks for reading all the way through this very intense project!!

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