Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Imprisoned Soul Reaper lieutenants Kira, Abarai and Hinamori collectively remember their days as Soul Reaper striplings, and separately come to the conclusion that escape is an attractive option. And escape they do, Abarai to train himself for the battle he knows is coming when Ichigo tries to save Rukia, Kira to rejoin his scheming captain Ichimaru, and Hinamori to avenge herself on the man she believes killed her beloved Captain Aizen, a quest that sends her crashing headfirst into a grudge match between her childhood friend Captain Hitsugaya and Ichimaru. With all of his comrades in one form of imprisonment or another, Ichigo is training to pull off bankai, the second release of his zanpaku-to, fully aware that he'll likely be alone against a host of Soul Reaper aces. For her part Rukia is lolling about it prison, remembering the death of Ganju's elder brother and generally wallowing in misery.
Coming off the high of some twenty-odd episodes of breathless, unpredictable battling bliss, Bleach's twelfth volume takes a break from the showdowns, rolling through a greatest hits list of annoying shounen fighting traits before gearing up for a return to form.
Checking the first off the list, before the volume even begins Ichigo is in the midst of training, cropping up each episode for the obligatory “his progress is inhuman” and “he might really be...” commentary from the sidelines. The volume quickly moves on to a series of lengthy and somber character-building flashbacks and then without a pause jumps into a lot of unnecessarily complicated, purposefully obtuse evil plotting. Ominously incomplete sentences are spouted with abandon (“Captain Aizen, the one who killed you was... cue the cut boys!”). Ichimaru squints evilly and makes pointedly ambiguous comments. Dark back-stories proliferate like angst-rodents. And all the while Ichigo's training keeps him conveniently out of the picture.
Bleach has always been razor-honed genre fare, so it should come as no surprise that it touches on even the less entertaining tropes of its genre, just as it should come as no surprise that it sharpens those genre annoyances into something a little more pointed than its less accomplished peers are capable of. The complexity of the evil plots actually translates into unpredictability, and culminates in a spectacular captain-on-captain death-match. The episode-long flashbacks establish the emotional tensions that underlie this volume's (and undoubtedly future) violent clashes, and even at its most pretentiously tortured the series never loses its off-the-wall sense of humor.
That is, with the exception of the Rukia episode. There comes a time in the run of every shounen action series when the creators begin to believe their own hype and forget that their creation is basically escapist entertainment. This episode is Bleach's turn to make that particular mistake. Smothered with a painfully affected and utterly redundant voice over, ill-formed, and grafted onto the plot with a Frankensteinian lack of finesse, it's a terrible mistake indeed. It may resolve some plot issues and raise the emotional stakes of Ichigo's quest, but it is nevertheless a blessed relief when the episode's conclusion—in which the rug is pulled from under Ichigo, forcing him to conclude his training—finally heralds the imminent return of the series' less introspective, more orthopedically destructive side.
The second-season budget boost proves fortunate for this angsty volume, as it allows for smooth, surprisingly expressive animation of Tite Kubo's rough-edged character designs, which, when combined with Noriyuki Abe's veteran touch with sharply-edited action, makes for at least one ferocious, emotionally intense Soul Reaper battle. Abe's liberal—and skilled—use of speed-blurring, cycling movements and stills serves to remind one that yes, Bleach is a long-running action series, while the eerily empty Soul Society serves the dual masters of atmosphere and thrift. And for the record, it should be illegal for a sword, even in human form, to be as coolly sexy as Zangetsu.
The same bold repetition and lack of pretense that makes Shiro Sagisu's mix of guitar rock, subliminal vocals and creepy noise so wildly effective when supporting action sequences and Hollow-horror also makes it a clumsy and often counterproductive tool in communicating finer emotions. The Rukia episode is particularly adept at stomping potentially affecting scenes to death with great clomping boots of sad piano music. Uverworld's rocking opener and Skoop on Somebody's incongruously upbeat closer (amusingly titled “Happy People”) remain unchanged.
Viz's English adaptation is fast becoming a favorite of mine. Marked by superior acting all around and a script that knows exactly when to play free and loose and when to cling to the subtitles like a pair of teenagers at the prom, its supreme competence is spiked with moments of excellence that often outstrip the originals. The banter between Urahara and his beefy sidekick is easy, silly perfection that torpedoes the somewhat mechanical original, and Michelle Ruff manages the seemingly impossible task of making the Rukia episode work on the power of her emoting alone. To be sure there are enough changes to make purists queasy—Johnny Yong Bosch's Ichigo is milder and nicer than his Japanese counterpart, and diminutive Captain Hitsugaya is played by a man rather than a woman—but anyone with an ounce of dub tolerance will find them merely interesting variations rather than integrity-destroying abominations.
Anyone with their heart set on something more than nifty packaging and some on-disc production artwork will taste the cold cruelty of the capitalist system. Oh the humanity.
Volume twelve is Bleach taking a breather between action marathons. The result can only be described as down-time, but it's down-time that dallies with some non-Ichigo action, advances what is shaping up to be a vast conspiracy, and takes some time with the secondary cast (time that will be appreciated by some more than others). In other words, it's good down-time (the Rukia episode excepted). That it indulges in many of the genre's more annoying habits, failing to reach the heights that we know it is capable of, is merely the price you pay for advancing four more episodes towards the really good stuff.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Serious plot advancement, plenty of character background, and a single fantastic fight.
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