Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 27th 2009
Time is out for Rukia. On the execution grounds, the Soukyoku is unleashed on her, and it's only the timely intervention of Ichigo that saves her from total annihilation. Fortunately for Ichigo and his outsider friends, unrest is spreading through Seireitei. Ichigo's arrival precipitates a series of fallings-out, as Head Captain Genryusai takes it upon himself to punish Captains Ukitake and Kyouraku, whose attempt to stop the Soukyoku feeds the chaos of Ichigo's rescue attempt, and Yoruichi sidetracks Soul Reaper enforcer—and former subordinate—Soi Fon. Which leaves Ichigo with the small task of stopping Rukia's ice-cold brother Byakuya from executing her himself. Predictably, it all leads to carnage.
Any shonen series with an ounce of brains knows the importance of a careful build-up. Action is the payoff, but if the series can't make you care about the outcome, then no one's going to enjoy it. But as necessary as mounting tensions and unfolding emotional stakes are, knowing when to vent them is just as important. After establishing the personalities, powers and objectives of the mushrooming cast of Soul Reapers and imprinting upon us with unnecessary force the tragedy of Rukia's predicament, Bleach is finally ready to blow the lid off of the “Rescue” story arc. Other volumes may have included rumbles of the oncoming payoff, but volume fourteen is the payoff. Well, part of it at least.
With Rukia's execution opening a rift in the Soul Reaper hierarchy, the execution ceremony almost immediately splinters into a series of Soul Reaper showdowns. The result is an object lesson in what shonen action is capable of when done right. The stakes have been clearly delineated, the towering odds faced by the heroes carefully established, and the opponents chosen for maximum unpredictability. The groundwork laid, the characters are allowed to throw everything they have at each other. New powers are flaunted, old techniques dusted off, and pent-up tensions explode in a catharsis of violence. It's an orgy of preposterous shonen-action cool as characters power up, bleed waves of energy and alter landscapes in ways that would make a strip-miner cringe. Distractions such as intricate plotting and characterization are minimized in favor of visceral thrills aimed directly at the teenager in us all.
By this point Bleach has perfected the art of satiating that inner teenager. The timing of Ichigo's inevitable arrival is impeccable, and his new stripped-down, half-mummified look (lovingly detailed) is ridiculously cool even before his ridiculously cool Bankai transformation. The displays of power are ridiculously flashy, the inevitable fight turnarounds and blood-spattered one-upmanship ridiculously satisfying, and the fights themselves ridiculously fun. Yoruichi's aerial acrobatics are a triumph of slick fight choreography over budgetary limitations, and Genryusai's unleashed rage is both hugely over-the-top and very, very cool thanks to director Noriyuki Abe's infallible eye for attention-grabbing compositions and massive destruction.
It isn't pure action of course. Each episode's omake—which keep track of the characters left behind in the human realm—maintains a high level of humor (oh, the Kon-abuse), and one of the minor fights amusingly devolves into a glorified drinking game. Unfortunately maintaining some semblance of the series' usual mixture of content also means the return of the series' clumsy character introspection—complete with redundant voice-over and omnipresent weepy piano score. It's the volume's only real stumble, though it does add an oddly touching shoujo-ai undertone to Yoruichi's fight, bringing it to a surprisingly bittersweet conclusion.
Abe's continual over-use of the sad parts of Shiro Sagisu's score is less a decline in his skill with sound than it is an extension of his overall musical strategy for Bleach. There is zero subtlety in Bleach's score. It steamrolls emotional subtlety, but also creates eerie supernatural soundscapes to match the washed-out supernatural landscapes and bolsters the action with shameless abandon. Hazel Fernandez' insert song “Number One,” with is screaming guitars and lurid glorification of being the best, could be the theme for every Shonen Jump property ever published, and the rest of the action score is wielded like a guitar-edged weapon, punctuating the fights with timely bursts of rock noise.
Anyone who searches hard enough can find something wrong with Viz's English adaptation of Bleach: the occasional unnecessary word or clunky phrase, a few less-than-perfect performances, a lapse in emotional veracity. But for my money, it's one of the best adaptations currently in production. Not because it does any one thing exceptionally well, but because it succeeds so consistently in replicating exactly the effects of the original. Unlike the previous volume, there is no point at which the dub exceeds the original here, but when the series is funny, the dub is funny. When it's exciting, the dub is exciting. When it's touching, the dub is touching. Rukia continues to provide Michelle Ruff with opportunities to show off her emotional range, and she seizes every one of them while the remainder of the cast turns in faithful, uniformly excellent performances. The script smoothes over some rough translation issues by deviating from strict translation, and yet retains all the specialized terminology and the vast majority of the original dialogue. In many ways, especially for a hard-core auteurist like myself, the highest compliment one can pay a dub is to point out that regardless of which language you choose, you're guaranteed the same experience.
Some production art is all that the fans of DVD extras can look forward to (or not) this volume. Besides another sheet of nifty stickers, that is.
The addition of another episode, bringing the per-disc count up to five, is welcome, but even with its expanded playtime, this volume still encompasses only the opening strains of the Soul Society arc's long-orchestrated climax. Of the three parallel battles in this volume, only one—Yoruichi's—ties itself up before the volume cuts off. The wait for the next couple of volumes will be cruel for those who haven't yet seen what comes next—and even for some who have. After all, this isn't just the best of Bleach, it's very close to the best of the entire genre.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ The series hits full stride with the opening rounds of an exhilarating, action-clogged climax; expanded episode count.
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