Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 19th 2008
DVD - Box Set 2
Healed, and in full control of his newly-trained Soul Reaper powers, Ichigo heads to the Soul Society accompanied by new comrades-in-arms Chad, Ishida and Orihime. Led by talking cat Yoruichi, they charge full-tilt into the homeland of the Soul Reapers, intent on stopping Rukia's impending execution. After hooking up with local punk Ganju, the group is split up—quite involuntarily. Chad, Ishida and Orihime take the prudent course and sneak around the back alleys, while Ichigo, and Ganju head straight for trouble. Every Soul reaper in the city is on their tail, and Ichigo's old nemesis Renji Abarai makes an appearance, but that's the least of the lad's worries. Towering, carnage-loving Captain Kenpachi Zaraki is on the prowl for the most powerful of the intruders, and unfortunately for Ichigo, that happens to be him. How do you fight a man who is feared even by his powerful allies? With a really big sword, of course.
Forget that Viz's definition of a season doesn't tally with the original Japanese season breaks: nestled in between two of the series' obligatory training sequences, this twenty-one-episode box set is an unsullied slice of Bleach at its skull-cracking, sword-fightin', shounen-action-cool best. Opening with Ichigo and his crew's entry into the Soul Society, the box set begins with the series on the cusp of a deepening of its world, and follows it straight through an unrelenting procession of fights and the careful unfolding of a new and complex world, culminating in the inevitable cliffhanger that simply screams for the follow-up episode. If the previous twenty episodes felt like a prelude, then this is what they were building to—the Kenpachi fight ranks among the best in the genre, and the promise of much, much more to come hangs ripe over the entire course of the set.
Director Noriyuki Abe and manga-ka Tite Kubo don't release their stranglehold on rough-edged coolness, even as the budget of the series gets a noticeable second-season boost and it begins dabbling in the kind of attenuated fight structures that have derailed many a lesser series. The inclusion of spinning cameras and slick slo-mo has in no way lessened Abe's impeccable action timing, impaired his edgy editing, or blinded his eye for how to use Kubo's rangy, punk-tough character designs, and he keeps the multiple-episode fights moving at a hopping pace. Not even the endless Soul Reaper terminology or the discussions of the number, purpose, leaders and fighting strength of Soul Reaper teams can bog down the series' driving, muscular progression from showdown to showdown. They do however flesh out Bleach's world and throw out the first signs of a serious—and intricate—overarching plot.
But the series has no intention of allowing its continually growing world or plot to distract from its true purpose: to be really, really cool. Terminally hip wardrobes are the norm, even the bizarre humor (pig-riding gangsters anyone?) is strangely becoming, and the shifting fight structure (moving away from vile villains to all-powerful arch-rivals) is fine-tuned to maximize each character's cool-posing impact. The balance of each fight still tilts heavily towards predictability, though the shift in structure does heighten tension and even occasionally (shock!) surprises. But heck, what is predictability when arrayed against cheer-from-the-stands coolness? Sure you know that each opponent will tap into successive reserves of battle moxie, but they look so impossibly good doing it that it really doesn't matter.
Cross-hatched character designs, spiffy duds, and the eerie emptiness, suffocatingly low sky, and washed-out colors of Soul Society combine surprisingly well with the series' oddball humor, with its heavy reliance on the series' peculiar brand of comic deformation, but the real hilarity is still back on Earth. More specifically, in an episode that details the misadventures of Ichigo's sisters and utterly idiotic TV psychic Don Kanonji. It's one of the funnier episodes to serve as shounen filler, and a bracing reminder that even at its darkest the series hasn't completely lost its sense of humor.
Though humor does find its way into Shiro Sagisu's score, bouncing fun isn't what it's most memorable for. Rather, it's how Abe spices the fights with liberal (and smartly-deployed) doses of Sagisu's rocking guitars that lingers. Ichigo's blazing guitar theme in particular has evolved into a full-blown rock anthem about (quite literally) how great it is to be an ass-kicking hero—to be deployed whenever he makes his inevitable last-minute entrance. It's a strategy that would seem cheap were the winding of tensions preceding his entrance not so damnably effective, making his flashy heroics, and their musical prelude, somehow unutterably satisfying. The remainder of the soundtrack is a mix of subliminal muttering, atonal guitar, and industrial noise that underlines the series' supernatural overtones, along with two opening and three ending themes. Uverworld's propulsive opening succeeds the uber-popular Orange Range with grace, while the second closer introduces viewers to Home Made Kazoku, originators of Eureka Seven's superb second opener. The other two closers are eminently enjoyable but standard pop tunes.
Viz's solidly acted, meticulously casted, faithfully scripted, and smoothly delivered dub is a testament to how far the company has come since the lackluster days of Ranma 1/2, the debacle of Maison Ikkoku, and even the rocky opening of Bleach itself. There are of course departures from the original—Ganju is more serious, Yoruichi loses his distinctive speech pattern—but they have minimal impact, and with Rukia playing damsel in distress the entire time, her variances in personality (or lack thereof) are no longer an issue. As always, nitpickers will find plenty of reasons to be displeased—it is after all, different from the original, eek!—but it has grown into a fine alternative to the original, one that delivers all (or most—it occasionally flubs the comic intent of the next-episode previews) of the original's charms. Special mention among the new arrivals goes to David Lodge for the rumbling ferocity of his Kenpachi.
Of course, customers holding out for this box set are fully aware of the plusses and minuses of the English adaptation and of the series itself. The real question, rather, is Viz's treatment of the series. The box itself is an attractive, compact affair, with its five discs held in a faux book with five plastic “pages,” each backed with sturdy cardboard emblazoned with a fine portrait of one of the major players. Extras, on the other hand, are something of a disappointment. There's a substantial poster of Ichigo, and the behind-the-scenes feature—twenty minutes of interviews with and in-the-booth footage of the English main cast—is quite welcome, but other than that it's standard stuff: reams of production art, and clean opening and closing animation. Except that there is no clean version of the second opening, and only four of third closer's thirteen (count 'em, thirteen) unique ending animations are provided with clean versions.
Not every second of the eight-plus hours here is consumed by bellowing warriors chopping each other up. The Soul Society is a broad playing field, providing a wealth of options for both powerful opponents and personal growth. The bubbling of Orihime's growing sense of helplessness from under her dippy exterior provides a melancholy emotional grounding for the Ishida/Orihime sequences, and the set's most memorable moment isn't a fight, but a long-belated reunion. Nevertheless, this set is a full-blooded, and often bloody, reminder that the raison d'êtreforf a shounen fighting series is quite naturally, the fighting. And it's something that Bleach does very, very well
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Leaves you feeling as if you've been beat upside the head with a cool stick.
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