Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Separated in the heart of Las Noches, Aizen's Hueco Mundo fortress, Ichigo and his friends battle a non-stop wave of arrancars. As Ishida and Chad finish off the last of the Privaron Espada, Rukia has come face-to-face with the first of the true Espada, and it's a very familiar face. Renji literally falls into the lair of the Espada's resident mad scientist, Szayelaporro Grantz, who is a lot tougher than a researcher should be. Ichigo, in the meantime, keeps to his mission and heads straight for Orihime, who grows ever more desperate as the cost of her friends' rescue operation begins to mount. Along the way he encounters a few small obstacles... like Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez.
Though messier and less layered than the best of Bleach, this set does boil the series down to what it does best: fighting, fighting and more fighting. Hueco Mundo is a hornets' nest of enemies, and with the Espada finally entering the picture, this set is one giant run of painful, impossible fights. Enemies fall, allies fall, and the rescue of Orihime reaches its (first) crisis: it's as close as the Hueco Mundo arc gets to a payoff before being cut short by the inevitable filler arc.
Of course, the show does its best to bog things down anyway. It begins with the beginning of each episode, which thanks to the lengthy recaps tacked in front, can be as far as five or six minutes into a twenty-three minute episode. And then there's all the running. Even at this juncture people are still running down long, long corridors and worrying for long, long periods about their comrades. When not recapping or running, the characters are taking part in forced comic relief, which always drags on too long and with far too few laughs, or fighting fights that we really don't give a crap about. No fight is so important or exciting that it can't be intercut with a couple of ditchwater-dull wastes of time. Renji and Ishida's fight with Szayelaporro is probably the biggest breadcrumb in the Bleach meatloaf; big enough that its repeated use makes you start to wonder if the show is more loaf than meat.
And then you hit the meat. The conclusion of Chad and Ishida's Privaron Espada fights don't count, not because they aren't cool—Chad's in particular has some neat power-ups—but because they're of little import. The first real blood is drawn by Rukia, whose fight with Aaroniero reopens some old wounds and proves that the show still has the spine to act with deadly finality. Its conclusion also gives us our first glimpse of the rest of the Espada. Later a brief clash with another Espada gives some idea of how very far beyond team Ichigo the top tier of arrancars is, dealing out shocking defeat along with the usual coolness. The endless Szayelaporro fight even has its moments, when the elements line up right and Ishida's cerebral fighting style gets our blood up.
The set's centerpiece, however, is Ichigo's rematch with Grimmjow. The lead-up even manages to wake the series' plotting skills from hibernation. A rift opens in the Espada, the enemies' clashing goals start to work in Orihime's favor, and for the first time in ages the show is actually suspenseful, with Orihime left first to the mercies of two jealous arrancars and then to the self-serving machinations of Grimmjow. A little finagling later and the pieces are all in place, the opponents lined up and all interlopers eliminated (for the time being). At which point Bleach gets down to the business of kicking serious butt.
Like any good fight, the Grimmjow fight has its layers: Ichigo facing down his bloodier instincts, Grimmjow revealing the source of his obsession, Orihime coming to terms with what Ichigo has become in his pursuit of power. And like any good fight its appeal is ultimately very simple: the sight of two guys throwing everything they have at each other until one of them runs out. There is nothing held back here: no restrictions, no doubts—nothing but Ichigo and Grimmjow rocketing to the limits of their power. The thrill is primal and visceral—pure reptile brain. It's catharsis of a very potent sort, fuelled by all of those episodes that Ichigo spent worrying and training and stagnating. It's hard to argue with Grimmjow when he implies that Ichigo is only really alive when he's fighting.
The same could be said of Noriyuki Abe and his animators. The piddling fights are pretty cheap looking and you can tell that no one's putting their hearts into the comic interludes. The series' usually infallible eye for cool abandons it for large stretches of the Szayelaporro fight and while Hueco Mundo's architecture is pretty plain to begin with, it gets downright dull when there's a lot of running and wasting time to do. When there's real fighting to be had, though, Abe and his crew almost immediately catch fire. There are images in Rukia's fight, particularly once Aaroniero reveals his nauseating true form, that will stick with you whether you like it or not. You can practically taste the pride Abe and his team take in the Grimmjow fight, with its acrobatic showboating and heavy-hitting bursts of full animation. The clash of bodies and the rearrangement of landscapes haven't been so lovingly rendered since probably the height of the Rescue arc. Grimmjow, for his part, remains a paragon of manly sex appeal—even when he's transformed into a pseudo-mechanical humanoid panther-thing.
Shiro Sagisu's score does menace exceedingly well and comedy with a reasonable measure of competence, but like everything else this volume it really shines when it gets violent. The mix of symphonic muscle and guitar noise during the Grimmjow fight is as wild and free as the fight itself. Countering that is Rukia's episode, during which the dreaded sad piano returns, weighing everything down with ponderous lumps of musical cheese.
That particular episode is also the weakest link in Viz's otherwise fine dub, though only because it renders moot the dub's greatest weapon: namely Michelle Ruff's emotionally adept Rukia. As per usual the dub is well-scripted and well-acted, with the usual liberties taken with the comic content. Which still stinks regardless. Viz's effort here continues to be one of the very best for matching the original point-for-point. The notable exception is Nel, and that's a good thing as the difference mostly involves the removal of annoying vocal quirks.
If you're wondering where the usual omake went, they've been shaved off of the episodes proper and collected in the extras menu.
This may be as perfectly balanced a mixture of grade-A excitement and prime-cut frustration as you'll ever find. Watching the Szayelaporro fight intrude into the build-up to the Grimmjow fight is like some exquisitely crafted form of torture. Still, the torture is worth it for that last, three-episode bonanza of blood and destruction. There's nothing like going out on a high note. Now bring on the filler.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Action-packed; Grimmjow fight ranks among the show's very best.
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