Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
High-schooler Ichigo Kurosaki leads a double life as a Soul Reaper, fighting to protect the balance between the human and spirit worlds. His allies, the warriors of Soul Society, face an unprecedented crisis when their own swords—spirit-powered blades known as Zanpakuto—suddenly go berserk. An intruder named Muramasa has extracted the essence of each Zanpakuto, given them human form, and sparked a mass rebellion. Now Soul Society's fighters must battle each Zanpakuto to regain control ... but how can they win when their swords' greatest powers have taken on minds (and bodies) of their own? Even Ichigo must confront his blade, Zangetsu, but his hidden reserve of dark Hollow powers may be the key. Just as Soul Society is starting to figure things out, though, another crisis emerges when respected Soul Society captain Byakuya turns traitor!
In the action-adventure genre, few things are as important as the bond of friendship between heroes. But what about the bond between heroes and their weapons? Bleach, with its dozens of characters and their personalized, uniquely powered swords, has all the right tools to explore that idea. And so it does in the "Zanpakuto Rebellion" storyline, where the connection between weapon and wielder is no longer just a metaphor, but the physical cause of all-out war. However, with no source material to guide this filler arc, the animation fails to match the visual flair of Tite Kubo's manga—and the story itself soon turns to Bleach's predictable ways of trotting out one fight after another.
Right from the start, these thirteen episodes suffer from clumsy storytelling. Muramasa makes his declaration of war by summoning all of Soul Society's captains to one place and speaking to them—a very contrived way of handling affairs, because only the dumbest, cheesiest villains proudly announce their evil plans. As the rest of the story arc progresses, most plot advancement only happens when the action comes to a grinding halt. The main characters gather in a room and recap what they've learned, setting up their next strategy, or they stop mid-battle and have an angry debate with the enemy, before figuring out how to win. This stop-and-go pacing breaks up the energy that should be propelling the story forward. Honestly, who's got time to sit down for lectures on spiritual-sword theory?
With exposition handled so poorly, it falls on the fight scenes to carry this story arc and save the day. Some battles do succeed in saying something meaningful, whether it's the heartbreaking sight of Rukia having to confront her sword's "ice maiden" persona, or tough-as-nails Hitsugaya having a flashback to his harsh childhood and summoning the strength to control his Zanpakuto. Naturally, Ichigo also gets one of the more compelling fights as he faces not only Zangetsu, but Muramasa himself—all the while struggling with the dark side of his powers.
However, in an effort to get every Zanpakuto-wielding character involved, this story arc wastes too much time on sideshows and comic relief: nobody really needs to see roly-poly big man Ômaeda fighting for his weapon, or two rival Zanpakuto constantly bickering with each other until their owners beat some sense into them. At least Byakuya's turncoat move sends the story in a new direction later on, but even that pivotal subplot keeps getting pushed aside in favor of minor supporting characters getting far more screen time than they deserve.
The visuals in these episodes are as spotty as the storytelling itself. Some of the battles are masterfully executed—Ichigo's showdown with Zangetsu is full of bold lines and striking angles, while the snowy setting of Hitsugaya's fight is at once beautiful yet forbidding. But other times, viewers have to sit through unimaginative staging that can ruin even the most exciting sword fight: front view, side view, front view, close-up of weapon, and so on. Shoddy animation quality makes it worse, with a sluggish frame rate, off-model characters, and dull, low-detail backgrounds dragging down on certain episodes. In moments like these, the only eye candy factor comes from the Zanpakuto power-ups, but since those moves are already familiar to fans, it's not like the visuals are exactly fresh. At least there's more creativity in the designs of the personified Zanpakuto. This motley crew of characters—some noble, some fearsome, some comical—is a fun exercise in seeing how a sword's "personality" might be represented in reality.
If familiar sword-fighting moves can be recycled, why not the background music that goes with it? That's basically what happens here, as well-known snippets of the Bleach soundtrack pop up again and again in each episode. The music's dark, dramatic edge fits well with the events of this story arc, but all the reused content shows a lack of effort. Meanwhile, the hard-rock theme songs provide a boost of energy to the beginning and ending of each episode, even if they sound too much alike.
The voice-acting advantage clearly goes to the Japanese cast in this episode, as the English dub often ends up sounding fake, as if the characters didn't believe in their own emotions. It's not so much of a problem with well-established, serious personalities like Ichigo or Byakuya, but distinctive roles like hot-headed Renji, flighty Rangiku, or even the brooding Muramasa try too hard to live up to a stereotype instead of simply being the character. The translation is correct, the voice casting is about right, but the delivery is where the dub falls short. These discs also come up pretty short on extras: a clean opening and ending, some production art, and the 30-second omake segments that originally came after each episode's TV airing.
In this story arc, Bleach proves to be just as frustrating as it is exciting. Here's a really great idea, one that promises new villains to fight against and a new way to look at the characters ... and then poor story execution ends up running that idea into the ground. Inconsistent animation quality hurts it even further. We could have learned about the unique bonds between weapons and their wielders, but a lot of the time it's just supporting characters yelling "I'm the strongest!" and trying to overpower their Zanpakuto. There could have been some grand visual displays (which does happen in the case of Ichigo and a couple of others), but more often it's a display of third-rate animation and the same old spiritual powers viewers have seen before. What would happen if a hero's weapon came to life? The answer to that open-ended question deserves a better treatment than this one.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D+
Animation : D
Art : B
Music : C
+ The "swords come to life" concept paves the way for unique character designs and thrilling fight scenes, while a twist of betrayal adds intrigue later on.
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