Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - Season 18 Uncut Box Set
Muramasa is gone, his former master has been defeated, and his influence on the Zanpakuto has been broken, but the damage his machinations have caused still lingers. And it is not just the physical damage, either; numerous manifested Zanpakuto originally wielded by lesser Soul Reapers outlived their masters and have devolved into crazed, marauding creatures which come to be known as Sword Beasts. Dealing with these lingering threats in both the Soul Society and in Karakura Town has become a top priority for many of the Court Guard Squad members and their accompanying Zanpakuto, who get additional time to converse with their masters, explore on their own, party hearty, or even sample things like love until the spiritual pressure necessary for them to stay manifested eventually dissipates. Once that time has passed it is back to the battles in the fake Karakura Town and Waco Mundo.
If one ignores its timing in the series then the Zanpakuto arc in Bleach is arguably the series' most innovative major filler arc, as it is the one place in the series where we see the relationships between Soul Reapers other than Ichigo and their sentient weapons explored. How each sword manifests in humanoid form, and how similar they often are in temperament to the powers they wield and their masters, can be quite interesting, as are the interactions between master and blade when they can literally meet face-to-face. The Sword Beast sub-arc covered in this set, which constitutes episode 256-265, is an extension of that story which allows a few more opportunities for said interactions and provides a proper denouement to the conflict.
Of course, the main purpose of continuing the overall arc for another ten episodes is to buy further time for the manga to get enough ahead so that the anime version can animate the rest of the Aizen mega-arc without surpassing the manga, and indeed, the odor of stalling does waft through these episodes. Some of these ten individual stories are nothing more than silly wastes of time; this is most true of the episode where Snake and Monkey (the duo which composes Renji's Zabimaru) and Senbonzakura go to a Squad 12 research facility to turn in defeated Sword Beasts and wind up accidentally destroying it. Sure, the episode has amusing moments, as it reveals some curious little snippets of Seireitei life and plays on the fact that the very serious and proper Senbonzakura has his own hidden flaws, but the episode is also completely pointless. Other cases, though, feel a little more substantial, such as the episodes focusing on Kazeshini coming to terms with his master Shuhei or Haineko's discovery of love. While that hardly makes them great episodes, they at least do not seem to be just killing time.
Because the emphasis in these episodes is on the characters (especially the personified Zanpakuto), the battle scenes are largely an afterthought. Oh, to be sure, every episode still has at least a little action, but none of these fights – not even the climactic one which rounds out the arc, which actually was not built up to at all before the episode started – has much of a thrill factor to it. None of the fights in this span are unusually flashy or dynamic and only one or two of the Sword Beasts in this span have powers that are at all interesting. Fight animation and choreography also is at a low point in this stretch and too much emphasis is placed on characters having to be improbably vulnerable just to make a proper dramatic impact. While the character interactions may bolster this part of the series, the action component drags it down.
This set returns to the main storyline with its final two episodes. Episode 266 is entirely a recap of what has happened so far with the Arrancar arcs, which may have been a necessary move after taking 40 consecutive episodes off from the main storyline. Episode 267 picks up where episode 226 left off, with the focus primarily split between the first part of the final Ichigo/Ulqiorra confrontation and how Chad and Renji's team-up effort is going, although Rukia does also get a little screen time for her fight. Despite (gasp!) Chad and Renji actually using tactics to resolve their fight, the Ichigo/Ulqiorra is the one everyone has been waiting for, and the one that packs a real degree of tension and conflict. It does not get too far underway before the episode – and hence the set – ends, however.
The visuals here offer very little that has not been seen countless times before in the series. Hanemaru's Zanpakuto, which has not previously been seen, is a bit amusing, and Byakuya gives a hilariously (and perhaps unintentionally?) awkward expression at one point, but that's about it. Of the Sword Beasts, the only one which has a particularly interesting design is the one that Haineko falls in love with, and that one is intriguing only because of how oddly out of place a shojoesque rendition of a godly bishonen looks in one of the most diehard of shonen action series. (If this was intended as a deliberate joke then it is a mildly clever one.) The musical score also relies entirely on the traditional Bleach stand-bys, with nary a hint of a new theme. Bland opener “Anima Rossa” is replaced in episode 266 by the much more dynamic rock beat of “chAngE” by miwa, who can also more recently be heard doing the ending theme for the Colorful movie and the opener for Silver Spoon. New and surprisingly soothing closer “On a Journey to You” covers the first ten episodes of this set, only to be replaced by the solid “Stay Beautiful” (in its original, rather than edited-for-Adult Swim, form) in episode 266.
Nothing that transpires in this set is likely to change anyone's established Japanese or English dub preference. The few new vocal parts here are well-cast in English and competently performed, as are all recurring roles. The one quibble here is that the English script sometimes takes great liberties, to the point of changing or even reversing original meanings in a couple of places, but it is handled smoothly enough that one is unlikely to notice unless watching the English dub with the subtitles on.
The main Extras in this set are the short omake such as Kon's “Illustrated Guide to Soul Reapers” or an Arrancar guide hosted by Gin, bits which were attached to the ends of their respective episodes in the earlier releases of the series but are now assigned to an Extras menu for each of the two DVDs. Clean versions of both closers and some production art are also present.
While this period of Bleach is far from being a highlight, neither is it anywhere near being a lowlight. Enough of the stories stand up well enough that wading through them to get back to the original story is not too tedious. And when one deals with Bleach fillers, that is, unfortunately, often the best that one can hope for.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Some interesting individual stories, Soul Reaper/Zanpakuto intereactions are satisfying, finally returns to the main story at the end.
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