Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 3rd 2009
DVD - Season 3 Uncut Box Set
Ichigo's attempt to rescue Rukia and face down her brother Byakuya gets thwarted by Yoruichi, who drags him off and puts him through a demanding three-day training regimen to help him realize his own Bankai release for his zanpakutō. Meanwhile, Uryu has his own showdown with a Soul Reaper with an ugly past connection to the Quincies – Squad 12's Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi – while Orihime gets carried off to the Squad 11 barracks. The Soul Reapers also have their own internal troubles as the fall-out over the death of Captain Aizen sets some of them against each other and results in assorted accusations being thrown back and forth. Some of the Captains start to make their moves as the time of Rukia's execution arrives, but ultimately Ichigo is the one to intervene directly, setting off a plethora of individual battles involving Captains, Lieutenants, and others fighting each other, including Ichigo's final showdown with Byakuya. As the fights rage, the plotters behind everything finally show their hand. Even once the battles are over, the bigger problems have only just begun.
Viz's third Bleach box set covers episodes 42-63, which constitutes the second half of the original Soul Society arc and brings the series to its first major plot climax. Along the way it showcases (for better or worse) all of the characteristic traits of long-running shonen action series and how the franchise put its own twist on them to make this series both distinctive and so immensely popular.
Whether creator Tite Kubo or producer Studio Pierrot intentionally drew upon them for inspiration or not, Bleach shows the unmistakable influence of earlier iconic shonen action series. The Shikai and Bankai releases, which are numerous throughout this stretch of episodes, harken back to the classic power-ups of Dragon Ball Z, as does the annoying notion of showing respect for an enemy by not holding back on using the character's ultimate power. It also shows DBZ's propensity to occasionally stick in an irrelevant side story. (The whole business with Don Kanoji and the Karakura Rangers in episode 50, while quite amusing, was annoyingly timed.) From Naruto it picks up the bad habit of interrupting fights with backstories and/or long-winded explanations, which can help flesh out characters and provide details relevant to the current situation but too often become needlessly involved. From both it takes the more welcome trait of diffusing overly intense situations with occasional bouts of humor, such as the classic “play catch with Rukia” scene. As usual, a certain suspension of logic is required to make the series work, such as how certain buildings in the Seireitei seem to exist only for characters to stand on or knock down, why intensively battle-trained high-ranking Soul Reapers are so slow to react in certain situations, or the rampant inconsistencies in the detection of spiritual pressure signatures; characters are obviously detectable or not according to the whims of the plot, which makes DBZ's power-sensing methods look like paragons of consistency by comparison.
The plot also hits all of the typical notes: a hero must journey to a foreign and hostile world where he initially gets clobbered, must learn to develop new powers and become stronger to face the major baddies, and ultimately pull off a heroic rescue. Like with the “Assault on the Hidden Leaf Village” arc in Naruto, the main point of conflict spins off into several smaller individual confrontations which must, of course, be faced in turn and do, of course, reveal backstory tidbits in the process. In this case it results in an agonizingly long break between the beginning of Ichigo's climactic fight against Byakuya and its resolution. Naturally a dastardly plot is behind it all, but Bleach does score points for the depth and intricacy of the underlying scheme and for the degree of misdirection it pulls off. The identity of one of the main villains will surprise no one with a functioning brain, but the others likely came as a big shock when the series first aired. The series also deserves credit for pulling off one of the biggest “I am a total bastard” moments in anime history – and anyone who has seen these episodes should not need to guess the scene in question – and for setting up several eminently satisfying landmark moments in the series, including Ichigo's dramatic rescue of Rukia at the moment of her execution or him achieving his Bankai release for the first time. Trumping even those, though, is the final scene of episode 62, where a simple but long-awaited apology claims rights as the series' finest moment in its first hundred episodes.
And speaking of Rukia, at no point in the series is she more helpless and pathetic than during this run of episodes. Granted, she has been forced into that situation by circumstances, but that makes it no less irritating given how strong a character she was in the series' early going. The series otherwise does an excellent job of establishing and managing a very broad and diverse roster of characters through this story arc.
What truly separates Bleach from its competitors, though, is its art design. It may not be the prettiest or best-rendered of series, and its manga-like way of handling shading is an unattractive style point in anime form, but the costuming certainly is sharp and the overall visual impression is appealing. The black-and-white contrasts of the vaguely samurai-styled outfits of the Soul Reapers make for a sharp look, especially in the Captain uniforms, so much so that characters not dressed like that – such as Yoruichi in human form – are practically eyesores by comparison. (Uryu in combat gear gets a pass since his uniform's aesthetic is just as sharp.) Zanpakutō in any form stand amongst the better anime sword designs and the vast creativity of their released forms, as frequently seen in these episodes, matches or betters any equivalent in other shonen action series. The series' ability to make its cast easily distinguishable without getting outrageous is another plus. It does not stand among the best action series in terms of fight animation or animation in general, but its fights are still plenty dynamic enough to be involving when they are not being interrupted by segueways to other fights or background-dumping flashbacks.
Bleach also trumps most other long-running shonen action series on its musical score. Its themes have a different sound to them, one dependent more heavily on electronic instruments and sounds, which carries a heavier and often slightly darker or edgier tone that works well with intense battle sequences. Its patented goofy theme also allows the change of mood of a scene in a snap. Episode 52 brings about a change in both opening and closing themes, with “Ichirin no Hana” by High and Mighty Color providing a hard rock upgrade in the former case and the wistful “Life” by YUI replacing the more cheery “Happy People” in the latter case.
Of all the series to air on Adult Swim, Bleach is arguably the best-cast and among the best-performed in its English dub. Even with such an expansive cast, finding a role that is not a good fit in English requires intensive nitpicking. Some of the English actors do put their own spin on a character with their choice of inflection or speaking style, but those efforts almost invariably work; Terrence Stone, who also voices the cat form of Yoruichi, turns in the highlight of the interpretations as sadistic Captain Kurotuschi. The English script stays utterly faithful with weapon and attack names, activation phrases, and kido chants and, with a few exceptions, only varies significantly elsewhere when insults are being tossed around. Even the Next Episode previews, which often get radically altered in English dubs, remain mostly intact.
Each of the five disks in this set has a standard complement of production art and either clean opener or clean closer. In addition, these DVDs include the comedy tidbits tacked on after the Next Episode previews beginning with episode 52 but never aired on Adult Swim broadcasts, including early installments of Kon's “Illustrated Guide To Soul Reapers – Golden!” The packaging is unusual for anime sets, as it puts each disk into hard clear plastic flaps hinged together with tape and stuff inside a cardboard cover. Character cards come tucked into the front pocket and bonus artwork adorns the back sides of the flaps. (One of them, however, is somewhat of a spoiler for those who have not previously seen these episodes.)
Ultimately Bleach works despite its flaws because it provides plenty enough flash backed by just enough story and characterization and occasional outbursts of humor. It does so with a certain style and the support of a capable musical score, which can allow viewers to weather its more annoying traits. This is a key set to own, too, as it wraps up one major storyline and lays the foundation for the one which follows the upcoming Bount story arc.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Plenty of flash and impressive power releases, excellent musical score, devious underlying plot.
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