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Ichigo Kurosaki is not a typical high school boy: he has the ability see ghosts. However, his connections to the spirit world suddenly become a much bigger deal when a sword-wielding girl barges into his room while a monster attacks his family! The girl, Rukia, explains that she is a Soul Reaper, and that her job is to defeat Hollows—creatures just like the one currently attacking Ichigo's father and sisters. However, when Rukia's battle plan falls apart, Ichigo is the only one left to battle the Hollow ... which he does spectacularly by borrowing Rukia's powers and becoming a substitute Soul Reaper. Gaining this new power is only the beginning of Ichigo's adventures, however, as he soon discovers that there are plenty of Hollows that need exterminating—some that might even be after his own friends.
What can Bleach fans expect from a Collector's Edition of the first manga volume? An unrated "director's cut" with extra blood? Touched-up, computer-assisted visuals that Tite Kubo wouldn't have been able to afford when he first started working on the series? No, dear readers, this very special edition of Bleach has something far more tangible—hardcover binding! For the fan who has everything, there was probably only one thing missing in your life, and here it is at last: Bleach in hardcover! Apart from that, though, it contains exactly what one would expect: sword-swinging action, stylish visuals, and the origin story of a hero destined to turn the world of the dead upside-down. So who feels like reliving the beginning all over again?
The beginning, as it turns out, isn't anything particularly amazing. This is how most adventure stories start: boy discovers he has special power, boy learns to use special power, boy embarks on epic quest to defeat evil things. Throw in a cute girl sidekick and a sprinkling of humor, and hey, you've got the makings of a series that's identical to every other supernatural action-adventure that runs in Jump.
Just a few chapters later, however, we start to see how Tite Kubo's grasp of character and storytelling make Bleach stand out: the Hollow that attacks Ichigo's classmate Orihime is not just the average monster of the week, but one with strong emotional ties to its victim. In fact, the personal relationship side of that story is played up far more than the action side; sure it's cool to see Ichigo bashing a few heads, but his actions take on much more meaning when one is actually invested in the characters. Even today, as the series' cast of characters has ballooned into the dozens, fans still take the time to learn who they are—because most of them have a story worth caring about.
Despite that good run of chapters, however, this volume still its share of rough edges. Scenes of home life and school life—although necessary to further the plot—are lacking in spark, as if Kubo were just trudging through those so that he could get to drawing the fights. A sharp sense of humor (any exchange between Ichigo and Rukia is hilarious) adds a bit of life to those ho-hum scenes, but in the end, they're the weakest part of the book. At least the translated dialogue is pretty fun to read—Rukia's formal speech adds a nuance to her no-nonsense attitude, and Ichigo's straightforward street talk (although a bit overdone in the first chapter) also reflects his personality well.
Kubo's artistic technique also shows some roughness around the edges here, with complex linework occasionally going astray, not-quite-symmetrical faces, and inconsistencies in character design. But stuff like that can be polished over time; meanwhile, the series' greatest visual strength is something that is not easily taught—layout and pacing. The arrival of the first Hollow, Orihime's apology in Chapter 6, or even gag humor like the "date in the park" daydream, all show a knack for letting the sequence of panels speak for itself. What also cannot be taught is a natural eye for modern fashion and style, whether it's the snappy chapter illustrations or Ichigo's amusing "Speaking is NOT communication" shirt. And while the action scenes can get busy at times, the pages show a good balance of blacks, whites and grays, and the character designs are thankfully easy enough to tell apart. The only place where readers won't be able to experience Kubo's stylishness is in the sound effects, as they have been replaced with English equivalents that seem to keep using the same font over and over.
For all this talk of story and artwork, though, most people already know enough about Bleach to decide if they like the series or not. The real question with this product is whether it's worth buying Volume 1 all over again. At full retail price, probably not—US$20 is a silly amount to pay for what is basically a super-fancy variant cover and dust jacket. Find a discount, however, and now fans might start thinking about how much they like the look of this edition. The dust jacket matches the design aesthetic of the Bleach logo nicely, with illustrations of the major characters (at least at the start of the series), while the cover of the actual book is a glossy recreation of the original Volume 1. The inside front and back covers feature a couple of pages of the manga in the original Japanese, and the first few pages are printed entirely in color, which for some fans might be the bonus that clinches it. Page size and paper quality are also a notch above the typical industry standard for North American-published manga.
While the first volume of Bleach clearly shows the promise of an entertaining action series, this particular Collector's Edition is probably best reserved for serious completists who must possess everything Bleach or enthusiastic fans who simply have pocket money to spare. Otherwise, it basically has the same content as the original paperback, and that could easily be had for less than half the price. The premium features are a nice luxury—hardcover binding, dust jacket, glossy finish—but again, luxuries are mainly for the rich or the obsessive-compulsive. Check out Bleach for the stylish art or the character-driven story, but don't feel like there's a compelling need to pick up this Volume-1-on-steroids anytime soon.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B
+ Action-packed visuals and distinctive characters provide a nostalgic reminder of how Bleach all began.
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