Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 25th 2011
Armed with his Soul Reaper abilities, Ichigo Kurosaki has entered the perilous world of Hueco Mundo to rescue his friend Orihime. However, even with the help of pint-sized acquaintance Nel—who just now transformed into her powerful true form—Ichigo is having trouble defeating the ruthless warrior Nnoitora. Luckily for him, the captains of Soul Society have arrived on the scene just in time! Bloodthirsty swordsman Kenpachi Zaraki steps in to aid Ichigo, while elsewhere, the enigmatic Byakuya takes on a deadly illusionist in order to protect his adoptive sister Rukia, and the ever-unpredictable Mayuri Kurotsuchi battles Szayel Aporro Granz in a showdown of scientific know-how. Hueco Mundo is thrown into chaos as multiple battles rage on.
It's been said by a certain manga observer that the defining feature of the greatest Shonen Jump titles is combat with swords. And at first glance, it would seem that Bleach follows this principle, with spirit blades known as zanpakutou and an intricate leveling-up system of shikai and bankai. Yet as this volume shows, some of the series' best moments come not from the clash of sharp-edged steel, but what happens when that steel transcends its form. For who could have expected mind control, deadly cherry blossoms, hidden poisons, and a perception-altering drug to be the keys to victory or defeat in this story arc? Perhaps the secret to Shonen Jump success isn't stuff that involves swords. It's stuff that goes beyond swords.
The unleashing of Tite Kubo's imagination is not without its missteps, however: the Ichigo/Nel/Nnoitora fight scene in the early chapters fizzles out rather than achieving a dramatic climax, and only Kenpachi's arrival stops it from being a complete flop. It's almost as if Kubo threw his hands up and said, "That's it, I can't write my way out of this one, might as well bring in the captains!" To his credit, though, the gambit works: the story arc had become hopelessly fractured due to Ichigo and his friends splitting up, and having Soul Society's enforcers come in to help corral them back together is preferable to watching everyone wander off in five different directions.
The fractured, muddled plotting of the early chapters eventually settles down in the middle third of this volume, with Byakuya taking on the mystic Zommari in a fight that is almost surreal. It's a thrilling battle of mind over matter—Zommari shows off his mind-control abilities, only to be outdone by Byakuya's superior willpower and critical-thinking skills—and it certainly doesn't hurt that Byakuya is a man of high principles who has some chilling, powerful words for his opponent. The other major fight in this book, a battle of wits between the brightest scientific minds of Soul Society and Hueco Mundo, is another swordless affair—but this time practically comical in nature. There's a certain ridiculousness in watching Mayuri and Szayel go back and forth shouting "Actually, I was planning ahead for that!" with their deceptive tactics (usually involving mad forms of biochemistry), but when Mayuri finally gains the upper hand, he sets up an wonderfully jaw-dropping conclusion to this volume. And he does it without ever wielding a blade.
With these strange spirit attacks that border on outright magic, it's no surprise that Kubo's art also enters the realm of stylization and abstraction—after all, the laws of the real world already went out the window early on in the series. Obviously, the more outlandish the attack, the more striking it looks on the page: the middle battle of this volume takes the crown for aesthetics with Zommari's voodoo-like transformation and Byakuya releasing his thousand cherry blossoms, arguably the most elegant bankai of all the major characters. Kubo's natural gift for character design also helps to bring a unique style to each fight: every character has a unique silhouette, whether lanky or stocky or short or tall or somewhere else on that spectrum. And his gift for layout cannot be ignored, either, like the use of white space to help frame a shot in its panel, or the way he lines up panels in parallel—lots of verticals or horizontals in a row—to create a strong visual rhythm few others can duplicate.
If the fight scenes in Bleach are like visual poetry, then the words the characters say to each other are ... actually too poetic, with a lot of loud, theatrical declarations of aggression. Give this translation credit for adding some flair and formality to the script—but then again, embellishments become necessary when the characters are basically saying "I have the power to defeat you!" "No, I have a hidden power that I shall use to defeat you! And here's how it works!" to each other over and over. Meanwhile, the use of original Japanese names for certain attacks (with footnotes in the margins) is a cumbersome technique and would be better replaced by simply using the translated names. Sound effects are edited in a somewhat awkward manner, and readers may find themselves distracted by the big, blocky English letters splayed across various panels to indicate yet another big noise as combatants clash with each other.
With our heroes now well past the no-name grunts at the gates of Hueco Mundo, but still ways off from directly facing the ultimate villain and his generals, this volume of Bleach provides an enjoyable (if not terribly deep) round of mid-level combat. The arrival of Soul Society's captains, and their unique modes of attack, add a much-needed spark of variety—and from a story perspective, they help to keep Ichigo and friends from completely burning out in battle. The overall arc itself still stays on a strictly linear path, though, with the only real development being a cleaning up of all the muddled subplots and multiple battlegrounds at the start of this volume. So stay and enjoy the fights, but don't expect any major plot twists to suddenly pop up—unless you count the surprising ways in which the heroes defeat their foes. Predictable as the triumph of good over evil may be, there's still an element of ingenuity when one does it without ever wielding a sword.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Art : B
+ Sharp, stylized artwork and outlandish attacks among all the combatants provide plenty of visual entertainment for those who like a good fight.
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