Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 21st 2013
High-schooler Ichigo Kurosaki has the ability to see spirits, a combined blessing and curse that has led to him becoming a sword-wielding Soul Reaper. Nowadays Ichigo fights to protect the balance between the human and spirit world, backed by the proud warriors of Soul Society. But who will come to Soul Society's aid when a mysterious army sneaks past their defenses and takes out dozens of soldiers before they can even respond? While this invasion takes place, Ichigo is also visited by an arrogant intruder who demands to see his skills in battle. To make matters worse, the people of Hueco Mundo—a spiritual dimension better known for harboring Ichigo's enemies than his friends—have also been besieged by the army that attacked Soul Society. Ichigo comes running to the aid of his few allies in Hueco Mundo, but what can he do against an enemy he knows nothing about?
At last it begins: the Thousand Year Blood War, Bleach's final arc, as Tite Kubo proudly announces in this volume. But the beginning of the end doesn't inspire much excitement, at least for now. The key pieces are moving into place, and the gears of conflict are starting to turn, but that's about it. It's too early for head-spinning plot twists, the stakes are still too low for a life-or-death battle, and we know too little about the new characters to get pulled into their drama just yet. So instead, this volume falls back on the old mainstays of Bleach—high-octane fight scenes and dramatic visuals—hoping that readers will stay interested long enough to see what happens next.
Unfortunately, it's hard to build any interest in the first place when things start out in such predictable fashion. A couple of grunts from Soul Society are assigned to patrol Ichigo's hometown, they get into a spot of trouble, and our brightly-haired hero saves the day. There is absolutely nothing new or surprising about this. Kubo doesn't even seem to be trying when he introduces the first major antagonist: the new enemy literally shows up out of nowhere in Ichigo's bedroom. The Soul Society side of the story isn't much of an attention-grabber either: by now, everyone knows that bad guys are constantly trying to bring down this institution. Thus, the sight of a goofily-dressed army declaring war on Soul Society looks like some half-baked idea straight out of the anime filler arcs.
Thankfully, the series starts to show more promise when Hueco Mundo comes into play. This pocket of the Bleach universe was last seen several volumes ago, when Aizen was the chief villain, so catching up on events over there adds a layer of complexity to the story ... along with maybe a whiff of nostalgia. Best of all, only the non-villainous characters survived Ichigo's onslaught on Hueco Mundo, so we get all their energy and corny humor without any unnecessary plot baggage. But the fact that these comeback characters are the most likeable ones so far highlights another problem: why aren't there any good new characters? The invading army lacks any strong love-to-hate-them qualities, relying on cheesy stereotypes instead: an army of buttoned-up, German-speaking goons, and the sneering, mustachioed bandit who leads them. In short, this story arc faces the additional hurdle of trying to prove why these foes should be feared, aside from just being generically evil and mysterious.
At least there is always Bleach's ultimate fallback: the battles, which are plenty entertaining even when they're more about flash and fire than having a deep purpose. Although Ichigo's opponent in this volume is just an opening act, there's plenty of visual flair as they get into an airborne chase and have an all-swords-blazing smackdown. And it's not like the fight scenes descend into dull, backgroundless slop like past story arcs: between Ichigo's hometown, Soul Society, and Hueco Mundo, there are enough changes of scenery to keep the battles interesting. (Tite Kubo also mercifully keeps the battles short, avoiding the endless scene-switching that ruined the Aizen saga.) Bold, stylish lines and striking angles continue to be the key to the series' distinctive style, and some of Kubo's finest artistic efforts come when he gets an entire double-page spread to show off the characters in a dramatic pose. However, this volume also has to chug its way through numerous exposition scenes, where the cast can do nothing but stand around and explain things to each other—obviously a far less thrilling sight than swords and spirit powers at ten paces.
Are these exposition scenes worth it, though? For those who want to become invested in the story, yes—the mysteries of the enemy are revealed bit by bit, as the characters interact with them and then discuss it later on. Ichigo tries to make sense of their fighting style, while Soul Society's officers analyze their spiritual signatures, and of course, there's that one smart guy who knew this was coming all along. Add up these snippets of dialogue, and for once we have a volume where the characters have something meaningful to say, instead of just adding flavor text to the fight scenes. However, the way they say it is disappointingly bland—aside from the formal tone of Soul Society's senior captains, everyone seems to speak with the same neutral voice, trying to get these plot points out in businesslike fashion. Perhaps this translation does too good a job of blending into the background, robbing the dialogue of personality. On the other hand, blending into the background is a good thing for the sound effects, which avoid interfering with the artwork despite having been edited from Japanese into English.
Can Bleach guide its final story arc to a satisfying close? Based on this volume, it's simply too early to tell. Right now, all that's happening is that the heroes and villains are getting into position, grinding their teeth at each other, and firing a few opening salvos. No big surprises here (just some minor ones, maybe); no heart-clutching, earth-shattering moments; no dramatic victories or defeats—just a lot of determined warriors declaring their Fighting Spirit as they try to figure out their opponent. Exciting fight scenes and an occasional touch of comedy keep this volume afloat, but the thrill could be short-lived unless the storyline starts to pick up as well.
Overall : C
Story : D+
Art : B
+ Varied, fast-paced fight scenes, plus the return of a few comedic characters, inject much-needed energy into a storyline that's just starting out.
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