Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 17th 2009
As Renji spirits Rukia away from the execution grounds, Ichigo fights to prevent her cold-blooded elder brother Byakuya from executing her with his own hands. It's bankai on bankai as two towering martial talents clash, neither to escape unscathed. Elsewhere Captain Hitsugaya is investigating the conspiracy that pitted his childhood friend Hinamori against him, only to come to the horrified conclusion that someone has been issuing false orders under the authority of Central 46, Soul Society's lawmaking body. When Captain Aizen seemingly returns from the dead, Hitsugaya realizes that something is terribly wrong indeed, particularly when the newly resurrected captain begins to act in ways very unlike the compassionate Aizen of old. Hitsugaya has always had an inkling that something large and ominous was moving behind the scenes, but he finds he greatly underestimated the sheer monstrous scope of it. And, as luck would have it, the one thing that may be able to prevent the evil machinations from grinding to their sinister conclusion are the humans he and his fellow shinigami have worked so hard to destroy.
If volume fourteen was an exhilarating fulfillment of expectations, volume fifteen is Bleach proving that defiance of expectations can be just as exhilarating. The final episode of the Ichigo/Byakuya fight is replete with all of the hairpin turnarounds, lengthy explanations and terminal coolness that one expects of the series, but its conclusion marks, not the end of the arc, but rather its ugliest turnaround yet. What follows is the series at its most brutally unpredictable as Aizen reveals the last stages of his plan and instigates one of the genre's most shocking festivals of defeat. This isn't the viscerally satisfying violence of the previous volume or the Byakuya fight; it's a series of frustrations and revelations. But in a way it's just as satisfying, if not more so. The questions it answers have been dangling since the opening of the Soul Society arc, and it answers them in the most sensationalistic manner it can. That of course entails more than a little pure exposition, but it's chilling exposition, delivered with style plus an un-expository level of gore. If only all villain grandstandings were so thrilling.
It is a climax of sorts, orchestrated with, if anything, even more skill than that used during purely action-oriented climaxes. Hinamori's reunion with Aizen is a masterwork of raw emotion and subtly implied potential violence, while Ichigo's confrontation with him is a beautifully tailored reversal of the usual tropes of the genre (including possibly the most memorable use of silence ever to grace a shonen series). Perhaps even more remarkable is the skill with which the series weaves a plethora of unresolved personal issues into these final episodes: Hinamori's devotion to Aizen, Hitsugaya's concern for Hinamori, Rangiku's conflicted feelings about Gin, Gin's reasons for turning on Soul Society, Tosen and Komamura's reasons for joining the Thirteen Court Squads, and perhaps most of all, Orihime's inward agony at being unable to help Ichigo. And that's just a sample of the highlights. There are more potentially interesting personal developments in these final five episodes than the entirety of the story arc to this point, and tellingly not one of them is resolved, despite episode 63 spelling the official conclusion of the arc.
This is the final leg of the series' longest story arc, and Noriyuki Abe obliges with a full complement of visual fireworks. Ichigo's fight with Byakuya is positively rife with imaginative touches and memorable images, and his loss of control to his dark side is a study in weirdly cool distortion. The other fights, as brief as they are, include highlights such as the runaway ice-trains of Hitsugaya's bankai and the swirling metal snake of Renji's zanpakuto as he makes a desperate last bid to stop Aizen. The raw quality of the animation is a step or two above the series' norm, and Tite Kubo's hard-edged designs are as immensely appealing as they have ever been.
This is, far and away, the most emotional stretch of the series, and for once Viz's English adaptation begins to show some cracks—if only because of the emotional load placed on unsuspecting secondary characters. The superb Michelle Ruff has hardly any lines as Rukia, and Ichigo has surprisingly little screen time given that he is ostensibly the main character (though Johnny Yong Bosch does get to stretch a little while voicing Ichigo's dark side). Instead the heavy emoting falls to supporting players like Karen Strassman, whose Momo is plenty tragic though hardly a match for Kumi Sakuma's painfully earnest rendition, and Steve Staley, who can't quite put the fine point on Hitsugaya's cold rage that Romi Paku, veteran that she is, can. And then there's Kyle Hebert, who handles Aizen's shift from gentle to heartless well enough, but simply can't compete with Sho Hayami for sheer tonnage of slime. The flaws in their work are hardly lethal, and are balanced by equal strengths elsewhere (Stephanie Sheh's grasp of Orihime's speech patterns and emotional undertones is positively eerie), but the English version is, for the first time in many, many volumes, noticeably less intense than the Japanese. It is, however, as loving as ever in its preservation of the original dialogue and shinigami lingo.
In spite, or perhaps because, of the relationship threads left tantalizingly unresolved and the irresistibly open-ended conclusion, this is a strangely satisfying volume, full of meaty drama, nasty surprises, bloody triumph and humiliating defeat. Never before has the series so successfully combined both fulfillment and breathless anticipation. Even the light-hearted wind-down episode is riddled with both healing (physical and psychological) and portents of personal and plot developments to come. Savor the air up here; it'll be eons before the series scales these heights again.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Plot twists, emotional developments and fights galore as the Soul Society arc draws to a close.
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