Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 5th 2009
The violence and chaos of Soul Society behind them, Ichigo and his crew of would-be heroes return to the far friendlier violence and chaos of high school. But the palling around and pummeling of friend and family are short lived, as a new menace closes in on the apprentice Soul Reaper. A mysterious group begins abducting Ichigo's friends, starting with Orihime, and, using them as leverage, forces Ichigo into a series of mind-bending "games" in which the stakes are anything but playful.
It's that time. The time that all fans of long-running shonen series dread: Filler Time. These four episodes officially kick off Bleach's much-reviled "Bount" story arc, a story arc that has absolutely zilch to do with Tite Kubo's original manga. Nothing pisses shonen fans off like animators monkeying with their favorite manga, but frankly filler stories are a necessary evil (without them the series either has to stop or go completely off the rails a la Rurouni Kenshin) and as far as filler goes, the Bount arc isn't half bad.
It isn't half good either (more like three-eighths good, a quarter bad, and a quarter indifferent with one-eighth held in reserve—but who's counting?), but that's what the qualifier "as far as filler goes" is included for. These episodes suffer from all of the unavoidable deficiencies of filler. No matter how hard the show tries to build suspense, the knowledge that the writers are forbidden by the precepts of filler from doing anything irrevocable drains most of the potential excitement away. Likewise they are forbidden from any real character development and aren't allowed within spitting distance of unresolved plot threads and relationships. All of which has an inevitable dulling effect.
Which accounts for the one-quarter of indifference. The one-quarter of badness comes from director Noriyuki Abe's, shall we say, borrowing. These four episodes are obviously meant to provide a somewhat more cerebral alternative to the series' usual slash 'n bash action, which is worthy ambition. Unfortunately in order to do so Abe steals so brazenly from his own animated adaptation of Yū Yū Hakusho (with a dash of Die Hard With a Vengeance thrown in) that this volume sets off plagiarism alarms from start to finish. Bleach was never a work of scalding originality, and likely never will be, but prior to entering Filler Land, it at least had the sense not to lift its plots wholesale from other sources.
That said, Abe and his crew are all hoary veterans of shonen entertainment, and the experience shows. Even when pulling a story-arc from their rears (or their back-catalogs), they have the skills and the smarts to make it feel as if it belongs. The action is stylish, and stylistically uniform, and the angst is unsubtle and the jokes funny (Kon-cruelty never gets old). The new characters (three bizarrely-clad yet bizarrely cool villains) really look like a part of the cast, and the extended structure of the fights—or in this case head-games—is perfectly in keeping with the series' usual narrative stride. In other words, the Bount story-arc is, at least for now, a very reasonable facsimile of a typical Bleach arc.
But it's still a facsimile. And Abe's estimable technical skills can do little to change that. He can apply the same rocking action music, the same delicate introspective themes, and the same razor-edited, hard-edged visuals to these episodes that he did to previous episodes. He can introduce a cuddly cute yet infuriatingly evil lead villain. And he can throw all of the borrowed mind-twisters he wants at Ichigo, and still he'll never be able to match the brutal, anything-can-happen energy that fuels the best of Bleach.
I am, by this time, a bon-a-fide fan of Viz's Bleach dub. Which means that any weaknesses I see in these episodes get blamed on the source material rather than the dub. Thus Wendee Lee's rather stiff Tatsuki is the fault of the rust that Tatsuki has gathered due to disuse, and the humor that falls flat does so because it was never funny in the first place. If I could coddle the cast and crew more I would, but they don't give me very many opportunities. Quinton Flynn's Kon is an ad-libbing riot, Johnny Yong Bosch's Ichigo is all brash yet sensitive fire, and Stephanie Sheh's Orihime is a treat no matter how lame her dialogue. In the name of maintaining a semblance of critical objectivity, I will mention that the monologue used to open each episode is painfully awkward, and should really have been completely re-written.
Aside from some production art, the only extra you'll find here is a clean version of the new closing. Nothing too exciting, though it is one hell of a closing—a psychedelic stuffed-animal dance choreographed to a cruelly catchy number by SunSet Swish. Just try watching it without getting a little boogie in you butt. How embarrassing.
Be warned, the Bount arc is long. Forty-five episodes long, in fact. Forty-five episodes that can be skipped without causing so much as a hiccup in the series' continuity. If you find these episodes dull or irritating—and many will find them both—then take a Bleach breather...a long one. But if you can take it, there are worse ways than this to while away the time until Bleach returns to canon material.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ A refreshing lack of "recycle that funny quirk" humor; there's worse filler out there.
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