Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Chad's flight from the parrot-pursuing Hollow comes to a head as the Hollow reveals both his own shocking identity, and the reasons behind his "game." Then, a purchase by Rukia from mysterious shopkeeper Urahara ends up getting Ichigo's body hijacked, and introduces viewers—at long last—to Kon, the mysteriously uncute mascot that features prominently in the opening. But, before the dust can settle, it's time for the Kurosakis' annual visit to their mother's grave while Rukia's transgressions bring a hunter from the Soul Society around to investigate.
Shonen Jump is a formula as much as it is a brand; stories about young men as they forge their way along the path they have chosen (or stumbled upon) in life, surmounting obstacles, defeating powerful enemies, and succeeding against all odds on the way towards achieving a cherished and seemingly impossible dream. Bleach isn't cast from this exact mold (Ichigo has no real goal in life), but to call Bleach mold-breaking would be a blatant falsehood. It isn't. Rather than a startling innovation, Bleach is an expert refinement of the Shonen Jump formula.
Expect no surprises. Anyone even remotely familiar with Shonen Jump (styled) stories will be able to map this entire volume. The underdog-turnaround structure of the fights, the last-minute grand entrance of the hero, Ichigo's potential and growth, even the revelation (or hints) that those surrounding him (i.e. Chad and Orihime) have talents of their own; nothing will shock shonen-savvy fans. Which is entirely beside the point. Anyone for whom this is a problem isn't the target audience for this show. The draw isn't the structure, or even the content. Forget all the world-building explication and hints at an ongoing plot, forget all of the intricate Soul-Reaper terminology (gigai, Mod-Soul, Zampaku-to, Hollow, Kido; all lovingly preserved in Viz's subtitles); Bleach succeeds not because of it's depth or complexity, but because it's rich in the one overriding quality that every shonen action series strives for, it's cool.
From Orange Range's punk-pop-hop opening accompanied by an inventive primary-color montage of the stylishly bedecked cast, to Rie Fu's simple mournful closer, each episode is a lesson in razor-honed shonen execution. Traditionally acceptable signs of quality storytelling are at the very least given lip service. The fights are grounded in the emotions of the characters, be it Ichigo's love for his sisters, the Mod-Soul's love of his new-found freedom, or Ichigo's rage at a particularly nasty Hollow's emotional manipulation of a young child (an encounter that reveals in him a ruthlessness that is most becoming). The conclusion to Chad's story peels away the terse stoicism that hides his almost foolishly compassionate core and Ichigo gets some backstory (can you say tragic past?). All of which is hidden under layers of blatant appeal to the adolescent in us all that wants bad guys to get trashed, good to prevail, the hero to become the strongest of all, and most of all, for everything to be overpoweringly cool. And indeed, from the dramatic poses and wild wardrobes of its primary cast, to the all-important fights, coolness reigns supreme. Bleach executes the classic fight formula (build up to the fight, make the audience want it, and then give it to 'em) with such effortless panache that the inevitable moment during which Ichigo drops in to kick monster ass, with sword a-flashing and steel guitar fanfare a-blazing, is simply—yep you guessed it—cool.
Essential to the show's appeal are the rough, lankily angular character designs (complete with hatched shadows) that, when combined with the cleverly tweaked archetypical personalities, transcend distinctive and approach iconic. Buildings, trees and streets are sufficient to their purpose without being outstanding in any way, however, the show's habit of marking shifts between everyday sight and spirit-sight by deepening shadows, leeching colors and blurring the light can transform even the most unremarkable everyday setting into a menacing supernatural battleground. The simplified animation of humorous scenes serves the dual masters of hilarity and frugality, allowing extra budgetary allotment to action scenes, which naturally stand out. Fast, creative editing keeps the lack of showy high-end animation from becoming obvious, even going so far as to turn the show's budget into an asset by lending the surprisingly swift action a punk-edged energy.
Bleach hands Hideaki Anno's favorite composer, Shiro Sagisu, a golden chance to expand his musical repertoire beyond the heavily classical scores of his Anno collaborations, and he exploits the opportunity to its fullest extent, turning in a work that is equal parts screaming guitar, rattling drums and unsettling industrial noise, with some muttering lost-soul vocals thrown in for good measure. It isn't a particularly pleasant listen on its own (with the exception of Ichigo's rocking action theme) but it is exceptionally well-suited to the tone of the show, underlining emotion and humor, raising anticipation to unbearable heights, and creating, almost entirely on its own, the aura of overpowering evil that surrounds the Hollow.
The dub runs the gamut from pitch-perfect (Orihime and Kon) to completely overdone (the Hollow in episode 5). Ichigo sounds friendlier in English, his sisters sound a little too old, and Urahara too young, none of which seriously impacts the show's success (but will drive purists to distraction). More damaging are the dampening of the hilarious extremity of Rukia's Jekyll and HYDE shifts between private and public personas and the sometimes unconvincing acting. It isn't a stellar dub, but it isn't abysmal either; it's simply that it is much easier to find fault with it than with the Japanese version. The dub's dialogue is generally quite faithful to the original, though that of the Hollows tends to stray quite a bit and some sexual innuendo is glossed over.
While it comes with a sheet of stickers and is beautifully packaged, only the standard extras (production gallery, previews, textless opening) make an appearance on the disc itself.
Bleach is still in its opening phase, consisting of short two-episode story arcs, each revolving around the introduction of a new character. Nothing particularly new happens this volume, so if you were seduced by the first volume's blend of punk attitude, classical shonen adventure, and whacked-out humor, then this volume will ease you straight back into that groove, gliding by like the well-oiled shonen action machine that it is.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Superb opening and closing, great sense of humor, action fine-tuned for the teenaged boy in all of us.
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