Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
The Soul Reaper's first clash with the Hollow-hybrids known as the Arrancar is over and Ichigo and his friends now have a good idea of what Aizen the Evil is after. All that remains is to train the heck out of themselves before the final battle. Unfortunately for poor Orihime, no one wants to train a girl whose only means of attack has been pulverized. Until she finds an ally in Rukia, that is. With Karakura Town's main defenders off lord knows where learning cool new attacks, defense of the city falls to Captain Hitsugaya's forward team. Mooching off of Ichigo's friends and taking full advantage of human conveniences, life is pretty good for Hitsugaya's assistants. Unfortunately, when one of Lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto's epic shopping sprees is interrupted by a Hollow attack, their comfortable new lifestyle is rudely interrupted. The Hollow in question appears to be an Arrancar, though a weak one. Still, he's wily and persistent and has a mysterious connection to a pair of deceased children that may prove dangerous, particularly to Rangiku, who's grown attached to the kids.
There is exactly one episode of import on this disc. It's the first one, the last of the episodes designed to get everyone in position for the series' next big move. Orihime is the focus of this one, and consequently it's a little more emotionally fraught than usual. The insecurity that has been building in her since Rukia's rescue comes to a head here, spurred on by Urahara's cruel dismissal of her combat potential. Her usually imperturbable good cheer finally crumbles and she pours out her uncertainty and loneliness to Rukia in a rare and touching display of candor. Rukia's reaction reflects well on her too, and the tentative ties of friendship that form between the two are just precious. It's an essential episode if you're to get the full impact of Bleach, or even fully comprehend it. Orihime's fear of being left behind, Rukia's growing bond with her, even their choice to head off and train like good shonen heroines are all pivotal in events to come.
Which is more than can be said for what follows. Viz has expanded the episode count this disc to five rather than their usual four, one assumes so that the entirety of Rangiku's four-episode side-story will fit on it. One must also assume that it's a kindness born of guilt; guilt at having fans buy what is essentially a whole load of nothing. It's fairly entertaining nothingness, make no mistake. Rarely is Bleach anything less. Rather than an action extravaganza, Rangiku and Hitsugaya's pursuit of the "Mock Arrancar" is something of a little supernatural mystery. The series gets a surprising amount of mileage out of it, ferreting out details—how the Arrancar can revive after a death-blow, how it can hide its spirit pressure, what its link is with the ghostly tykes—one at a time and using them to close in on the perp, so to speak. Mixed in is the usual off-the-wall Bleach humor, mostly involving the, um, odd mod souls that team Hitsugaya uses. And it doesn't want for little jolts of nastiness either. The reason behind one child's obsession with the Arrancar is as ugly and poignantly realistic as one could reasonably hope.
But it's still nothingness. Like a benign tumor it neither hurts nor helps, and can be excised without leaving so much as a scar. Its intent is obviously to flesh out the supporting players, Rangiku in particular, and her fans—and fans of her formidable cleavage—are sure to be pleased. But frankly, any thirty seconds of her interaction with Gin is more revealing than the entirety of this arc, and even the episode-end omake provide more insight into her character. The decision to mix up the usual pedal-to-the-metal action with more sedate sleuthing, in the meantime, is laudable in concept but doesn't work too well in execution. Brains were never �Bleach's strong point; the mystery's solution is painfully obvious from the start and in the end rather inconsequential. With a showing like that, it's hard to excuse the continued absence of the main cast, and even harder to abide the abandonment of the dangling plot.
In a way, you can view the Rangiku arc as one of those throwaway Bleach movies. It has the same self-contained plot, the same mildly stale recycled character byplay, and the same total disposability. It doesn't, however, have the same production values. The character designs, with their sharp lines and intensity of expression, are as cool as ever (no one will ever complain about getting an eyeful of Rangiku). The guitars mutter and blaze, the backgrounds ooze menace, and flashy effects punctuate the fights. And yet rarely does it come together with the energy and hair-raising coolness that mark the best of Bleach. The fights are mechanical, with little of the swift, spunky editing and preposterously cool posing that normally make the series' action scenes thrill. Hitsugaya's Bankai is sapped of its awe by perfunctory animation (it makes him look like an arthritic blue crow), and the rest of the cast fights like hack-and-slash automatons. The episodes do have their moments, but for every girl consumed by the Hollow sprouting from her back, there's a herd of goofy bovine Hollows waiting nearby to curb your enthusiasm.
The English cast chugs through Rangiku's arc like the pros they are, spicing things up when they can and delivering the goods straight when they can't. Not surprisingly though, the dub is at its best when the series is. Maybe Stephanie Sheh isn't entirely convincing during Orihime's emotional scenes, but she's pitch-perfect during the comic ones. And as ever, it's a good disc that allows Michelle Ruff's Rukia to stretch out, even just a little. The dub remains, as always, an exemplary demonstration of how fidelity and quality can be reconciled.
With only one purchase-worthy episode on this disc and the content readily available in streaming format—and eventually in budget-friendly box sets—one has to wonder who would be foolish enough to buy this. Packaging freaks, that's who. Viz's Bleach singles, with their artfully minimalist covers and discs, are perhaps the most attractive on the market. If that's your purchasing impetus, indulge yourself without qualm. If you're looking for that trademark Bleach coolness...you may want to wait for the box sets. Or at least for the volume after next. Or maybe the one after that.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ The first episode is essential.
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