Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Ichigo Kurosaki used to have it easy: activate Soul Reaper powers, defeat evil Hollows, save the world from spiritual chaos. But now he and his friends face a new enemy: the Arrancars, who have harnessed the power of Hollows and plan to take down Soul Society. Ichigo is training frantically to gain the power he needs to fight the Arrancar, but will he ever be able to control his Hollow self for more than eleven seconds? Meanwhile, strong-armed Chad and brash sword-wielder Renji are sparring at Urahara's shop, while Ishida is battling his father to regain his Quincy powers, and Orihime wonders if her healing abilities will be strong enough for the looming conflict. Everyone's abilities will be put to the test when the Arrancars suddenly spring into action ahead of schedule ...
Just one volume ago, Bleach showed us how to take the average shounen-action training arc and raise it to the level of the extraordinary. Loaded with metaphor and abstraction, Volume 25 of the series featured Ichigo literally battling himself to master his Hollow side—and winning in dramatic fashion.
Too bad, then, that Volume 26 never even thinks of striving for those artistic heights.
This is the average shounen-action training arc done exactly by the book, and it almost runs the entire series into the ground. Clearly, the challenges of storyline management have gotten the better of Tite Kubo—the first chapter opens with an update on how things are going in Soul Society, followed by a brief check-up on Chad and Renji's friendly match, and Ichigo's ongoing struggles, and Ishida doing his Quincy thing, and meanwhile Orihime is wandering around having pangs of self-doubt. And those are just the main characters. It won't take long for readers to start wishing for the good old days of "power up for five chapters and talk about how strong you are," because that's the kind of stuff this series handles really well, overdone as it may be. By comparison, all this training and plot advancement is officially a bore.
But there's one more update that hasn't been mentioned yet: what the bad guys are doing, and that's what gets the story moving again. After all, there's a world to be conquered and special powers to be acquired, and Aizen's band of villains aren't just going to sit on their hands and do nothing. The latter chapters in this volume do not disappoint: the Arrancars engage several of Soul Society's finest in battle, Ichigo finally gets a second chance at Grimmjow (and is able to put up a fair fight this time), and a certain funny-hat-wearing shopkeeper makes a dramatic entrance. It's times like these when Bleach lapses into being an unapologetic, straight-ahead battle series, and ultimately shines as an example of the genre: plenty of thrills, surprises, and rivalries to keep everyone entertained. Yet even this burst of action has its shortcomings: after sending in so many Arrancars at once, the story arc never quite figures out who to focus on, and the result is similar to the book's first half—too much jumping around between different situations. Even the showdown between Ichigo and Grimmjow, which should have been the headliner, comes to an abrupt stop. But another subplot suggests that there may be hope for this story arc yet ...
Even with all the awkward storyline-jumping and run-of-the-mill training, this volume manages to maintain good artistic standards. While there aren't any dazzling displays like in the battle where Ichigo fought his Hollow self, the series' visual flair still stands out: striking angles and perspective, effective use of hatching and speedlines, and knowing when to cut the dialogue and let a panel (or sequence of panels) speak for itself. As usual, the character designs are distinctive as well, and even though the cast of the series is ridiculously huge (as proven by the sheer number of subplots), few would ever confuse one combatant for another. However, backgrounds have clearly become an unimaginative afterthought: Chad and Renji do their training in a generic rocky place under Urahara's shop, while Ichigo goes about his business in a generic rocky place under a warehouse, while Aizen and his cronies plot their evil schemes in a generic darkened room—see where we're going here? Ah, if only we were still within Soul Society's city limits where they actually had roads and buildings and other interesting background features.
As a transition from one big battle to the next, much of this volume involves long streams of explanatory dialogue. Honestly, there's just no way to make this interesting—it takes sincere, fan-driven dedication to remotely care about how Momo Hinamori is feeling right now, or what the exact conditions are for reinstating a Quincy's powers, or the particular details of Aizen's first step to world domination. Fortunately, the script reverts to a more concise taunt-and-fight style once the Arrancars show up again; it's not like the characters have anything particularly profound or eloquent to say anyway. If anything, the fight scenes probably owe more to the sound effects, and this volume proves that converting everything into English can work if one gets creative about the lettering and understands how to blend it into the artwork.
After seeing Ichigo battle himself and win, perhaps it was too much to expect that Bleach could maintain that high standard of artistry. This volume returns to standard action-adventure formula, and worse yet, does it right in the middle of an arc where multiple characters are grinding through various training regimens. Obviously, that stuff isn't as fun as actually getting into the next great battle, and it'll take quite some patience to sit through these chapters while everyone explains what they're up to and why they want to get stronger. Fortunately, a surprise Arrancar invasion and the consistently pleasing artwork help to brighten things up a bit, but this is still not one of series' greatest moments. It isn't even one of the good moments. It is exactly what it is: the boring part in between all the fun stuff.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Picks up in the second half with hot-blooded fight scenes and Ichigo showing off the skills he's learned.
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