Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 17th 2010
Ichigo Kurosaki isn't just an ordinary high school student. He's also a Soul Reaper, constantly fighting against evil forces in the spirit world. The balance of power in Soul Society has been in danger ever since Captain Aizen turned traitor and joined forces with the villainous Arrancars, and the stakes have become even higher now that Ichigo's friend Orihime has been kidnapped. Ichigo and his allies have infiltrated the dark world of Hueco Mundo in an effort to rescue Orihime, but now they face Arrancar foes of incredible strength. Strong-armed Chad will need all his strength to defeat his opponent, while loose cannon Renji confronts an enemy who's just too smart for him. It is pint-sized Rukia, however, who has the toughest battle: she will cross swords with her beloved (and deceased) mentor, Assistant Captain Kaien Shiba. Or at least, what appears to be him...
The fighting genre always makes a big deal out of physical strength. The hero never shuts up about wanting to get stronger, combatants flex and grunt and boast about how much power they're using (or not using), and manga artists are on a constant quest to draw the most epic, brain-melting, eyeball-incinerating fight scene. Yet the most memorable fights are often not the ones of brute strength, but the ones where the heroes must conquer the villains in their heads. It's a principle that is exemplified in this volume of Bleach, where Rukia gets her turn in the spotlight and puts on a very worthy show. Her elegant swordfighting, her mastery of kidou sorcery, and the emotions she must overcome to defeat this warped version of Kaien—it all adds up to a highly multi-faceted battle, and reminds us why Bleach still has its moments.
In between those moments, however, are plenty of painful and regrettable intervals. Consider the first few chapters, which illustrate the converse side of the "strength isn't everything" principle by placing the strongest guy in the most boring fight. Yes, Chad has an incredible right arm, and an incredible left arm, and yet, if that's all he has to offer, why should anyone care? There are plenty of fighting characters who are good with their fists. To make matters worse, a couple of other Arrancars come over to taunt him after he wins, as if to prolong the storyline and hold off Rukia's shining moment.
Ah yes, prolonging the storyline. Tite Kubo continues to tighten the rope by which he is hanging himself, with our five heroes wandering off in five different directions to fight the denizens of Aizen's stronghold. It seemed like a questionable idea when it started, and it's only getting worse. When the storyline is fully focused on one battle, such as Rukia's, it's as gripping as they come. But as soon as we have to start playing catch-up with the other characters—here's Ichigo running breathlessly through a corridor, here's Renji bumbling into another Arrancar's area, here's Orihime moping around and awaiting rescue, and what happened to Ishida anyway?—it just becomes a mess.
So let's be glad for that handful of chapters where Rukia confronts her past—or rather, an image of her past. It even comes with a well-placed, poignant flashback, providing the necessary nugget of wisdom that allows Rukia to prevail. This is one of those rare stretches of real emotion and story content, not just spirit warriors beating the snot out of each other for a hundred pages. Even the artwork seems to reach for a higher level of expression here: from the dancing forms of Rukia's blade, to the deceptive moves of Kaien, to the fearsome creature that is "Glotonería," the visuals show more variety than the average blood-and-guts showdown. Unfortunately, that variety doesn't extend to the background art, which consists mainly of huge gaping corridors and sparsely decorated rooms to make the drawing workload as light as possible. Then again, Tite Kubo can probably get away with a little laziness as long as he continues to apply his talents in other areas: namely, character design (it's pretty safe to say that no two Arrancars will ever look alike) and layouts. The pages of Bleach continue to be a triumph of efficient design, with carefully spaced panels and visual rhythms that bring the action to life. Where other artists struggle with an 18-page-per-chapter limit, this guy makes the best of it.
It's a good thing that the visual language of the series flows so well, because when it comes to verbal language, the results tend to be ... fragmented sentences ... that trail off ... like this. But hey, nobody reads a shounen action series for the writing anyway, so the best that can be said is that the translation gets the job done: Hero A taunts Villain B, then vice versa, followed by perhaps some small talk and an explanation of how their attacks work. Rukia's flashback is the one departure from this norm, and even then it's a lot of boilerplate lines leading to a sappy revelation about the power of one's heart. Heck, even translating the sound effects are more of a challenge than this, especially with the way they cascade all over the images—but careful editing and a variety of fonts help to make the English versions of the sound effects look fairly convincing. The artwork is still the centerpiece, but some well-designed fancy lettering doesn't hurt.
It's a good thing this volume of Bleach takes the time to remind us that real strength comes from within—because if it didn't, then there would be no content at all. It'd be 192 pages of guys with swords and giant arms grunting and hacking at each other. Instead, we get guys with swords and giant arms hacking at each other, plus one very determined girl who proves the strength of her heart. And it's not just the emotionally charged back story that makes Rukia's battle a memorable one, but also the visual craftsmanship that goes into it—swords and sorcery and an inimitable sense of layout. Too bad the same can't be said for the story arc as a whole, which keeps lumbering onward with battle after battle and no end in sight. Tite Kubo does a lot of the little things right, but the big picture is really falling apart.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B
+ Contains one of the more memorable battles of the Hueco Mundo arc as Rukia faces a figure from her past.
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