Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Oct 8th 2011
We take a break from the battle against Aizen to see who and what began it all, 110 years in the past. Aizen has just been promoted to assistant captain of Fifth Company and a young prodigy by the name of Gin Ichimaru has recently graduated from the Shino Reijutsuin in record time. With familiar faces in unexpected places, the brickwork is laid for the battle that Ichigo and his friends will fight many years in the future.
Tite Kubo's Bleach is at times capable of an ineffable sadness. While this may not seem all that surprising in a story about, essentially, dead people, it is unusual in the Shonen Jump world of fighting manga. Previous to this volume we've been in more typical Shonen Jump territory, with extensive fight scenes, true powers revealed, and ominous plots in the background. But this time Kubo takes us on a journey to the past to see how Aizen and Ichimaru got their start as villains and how those ambitions wreaked havoc on the lives of those present at the time. It is here that a sense of sadness rears its head.
One of the first things readers will notice about this volume is the appearance of the Vizards, characters we met in the beginning of the Hueco Mundo arc. It may be surprising to see that they were all members of the Soul Society (a fact mentioned on the back of the book). Some of them work specifically with Kisuke Urahara, the owner of the Urahara Shop in Karakura Town. He has just been promoted to captain of Twelfth Company, a position he is pleased to have but not certain he deserves. He was recommended for the post by Yoruichi, under whom he used to work. This is but one of the moments of explanation behind the current character relationships in the series – previously we knew that the two had had a close working relationship, but just what it was was unclear.
Possibly the greatest highlight of this volume is seeing the younger selves of characters we know well from the present. A teenage Byakuya Kuchiki is a delightful surprise and while the younger Gin may not actually surprise anyone, it is still nice to have things spelled out. Young Kisuke is also fascinating, displaying the signs of who he will become, but still young enough that nothing is set in stone. This volume is as much about shaping his personality as revealing how deep and twisted Aizen's roots are, and it is rewarding in that sense.
Unfortunately, you had better have your character guide or all 35 previous volumes of the manga handy when you read this book. A lot of less remarkable characters make appearances, and some of those we are expected to recognize have been such bit players, or absent for so many volumes, that a quick flip through will be needed to figure out who they are. While Kubo does generally do a good job of creating easily distinguishable characters, the sheer volume of old players is a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, this is one case where the lack of detailed backgrounds makes for an easier reading experience. With so many characters to remember, the stark landscape of the Soul Society allows the reader to focus on the people. While at times the lack of detail in the mystical worlds the story visits feels like a cop-out, this time it works well.
Although the storyline does detail a lot of action, the main plot here shares equally with emotion. We know what will happen to Shinji, Hiyori, and Mashiro, along with the others in their group, and we know how Kisuke Urahara will ultimately end up, but watching them reach those places is at the heart of the volume. The sadness mentioned in the beginning of this review is in knowing those things and also being aware that nothing can stop them from happening. This is a story about the past – it is already done and gone, and Ichigo can't come riding in on a metaphorical white horse to change things. It is a tactic used with great effect by other shonen authors, and Kubo, while perhaps not as consistently good as others, pulls it off quite well. At some points it is nearly impossible not to yell, “Don't do it!” at the book. After volumes of fighting arrancars in Hueco Mundo, it's a nice change of pace.
With the promise of this wrapping up in volume 37 and a return to the present, it looks as though the past isn't going to overwhelm the present, and maybe the knowledge of what came before will allow for a more expedient resolution to the current storyline. The break in continuity may be just what flagging readers need to regain interest in a series that drags at times, and the slight melancholy of the past may recharge waning emotions. Bleach is by no means perfect, but for the time being, it is still a series worth reading.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Nice break from a dragging plotline, content that engages the emotions as well as the “fighting, woot!” reaction, good character insight.
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