Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Armed with his Soul Reaper powers, Ichigo Kurosaki fights to protect the worlds of the dead and the living. But Sôsuke Aizen, the traitor who turned against Soul Society, has invaded Ichigo's hometown as part of his world domination plan. Aizen's underlings, the Arrancar, have kept Ichigo occupied in the spirit world of Hueco Mundo. With a little help from his allies, however, Ichigo is able to hurry home and join the fight. What he finds there is a whole host of Soul Society captains already caught up in battle. Tôsen, the blind Soul Reaper who aided Aizen's betrayal, has been challenged by fox-headed Komamura, his former friend. Ice-user Hitsugaya is determined to settle the score with Aizen, but his rage might do more harm than good. Perhaps the arrival of Soul Society's supreme leader, Captain-General Yamamoto, will finally turn the tide...
Thank goodness for Viz's double-speed release schedule on the current run of Bleach. With two volumes coming out at a time, the endless fight scenes and super-decompressed storytelling become a little more bearable. The big picture is easier to see, and the story appears to be making progress, no matter how gradual. Here's what makes Volumes 44 and 45 interesting: a long-held grudge and a painful revelation between old friends, the precise reasons why Ichigo must face Aizen, and one shocking, head-spinning twist as the battle escalates. It's still taking forever to get to the final showdown everyone wants to see, but at least these volumes make something entertaining out of the journey.
Which is not to say that the series has shaken off its worst tendencies just yet. The first half of Volume 44 is classic "bad" Bleach, a sequence full of bland, brute-force fighting and plot contrivances. Basically, Ichigo is supposed to be finishing off the biggest and baddest boss in Hueco Mundo, but instead, several Soul Society captains conveniently show up and tell Ichigo to join the other fight. That's a weak, unsatisfying resolution if there ever was one. At least Ichigo learns along the way why he's the only Soul Reaper who can counter Aizen's deceptive powers—a fact that proves crucial just one volume later. Meanwhile, the fight between Komamura and Tôsen in the latter half is more enjoyable. With some brief flashbacks, the personal history between the two warriors is filled out, and it becomes not just a contest of swordsmanship and flashy moves, but a tale of bitterness and revenge ending on a tragic note. This is one of the series' surprising strengths—that even little-used side characters have worthwhile stories to tell.
Volume 45 then turns the attention to the bigger picture, with practically every Soul Society captain of importance taking a shot at Aizen. Of course, we would all much rather see Ichigo take him on one-on-one, but instead the hero is relegated to spectator status as everyone else shows off their powers. With battle tactics constantly changing, and so many people involved, it's impossible to be bored with this fight. However, there's a single moment that stands out among the rest: midway through this volume, the entire battle is turned upside-down because of one mind-blowing revelation. After that, the series regresses to brute-force combat once more, with Captain-General Yamamoto and his fire abilities taking center stage. Still, the sheer magnitude of his power—as well as Aizen's unpredictable technique—provides more entertainment value than the slugfest over in Hueco Mundo.
Storytelling ups and downs aside, however, Bleach's best quality remains its striking artwork. Every panel serves a purpose, whether it's showing off a massive sense of scale—puny humans taking on a behemoth-sized Arrancar; Yamamoto's flame engulfing an entire city district—or capturing a delicate split second where two combatants are about to charge at each other. There are hardly any wasted scenes where speedlines fill up a page and warriors mindlessly scream at each other, and when it does happen, it happens in elaborate fashion. The widely-spaced layouts bring these moments together in a way that flows freely and naturally, although this also bogs down the pacing—it takes a lot of pages for anything to happen. Aside from the spacious layouts, there are other visual elements that make the action easy to follow, like unique character designs and an avoidance of background clutter (although some might see that as laziness with all the white space).
Although the characters usually let their swords do the talking, there's a reasonable amount of dialogue in these two volumes, especially as key story details are revealed. On one hand there is mind-boggling supernatural babble: the explanation of how Ichigo is to return to his world, and why he's the only guy who can (and must) defeat Aizen. But the script has moments of poetry as well—Komamura and Tôsen speak eloquently of justice as their conflicting ideals meet, and Aizen himself tosses out some deliciously cruel one-liners. The slightly formal tone of the translation also reminds us that these warriors are trained in a strict code of battle, and aren't just generic shonen action protagonists. Meanwhile, the translated sound effects—no Japanese text, just straight-out English lettering—can look jarring at times. With the artwork as distinctive as it is, changing all the effects into English does result in a conspicuous difference.
There's plenty more ground to cover before Ichigo and Aizen's ultimate showdown in Bleach, but Volumes 44 and 45 show the story moving in the right direction. (Plus, we can be thankful that the main hero and villain are at least standing on the same battlefield now.) The personal duel between Tôsen and Komamura reveals that the series can still bring out its sensitive side, and the surprise twist in the middle of Volume 45 proves that there is more to this war than just defeating increasingly difficult enemies. Between that and the consistently stylish art, there's hope for the series yet, even though it still suffers from mindless battles and ragged plotting at times. And that's why Bleach survives—because, despite all its flaws, it still does some pretty cool things.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Relevant story details, a personal grudge match, a surprise twist, and visually striking fight scenes make these two volumes shine.
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