Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 2nd 2012
Now that he has become an all-powerful being, Sousuke Aizen's plan for taking over Soul Society—the world of spirits—is all but complete. That is, unless he is betrayed by his lieutenant Gin ... or defeated by teenage-boy-turned-Soul-Reaper Ichigo Kurosaki. Will Ichigo's mastery of the "final Getsuga Tensho" be the attack that stops Aizen once and for all? And what sacrifices must Ichigo make to win? After it's all over, Ichigo returns to his daily life, but a chance encounter with a man on the street leads to new dangers. This strange man, Kugo Ginjo, seems unusually interested in Ichigo and his family. And things only get more suspicious when Ichigo's classmate, Uryu, falls victim to a violent attack. As it turns out, Ichigo is about to discover a whole new world of supernatural powers ...
It's the end of an era—and the beginning of a new one.
The finale of Bleach's "Arrancar Arc" strikes like a bolt of lightning: quick, to the point, and nowhere near as messy as the clashes that led up to it. For all the hype about Aizen surpassing every level of existence, and Ichigo training in a time-skewed alternate dimension, their ultimate confrontation is nowhere near as lengthy as fans may have expected. The central hero turns his powers all the way up, the central villain does the same, and the outcome—predictable, yet satisfying—is worked out within a few chapters. Even a flashback to show how Ichigo learns his final move is surprisingly succinct; it gets to the point within several pages and jumps back into the main story before people lose track of what's going on.
But even though the story wraps up quickly, Volume 48 still throws in a few light wrinkles to make it interesting. Supporting characters like Gin, Urahara, and Zangetsu (the personified version of Ichigo's sword, that is) all have their roles to play in making the battle turn out the way it does. Whether it's a stroke of clever planning, or an unexpected moment of kindness, each little twist in the storyline adds up to a memorable ending and not just a bland, straight-up dose of Good Defeats Evil.
Then comes the dramatic refresh in Volume 49: Ichigo returns to the human world and starts going to school again. The mix of genres becomes much more varied, featuring comedy, slice-of-life, and even hints of romance (Orihime, now freed from her Arrancar prison, is free to fawn over Ichigo once more). After so much supernatural melodrama, it's just plain fun to see Ichigo and company joshing with each other in an ordinary way. However, creator Tite Kubo has obviously gotten a bit rusty in anything that doesn't involve epic swordfights: the pacing in these school-life chapters can be a bit too jumpy, rushing from one scene to the next, and the characters tend to overact just for the sake of overreacting. But the story gets into a better rhythm once mysterious new characters are introduced and dark forces start moving in on Ichigo again. Yes, this new development sounds painfully predictable—when is Ichigo ever not targeted by dark forces?—but there's enough information revealed in the final chapter to get readers hooked, and start wondering about what may come next.
The culmination of the Arrancar Arc is also the culmination of Kubo's development as an artist: he's always known how to draw dynamic action scenes, but now comes the challenge of action scenes that involve the strongest warriors ever. Kubo's bold visual representations of spiritual power—laser-sharp beams of light, sweeping clouds of darkness, and mountains being sliced in two—certainly get the job done, along with dramatic new character designs. Aizen's final form is as monstrous as anything in the horror genre, and Ichigo's new appearance is equally striking: a shadowy, menacing-looking hero, but one completely in control of his dark side. As always, the visuals are also helped by a wide variety of panel layouts and viewing angles, with everything from single-eye close-ups all the way to full-page landscapes. When the mood of the story changes in Volume 49, the artwork also changes: suddenly the panels become more neatly arranged and stick to regular shapes and sizes, reflecting Ichigo's return to an ordinary life. The backgrounds also become more realistic-looking (say goodbye to surreal skies and wastelands), but there are still too many scenes where the backgrounds aren't drawn in at all.
If that sudden shift in story and art between Volumes 48 and 49 isn't enough, just think of how it affects the dialogue as well. When Ichigo and Aizen engage in combat, they spout out the usual vague lines of "battle poetry"—brief declarations of one's fighting prowess. (Aizen also gets pretty annoying near the end with his various screams of "You won't believe how powerful I am!" even though he's obviously losing.) By contrast, the dialogue in the following volume is more chatty: Ichigo has more to say to his pals than to a spiritual superbeing, although most of it is just small talk. The translation makes sure to capture this change of tone, using dramatic words and hard-edged phrasing in the climactic battle, but switching to friendly, colloquial English back in the real world. The fight scenes also provide an extra challenge with all the sound effects that have to be converted into English—the altered text still stands out conspicuously from the art, but the tilt and curve of the lettering keeps it from getting in the way of the action.
If there is one disappointment in Volume 48 of Bleach, it's that the final battle between Ichigo and Aizen, the moment everyone had been looking forward to, is over so quickly. But maybe that's for the best: as previous volumes have taught us, nobody likes a drag-out fight full of distractions and sidesteps and flashbacks. Instead, the Arrancar Arc finishes it all neatly and quickly, like a clean surgical cut. Then comes a refreshing change of mood in Volume 49, full of everyday comedy and schoolyard antics (even if it gets a little jumpy and tries too hard from time to time). Meanwhile, the art remains as distinctive and confident as ever, shifting easily to a new mode of storytelling. In these two volumes, Bleach dramatically marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new one—and it's about time.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ A power-packed battle brings the Arrancar Arc to a succinct close, a new storyline brings a refreshing change, and the stylish artwork continues to stand out.
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