Once More Unto The Bleach: Part 2

And here we go again! Since last time, I’ve been trying to watch at least 2 episodes of this show a day, and it’s worked, so let’s dig into the second season of Bleach!

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If you didn’t read the first post, here’s how this feature works: I’m going through each season of the long-running, legendary anime series Bleach–which is available entirely for free on Hulu (in Japanese w/English subtitles)–and writing about it. I do this because I want to see what attracts people to shonen (boys’ action) anime that run on for years and years. I’m only covering the seasons that are adapted directly from the original manga, because even in a shorter anime, filler is a killer™ and I don’t want to slog through it. The title of this feature comes from the fact that this is my third attempt at making it through the series, after trying to get into it through the English dub a couple of times before.

The first season, “The Substitute,” ended with our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki (Masakazu Morita) journeying into the afterlife and to the world of Soul Society, the organization made up of the police-like Soul Reapers who transport spirits to the afterlife, to rescue Rukia Kuchiki (Fumiko Orikasa), the woman who accidentally gave him all of her Soul Reaper power when helping him save his family, then guided him through his duties as a Substitute Soul Reaper. After a series of one-off adventures, Rukia was captured and brought back to Soul Society by fellow Soul Reapers Renji Abarai (Kentaro Ito) and her adopted brother, Byakuya (Ryotaro Okiayu) to face judgment for her crime of transferring her power to a human. Ichigo attempted to fight them off, but was easily outmatched, stripped of his powers and left to die while the Soul Reapers took off, Rukia admonishing him to let her go otherwise she would never forgive him.

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(L to R: Byakuya and Renji)

Ichigo recovered his powers under the tutelage of helpful store owner and spiritual expert Kisuke Urahara (Shinichiro Miki) and a training regime that resulted in him nearly becoming a Hollow, although he managed to pull himself back, but not before he grew a Hollow mask. At this point, Ichigo unlocked the true nature of his zanpakuto, revealing its true form, as well as learning its name, Zangetsu (Takayuki Sugo).

Ichigo left through a portal under Urahara’s store for Soul Society, determined to save Rukia. But he didn’t go alone like he thought he would. Instead, a party consisting of his similarly spiritually-gifted friends Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto), a gentle giant with the ability to turn his right arm into unstoppable armor and emit energy blasts, Orihime (Yuki Matsuoka), whose hairpins contain magical fairy-like creatures called the Shin Shin Rikka that she can command and Uryu Ishida (Noriaki Sugiyama), the last of the Quincy, a tribe of humans who used their spiritual energy to kill Hollows.

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(Left to Right: Chad, Orihime, Ichigo, Ganju, Hanataro and Uryu)

At the beginning of Season 2, “The Entry,” The four of them, plus the talking cat Yoruichi (Shiro Saito), an old friend of Urahara’s who mentored Orihime and Chad on their powers, leap through the portal, but before they break through to Soul Society, they find themselves caught in the powerful Koryu current that, Yoriuchi warns, will devour them completely before they can make it through the portal, unless they hold on to each other. Thanks to his showy ornamental cape, Uryu nearly gets pulled in, but is saved by Chad, with Orihime using her powers to shield them from the current so they can escape.

The group plummets down like a meteorite into the Rukon District, the largest part of Soul Society, where all souls arrive upon death. The District is much like a real city; divided into several areas, it decays outwardly, with the very poor and destitute living on the outskirts. Ichigo, quickly noticing the gated entrance to Seireitei, the compound where all Soul Reapers live, rushes to it, but is blocked by the gatekeeper, an absolute giant of a man named Jidanbo (Takashi Nagasako), who brags that in the 300 years he’s been guarding the gate, no one’s been able to beat him, and he fights Ichigo. The cool thing abotu this part of the plot is how it shows the epic tradition Bleach is following in. The heroic party has formed; now, the Hero must confront the Gatekeeper. It’s an essential part of any legend, and the way series director Noriyuki Abe and his team set things up here is glorious. The fact that Ichigo is fighting a literal giant is never lost on the viewer, with the destroyed ground being used by Ichigo as cover and vantage points from where to attack. It’s a well-placed sense of scale, and it’s a great fight.

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(L to R: Jidanbo, Yoruichi.)

Ichigo emerges victorious, and Jidanbo, stunned that someone could beat him (and break his precious axes), lifts up the giant stone gate to let them in, but the group is met by Gin Ichimaru (Yusa Koji), the sadistic, creepily grinning Soul Reaper Captain who slices up Jidanbo’s arm and forces the group back into the Rukon District. Angered, the group rests at a friendly old man’s house, where they meet Ganju (Wataru Takagi), a macho doofus with a severe hatred of Soul Reapers due to one killing his brother. He takes them to his older sister and family head, Kikaku (Akiko Hiramatsu), who gets them through the bubble of spirit energy that surrounds Seireitei through a giant spiritual cannonball fired through a giant cannon, which is impressively rendered.

Cannon Launched

Once the group gets in, the cannonball collapses and creates a whirlpool, which splits the group up and sends them flying into different areas of Seireitei: Ichigo and Ganju going one way, Orihime and Uryu going another and Yoruichi and Chad flying off in different directions, apart from everyone else.

While all this has been going on, Rukia has been sitting in a jail cell, awaiting execution for her crimes. However, she is soon transferred to the Senzaikyu, a tall, white tower that overlooks the execution field–and nothing else–and told that if she repents of her crimes, she might be spared.

Ichigo’s group–referred to by the Soul Reapers as Ryokas (or outsiders, like the inhabitants of the Rukon District) eventually figure this out, and resolve to get there. Ichigo and Ganju figure it out after accidentally taking a member of the 4th Squad, the hapless Hanataro (Koki Miyata), hostage. But Hanataro agrees to help them because he was a janitor while Rukia was in her old jail cell, and struck up a friendship with her, with her telling him all about the human world and about Ichigo.

A little note: as explained here, Soul Society is divided into 13 squads, each of which has a Captain and a Lieutenant, along with several subordinates. A ton of characters are introduced here, but there’s only a few that are really important at this stage of things. Byakuya is the Captain of Squad 6, Renji his lieutenant. Hanataro, as I said, is a member of Squad 4, which isn’t even a combat squad, but is instead the medical corps of Soul Society. Then there’s Ichimaru, the captain of Squad 3 and Aizen (Sho Hayami), the captain of Squad 5, who seems nice and kind, but seems to have some sort of beef with Ichimaru.

There’s also Hitsugaya (Romi Park), a child prodigy who’s the captain of Squad 10. Then there’s Kenpachi Zaraki (Fumihiko Tachiki), the captain of Squad 11, and an immensely powerful Soul Reaper, easily the strongest of the 13 Captains. He becomes the default Big Bad for this season, and his multi-episode fight with Ichigo is some cool stuff and very intense in its own right.

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(L to R: (Top) Ichimaru and Aizen,  (Bottom) Hitsugaya and Kenpachi)

Even with the rapidly expanding roster of characters, the show still keeps its focus on the humans entering into Soul Society (as well as Ganju and Hanataro). Having the characters split up only serves to highlight their individual arcs as well as highlight their personalities. Ichigo’s headstrong heroics find a perfect counterpoint in Ganju’s bluster and Hanataro’s goofy optimism, which lead to some fun comedy. But the two are also capable of being serious when the moment demands it. Similarly, pairing the highly competent Uryu with the inexperienced Orihime works really well, in that they develop a mentor/mentee relationship that eventually goes both ways (one can also read some romantic subtext into their storyline, but I digress.) Having Chad by himself, which could seem boring, also works because this rather silent character reveals himself through introspection, including the story of how he first met Ichigo, and why he feels loyal to him.

The new Soul Reapers I highlighted above all have their moments, but Ichimaru and Kenpachi are easily the standouts. Yusa Koji is known for playing dark characters (like Shadow the Hedgehog and Lunatic from Tiger & Bunny) and he brings a similar quality here, being mysterious and shady in ways that complement Ichimaru’s creepy, permanent grin. Kenpachi is a stereotypical supervillain, in some ways, and Tachiki plays that to the hilt, reveling in making his voice as outsized as his character.

The scripting, led by Masashi Sogo, remains as tight as ever, although some characters feel lost in the shuffle as things go on, with Uryu and Orihime eventually disappearing three-quarters through the season (although their story picks up in Season 3, which I’m watching right now). The direction gets even more bombastic, especially now that we’ve moved away from the formula of Ichigo V. Hollow that so defined last season. Here, Ichigo is tested, pushed to his very limits physically and mentally, and the way the fight scenes are choreographed and directed by Noriyuki Abe, his team and people like key animator Rioji Nakamori, reflects that wonderfully.

One thing I do miss is that, since the show is now permanently set in the afterlife, there’s none of the distinctive lighting that distinguished when Ichigo transformed into a Soul Reaper last season from when he wasn’t. But with all that’s gained by the expansion of the show’s world, as well as its ability to maintain a focus on a single story throughout, it’s easy to gloss over.

This show continues to impress and entertain even as its scope widens. I’m currently in the beginning of Season 3, “Soul Society: The Rescue,” and so far, that continues to be the case. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. See you next time!

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