Once More Unto the Bleach BONUS #1: MEMORIES OF NOBODY

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Like most shonen animes, Bleach had feature film spinoffs during its run. Most film spinoffs of anime aren’t really well thought of. For shonen, it’s mainly seen as a cash-grab, offering up a chance to see the characters you already know and are invested in partake in a self-contained adventure that, in the series proper, will never be mentioned again. Add to that, a lot of shonen films are produced rather fast and tend not to run that long. For example, most Dragon Ball Z movies tend to be about an hour because they were produced as part of a double feature for kids released in summer in Japan and came out on a yearly basis.

If not stand-alone adventures, then most tie-in anime films tend to be side stories, like the two movies made for both versions of FullMetal Alchemist. The first Bleach film, Memories of Nobody, is a little bit of both. Released in 2006, it’s stand-alone, with the end making it clear that this won’t affect the show. It’s also a side story, as it clearly takes place at some point after the Soul Society arc. (I’m not going to try and slot this into the series’ timeline because  that would be nuts.) With those qualifications, it’s still an engaging story in its own right.

In the Research and Development Institute in Soul Society, a lieutenant in the 12th Division enters and asks a technician what the status is of the space that’s developed between the human world and the world of Soul Society. The technician replies that the space–another dimension–is about to be investigated by troops from the Onmitsukido, the military branch of Soul Society. One of the troops then signals the Institute, saying the exit from the Dangai–the dangerous dimension that allows travel between worlds–has been sealed. The Institute says that they’ll send backup, but as they prepare to do so, the troops start screaming and, as the technicians listen in horror, are all killed by some unseen force.

Meanwhile in the human world, at a park on a beautiful fall day, a ghost runs through the trees, followed by a giant Hollow that the humans around can, of course, hear but not see. Ichigo (Masakazu Morita) and Rukia (Fumiko Orikasa), with Kon (Mitsuaki Madono) in tow, run up. Ichigo changes into his Soul Reaper film and dispatches the Hollow pretty easily. More than anything, this is a showcase for the improved, feature-length budget animation. This fight scene is awesome; the look is stunning, the action is crisp and it’s propulsive, which carries over to the rest of the film.

After the ghost is purified and sent to Soul Society and a good gag where Ichigo’s careless discarding of his body while in Soul Reaper form leads to paramedics performing CPR on his seemingly lifeless corpse, Rukia receives a message from Soul Society about what seems to be a huge infestation of Hollows. They head to the location and switch to Soul Reaper mode, but see nothing but mysterious white creatures roaming around.

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Ichigo tries to purify one but it doesn’t work and the creatures start swarming him and Rukia. Just then, a mysterious girl appears, changes into a Soul Reaper and starts cutting down the creatures left and right. Kon, meanwhile, is in Ichigo’s body trying to avoid the creatures when he suddenly sees a strange man in armor. The girl finishes off the creatures by rising into the air in a tornado and unleashing her Zanpakuto, lands, then turns into a human and prepares to leave.

Ichigo and Rukia stop her, confused as to who she is. If she’s a Soul Reaper, Rukia wonders why she hasn’t seen her before. The girl (Chiwa Saito) simply says that she’s a Reaper, says her name is Senna and dashes off. Meanwhile in Soul Society, a large portal appears in the sky showing the human world, something that’s not supposed to happen.

Who is Senna? What are those white things? Who did Kon see? And how does this all tie back to the space between worlds? Memories of Nobody answers all these questions in a perfunctory, crisp fashion–the better to get to the fighting–but it doesn’t skip out on making sure all threads are connected.

The amount of new characters and information introduced could easily have filled an arc of the show. To his credit, writer   makes it all understandable, mostly thanks to a helpful, funny montage from Urahara, and coherent. Additionally, the relationship that develops between Ichigo and Senna over the course of the film is pretty special, and what ultimately happens to Senna at the end of the film is touching and effective. Bleach creator Tite Kubo actually wrote the story for this and all the other Bleach films–a rarity with anime adaptations of manga in general, let alone movie spinoffs–and his presence and weight is felt in the way things come together.

Series director Noriyuki Abe knows he has a bigger budget here and he uses it. The characters pop with life, the animation gets stunning at moments, and the Bankai and Shikai attacks are amazing, particularly Hitsugaya’s (Romi Park). Rukia even unleashes her Zanpakuto during the final fight here and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it at all; it’s a welcome addition.

Shiro Sagisu’s musical score, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Most of it is recycled straight from the show and what new portions of the score there are are weird. There’s an operatic theme, complete with soprano, that plays during a scene with Ichigo and Senna and it’s very ill-fitting and out of place.

The cast continues to sell it, with Morita, Orikasa and the rest doing excellent work as usual. But it’s Saito who makes the strongest impression here. Making a viewer of an established series care about a new character over all the other ones, particularly in a movie that won’t have any effect on the show proper, is really hard to do and she pulls it off with a mix of quirk and pathos. I observed while watching this film with a friend that, essentially, Senna is a Manic Pixie Soul Reaper, and he agreed. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself and the way Senna is pulled off here is good.

So despite the weak music, this film is good overall. If you’re a Bleach fan, you’re gonna find something to enjoy. I know I did. Even if this is ultimately disposable, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a good time while watching it.

(All images courtesy of Bleach Wiki.)

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Once More Unto The Bleach: Part 3

Okay, it’s been a while but here it is: Once More Unto The Bleach Part 3!!!

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If you haven’t read the last two installments, here’s what this blog feature is about: 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 3rd season, “Soul Society: The Rescue,” has a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!

Last season, “The Entry,” involved Ichigo (Masakazu Morita), Orihime ((Yuki Matsuoka), Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto), Uryu (Noriaki Sugiyama), talking cat Yoruichi (Shiro Saito) and Rukon District native Ganju (Wataru Takagi) blasting their way into Seireitei, the home of the Soul Society, to rescue Rukia (Fumiko Orikasa) from execution. They got in successfully, but were split up as a result, with Chad stoically fighting on his own, Orihime and Uryu trying to stay out of sight, Yoriuchi prowling the rooftops and Ichigo and Ganju bumbling their way into taking Soul Reaper Hanataro (Koki Miyata) hostage.

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

Ichigo wound up fighting Lieutenant Renji Abarai (Kentaro Ito), who had helped bring Rukia back to await execution. After a long, epic battle, Ichigo won (barely) and was admonished by Renji, who it turns out had known and looked out for Rukia since they were kids in one of the poorest areas of the Rukon District, to save her from death. Ichigo’s defeat of Rukia was so alarming to the top of Soul Society that all captains of the 13 Guard Squads were sent out to pursue them.

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(L to R: Byakuya and Renji)

The next morning, 5th Squad captain Sosuke Aizen (Sho Hayami) was found brutally murdered, nailed high up on a building with his Zanpakuto driven right through him. Naturally, this freaks out the rest of the Soul Reapers, with Aizen’s lieutenant Momo Hinamori (Kumi Sakuma) lashing out and attacking 3rd Squad captain Gin Ichimaru (Koji Yusa), who she had been warned not to trust by her old friend, 10th Squad captain Toshiro Hitsugaya (Romi Park). Ichimaru’s lieutenant and Momo’s other friend Izuru Kira (Takahiro Sakurai) was sympathetic but refused to let her attack his captain, leading to a fight between the two of them that was stopped by Hitsugaya, who ordered them both restrained and imprisoned.

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(L to R: Momo, Hitsugaya, Izuru)

Meanwhile, on their way to rescue Rukia, Ichigo and Ganju–and later, Hanataro–were pursued by 11th Squad captain Kenpachi Zaraki (Fumihiko Tachiki), easily the strongest person inside Soul Society, who eventually located them along with his lieutenant Yachiru Kusajishi (Hisayo Mochizuki), who’s also incredibly strong despite being around 8 years old. Kenpachi and Ichigo have an enormous fight that ended in a standstill with them both collapsing. Ichigo is then rescued by Yoruichi, who spirits him away to a cave and revealed that he is actually a she (Satsuki Yukino) who can merely transform into a cat. Of course, when transforming back into a human, she’s completely naked, which led to some great comedy between her and Ichigo.

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(L to R: Zaraki and Yachiru)

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(L to R: Yoruichi…and her real form)

Not gonna lie, folks, I did not see this reveal coming one bit. But it works because it upends our conception of Yoruichi as well as provide the series with a strong female mentor for Ichigo. On top of that, Yukino brings a nice sense of energy and purpose to her role, which helps sell Yoruichi’s authority very well.

Meanwhile, Ganju and Hanataro made their way to the prison Rukia is in, but upon seeing her for the first time, Ganju freaked out. It was revealed last season that Ganju’s older brother, Kaien, was killed by the Soul Reapers. A flashback by Rukia showed that Kaien was actually her former lieutenant and her mentor. But after his wife died at the hands of a Hollow, he went crazed and went off to fight it alone. Rukia and their captain, Jushiro Ukitake (Hideo Ishikawa), followed on foot. They saw the Hollow fuse with Kaien and attack them, leading Rukia to stab Kaien in self-defense, which killed the Hollow and brought Kaien back briefly before he died. A young Ganju witnessed Rukia bring Kaien’s body home and admitting to killing him.

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(L to R: Ukitake, Kaien)

Ganju, however, didn’t learn of this. Enraged, he almost attacked her, but was interrupted when Rukia’s brother, 6th Squad captain Byakuya (Ryotaro Okiayu), arrives and attacks him. While fighting him, Byakuya releases his Shikai and nearly kills him in the process. Ukitake appeared to try to dissaude him from doing that–as it’s a class offense to do so within Soul Society–but Byakuya told him that with war declared, it’s okay.

Okay, now to explain Shikai: as Yoruichi tells Ichigo while they’re in hiding, there are two other forms a Zanpakuto can attain if its welder is powerful enough to obtain them. The first form is the Shikai, which can be activated by the Soul Reaper learning the name of their Zanpakuto and saying an incantation including the name. Ichigo’s Shikai is what was responsible for turning his zanpakuto, Zangetsu, from its initial katana-esque form into the huge blade it stays as. Byakuya’s Shikai causes his zanpakuto, Senbonzakura (which translates into Thousand Cherry Blossoms), to scatter into a thousand tiny blades that look like flower fragments and proceed to slice up his opponent from all angles.

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(L to R: Byakuya’s Shinkai; Hitsugaya’s Shinkai)

The effect of Byakuya’s Shikai nearly killed Ganju, but just as Byakuya was about to finish him off, Ichigo arrived to battle him. Rukia, for her part, wasn’t pleased at all to see him, telling him he should have stayed in the human world; Ichigo responded that she can yell at him later after he beats Byakuya. Just before Byakuya uses his Shikai on Ichigo, Yoruichi whipped a bandage around Senbonzakura, stopping it from releasing itself. She then greeted Byakuya to the shock of everyone else; Byakuya said it’s been a long time since anyone has seen her and he alludes to her having been in charge of some part of Soul Society at some point or other.

As Season 3 begins, Yoruichi knocks Ichigo out by punching anesthetic into his wounds and spirits him away from Byakuya using Flash Step, a move that enables whoever’s using it to teleport really fast. Rukia passes out from all the strain and Byakuya leaves in a huff. While Ukitake has his lieutenants tend to Ganju and Rukia, Yoruichi takes Ichigo back to a network of caves underneath Soul Society that look like the area underneath Urahara’s shop.

She explains to Ichigo that there’s another form to Zanpakuto besides Shikai: Bankai, which usually manifests as some sort of gigantic monster or other form that inflicts a tremendous amount of damage. Although it normally takes ten years for a Soul Reaper to unlock Bankai, Yoruichi tells Byakuya that Ichigo will reach that level in three days in order to save Rukia from execution. Using a special device made by Urahara, who is also revealed to have been a Soul Reaper and a Captain the same time Yoruichi was, over a century ago, Zangetsu manifests and agrees to help Ichigo obtain Bankai in three days.

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(L to R: Mayuri…and his Bankai)

While Ichigo trains harder than ever before, Orihime and Uryu, after being sidelined for most of last season, are revealed to have largely stuck to the shadows, stealing Soul Reaper uniforms to blend in and fighting 7th Squad member Jirobo (Kazuhiro Nakata), an enormous man who it turns out is the brother of Seireitei gatekeeper Jidanbo, shown last season. Orihime manages to attack him with Tsubaki (Toshiyuki Morikawa), the most warlike of her Shun Shun Rikka, but as she does not have killing intent behind her attack, Jirobo easily cripples Tsubaki and manages to attack Orihime before Uryu drives him away.

Uryu and Orihime make some more progress, unaware that they’re being stalked by 12th Division captain and absolute psychopath Mayuri Kurotsuchi (Ryusei Nakao), who eventually gets their attention by having them being confronted by members of his squad right before he blows them up and confronts them directly. In a terrifying monologue, he reveals his surprise at Uryu being a Quincy, as he thought he had violently tortured and experimented on the last one, Uryu’s grandfather. Enraged, Uryu confronts him head-on in an incredibly tense battle. This fight provides the best showcase yet of Quincy powers and shows just how skilled Uryu really is. However, he’s out of his depth when it comes to fighting against Mayuri who has leagues of power over him. The toll their battle wages and the final cost Uryu winds up paying is a genuinely shocking and inspiring moment.

Meanwhile in prison, Momo is given a letter from Aizen addressed to her by Hitsugaya. Reading it, Momo is shocked to learn that, according to Aizen’s own words, he was killed by Hitsugaya. Enraged, Momo escapes her cell and confronts Hitsugaya, intending to kill him. Hitsugaya, for his part, has confronted Gin and Izuru, revealing his suspicions about the two of them relating to Aizen’s death. Hitsugaya fades off Momo’s attack and directly confronts Gin by unleashing his own Shikai, an enormous ice dragon that results in not only some impressive visuals but leads to a truly impressive fight that reveals just how powerful Soul Reaper captains truly are. A similar fight between Renji and Byakuya is even more impressive, with the creative designs of the Shikai leading to some awe-inspiring images.

Rukia’s execution is moved back one more day, and while Hitsugaya and his lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto (Kaya Matsutani) rush to Central 46, the hub of the leaders of Soul Society, to stop the execution and Ukitake tells his lieutenants that their only option left is to destroy the Sokyoku, the powerful spear that is used to execute Soul Reapers, Rukia is brought to the execution spot and levitated by blocks to await being killed by the Sokyoku’s spirit form, a giant phoenix made of fire.

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(L to R: Rangiku and the Sokyoku)

As Rukia calmly accepts her fate, the Sokyoku charges at her, only to be stopped by…Ichigo, who is flying thanks to a device given to him by Yoriuchi and using his zanpakuto to repel the flames. Astonishing all below, he frees Rukia, lowers them both to the ground and challenges Byakuya to a fight.

There’s a whole lot more I haven’t mentioned, but trust me, this season sees things get really complicated as more and more Soul Reapers are introduced and a wide circle of intrigue widens outside of the immediate attempt to rescue Rukia. Remarkably, the show manages to deal with this all successfully, never giving any character short shrift and even helping to shed light on a lot of their personalities.

As I’ve said, the animation is particularly stellar with the introduction of the awesome Bankai sequences, which result in some truly epic creative fights. Furthermore, the pairing off of characters into individual arcs helps viewers get to know them and identify with them and for me, the strengthening of the bonds between Uryu and Orihime is particularly enjoyable, as well as Ichigo learning from Yoruichi, proving that he hasn’t conquered everything that easily.

Of the now greatly expanded cast, Morita still provides a strong anchor, giving us insight into Ichigo’s thoughts and feelings as he proceeds on his quest; his wonderful banter with Yukino and  Takagi is also a great highlight. Being largely isolated from everyone else, Orikasa has to give Rukia a LOT of heavy lifting in order to sell her introspection and she does, giving Rukia’s thoughts and memories a great layer of heartbreak.

As the incredibly creepy Kurotsuchi, Nakao basically gives us this show’s version of Hannibal Lecter, and his haughty attitude is terrific to square off against the righteous Sugiyama. Koji Yusa once again excels as the terrifying Ichimaru and Hitsugaya’s opposition is given wonderful stern life by Romi Park (best known as the Japanese Edward Elric in both versions of  Fullmetal Alchemist).

The scripting, as I said, combines all of these characters and more in a perfectly balanced plotline. It reminds me a lot of Game of Thrones‘ writing in the sense that, while you may be unable to recall who some of these characters are, you’re invested in their struggles whenever they appear on screen. Series director Noriyuki Abe and his time utilize their considerable talents and Shiro Sagisu’s excellent score in order to bring the show to exciting, frenetic, breathtaking life.

The stretching out of this arc to two seasons could’ve been risky, but I’m glad they went that way, as just when one threat ends, another one pops up and it majorly defines the tone of the series going forward. It’s terrific stuff and I recommend it.

As I said up top, I’m skipping the filler, so now I’m watching Season 6, “The Arrancar.” It’s proving exciting so far and I can’t wait to tell you about it. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Once More Unto The Bleach–Part 1

So I’ve reviewed my fair share of anime on this blog, but it’s not something I’m inherently familiar with.

This is mostly because I grew up on Toonami like everybody else, but when I was 8, we moved and lost Cartoon Network as part of our cable package. So I missed out on a huge chunk of shows and, by the time I got Cartoon Network again a few years later, I had lost interest.

But ever since I got to college and made friends with a whole ton of people who watch anime, I’ve been trying to catch up. Consequently, I’ve made a rule for myself of, every summer, making it through a show that doesn’t run for 200+ episodes (so no Naruto, for instance). It’s usually worked so I’ve kept at it.

But it occurred to me a little while ago that I can’t exactly ignore the existence of long-running shonen (boys’ action) series. After all, it was the success of Dragon Ball Z and its kind that made anime finally break through over here in America. So I resolved to find a show that, in addition to being interesting to me personally, also could be used as an example to see just why people spend years and years following the same genre of show over and over.

Having just finished the first arc, I’m proud to announce a new recurring feature where I examine (almost) every storyline of the long-running, legendary series Bleach!

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Why Bleach instead of another, perhaps more mainstream show? Well, to be honest, this wasn’t a show I was ever interested in. It seemed too convoluted, filled with way too many characters, and too long to ever get into.

But I know a lot of people who read the manga and enjoy it (even though they think it should’ve ended a while ago) and when I discovered the show’s excellent soundtracks by composing legend Shiro Sagisu as well as its bevy of fantastic opening and ending songs, I was intrigued. That, and the story did sound interesting.

Plus, the show is over. Or rather, it’s still being dubbed into English and aired on Adult Swim, but in Japan, it ceased broadcasting in 2012. Furthermore, all the episodes are available in Japanese (w/English subtitles) for free on Hulu, another plus; I prefer official subtitles to ones cranked out by some random fan somewhere and Hulu’s setup meant I could easily burn through episodes at a good pace. Furthermore, the times I had tried watching the show in English, I couldn’t get past Johnny Yong Bosch in the main role; he’s a good actor, and I’ve loved him in other roles (his work in Code Geass is legend) but I just couldn’t buy him here.

To that end, let’s talk about the first arc of Bleach, which Wikipedia tells me is called, in English, “The Substitute.”  (Individual episodes, at least onscreen, do not have titles; instead they’re marked “Bleach 1” for the first episode, “Bleach 2” for the second and so on.) A note on organizing here: I’ll only be reviewing the arcs once I’ve gone all the way through them, so posts for this feature will be sporadic. It’d be crazy and futile to try and do a write-up of every episode, considering the show’s pacing, and I, frankly, don’t have the time to do so. Furthermore, I won’t be covering the filler (that is, anime-original) arcs, mostly because I don’t want to make myself suffer.

Right; let’s get down to it!

So the show opens in modern-day (well, circa 2004) Japan, where 15-year old Ichigo Kurosaki (Masakazu Morita) deals with his wacky dad, his idiot friends, high school and the things that crop up from having the ability to see and talk to spirits. In the first episode, Ichigo beats down some skateboarding punks who have knocked over some flowers in an alleyway put up in memory of a small child who died there. That sequence tells us immediately everything we need to know about our hero. He’s caring, compassionate and will fight anyone who goes after someone he’s sworn to protect. It’s an instantly endearing action, and I applaud the show for starting out this way.

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We learn that Ichigo’s been able to see spirits for as long as he can remember but doesn’t seem fazed by it. At worst, he views the spirits as an annoyance, although, he notes in voiceover, there seem to be more and more of them cropping up lately.

The next day, Ichigo buys flowers to replace the ones that were knocked down but as he’s about to deliver them, he hears the child spirit scream. He runs down the alleyway to find her being chased by a gigantic, mask-wearing monster.

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Just as they’re both about to be devoured, a woman wearing a black kimono and brandishing a sword appears and destroys the monster, then vanishes instantly.

Later that night, Ichigo is in his room, wondering who she was, when she suddenly appears to him. Confused, Ichigo wonders why she’s there, but she doesn’t notice him until he kicks her in the back of the head. Surprised that he can even see her, let alone touch her, the woman– Rukia Kuchiki (Fumiko Orikasa)–explains that she’s not only a Spirit, but a Soul Reaper (Shinigami, or Death God, in Japanese), a spirit charged with sheparding souls to the afterlife and demonstrates her power by binding Ichigo, then performing the Konso ritual on a nearby spirit, purifying the spirit and sending it to the other side, to the world of the Soul Society, the group Rukia belongs to.

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She explains that the monster she killed earlier is called a Hollow, a soul that has lost its essence, and seeks only to devour other spirits to increase its own strength. She explains that there’s a huge one in the area that she hasn’t been able to locate due to her senses being tampered with.

Suddenly, another enormous Hollow named Fishbone D (Yutaka Aoyama) appears, having chased the same little girl from earlier, and crashes through the wall of the Kurosaki family’s house, attacking his father (Toshiyuki Morikawa) and sister Karin (Rie Kugimiya) and grabs her twin Yuzu (Tomoe Sakuragawa), dragging her out into the street.

Enraged, Ichigo breaks the binding spell Rukia put him under, something she says shouldn’t even be possible, and attacks Fishbone but to no avail.Rukia saves him, but gets injured in the process. She explains that the only way to defeat a Hollow is with the power of  a Soul Reaper, but in order to gain it, he has to be impaled on her blade, called a Zanpakuto. Ichigo agrees and gets run through; in the process, he accidentally absorbs all of Rukia’s power, instead of just some of it. Regardless, he easily defeats the Hollow, cutting it in half and purifying it.

Astonished at how easily Ichigo defeated such a huge Hollow, as well as absorb all of her power and the fact that he wields such a large Zanpakuto blade, Rukia resolves to stay in the human world through the use of a false body and train Ichigo as a Substitute Soul Reaper until her powers come back. Wanting to protect everyone around him, Ichigo agrees, thus setting the stage for big things to come.

Most of the episodes in this arc are stand-alone, and focus on a monster-of-the-week type scenario while introducing people like Ichigo’s friends Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto) and Orihime (Yuki Matsuoka), all of whom are interesting characters in their own right.

As far as setups to a long show go, this works really well. Nobody feels underdeveloped, the structure is appealing and the fight scenes are glorious. Director Noriyuki Abe and his team at Studio Pierrot are experts at staging this stuff; the subtle lighting they employ when Ichigo shifts from being a human to a soul (and a Soul Reaper) are a nice touch.

The scripts are well-timed and interesting enough to be entertaining on their own, while keeping viewers hooked for what’s to come next. The cast are all fine performers, with Morikawa standing out for making Ichigo’s dad completely goofy, yet understandable. As Rukia, Orikasa is tough as nails. She resists making the character a cliche, and it’s a fascinating performance to hear.

The real star, of course, is Morita, and he owns every minute. We’re never left with any hesitations as to why we should care about Ichigo; he makes someone who could have been a bland hero into a regular teenager, full of contempt, fears and dreams. It’s as astounding performance, and one can see why he won multiple awards for the rule.

I’m excited to start this show, and I hope you are too. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. The next arc, “The Entry,” is 21 episodes, so come back to read all about that soon!