From entering Seireitei to his reunion with Rukia, Ichigo fights bravely through the Soul Reaper hordes - you certainly can't fault his dedication to the cause. When that battle takes 16 episodes, though (and they've still got to get back out again), it's not too harsh to say that the viewer needs a certain amount of dedication too...
What They Say
For as long as he can remember, Ichigo Kurosaki has been able to see ghosts. But when he meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper from the Soul Society who battles evil spirits known as Hollows, his life changes forever. Now, with a new-found wealth of spiritual energy, Ichigo discovers his true calling: to protect the living and the dead from evil at all costs!
Audio is presented in English and Japanese 2.0 stereo. I've been trying to widen my linguistic boundaries lately, so I listed to this release in both English and Japanese. Both tracks are fairly standard stereo mixes, with some effort having been made to properly place dialogue and effects on the soundstage but nothing particularly spectacular past that. There were no obvious dropouts or other problems. As for the English track - I've been becoming more accepting of dubbed anime lately, and Bleach is another series where the quality of the English voice-acting has quite impressed me.
Video's hard to quantify in one way - this is a recent show, so in general the animation is clean and colourful, while the transfer is free of any obvious encoding issues. Where it's strange is that there are scenes dotted throughout the disc where the animation has noticeably more detail (both in terms of shading representing lighting, which adds a lot of depth to the animation, and in the amount of work that's gone into portraying the characters) than for the rest of the disc. These scenes really do look good, but they're different enough from the show's usual level of animation that they do jar a bit. I can't really criticise for the extra effort having been made, though.
No packaging was provided with our review copy.
The menu is a static screen, with an image of one of the main off to one side (Kenpachi on Disc One, Rukia on Disc Two). Options are provided for Play All, direct access to each episode, language setup and extras, with Orihime and Rukia featuring on the submenus for both discs. There are no transition animations, so it's all quick & easy to use.
Each disc (it's a two-disc set) has a creditless version of the show's closing sequence (annoyingly, both discs having the same version of the ED – Houki Boshi – despite a new ending being introduced during the set), and a gallery of production artwork. That's your lot.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
Before we get into the main event, the set begins with a bit of a timeout, as we travel back to the "real" world to see what Yuzu and Karin, Ichigo's sisters, have been getting up to. For reasons best left seen for yourself, they've gotten themselves entangled in the showbiz life of Don Kanonji ("Bohahaha!") and, along with Jinta and Ururu, are helping him with his investigations into the paranormal – and with there being more Hollows around town than usual, that's keeping them plenty busy. The adventures of the "Karakura Superheroes", as they're eventually tagged, are apparently set to become a regular feature in the series, and they make for a good comic distraction from the more serious stuff that's been going on lately – although Don Kanonji isn't half as funny this time around as he was during his first appearance. Still entertaining, though.
Which is more than could be said of the rest of the set, as the adventures of the gang in Seireitei soon fall into a repetitive rut. Orihime and Ishida, after being short-changed on appearances in the last volume, fail to appear in this set at all, with the focus firmly on Chad on the one hand, and Ichigo, Ganju and Hanataro on the other. Their adventures are as predictable as you like – meet high-ranking Soul Reaper (we're currently well into working through the squad captains), fight, fall foul of their opponent's unexpectedly powerful special move, miraculously recover, and eventually win fight. There's the inevitable power-up for Ichigo in there, too. Chad does eventually have to withdraw from the battle – he's a big man, but he lacks Ichigo's Soul Reaper powers and eventually meets someone he can't deal with – but the formula holds true for Ichigo throughout the set and soon begins to wear thin. I also have trouble with the suspension of disbelief that's required to make these sorts of battles make sense – the setup of the Soul Reapers, and the powers available to them, mean that they could easily deal with their invaders in a matter of moments should it take their fancy to do so, but instead we get a parade of one-on-one battles that just make it (comparatively) easy for Ichigo to progress through the complex. It makes very little sense, and it's a formula that I personally don't find particularly entertaining.
That's all the more annoying as the first two sets of Bleach showed that it was capable of doing the shounen fighting thing a little bit differently, a little more enjoyably, than most of the Shounen Jump shows I've seen. I had high hopes at that time that I'd enjoy the series as a whole – the characters and humour both work for me, and with the action side of things working well I was all set – but that now seems to have gone out of the window. The focus on the fighting has meant that character development has had to take a back seat, the humour is restricted to small scenes and the Don Kanonji episode, and the action is left to carry the series – and on it own, it can't quite manage it.
There is some relief provided by the political infighting that's going on amongst the Soul Reaper squads, with one of them trying to use the chaos provided by Ichigo's rescue attempt to improve his own position. His efforts include the murder of another squad captain and have the potential to shake up the Soul Reapers (most likely not in a good way). It's an interesting enough sideline in its own way, and the way it plays out shows that there are clear "good" and "evil" factions in Seireitei – but the arc falls foul of there simply being too many characters on show for you to get a chance to build a connection with anyone outside Ichigo's core group, and that in turn makes it hard to really care about what's happening to them.
I would maybe be more forgiving of this current arc of Bleach if the series hadn't already shown itself to be capable of more than this – but to see the potential wasted just makes the whole experience doubly annoying. The Seireitei arc is proving to be too long and too repetitive to be of much appeal, despite one or two bright spots, and I'm left just hoping it'll end soon and allow the series to get back to better things. Definitely not the show's high point.
Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 2.0, English Subtitles, Creditless Endings, Production Art
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.