The third volume of Bleach commences with Ichigo, Yoruichi and their friends arriving at the Soul Society in order to save Rukia from her planned execution.
Entering the Rukongai district; a sprawling village of feudal Japanese design that functions as heaven, and surrounds the Seireitei – training grounds and city of the nobles and Soul Reapers – they are first travailed by the gatekeeper to their destination. Ichigo quickly defeats the giant, who opens the gate for them, but they’re soon pushed back almost effortlessly by the Captain of Squad 3, Gin Ichimaru (who suspiciously allows them to live), and need to find another way into the Seireitei. All the while, suspicion further mounts, with the conditions of Rukia’s execution being unprecedented, in their contravention of Soul Society rules and tradition, and the Soul Reapers themselves entering preparations for war, despite only facing only a few enemies who should pose no real threat.
Taken to the fireworks expert Kukaku by Yoruichi, they train in applying their spirit energy to an object that will allow them to project their spirit as a capsule, through which they can penetrate the barrier guarding the Seireitei, launched by a cannon disguised as a chimney in her eccentric home. Although together they manage to penetrate the spiritual barrier, their own – the capsule – is also shattered upon entry, dividing their paths and causing them to be separated, as they’re thrown to different parts of the Seireitei, and from there, progress separately, or with whoever they can find, any way they can; fighting, hiding and extracting information from the Soul Reapers they defeat. During this time, Ichigo, Ishida, Chad, Orihime and Ganju (the brother of Kukaku) are hunted by the Soul Reapers, and in particular, Zaraki Kenpachi, Captain of Squad 11, a huge and bloodthirsty warrior, garbed in the long and tattered, windblown robes of a captain.
The main attraction here is the ongoing fight with the Soul Reapers, lieutenants and captains of the Soul Society, and their slowly unravelling personas, with tension and infighting between them, and their conflict with the ever more powerful ryoka; Ichigo and his friends. Soul Society is frequently elaborate and intriguing, like the world of its contemporary shounen rival, Naruto, and although this isn’t normally matched by the minimalist design and repetition of the backgrounds, the sense of mystery and expectation is pervasive (with the music contributing to this effect). The battles ratchet up quickly, and watching the increasingly potent Soul Reapers arrive, and slowly reveal what they can do – or seeing your favourites among the main characters suddenly reap the bounties of their training – is well worth watching (and will be the hallmark of the next few volumes).
These features, and the timely combination of action, comedy and suspense, are among the most characteristic features of Bleach, and remain, or start, to become the case, in some examples, in this volume as well. Bleach is probably the most grown up and technically successful shounen series of its variety that I’ve seen, and although it occasionally gives in to the conventions or stereotypes of the genre – an endless thirst for power, characters who are more how they fight than who they are personally, and so on – it’s nonetheless a unique and, thus far, significant series.
The animation is generally more than sufficient, and, for such a long series, relatively high quality, but there’s also a lot of swapping in and out of the regular and chibi aesthetics, in keeping with the often comedic tone. The dub is fairly consistent as well, even when jokes aren’t delivered quite as successfully as they are in the Japanese language track, and the only other criticism of much weight is the lack, at least of the rapidity, of characterisation (although that’s defeated somewhat by the introduction of the captains and lieutenants), with those looking for emotion or character development bound to find little here, even if its not entirely devoid in these respects. The value found in the volume and it’s twelve episodes, of course, goes someway to varying and giving more worth to an already great, but admittedly long series, that really needs to be distributed in this way.
Not always as stylised as it could be, but otherwise masterfully constructed, and well-rounded, Bleach is a good alternative, or compliment, to other series like it, especially during the current revival of the shounen genre, and is particularly fitting for anyone mostly looking for an action-packed series with a lot of personality.