Bleach is liked, by the majority of those who like it, I would imagine, for its successful underlying formula (which is equally apparent in Naruto); moving almost haphazardly between scenes of a comedic, dramatic and emotional nature.
This volume proves that it still isn’t incredibly emotional at any point per se – other than in depicting testosterone driven characters getting angry on account of their testosterone – but that isn’t quite how I see it. Even if Bleach rarely tries to score a characters feelings at any one particular time, it nonetheless tends to affect in the viewer broadly what the director must be intending, and this can be seen chiefly in the dark, saturated atmosphere that we return to time and time again.
From building up anticipation to instilling a sense of mystery in the viewer (which tends to be accomplished through good use of a surprisingly affective musical score), Bleach effectively moves from one scene to another and holds the viewers attention all the while. The same tunes are repeated several times, but they come to inhabit a place in the background, however blunt they actually are, and enhance the scenes they’re included in more than anything; just like the recurring atmosphere, which hints at more sombre things to come, the music always seems to be a reward for the viewer.
Problems of form can be detected, however, when looking over the series as a whole, which is obviously still in its introductory throes: trying to establish who its heroes and villains are, as it casts the Captains of Soul Society in different, sometimes humanising, and sometimes demonising, lights. This is at odds with the fact that Bleach has jumped headlong into a lengthy story arc filled with endless jumps in power similar to those that occurred in series like Dragonball Z, which seems to take precedent over character development (other than through fights, outward appearances or the few lines allotted to each character per episode), which can be seen to have been premature in this sense.
Soul Society, the setting almost entirely throughout this volume, can also be uninspiring, and lends to the action which the series aims to deliver more than anything else (seeming to have been formed out of conscious budgetary decisions). Like the music it tends to occupy a place in the background, but its repetition doesn’t add much in and of itself, with the same tiled floors and white walls adding little to my overall impression of the series and its aesthetic. It wouldn’t be fair to say it’s always negative or detrimental, as the design is quite inspired and its plainness rarely distracts from the core fights, but it’s quite a significant flaw nonetheless, and excusing it feels unnecessarily apologetic.
The form and this setting converge on the search for Rukia, as a series of fights with the Captains and Lieutenants of Soul Society, on the road to rescuing her, produce the shape and much of the content of these episodes. After some observation of the politics and internal conflicts of Soul Society (with Ichimaru suspected by some of being a traitor), this volumes then centres on a fight between Ichigo and Zaraki Kenpachi, an exaggeratedly powerful giant who provides a fitting opponent for a shounen hero. This, however, represents almost the entirety of what occurs in these episodes, and the pacing, or lack of concerns, often leaves a somewhat hollow feeling.
As mixed an impression as this might give however, it remains the prevailing atmosphere throughout these episodes, and not their deficiencies, which really define this volume, and the series as a whole thus far, which makes it easy to recommend as a viewing experience for anyone who enjoys shounen series. So far at least, I would argue that Bleach is a case of style over substance, but it survives on other merits as well, and this volume shouldn’t disappoint. As easy as it is to criticise, its hard not to love, and I had to work hard (with some reservations of how uncritical I have seemed of the big shounen lately) to produce any significant criticisms at all, which warrant mention, but don’t spoil what can be found here.
As a series, Bleach might be a flawed and not always perfectly executed series, but this volume demonstrates that it still delivers what is effectively sought by most either way, and has its own character in its brooding, sometimes gothic atmosphere, or the sense of mystery not seen elsewhere. There is little to complain about here that should actually impinge on most people’s enjoyment of the series, making for another largely succesful volume in a series that will be a feature of the anime scene for some time to come.