The last volume really ended on a high as far as I was concerned, with one of the best episodes Bleach has so far featured setting up a storyline which will have a profound impact on Ichigo and his friends. The question is, could this episode live up to it?
Aizen has succeeded in his plan to capture Orihime Inoue,
bringing Ichigo's friend to the Hollow world of Hueco Mundo and out of the grasp
of Soul Society. On learning of her kidnapping Ichigo, Renji and Rukia are
determined to go to Hueco Mundo to rescue her, but Soul Society refuses to
sanction the mission. The manner of her disappearance, and the fact that
she was able to say goodbye to someone before leaving suggests she left of her
own free will, betraying Soul Society in the process. Her friends refuse
to believe that, and when Rukia and Renji are forced to return to Soul Society,
Ichigo decides to go alone. After alienating his friends, including the
enraged Tatsuki, Ichigo goes to Kisuke's shop to find a way of getting to Hueco
Mundo and is joined by Chad and Uryu. Kisuke agrees to help them, but
getting to Hueco Mundo is just the start of their problems. In a hostile
land full of Hollows, not to mention the Arrancar and the Espada, Ichigo and co
have a lot to overcome before they can even get close to Aizen's palace of Las
Noches. However, help comes in some strange forms, and none are stranger
than the child-like Arrancar Nel Tu and her bizarre brothers Dondochakka and
Pesche. The trio, accompanied by their pet Bawabawa, are not exactly
normal Hollows and after being rescued by Ichigo they agree to guide them to the
palace. Ichigo and co will need all the help they can get too, not only is
the palace huge a well guarded but they have to traverse the desert first, and
one wrong step could dump them into an even more deadly environment - The Forest
After a strong end to the last volume this one starts in a similarly emotionally charged manner, with Ichigo desperate to save Orihime but not wanting to risk any of his friends in the fight. Tatsuki's desperate searching for her and eventual confrontation with Ichigo are the strongest moments of the start of the volume, and things take a more action-packed turn again once Ichigo and his friends make their way to Hueco Mundo. For the first time we get to see all of the Espada as Aizen informs them of the intruders' appearance, and they are a pretty eclectic group. Few are named at this point, and their powers are not shown so it will be interesting to see how many of the Ichigo and his friends encounter and what they can
do. Although Nel and her brothers are played largely as comic relief (they finally got rid of the Mod Souls, hooray!), they are actually pretty interesting characters too. All of the Hollows that have appeared so far have been evil, or at least ruthless, but these three are unthreatening and Nel in particular is quite an entertaining character.
As you would expect in Hueco Mundo Ichigo, Chad and
Uryu encounter plenty of more threatening Hollows, and their encounter
with the Las Noches guardian Runuganga finds them in even deeper
trouble. Much like the Sea of Corruption in Nausicša of the
Valley of the Wind, another world lies beneath the white sands of
Hueco Mundo. This world is the Forest of the Menos, and as you can
probably guess by the name this is where the giant Menos Grande class
Hollows live. Falling into this world would seem like certain
death for a Soul Reaper, but as our heroes find out there is one who has
managed to survive in that hostile environment for centuries.
Ashido is a Soul Reaper trapped in Hueco Mundo after chasing a group of
Hollows, and he has managed to fight off Menos every day since.
His help will be essential to get through the Forest alive, but why has
he not tried to get back to Soul Society? Ashido is an example of
a filler character done quite well, and unlike the pointless episodes
that started the last volume the filler episodes with him in are
actually pretty good. However, it's the actual attack on Las
Noches and the battles against the powerful Hollows within that you're
waiting for, and this action is just kicking off as the volume ends.
It's only this fact that lets the volume down, you're constantly waiting for a really powerful enemy to turn up and really push Ichigo and his companions and this doesn't really happen until the end of the volume. Dondochakka and Pesche are pretty annoying too, they're nowhere near as engaging or entertaining as Nel, but one of the weirdest things is the sudden crapness of the Menos. When one first turns up a few series back it's a big deal, it poses a serious threat and even though Hitsugaya later reveals that there are levels of Menos and that Captain-class Soul Reapers can defeat a Gillian-level Menos without much trouble, the next level up - an Adjuchas - is supposed to be a challenge. However, in this
volume Rukia (who isn't even a seated officer), Uryu and Chad are taking out Gillian-level Menos with one hit and Rukia is barely breaking sweat against Adjuchas. Whilst I understand that they all got more powerful, I don't understand how they're all able to take out these top-tier Hollows with such ease. Hopefully the top-level Vasto Lorde Menos and the Espada will prove more of a threat otherwise the battles will get boring pretty quickly.
This volume is certainly more consistently strong than the last one, although it doesn't quite hit the same heights, and for once even the handful of filler episodes on show are pretty engaging. The new characters introduced are pretty good, even if Dondochakka and Pesche are pretty much replacements for the comic-relief Mod Souls that blighted the last series. Nel is actually pretty entertaining, providing the series with a completely new kind of Hollow whilst lightening the mood with her bizarre proclamations. Her Japanese voice actress in particular is fantastic too. Bleach Series 7 Part 2 is a pretty strong ending to the series which hits all the right buttons action-wise, even if the goalposts appear to have moved at some point. It certainly sets up a potentially action packed 8th Series, and despite the lack of real challenge for Ichigo and his companions there is still plenty to like in this volume. Good stuff.
Textless opening sequences, trailers and production art galleries, plus the usual Arrancar Encyclopaedia segments after the end credits of each episode. Average stuff.