Despite its popularity and status as one of the most popular anime series of recent years, I must admit that the first volume of Bleach left me a little cold. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it showed little to set it apart from its rivals. Given the choice I would have taken Naruto any day.
But one thing about Bleach vol 1 is that it left us in
the middle of a contest between our substitute Soul Reaper hero Ichigo Kurosaki
and his classmate Uryu Ishida. Ishida had revealed himself to be a Quincy, a
warrior who hunts fallen souls with a bow made out of pure spirit energy.
However, Ishida's plan to prove the superiority of the Quincies over the Soul
Reapers by killing more Hollows (fallen souls) than Ichigo has gone a bit wrong. Far more
hollows have appeared than his bait should have attracted, and now there is a
serious danger to the town and its inhabitants. Can Ichigo and Ishida put
aside their differences and unite to fight the common enemy and save the town? Meanwhile Ichigo's powers
have started to draw out dormant spiritual abilities in some of his classmates,
and as they struggle to understand what has happened to them a new challenge
appears. Rukia Kuchiki has broken the laws of Soul Society by giving her
powers to Ichigo, and the Soul Reapers have sent agents to bring her back for
sentencing. These agents are far more powerful than anything Ichigo has
faced, and a run in with them leaves him stripped of his powers. With
Rukia looking doomed to face execution if she returns Ichigo and his friends
turn to the mysterious shop owner Kisuke Urahara and his friend Yoruichi for
help. However, recovering Ichigo's lost powers is not going to be an easy task,
and the cost of failure is madness and death...
I think one of my main disappointments in the first volume was that, whilst the action was good, the emotional scenes were often really cheesy had lacked the impact they should have had. I found this quite frustrating, and it wasn't helped by the fact that pretty much all of the Hollows looked rubbish as well. Crap monster syndrome continues in this volume, although the Menos doesn't look that bad, but thankfully the focus is less on Hollows and more on the characters. Things start well with Ichigo and Ishida still locked in a battle of wills, but the focus soon switches to Ichigo's sweet but scatterbrained schoolfriend Orihime Inoue.
Her proximity to Ichigo has caused her to be able to see hollows, and she realises that her and her friends Tatsuki and Chizuru are in danger when she spots one lurking at school. When the Hollow attacks her own latent powers manifest in the form of a group of fairies that can make shields, heal the injured and attack enemies, and she stands her ground against her supernatural foe. Unfortunately her power is like something out of a different show, it really doesn't fit in with anything else Bleach has shown so far and is pretty cheesy too.
To be honest it does let things down, because the
actual scene where Orihime stands up for herself is actually quite well
done, but things really pick up with the appearance of the Soul Reapers
Renji Abarai and Byakuya Kuchiki. Renji and Byakuya are not only
hard as nails but look pretty cool and are more than just random enemies
for Ichigo to fight. Their arrival sets up what looks to be the
next major story arc, with Ichigo, Ishida, Orihime and Sado entering
into intensive training in the hope of taking Rukia back from their
clutches. This is where Bleach starts to come into its own,
you begin to see what drives them and they really begin to come through
as rounded characters rather than extras. Uryu's painful past
starts to be explored and we begin to get insights into Rukia's old life
in Soul Society. The training also brings more background to Soul
Reaper powers and throughout the volume the world the series is set in
is noticeably fleshed out. The background elements - such as the
history of the Soul Reaper and Quincy conflict, and the rules and makeup
of Soul Society - really give Bleach its own identity and the
story is getting a lot more interesting now there is something for the
characters to work towards.
The only problem, other than Orihime's powers, is that after the first few episodes this volume is just build up. The real meat of the story that has just started is coming in the next volume, in this one it's just training and background. Whilst I personally found this to be quite good it does leave you hanging at the end of the volume, and it looks like all the serious action to come next time. I'm sure many will find this more than a little frustrating, especially considering the next volume isn't out for a few months. Despite this though there is plenty to like in this volume, some great scenes - in particular Ichigo's surreal conversation with the
slightly creepy Zangetsu and his battle against the Menos. The characters are getting more and more interesting too, and the enigmatic shopkeeper Urahara Kisuke still steals the show.
Volume 2 of Bleach is a big improvement on the decidedly average first volume. It's still not great - there's still a bit of mawkishness and things don't fully get going yet - but it's very good and pretty much enjoyable from start to end. There's still plenty of action, particularly at the start and the story and characters start to develop into something more than excuses for a decent scrap. There's humour (the character's reactions when they first hear Yoruichi talk is hilarious!), drama and some great scenes that really delve into Rukia and Uryu's characters. If this volume is anything to go by there are some great things to come, and it's beginning to come clear why the series is so popular. Well worth checking out.
Textless closing sequences, trailers and production art galleries once again. Not bad, but not great either.