The first series of Bleach got better as it went on and by the end of the last volume I was really waiting to see what happened next. Therefore when the first part of the second series dropped onto my doormat it went straight into the DVD player!
The story picks up where the last volume left off, with
Ichigo, Orihime, Uryu and Sado accompanying Yoruichi to Soul Society to rescue
Rukia Kuchiki. For those who missed the start of the series Rukia is a
Soul Reaper, a spiritual entity whose job is to defeat defeat fallen souls known
as hollows and send normal souls to Soul Society. She gave her powers to
Ichigo so he could defeat hollows after she was seriously injured, but this is a
serious crime in Soul Society and as punishment she is taken back to be
executed. Ichigo and his friends have entered Soul Society in order to
save her from this fate, but it's not an easy task. Ichigo's last battle
against Soul Reapers left him on the verge of death, and although he's now
stronger than ever he'll have to face more of the Soul Reaper elite Captains and
Assistant Captains if he'll have any chance of saving her. However,
they're far more powerful than anything he has ever seen, and if that wasn't
enough Ichigo and co actually have to get into the Seireitei - the Soul Reaper's
fortified city - first. The city is protected by a massive wall, a giant
gatekeeper and a psychic shield, so breaking through will be difficult, and even
if they do there's the small matter of hundreds of Soul Reapers roaming around
that are all alerted to their presence...
Now there's a single storyline to unite the characters and drive them forward, Bleach has really come into it's own. Replacing the rubbish looking Hollows that have been the main enemy early in the story with human enemies was a very wise move that really allows the series to expand its horizons. The problem with anime where the lead characters just go around killing evil monsters is that there's very little interaction between the two sides other than discussing how one will kill the other. What Bleach has done successfully is create a large number of enemies all with their own personalities and motivations, and the way they interact with our heroes will shape the character of both sides. It's interesting to see
Ichigo fighting against opponents not because of good or evil but because of circumstance. Things are not as cut and dried as they were and this gives more opportunities for the characters to develop and grow.
It's an opportunity that's taken too. We learn
more about Rukia and fellow Soul Reaper Renji Abarai, and Orihime's
character is fleshed out a bit more. It's also good that about
halfway through the volume the group gets split up, as the series starts
to focus on the characters individually which allows us more of a
glimpse into their individual powers and motivations. The series
also benefits from the introduction of Ganju Shiba, a rough and ready
resident of Soul Society who acts as both a guide for the group and a
foil for Ichigo. With Rukia effectively out of the picture it was
important for the series dynamic to have someone else to drive Ichigo
forward and act as a bit of a rival, something that Ganju does well.
However for all the development and the expansion of the series, the
best aspect of this volume is the action.
Bleach has dropped into the usual Dragon Ball Z style groove of having alternating fighting and training episodes to a certain extent, but now that the enemies are more interesting so is the action. Ichigo, Uryu and Ganju all have a chance to demonstrate their powers against some cool opponents, one of the best being Ichigo's battle against Madarame Ikkaku. The action is great, really fast past and exciting, and even the episodes showing the characters training make a good job of building up the tension and enhancing the characterisation. Also, more than in any of the previous episodes, there's a lot of interesting subplots going on which hint that it's going to get even better. Who is Yoruichi?
Why does Ikkaku know who Kisuke Urahara is? What has Soul Reaper Captain Aizen Sosuke discovered? What is fellow Soul Reaper Captain Gin Ichimaru really plotting? All these subplots and more clamour for your attention and really draw you in, leaving you desperate to see what will happen next.
This volume of Bleach is the best so far, but falls short of five stars simply because of the perennial problems with fighting anime - too much talking in places, some unnecessary comedy scenes and too many flashbacks. Although not as obtrusive as those in Naruto, the flashbacks do occasionally go on too long and can be pretty annoying - especially when it cuts back to things you saw only a few episodes previously. The comedy is also occasionally funny, but too often it seems a bit stupid considering the seriousness of the situation. However, despite this Bleach Series 2 Part 1 is a hugely enjoyable volume of a series that keeps going from strength to strength. There's plenty of plots left open, plenty of strong enemies to face and plenty of intrigue and action still to come and I really can't wait for the next volume.
Textless closing sequences, trailers and production art galleries as always. Average stuff.