After the last volume I couldn't wait to see what was going to come next for our intrepid heroes, so this volume went straight into my DVD player as soon as I got it!
Ichigo may have failed in his first attempt to rescue Rukia,
but the experience has given him newfound resolve as he faces highly dangerous
training under Yoruichi's watchful eye. He's attempting to unlock the
secrets of Bankai, the pinnacle of Soul Reaper lore that will enable him to
unlock Zangetsu's full capabilities and increase his own power tenfold.
However, failure to succeed would have catastrophic effects, not only for him
but also for Rukia, who's execution date is moved forward yet again. He's
not the only one with a deadly battle to face though, Renji wants to save Rukia
too but his only hope of doing so is to overcome Byakuya Kuchiki - one of the
strongest Soul Reaper captains. Can he gain the strength required?
Meanwhile Uryu and Orihime are moving steadily towards their goal by going
undercover, but another Soul Reaper Captain is on to them. The duo are
heading into a deadly confrontation with a sadistic foe who has a connection to
Uryu that will turn the Quincy's world upside down, can he face it and survive?
With all the main characters off fighting their own battles you'd be forgiven
for forgetting about the Soul Reaper Captain's death that is being blamed on
them. However, one person hasn't forgotten, and that's his Lieutenant Momo
Hinamori. She has vowed to take down the killer indicted in her Captain's
final message to her, but is she just a pawn in a vicious sceme? And can
Captain Hitsugaya talk some sense into her and find evidence to link fellow
Captain Gin Ichimaru to the crime?
Phew! As you can see there's a hell of a lot going on in this volume, and it's something of a miracle they manage to cram it all in! The action frequently jumps from the frontlines to the back, whilst Ichigo and Renji train to achieve new powers and Uryu faces a personal battle with potentially terrible consequences. The action flies thick and fast in a series of battles that match the quality of those in the last volume, and are made even better by the added motivation behind them. Our heroes are being pushed past their limits with every confrontation, and the tension and drama of the action scenes is absolutely superb. Even the training scenes, in which Ichigo faces off against the materialised form of his sword
Zangetsu have a real urgency and bite to them. It's not often that an anime imbues the training scenes with the same quality of action as the main battles, but Bleach manages it.
However, whilst the action is brilliantly executed,
it's the story that really shines through in this volume. Over the
course of the last volume the plot began to shift its focus towards the
Soul Reapers, breathing life into them and making them more than just
colourful enemies for the main characters to overcome. A couple of
well-delivered flashbacks gave some of them a back story and in turn
made them more rounded and sympathetic characters. The death of
Captain Aizen and the reactions it caused made the enemies arguable more
interesting than the heroes, and the fact that they are not just
rubbish-looking monsters like the Hollows really adds to the series as a
whole. The Soul Reapers, particularly the Captains and
Lieutenants, are cool. They're characters with a lot more
depth than the leads to be honest, and this volume expands on their
backgrounds and relationships more than ever before.
If you think this will mean loads of pointless flashbacks and exposition, you're only half right. Yes, there are quite a few flashbacks, in fact some episodes are entirely flashback, but unlike those in most series these ones have a point. Instead of boring you or repeating what you already know these actually enhance the series, adding depth to the characters and expanding the series' scope exponentially. By the end of the volume you really care about Hinamori and you really want Hitsugaya to get one over on Gin, an impressive achievement for the series considering we didn't even know who they were a few episodes ago. That in a way is Bleach's biggest strength, it's included all of the usual awesome fights yet really spent
time to develop the cast and setting. It's also worth noting that the story in this volume is brilliant, with some real intrigue as the mystery surrounding Aizen's death deepens and the motivations of Gin remain unclear.
This volume of Bleach is the best yet with tonnes of action bolstered by a strong character focus and an excellent story. The increased focus on the Soul Reapers is a masterstroke that pushes the series to new heights, and such is its quality that it even manages to get away with another dire and utterly pointless filler episode featuring Ichigo's sisters and Don Kannonji without me docking it a star. The plot twists and high stakes battles really crank up the tension and the characters just ooze coolness even when they at death's door. The animation and music is excellent as always, although this volume does have one of the worst anime ending themes I have ever heard. Seriously, if you're going to have characters locked in life or death struggles you can't follow it up with a jaunty song about 'happy people'. Despite this it must be said that if you haven't bought Bleach yet you really have to just to get to this point, it's fantastic!
The usual textless closing sequences, trailers and production art galleries. Average.