Director: Noriyuki Abe
Writer: Masashi Sogo
Composer: Shirō Sagisu
Licensed by: Viz Media
Genre: Shonen, action, adventure, fantasy, supernatural
Release date: November 13, 2012 (DVD release)
Most anyone familiar with anime or manga will recognize the carrot-topped Ichigo, garbed in the robes of a Soul Reaper. First released in the 2001 August edition of the Weekly Shonen Jump, Bleach has sold over 84 million copies world-wide, ranking it among the best-selling manga of all time. In 2005, it was awarded the Shogakukan Manga Award in the shonen genre.
The enormous popularity of the manga resulted in multiple offshoots for the series, including a direct anime adaptation, several movies, video games, and even half-a-dozen stage musicals. The fandom of the series certainly seems secure in lieu of future installments, but is Bleach really all it’s cracked up to be? That’s the question this series of reviews seeks to answer. Without further ado, let’s take a look at season two.
With the clock ticking down to Rukia’s execution date, Ichigo and his companions waste no time in entering the Soul Society. Friends, foes, and unlikely allies clash together, and what begins as a rescue attempt ends in a murderous conspiracy within the higher ranks of the Soul Society itself.
Rukia encounters a ghost from her past, Ichigo learns about his inner demon, and the inner-societal captains find themselves in a race against time to uncover a traitor in their midst.
Renji, Byakuya, Kenpachi—are they friend or foe? More importantly, can Ichigo defeat these men—the most powerful opponents he’s yet faced—that stand in his way, in order to save Rukia?
In the biblically-supportive category, we have themes of forgiveness coupled with mercy, love and loyalty, sacrifice, and teamwork.
Ichigo, Chad, and Uryu each show grace toward fallen enemies—healing their otherwise deadly wounds, sparing their lives, and giving them second chances (or third chances, in the case of one of Chad’s encounters). A grieving brother puts aside revenge on his mortal enemy in order to save her, and despite a certain sibling-duo’s hatred for Soul Reapers, they agree to help Ichigo in honor of their late brother.
In a flashback, we see how a central character was transformed by the love of his grandfather—a man who never gave up on trying to reach him, even going so far as to take blows for him and save his life. This character acknowledges his past short-comings, and credits his grandfather for turning him into the moral man he eventually became. Episodically, we see characters block blows and take damage meant for their friends, and there are rather frequent demonstrations of concern and care among them (foregoing food, treating wounds at the cost of personal exhaustion, giving valued possessions to others in need, etc.). Characters pledge loyalty to each other, swearing to fight to the death to protect whatever the other holds most dear. Ichigo and Rukia both feel as though they’ve failed each other as friends and take steps to remediate that rift.
There’s smatterings of other moral wisdom as well. A character intones that there are always other options besides fighting, Chad turns down alcohol (he’s under-aged), Uryu respects Orihime (a female character) as a valuable friend and partner but stubbornly maintains a chivalrous need to protect her, and Ichigo tells a female character to put clothes on and does his level best not to look at her or open himself to temptation.
The plot also toys around with the issue of trust—between a Soul Reaper and his Zanpakuto, in this case—contrasting Ichigo and Zangetsu’s bond of trust with that of another who does not trust his blade (and vice versa).
The entire concept of Bleach centers on spirits and souls. Thus far, a deity of any kind is kept out of the equation, but time may change that.
There aren’t many wild Hollows to be found this season, nor any references to “hell” or real-world religions, as was the case in season one. Most of the spiritual content in season two can be boiled down to the “magic-y” side of spiritualism.
Characters often chant incantations (essentially words from the dictionary selected at random, repeated one after the other). The entire arc takes place within the Soul Society—a place where the deceased live. There’s much talk of “spiritual energy” and “spiritual pressure,” and the characters learn how to wield it in a visible, organic form. One character is an animal shape-shifter. An episode centers on the ghost of a dead cat with the power to transform into a lion. Ichigo gets into a physical battle with his “dark inner self.”
Lots of powers are unexplained—healing, force, energy, and the like. Zanpakuto blades have humanoid or animalistic alternative forms and occasionally summon themselves to speak with their masters.
There are religious connotations surrounding Rukia’s execution—a ritualistic execution spear and a special holding cell for her to contemplate her “sins” within, for example.
With more Soul Reapers on the scene, many more blades get involved and blood flows liberally. The arc primarily consists of each of the main characters gradually fighting their way through captains and other high-ranking Soul Reapers in order to reach Rukia. As a result, things often get messy, and many characters are wounded to the brink of death.
Surgically-sharp Zanpakuto blades slash and impale, resulting in everything from bloody tsunamis to dripping, pooling wounds. Blood runs in rivulets down arms and drips from fingertips, facial cuts streak blood from forehead to chin, blood waves splash onto the ground, shoulders are slashed through with buzz-sawed blades, blood rains down in slow motion, characters cough up blood, and blood pours faucet-like out of open chest wounds.
A character’s dead body is shown impaled high upon a wall with a sword through his torso (a bloody streak trailing down below). Occasionally, characters are slashed multiple times mid-battle, resulting in bloody wounds and torn clothing (one character, disturbingly, seems to enjoy this treatment). Slashes are usually followed by a moment of still, and then a blood burst along the cut’s trajectory. Especially violent attacks are often color-censored in manga-ish greyscale stills.
A cat claws another character in the face. A shaded flashback shows a character dragging away the body of another by the collar of his shirt (the narrative tells us that the victim had his throat slashed and his stomach impaled with a blade); a boy watches the scene unfold in terror. An old man is struck with a staff. One character encourages another to try slitting his throat, stabbing him in the stomach, or gouging out his eye. A panorama shows mangled, twisted bodies strewn across a battlefield. It’s implied that a character is blown up with a firework to the face; however, this character is later shown to be fine (aside from a lot of split-ends). A cat is hit by a car (off screen) and shown dead in the road.
A fisticuff brawl between two male characters results in a lot of hard punching; kicks to the jaw, face, and chest; and full-body flip-to-the-grounds.
Forty-six uses of h***, forty-nine uses of d***, twelve uses of bast***, six uses of a**, three uses of dumba**, two uses of pi****, and one use of smarta**. Other note-worthy words include “freakin” (used seven times). “Idiot” is the insult of choice (sometimes paired with a swear word), and “sucks” is used with relative frequency. This equates to about six uses of profanity per episode.
Kukaku and Rangiku are both ample-breasted and show conspicuous cleavage. Kukaku wears little more than a tight-fitting top (most of her back and some of her midriff is bare).
A naive character mutters, “Don’t come onto me like that. I’m not that kind of Soul Reaper!” in his sleep, though the specifics are left vague at best.
Various credit sequences show male characters shirtless for no particular reason aside from fanservice. Another sequence shows a group of captains sneaking into a bath house, wearing little more than loincloths (buttocks are slightly visible from the side).
Yuruichi appears nude whenever she transforms from her cat form into her human form. Carefully placed cloud vapor (a la Naruto’s “Sexy Jutsu”), arm crossing, and leg positioning are the only things that keep her animated curves tasteful. While Ichigo clearly has an issue with her nudity, and tells her to put some clothes on, Yuruichi teases him by asking if it’s the first time he’s “ever seen a girl naked” and if he wants another look at her.
A couple characters are shown drinking sake/wine (one character refuses it when offered, because he’s under age). Some credit sequences show characters swigging wine bottles, tipsy, or collapsed from alcohol consumption.
Other Negative Content
Characters, even those on the same side, insult each other and get into intense fights (both physical and verbal). Ichigo selfishly puts a grudge match in front of his duty to save Rukia’s life (although he’s wise enough to realize he was being a jerk after the fact).
Bleach ups the ante in season two. There’s still plenty of fighting—but it’s meticulous. There’s the same external conflict—but also internal conflict. There’s even more characters to keep up with—but their roles are made reasonable by inter-weaving plots. Despite a very shaky start, and an almost altogether off-putting first episode, season two dares to try and align its individual elements into something that resembles good storytelling.
Try being the key word here, because despite the fact that Bleach cleans up a lot of its explosive act, it still augments the same old issues.
Cutting right to the soul of the matter, Bleach doesn’t begin showing real improvements until half-way through its second season in episode 30—that’s ten episodes in. Up until episode 30, the show pads itself with a few appreciative improvements: Ichigo and company face their first-ever failure and are forced to use an alternative plan, fighting sequences begin to rely on tactic and intelligence to even the odds, and the first legitimate moment of Ichigo struggling to use his powers comes into play (for once, he doesn’t get victory handed to him on a silver platter and has to work for it).
The problem is that, despite these improvements in the plot, Bleach fails to use the full potential of its cast, and this is a shame because the characters aren’t at all uninteresting. Regrettably, they’re often forced into plot-convenient roles meant to steer the story, and not given a lot of opportunity to grow as individuals and face real, threatening internal struggles. The only true exception to this within the first ten episodes of season two is Renji, who struggles with fulfilling his role as a lieutenant to the Soul Society while still being a friend to Rukia, who has been sentenced to die. Up until episode 30, Renji almost exclusively holds the conflict of interest, as he battles with his own emotions and ethics. Perhaps this is because, despite facing intimidating physical obstacles, Ichigo feels pretty invincible to the viewer; he simply powers through every challenge he faces with his indomitable Spirit Energy, making each threat feel rather laughable and harmless. For Ichigo and company, there’s no real danger… even though there should be.
Fortunately, things take a sudden uphill climb at the turn of episode 30. The show engages in its first moment of maturity—having Ichigo drag his bloody body off the ground and thrust himself into a final, inspirational charge against a powerful foe… and fail miserably in the attempt. Previously, the show had never dared to allow Ichigo such a deadly mishap, and it feels like a breath of fresh air. That being said, the story gets a little carried away with itself by repeating almost identical instances of victory-to-defeat bravado two additional times, making the trope lose some of its shock value.
Following episode 30, other significant plots begin to emerge. Members of the Soul Society come into play, and even the most seemingly unimportant characters are given roles that weave into the greater goings on. Before the end of the season, Ichigo faces his own inner demon, his rescue party locks fist and blade with skilled Soul Reapers, Chad divulges his uber inspirational backstory, the Soul Society seeks to capture a murderer in their midst, Momo searches for answers to the treacherous dealings among the higher ups, Rukia catches up with ghost from her past, Ganju lingers for answers about his brother’s killer, Renji makes a weighty choice between friendship and duty, and Gin continues to keep us guessing. Ultimately, Bleach’s otherwise linear, singularly-focused storytelling evolves into a branching plot with multiple components… finally.
Not only that, but the plot begins to unfold more logically. Integral pieces are introduced to the plotline puzzle, and these are much more frequently given a form of foreshadowing that allows viewers to feel a sense of gratification. Elements of the story actually line up. For example, Hanataro is introduced at the very beginning of the season as a boy who cleans Rukia’s cell. When Ichigo crashes into Hanataro, and the boy offers to lead Ichigo to Rukia, the plot point clicks. This may seem like face-slappingly obvious plot development, but it’s something that Bleach has failed to do for almost an entire season, instead introducing non-related plot elements at random and hoping to entertain viewers with continuous novelty. Season two brings some good stuff to the table, proving that parts of the story were actually planned out in advance. This introducing and integrating of plot elements is invaluable because it moves the viewer from being a mere observer to being an engaged participant, showing them the pieces to the plot puzzle and allowing them to try and guess where and how those pieces will fit. Random plot elements with no connection or consequence disengage the viewer because they see no clear correlation. This is an issue that Bleach has had up to about episode 30, but has since taken steps to remediate.
Characters gradually develop through appropriate backstory implementation that never feels out-of-place, and flashbacks never overstay their welcome (*cough* Naruto *cough*). Character-centered plot-points begin to knit together with those of other characters, creating more full-circle pictures of relationships and motives. It’s odd, then, that character chemistry doesn’t always happen, though that’s mostly the fault of the plot and its tendency to put characters into story-convenient situations where they can’t always generate organic, inner growth. Kenpachi and Yachiru contest for the show’s best natural duo, with Renji and Rukia not too far behind. Not all developments are desirable, however, and watching Ichigo spend the better quarter of the season putting a grudge match in front of his duty to save Rukia feels utterly character-breaking.
There’s a literal army of new characters to keep up with, but the process is made painless thanks to unique, identifiable characteristics, with no two characters looking even remotely similar. Among the unfamiliar faces are personalities that promise to become some of the show’s best and brightest—Kenpachi, Hitsugaya, and Aizen, to name a few—and showcase compelling designs and powers.
And, speaking of “powers,” it’s worth noting that the fighting gains a lot of much-needed intelligence in season two. Combat becomes less about raw might and more about weighing an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, learning patterns, using the atmosphere to one’s advantage, and utilizing brain against brawn. Respectably, Ichigo is still far too overpowered, but even he is forced to use intelligence and strategy in order to win. When he falls on his face, Zangetsu’s always there to pull him to his feet, but I tend to let this “get home free” card slide… if for no other reason than because Zangetsu is awesome.
Perhaps that awesomeness is due, at least in part, to the spiritual and Christian themes that Zangetsu evokes. His silent vigil over Ichigo, his weighty advents, and his unfriendly yet calming visage bring to mind certain images of the Christian God, particularly as we hear Zangetsu implore Ichigo to “put your trust in me,” and Ichigo allow Zangetsu’s guidance over his decisions with a humble, “Do with me as you will.” There’s lots of parallels to the Christian’s relationship with God (or the Holy Spirit, if you prefer) in Ichigo’s relationship with Zangetsu, and viewers who seek out reflections of their faith in the media they consume will undoubtedly see these similarities. In another scene, Ganju tells Ichigo that he’s “different” than the other Soul Reapers—different enough to make Ganju follow the red-headed Soul Reaper into the Soul Society on nothing but a few words. Again, it’s likely that Christians will see a shadowy imitation of their unique faith and how it should transform them enough to make others desirous of what “makes them different” than the rest of the world.
It seems by season two that most of the voice actors have begun to “sink into” their characters, and many previously lopsided performances become natural and peppered with more variety than before. Some of the newer faces project a few episode’s worth of vocal fumbling as they try to assimilate into their roles, but overall the performances are much higher. There are still some sour one-liners and downright tonal deliveries, but they somehow feel less flagrant… either because they’ve genuinely improved, or because, by now, the viewer has completely adjusted to the performance itself, bad or otherwise.
Likewise, the music becomes just a tad more memorable. Most of the tracks are downright dull, but a handful of new, inspired movements bring some much-needed life to the show. Songs, however, continue to clash with the heated action in the most upsetting way possible, which is a shame because the show’s OP and ED songs are actually quite enjoyable.
Bleach is better—much better than its splotchy first season. It offers more intelligent combat, tighter character relationships, more ingrained plot-lines, some interpersonal conflicts, improved audio and vocal direction, consistent good humor, and promising new faces.
However, Bleach is also still pretty “bleh,” primarily because, despite its notable improvements, it’s still missing oh-so-much: deeper character chemistry and integration, less reliance on clichés and deus ex machina, underdog heroes, genuinely threatening conflicts, stronger audio direction, layered character-based conflicts, thorough character assimilation, and more integrated plot elements with actual, long-term plot relevance.
The long and short of it is: Bleach is better, but it’s still unnecessarily dogged by the same problems that weighed it down in season one. While the series does seem to be on a gradual uphill climb, it hasn’t hiked far enough up the mountain to be considered anything above “average,” at this point… though it certainly seems headed toward better things.
As a Christian, perhaps the biggest issue is that Bleach just doesn’t seem to give quite as much as it gets. There’s an occasional message about love, sacrifice, forgiveness, friendship, loyalty, and mercy, but these tend to be swallowed up by the show’s heated profanity, bloody violence, sexual innuendos, and generally intense and/or disrespectful attitudes that some of the characters frequently exhibit toward each other. Some will argue that these things make the show more “realistic,” but this reviewer found herself more morally uplifted and inspired by Attack on Titan—a show with far more violence and profanity, but somehow more balanced with its biblical themes of hope, courage, sacrifice, and honor. I got something from Attack on Titan. Bleach? Not so much.
And that’s not to mention that those content concerns just don’t seem worth sloughing through, as Bleach doesn’t exactly have grade-A storytelling or character development. Is Bleach utterly unredeemable? Of course not. The show’s top-selling, most-viewed charts can testify to that. On the outside, Bleach is very attractive, what with its gorgeous character designs, intense fight scenes, and dramatic visuals. Peel away that pretty surface layer, though, and there isn’t a whole lot of well-crafted sustenance beneath.
One might say that Bleach teeters awkwardly between plot-breaking pitfalls and praise-worthy pretension. In the leagues of its anime brethren, however, the Bleach bandwagon feels a bit… er… “hollow.”
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