Background: Sometimes you find a show that you really like after hearing all the unreliable buzz by a select horde of slavering fanboys online and wonder why you never listened in the first place. The answer, of course, is that there are numbers of people devoted to all sorts of anime so if you are to believe everything you read online, you'd quickly come to the conclusion that all anime is great (which is simply untrue). Thankfully, I finally got in a copy of Bleach V1: The Substitute and found that it lived up to much of the hype, albeit too late to push for it to make it into the recent Best of Anime 2006 article ahead of some of the other titles making the list. Like the leads from Moonphase, the show focuses on a couple of unlikely heroes with unique abilities, pushed into situations they were not ready to handle but manage to tackle just the same. Here's my take on the first volume of the show:
Series: Bleach is the story of a fifteen year old high school kid in Japan named Ichigo Kurosaki. He has the ability to see ghosts and they listen to him in return as he tries to assist them in various ways. One day while beating up some bullies that desecrated the grave of a kid that just died a violent death, he is confronted by an evil spirit trying to claim the ghost of the kid (that no one but he can see). As he helps it run away, they come across a gal by the name of Rukia Kuchiki, who ends up being a Soul Reaper; a protector of the dead whose mission is to fight evil spirits and assist lost souls in finding peace by sending them to a place called the Soul Society. The evil spirit is called a Hollow and with Ichigo's help, Rukia manages to dispel the being but at great cost to herself.
She ends up giving her supernatural talents to the already impressive array of skills young Ichigo possesses, making him an almost invincible force as he fights in her place against other hollows. Ichigo follows the tradition of the reluctant anime warrior, preferring to live his own life while Rukia seeks to find a way to recover her abilities while posing as a transfer student at Ichigo's school (upon losing her powers, she became visible to all). Upon a crisis that threatens Ichigo's family and one of his classmates, he decides to embrace his destiny as a soul reaper in hopes of helping others in great peril from the hollows that appear from time to time. The premise explored briefly is that his vast stores of spiritual energy had been unlocked by the initial confrontation and serve to guide hollows to feed upon him and those around him so he figures out the responsibility of protecting them while Rukia thinks of a way to revert to her old form. While not every episode had a unique hollow to fight and the battle scenes seemed better than average to begin with, the appeal of the characters went beyond the usual stereotypes in these early episodes, with the promise of a lot more fun to be had in the future.
One of the most interesting things about the show is that the series has been very popular in Japan, springing forth from the manga by Japanese creator Tite Kubo; the original 24 volumes now supplemented by hundreds of new chapters in the Weekly Shonen Jump magazine as discussed in previous volumes of the Anime Talk column here at DVD Talk. A quick glance finds the episodes airing on the Toon Network (Adult Swim) and there are no shortages of fansites online but suffice it to say that I found this opening volume of the show to be fun, interesting, and full of replay value so look for future volumes but also understand why I rated it as Highly Recommended.
Oh, and for those who want the list of episodes;
1) The Day I Became A Shinigami (October 5, 2004)
2) A Shinigami's Work (October 12, 2004)
3) The Older Brother's Wish, The Younger Sister's Wish (October 19, 2004)
4) Cursed Parakeet (October 26, 2004)
Picture: Bleach V1 was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as shot by director Noriyuki Abe for domestic distribution by Viz Media. The colors were accurate, it used a lot of shading to layer the look of the characters, and the mixture of static shots to actual motion were nicely balanced to give it a different feel from many other anime releases available these days. The basic characters looked similar to many others (Ichigo looking like one of the leads from the Saiyuki series in fact) and some of the battle sequences took on an almost surreal look at the display was done with some fisheye effects and dreamy haze, but it worked here like never before. I won't say it was the best looking anime release I've watched of late but it was definitely top notch in terms of telling the story with that slight bit of comedy woven in along side the serious aspects of the drama. There were no compression artifacts that I saw and while I would have liked more episodes on the disc, it was a quality title in the visual department.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of 2.0 Dolby Digital in either the original Japanese or a newly created English language dub track with optional English language subtitles. While I'm not a subtitle snob or a big fan of dubs (too many of you are devoted to one side or the other), I found both tracks to be enjoyable this time with some slight variations between the dub and the subtitles indicating that they were loosely translated. I can't say how accurate the translation of either of these were but I did like the story and while I thought the vocals sounded more natural in the Japanese track, the dub had a lot going for it too. There was some separation between the tracks, a few times making me think I had my wires crossed (right for left and vice versa) but the music was largely the same on both tracks, as well as the special effects. There did seem to be a slightly elevated bass response on the dub but each were equally clear in all other ways for me as I alternated between the tracks for this review.
Extras: The extras here included some trailers for Shonen Jump Home Video, a clean ending, a preview of the manga, and some production art. Inside the DVD case was a paper insert, a set of stickers, and the sum of the extras was a decent collection but not the best I've seen of late.
Final Thoughts: Bleach V1 was one of the highest quality anime releases I've seen since this year's Best of Anime 2006 article came out. If the series continues to show the characters evolving, the situations exploring some of the concepts, and the technical matters coming across as well developed as this one was; I have no doubt it will be vying for a spot on next year's list. In short, Bleach was funny, action packed, and among one of the best reasons to keep the dust off your DVD player as it combined a great many familiar elements in such a way that I suspect I will be joining the crazed fans that love the show within a handful of volumes in my devotion to it online. The mixture of darker material with the comedic was superior to a great many competitors and I wonder if Viz Media will see it through to the end, given how lengthy a series this one has become.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.