Background: One of the aspects of anime that some find to be a fatal flaw is the frequency by which so many titles are so similar. This is not unlike any other televised show, be it a situation comedy, a generic cop show, or the scores of so-called reality shows that litter the broadcast landscape. Some of this is due to the natural way production companies follow the ratings (chasing successful shows to cater to their proven audience) and other times it is due to the fact that the handful of companies that bring them to us in the USA using the same translators, voice actors, and production staff (homogenous communities that frequently tend to dumb down the original material even further). Still, if you look for shows that break the mold long and hard enough, you are bound to cross paths with shows that appeal to you by providing something different. I found one such show in recent months, reviewing the first two volumes and finding them of great interest in Bleach V1 and Bleach V2. While there were a number of genre conventions used in the show to date, there were other parts that brought forth some of Japan's rich heritage of supernatural spirits and martial arts. With that, I took a look at Bleach V3.
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. The episodes this time were 9) Unbeatable Enemy, 10) Assault On Trip At Sacred Ground!, 11) The Legendary Quincy, and 12) A Gentle Right Arm. This time, the focus of the show started off with Ichigo trying to save his sisters from a particularly powerful hollow that caught them as hostages in the last episode. His battles with another, full soul reaper had to be put aside in order to save them, the order of the day requiring he use his brains instead of his natural gifts. His hatred of the hollows tend to lead him to applying brute force when finesse would work better, a lesson learned almost too late when the stakes were so high this time. That matter solved, the second half of the volume turned to another form of hollow fighter known as a Quincy; a legendary order that split off from the soul reapers over philosophical differences. Essentially, the order of Quincy's thought vengeance was more important than saving hollows by sending them to the next world. This ultimately proved to be their own undoing and the order was thought long dead until one appears in the form of one of Ichigo's classmates. The reckless being challenges Ichigo to a duel of sorts, drawing a great many hollows to the area to see who can tally up the most defeated, putting everyone in the area in great danger. The rest of the show deals with some of the consequences of the battle as well as sets up some of the future plots where the two fight, even though Ichigo is an unwilling participant.
The idea that starts to tie in some of Ichigo's past to his present status was interesting and the idea of another type of hollow fighter separate from the Soul Reapers had some appeal too, though the inner workings of the suspected corrupt corps will come into play further into the series from what I've gathered. Some of the secondary characters are given larger roles here, including those of Ichigo's classmates, family, and source of support via Rukia, a concept that might help give the show some legs to those of us not already following the show's later seasons. To me then, I thought the volume was worth a Recommended this time but the episodes all had some solid replay value so your mileage may vary.
Picture: Bleach V3 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 was 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 V3 continued the adventures of my favorite reluctant teen warrior as he fought against impossible odds to stop harmful spirits from killing those around him. The writing of the story and overall quality of the technical aspects were such that I enjoyed it as a step off the beaten path even if this volume did show a bit more of the usual conventions fans have seen in other shows. Still, Bleach V3 added to the enjoyment of the series as a whole and provided some insights as to the past of the lead character as well as advance some of the others so if you're as new to the show as I am, you'll probably find it worthy of your time and money like I did.
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.