Background: Ongoing anime series are the only television shows that aren't usually released in season sets these days, a fact that bugs a fan like me who ends up getting the equivalent of a few chapters every couple of months to digest and watch a few times before the next chapters come out. While this reminds me of the way comic books come out, I would still greatly prefer seeing a lot of episodes at once when I like a show, especially a series as fun as Bleach. Having watched Bleach V1, Bleach V2, Bleach V3, and Bleach V4 over the last year, I await the Viz Media release like few others so when I got my copy of Bleach V5 (it officially comes out tomorrow), I put off all the hot new porn titles to sit down with it in my quieted living room home theatre. Here is a look at the series and volume, noting that a major turn of events takes place that I only lightly touched upon so as to keep from spoiling the show for you like other websites seem so willing to do:
Series: Bleach V5 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. Okay, there were four episodes this time (#17-#20) and the initial focal point was to pick up from where Bleach V4 left off. The battle with Uryu and the ravaging masses of hollows (including the hugely powerful Menos Grande) over, the Soul Society finally gets around to dealing with Rukia. Ichigo, being headstrong and far more powerful than he can imagine, resists the pack trying to reclaim her, surprising even them with his raw talents albeit tempered by his complete lack of discipline and training. In an attack that would have easily killed any lesser being, they leave him for dead as they cart Rukia off to her inevitable execution, setting the stage for the next arc in this wonderfully perverse tale of supernatural struggles.
The episodes this time were 17) Ichigo Dies, 18) Reclaim! The Power of the Shinigami!, 19) Ichigo Becomes A Hollow!, and 20) The Shadow of Ichimaru Gin. The main thrust of them was to show Ichigo slowly recovering from his battle wounds and training at the feet of what had been a secondary (but important) player up until now (the mystical shop keeper Urahara). As Ichigo rails at the thought of Rukia suffering in her new prison in another dimension, he knows that any attempt to save her will fail unless he can regain his now lost powers. To accomplish this in what amounts to record time, Ichigo is given a series of tests that he doesn't understand but will make him a better warrior if they don't kill him first. Seemingly impossible at first, Ichigo's headstrong nature soon proves to display he has what it takes but while he is preparing for the journey, his friends (the gifted ones at least) notice that Rukia is missing but the mundane types have forgotten she ever existed so they train too; in hopes of helping Ichigo save her. What could have become filler episodes in most series becomes crucial to showing his evolution as a character and his team being built to continue the popular series. I enjoyed it a lot and while there were times when I wish a more straightforward approach was taken with some of it, the desperation of Ichigo to overcome was clearly the motivating dynamic as he was shown to have grown quite fond of Rukia and her wellbeing so I rated it as Highly Recommended.
Picture: Bleach V5 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 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, 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. My copy also had a cool bonus patch that the cover suggested was strictly limited to copies purchased at Best Buy, a large consumer electronics chain I always enjoy visiting, too.
Final Thoughts: Bleach V5 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 V5 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. The dub was handled very nicely and the series as a whole has been a favorite of mine since it started coming out, my biggest issue being that Viz Media releases the volumes so slowly (I know this is done for maximizing profit while keeping quality as high as possible but it still frustrates a fan such as myself that sees the lame ass bootlegs all over the place beckoning (and having seen a few in Houston's expansive Chinatown areas, the official releases are superior in every way except price by a wide margin).
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.