Bleach has been frustrating me quite a lot recently. For the last few series it has been crowbarring in side stories and comedy episodes slap bang in the middle of the main story arc, with no thought given to continuity whatsoever. Characters locked in a life or death battle for the fate of the world in one episode are suddenly shown having a day out at the beach or dressing up as superheroes in the next, then, several pointless episodes later, we come back to where we were as if nothing had happened. Series 12 is different. Instead of a series of standalone filler episodes to pad the series out, the series brings in an entire new story arc. I must admit I was not thrilled at the prospect of yet more distraction from the main story, but in actual fact this new arc is surprisingly decent.
The story starts with a strange man appearing within Soul
Society confronting Head Captain Yamamoto. Shortly afterwards all of the
Soul Reaper Captains and Assistant Captains are summoned together, but the
summons are a trap. The mysterious assailant Muramasa has imprisoned
Yamamoto by unknown means, and through his unique powers he enables the swords
of the assembled Soul Reapers to take physical form. Soul Reaper swords
are special, they are known as Zanpakuto and have a personality and powers that
stem from the soul of the individual wielder. Skilled users are able to
form close bonds with their Zanpakuto, and as their control and power grows they
can manifest it in order to release more of its power. However, this is not like
a normal manifestation, the Zanpakuto have been separated from their hosts and
given physical form and independent will, and that independence sees them turn
on their former masters! Shorn of their main source of power the Captains
and Assistant Captains can do little to prevent the Zanpakuto wreaking havoc
across the Seireitei, and in the ensuing melee several are injured. Rukia
is wounded trying to fight off her own Zanpakuto Sodenoshirayuki, but she
succeeds in escaping to the human world and alerting Ichigo. Ichigo
immediately heads to Soul Society to combat this new threat, but Muramasa and
the Zanpakuto are not easy opponents. Soul Society is under siege by its
own weapons, Head Captain Yamamoto is missing and the remaining Soul Reaper
officers are having to fight enemies wielding the full power of their Zanpakuto
with little more than their own strength and speed. Ichigo hopes to make a
difference but will his own Zanpakuto also rebel? And how can the Soul
Reapers regain control of their swords?
I've never been that big a fan of filler. Filler is a term used to describe those episodes or story arcs inserted into a long running anime series to pad it out and prevent it from outpacing its source material. They are necessary for this reason and when they are done well they can expand the story or enrich the series world or characters. 90% of the time though they are just comedy side stories or lazy tales of the hero confronting some bizarre enemy. Quite a bit of Bleach filler has been like this, and in the last couple of series
these filler stories have just been dropped in erratically, screwing up the series continuity and serving little purpose. This new arc is something of a pleasant surprise, Whilst it's still a distraction from the main battle it is an interesting premise and actually shines a lot of light on the relationship Soul Reapers have with their weapons. One of the main problems with many filler storylines is that the main character is always put front and centre in the story, often to the detriment of other characters. This one doesn't do that so much, yes Ichigo is important and central to the storyline, but he isn't alone. This story arc focuses quite strongly on a number of the Soul Reaper characters, dealing with their motivations and challenging them to confront their weaknesses. Characters like Kiba and Hisagi get far more screentime than before, with more depth given to Hinamori in particular as she wrestles with her fear of betrayal.
As you would expect there's plenty of action on
display too, pretty much as soon as the Zanpakuto manifest they turn on
their masters leading to a series of quite impressive battles as the
series progresses. The Zanpakuto are probably the most intriguing
aspect of the storyline, a lot was made in past episodes of the bond
Soul Reapers share with their Zanpakuto and how they are more than just
weapons, but largely this hasn't been elaborated on. We've seen
Ichigo talking to a manifestation of his sword, but really this has only
been a way of unlocking new powers for himself. In this arc the
Zanpakuto are given new manifestations, and we get to learn more about
them as characters in their own right. They may be manifestations of
part of their master's soul but they sometimes they represent the repressed
parts of their character, things that the individual Soul Reapers need
to face about themselves and learn to accept. They also have
independent will and their own desires, and whilst some resemble their
master physically and mentally several are more abstract, leading to a
nice sense of intrigue over how each manifested sword will look and act.
The story isn't bad either, the true aims and motives of Muramasa are shrouded in mystery but with Soul Society having their hands full trying to recover their Zanpakuto he is pretty much able to move unchallenged. Recapturing the Zanpakuto is no easy task, each individual Soul Reaper needs to defeat his or her own sword in order to recover it, a monumental battle which will put both out of action whilst they recover even if they're successful. To make matters worse defeating someone else's Zanpakuto will destroy it, effectively halving its
owner's power. It's quite well thought out and, with Muramasa's intentions remaining unclear, quite intriguing, especially when one Soul Reaper disappears and seemingly goes rogue. In fact by the end of the volume you've almost forgotten about the main storyline and are quite absorbed by this new arc instead, something I really didn't expect.
After some of the crappy side stories that have disrupted the main Bleach story arc in recent volumes I really didn't have high hopes for this story arc, but I must be honest and admit that Bleach Series 12 Part 1 really surprised me. It's not perfect, for example several of the Soul Reaper Captains seem to not really do a lot after losing their swords, their Assistant Captains to do most of the legwork despite not having a chance against Captain-class Zanpakuto. Kenpachi Zaraki is also strangely absent and it's not always clear why the Zanpakuto have such a problem with their masters, particularly in the cases of some of the Captains who have had their swords for centuries. However, despite these elements this side arc is actually pretty good. It's packed with tonnes of action but balances the more explosive battle scenes with plenty of drama and character focus. It's nice to see filler that doesn't just focus on the main character, and it's nice to see some of the supporting cast get entire episodes devoted to them (even if one is pretty much a retread of one of the Bleach films). Unlike most of the recent side stories I've actually been left wondering where this one is going rather than just wishing for the pain to end, it's nice to see the series stick to one storyline even if it isn't the main one, and I actually find myself looking forward to the next volume. Good stuff.
As usual we just get the clean opening and ending sequences, a couple of front-loading trailers and the 'omake' comedy shorts that follow the end of most episodes.