As the year draws to a close we find ourselves still waiting to see the outcome of Soul Society's battle against the renegade Captain Aizen and his army of Arrancar and Espada hollows. Instead we have endured episode after episode of side stories, flashbacks, alternative viewpoints, comedy skits and anachronous plotlines, with only occasional glimpses of the main story in between. It's been messy, disruptive and really hard to follow, but Series 12 has done something different. Whilst it has still stepped away from the main story it has done so for an entire series, giving itself plenty of time to develop a more engrossing plot than most of the throwaway content Bleach has been throwing our way of late.
At the end of the last volume things had really come to a
head, the Zanpakuto had started to move but had been intercepted by Soi Fon and
her second division Soul Reapers. Several Assistant Captains had also
arrived to attempt to reclaim their swords, whilst Ichigo confronts the
seemingly traitorous Captain Byakuya Kuchiki. Things seem to be turning in
Soul Society's favour as they start to overpower their foes, but notably absent
are the Zanpakuto belonging to the Soul Reaper Captains, until the arrival of
Suzumebachi and Ashisogi Jizo turns the fight on it head! Meanwhile,
Yoruichi has been searching for the location of Head Captain Yamamoto and she
thinks she has tracked him down. Captains Kyoraku and Ukitake have stayed
off the frontlines so far but accompany Yoruichi and Ichigo to track him down,
but getting to him is not going to be easy. Several Zanpakuto have
remained back to guard him, including Kyoraku and Ukitake's swords Katen
Kyokotsu and Sogyo no Kotowari, whilst the enigmatic Muramasa himself is also
lurking to challenge them personally. The battles between the Soul Reapers
and Zanpakuto have thus far enabled Muramasa to operate with near complete
impunity, and now he has come to the front lines it can only mean that he is
near to achieving his goal. But what is he trying to do? And can
Ichigo and the other Soul Reapers stop his ambitions and free Yamamoto?
I was somewhat surprised to find that I enjoyed the last volume. Most of the side stories that have plagued Bleach for the last few series have been messy, underdeveloped or simply played for laughs. Devoting an entire series to a single story has actually been a very good idea, it may still be dumped at random in the middle of the main storyline but it at least appears to fit somewhere in the Bleach's chronology (it's not explicitly stated at this point but seems to take place after Aizen's betrayal). The longer length of the story arc
has allowed it to be much more ambitious than many of the recent 'filler' episodes, and focus on a larger cast of characters. Muramasa has been a decent villain so far, and the Zanpakuto have been interesting characters who have actually brought a lot more depth to some of the peripheral Soul Reapers characters. It's also put Soul Society in an intriguing predicament, with the Captains and Assistant Captains having to face enemies who know them well and have taken a large portion of their power. They each have to defeat their own Zanpakuto in order to recover their power, but doing so requires such effort it puts them out of action, diminishing Soul Society's ability to combat Muramasa himself.
It's a good premise, and it's one that raises the
stakes of the battles that many of the characters find themselves
embroiled in this time round. In fact action takes centre stage in
this volume, the last one closed with many of the characters facing a
battle against a group of Zanpakuto and the fighting is pretty much
relentless from the word go this time round. There is a frenetic
pace to the series as more and more characters join the fray on each
side, with the advantage swinging to and fro over the course of the
twelve episodes that comprise this volume. The final unseen
Zanpakuto are all revealed, Zaraki makes his entrance and despite the
action there's still time for the plot to advance, with Muramasa's goal
finally being revealed and more insight given into Byakuya's
uncharacteristically rebellious actions. For me the most
impressive aspect of this story arc is the fact that it focuses mainly
on the Soul Reapers, as most of the best Bleach side stories have
done. We already know a lot about Ichigo and his past so there's
little mileage in exploring it again, but the Soul Reapers are still
largely an unknown quantity and there are hundreds of years of Soul
Society heritage left uncovered. It's fertile ground for original
storylines to explore, but the writers seem determined to keep
everything focused on Ichigo even when it doesn't make sense for him to
take centre stage. With the focus of this story being largely on
the Soul Reapers and their Zanpakuto Ichigo hasn't hogged the limelight
too much, making the story more interesting and varied as a result.
But there are still issues. There is a point where several senior Soul Reapers inexplicably put all their faith in Ichigo even though they are more powerful, experienced and skilled than him, pooling their abilities to let him deal with what is effectively an internal Soul Society problem. It's a disappointing sign of normal filler rules coming back into play, but thankfully the Soul Reapers remain involved to the end of the volume...where the storyline doesn't end. Strangely the storyline, which could have been wrapped up with quite a satisfying conclusion
this time round, tees up another battle at the end, leaving what can only be a handful of episodes that would tie everything up for the next volume. It would have been cleaner to round it all off now and then get back to the main story next time, but it looks like we'll have to wait even longer to see the battle with Aizen. Despite all this there's one gripe I have about this volume that outweighs the others - Kenpachi Zaraki. In my review of the last volume I noted that he was absent, something the writers explain away this time in the weakest manner possible (he was fighting hollows on the outskirts of Soul Society and got lost on the way back), and then he promptly unbalances everything. He is more powerful than most of the Zanpakuto, taking away much of the dramatic tension, and worst of all his sword was not manifested as he wasn't there when Muramasa initially attacked. Unlike the other Soul Reapers Zaraki relies solely on his own strength, neglecting his Zanpakuto for years and giving it a good reason to hate him. A story focusing on the clash between Soul Reapers and their swords is pretty much built for a showdown between Zaraki and his unnamed Zanpakuto, but we don't get it and it's a real missed opportunity.
It's a shame that the story misses this golden chance, and it's a shame that it doesn't wrap up neatly this time round. However, taken on its merits this is still a decent volume of Bleach, the storyline moves towards an intriguing conclusion that encompasses old grudges and past shame, and we get to learn more about the previous generation of Soul Reapers. There's tonnes of action to tide you over the Christmas period, with most of the main Soul Reapers and even Orihime, Chad and Uryu all involved at one point or another, and the remaining unseen Zanpakuto are just as interesting as the ones that have gone before - particularly Ukitake's Sogyo no Kotowari. There are a couple of unexpected twists and the battles keep things moving at a frenetic pace, whilst we learn more about several of the Soul Reapers as the series progresses. It's disappointing that Ichigo looks to be thrust to the fore again as the story draws to its conclusion, but considering the admirable focus on the other characters to this point it doesn't really detract from it. All in all Bleach Series 12 Part 2 carries on in the same vein as Part 1, bringing us 12 more solid episodes of anime action which puts much of the franchise's previous filler to shame. Well worth a look.
The usual - clean opening and ending sequences, a couple of front-loading trailers and the 'omake' comedy shorts that follow the end of most episodes.