It's pretty unusual for a series of Bleach to stretch to a 3rd part, usually they're 24 episodes long and are released in two 12 episode parts. This time there are 36 episodes in the story arc, so rather than carry it on into the next series they're wrapping it up in this one.
Strangely the story arc seemed to be drawing to its close
last time round, with Muramasa's big plot uncovered, a dangerous enemy defeated
and Muramasa losing control of the Hollows he had consumed to sustain himself.
This set up a final confrontation between Muramasa and Ichigo, but it's not just
him that Soul Society has to worry about. During the rebellion numerous
low ranking Soul Reapers were killed by their manifested Zanpakuto, and now
those Zanpakuto - masterless and freed from Muramasa's control - begin to make
indiscriminate attacks within the Seireitei and Rukon District. Dubbed
'Sword Beasts' by Captain Kurotsuchi these rogue Zanpakuto pose a serious
threat, not only are they slowly falling into madness, making their movements
and attacks hard to predict, but they are also no longer bound by the abilities
of their original master. This means that the Sword Beasts can technically
draw on their Bankai power, making them tough opponents even for Captain and
Assistant Captain level Soul Reapers. With Soul Society still trying to
recover from the rebellion they are ill equipped to deal with a further assault,
and even with their own manifested Zanpakuto to assist them the Soul Reapers
have a tough task ahead of them if they are to contain the Sword Beast threat.
Spinning out the Zanpakuto story arc for 12 more episodes would seem a bit surprising if this was any other series, but stretching side stories to breaking point seems par for the course for Bleach. The main plotline from the last two volumes wraps up pretty quickly this time round, ending with a degree of finality that sees the Zanpakuto manifestations all disappear... only to re-appear in with a half-baked explanation in the next episode. We then get a series of episodic stories all linked by the overarching Sword Beast theme, with
the Soul Reaper Assistant Captains given the limelight as they co-ordinate the hunt. Despite the fact that the series is just shamelessly extending the storyline past its natural conclusion the actual premise behind the Sword Beast episodes is quite a good one. Very little focus was given to what happened to Zanpakuto who defeated their masters during the rebellion, and whilst it's a bit odd that they never turned up during the last couple of volumes it's a subject that has a bit of mileage. How will the Sword Beasts react to their supposed freedom? What happens to them once they are no longer under Muramasa's control? How will they cope with the knowledge that they have murdered their own master, and in effect taken the only thing that sustains their own existence?
The potential is there for a threat that exceeds that
of Muramasa and his retinue of Zanpakuto, especially as the Sword Beasts
are explicitly stated as being capable of Bankai-level power.
Without a link to a Soul Reaper the Sword Beasts need to find ways of
sustaining their own life and a new purpose for living, and there's a
lot of scope for a quite involved storyline which encompassed the
morality of Soul Society's reaction to them. There are a few
episodes that touch on this, notably one episode which sees Haineko fall
in love with an injured Sword Beast and nurse him back to health in
secret, or another where a Sword Beast merges with a human in order to
stay alive, but for the most part these episodes are little more than
'monster of the week' stories. It's a shame, each episode
generally falls into the same formula of a Sword Beast attacking with a
new power which the Soul Reapers have to overcome, instead of exploring
them as complex characters the series takes a cheap route by portraying
them as insane, dangerous villains. Soul Society's relentless
pursuit and execution of the Sword Beasts is quite disturbing, even
their labelling of them as 'beasts' shows they see them as subhuman
creatures but they're never really challenged in their actions or
beliefs. The only time it does happen is in the Haineko storyline,
and to be honest it's hard to side with the Soul Reapers over the Sword
If the series had given us more stories that challenged our preconceptions it could have been truly great, but it's still not that bad. There's plenty of action throughout the volume and I quite like the fact that more focus is put on Soul Society than on Ichigo this time round. Some of the Sword Beasts' abilites are interesting, although they never seem to display anywhere near the level of power they are apparently capable of, and there are some quite entertaining stories here that pass the time until the next volume. A couple of more
comedic episodes - such as the one where a childish and impatient Senbonzakura causes chaos in the research and development department - fall flat though, and whilst there is plenty more screentime for the likes of Rangiku, Kira and Renji, the Sword Beasts are woefully underdeveloped as characters.
Bleach Series 12 Part 3 is nonetheless a solid collection of episodes, but they are ones which favour action and comedy over development and story. There's a very good idea underpinning it all and plenty of scope for an in-depth story that could really stretch the characters and boundaries of the franchise, but instead we get several entertaining but unremarkable episodes which do little to advance the series. There are a couple of gems in amongst them which give the whole story arc more depth, in particular the Haineko / Sword Beast rescue story, but these leave a feeling of frustration that for the most part a promising premise is wasted on simple monster hunting storylines. Does the series need to be stretched by 12 more episodes? No, but despite a couple of duds they are decent enough and there is plenty of action and even a few laughs to hold your interest. The problem is that they could easily have been better, and there are hints of an intriguing story hiding under the surface just waiting to be told.
Same as always - clean opening and ending sequences, a couple of front-loading trailers and the 'omake' comedy shorts that follow the end of most episodes. This time the producers are taking the mickey somewhat by having a few of the comedy shorts almost taunt the viewer with the possibility of returning to the original storyine in these omake...