Volume 1 established Bleach as having a very playful, yet surprisingly thoughtful tone. The Acidwire story tackled themes of regret and loneliness with much gravitas. It cathartic note it left off on felt like Kubo could write genuinely engaging stories of interpersonal character drama, focusing on the longing and sorrows of the undead and cleansing them of their sins after their fall as Hollows. Which would have been a cool direction for the story to take for it’s initial monster-of-the-week phase, but I suppose either Kubo or the editors decided that would be too interesting, so the rest of the Hollows we see starting from this volume are portrayed as scummy and irredeemable as can be. Case in point is the antagonist of the Parakeet sub-arc, Shrieker. Shrieker is a complete 180 from Acidwire in characterization. Where Acidwire was a relatable human being who became a monster when his pent-up frustrations and emotions consumed him after death, Shrieker was an unrepentant murderer when he was alive and is the same despicable monster as a hollow. I’m not saying that this contrast in the types of people who become Hollows shouldn’t have happened, especially since the logic behind the creation of Hollows justifies his existence. My problem is that after this 180 all Hollows afterwards are going to be characterized similarly. Evil, disgusting creatures that kill for fun and not because they’ve lost sight of who they once were. That disappointing change in direction makes this volume feel like a step down in terms of storytelling.
That’s not to say that Kubo doesn’t try and tackle more complex ideas. Kon’s existential crises of constantly living in fear of death as a defective mod-soul slated for destruction, and how that informs his conviction that no one deserves to die, provides a refreshing sentiment that fits in with the idea Soul Reapers are meant to save souls, not take lives. Kubo doesn’t do anything with this idea that life is precious later, but coming off the tragedy of Yuichi from the previous story, with his mother being murdered by Shrieker and his life being forcefully ripped away from his body, the idea that no one should have their life and their happiness unnaturally taken away from them rings true and has contextual power. It feels like a lesson that Ichigo has become conscious of through his recent experiences with souls and Hollows, with the weight of his job as a Soul Reaper and the grayness of the world becoming clearer to him. At the very least, it characterizes this volume as a self-contained reflection on the joy of living and the sin of murder. It feels fitting that the cold-blooded murderer Shrieker is the first Hollow that we see being dragged down to hell for the sin of taking life when he was living. That he is the last Hollow that we’ll ever see being taken to hell, and that the consequences of being taken to hell is never explored in the manga, is very disappointing when considering all the potential that could be explored with the idea thematically, but alas, Kubo didn’t have a conscious interest in that.
This is the volume that really sells Bleach as an action manga. I commented on how well-done the panel of Ichigo slashing Fishbone D was in volume 1, but the angle and energy characterizing the crooked slash that defeats Shrieker takes the chops Kubo demonstrated there to the next level. I won’t spend too much time breaking it down, especially since Super Eyepatch Wolf already used it to highlight the strengths of Bleach‘s early action scenes in his “Fall of Bleach” video, but the power and weight behind the swing is so well-drawn that you can almost feel it. The strongest part of the fight, however, is when Chad and Rukia face off against Shrieker despite Chad not being able to see him. Chad is really cool here, lifting up a freaking telephone pole and swinging it down on top of Shrieker’s head. The teamwork and tactics Rukia and Chad use to compensate for their comparative lack of power and inability to see or reach Shrieker in flight is also very creative. The way Shrieker’s bomb powers are employed feels very convenient and each twist regarding them is very abruptly introduced, indicative of unfortunate traits Kubo will incorporate with his villains and their powers as the story progresses. But overall, the way the fight balances out humor with creative action sequences that don’t rely on mere power but wit and timing is really enjoyable and makes this one of the more fun fights in the series from what I remember. Certainly miles above anything that I can recall from the Blood War.
Volume 2 shows some warning signs for Bleach‘s descent into standard shonen battle-junk, but is still enjoyably comprised of two very well-made stories that both build on top and expand the world of the series, and develop it’s characters, while together embodying a welcome thematic message in addressing the value of life and the horror of murder. There’s a lot of new characters who are introduced, some of which are more important than others. Do you remember who Kuneida is? No? Well, she’s introduced with a fair amount of emphasis, even though she barely gets any speaking lines in the story going forward. Interestingly, there are already hints that Soul Society really isn’t such a great place, first in Rukia’s speechless expression when Ichigo asks her if going to Soul Society is really better than staying in the world of the living, and then later when we learn they created the mod-souls to be their soldiers and then callously ordered them destroyed without any concern that they were living, thinking beings. Rukia not questioning this until Ichigo points it out to her also reflects a sort of indoctrination and proclivity to not question the rules of Soul Society that we later see a lot of Soul Reapers blindly adhere to later in the Soul Society arc. Does that mean that everything in regards to that arc was well set-up and makes sense? Um….well, we’ll see. But next up is volume 3, often considered to be one of the absolute best in the series. Will I agree? Well I better re-read it and find out!