So yeah, volume 3 is probably the best single volume in all of Bleach.
The Grand Fischer story intertwines the themes of the preciousness of life and the pain of having life taken away established in previous arcs and makes them a personal and driving factor in Ichigo’s character motivation. Before this volume Ichigo’s primary motivation is protecting people from harm, presumably because he’s just a good person. That’s admirable, but something just about every shonen hero can claim. This volumes provides context as to why Ichigo feels so strongly about protecting others: he blames himself for the death of his mother, and he’s trying to atone by becoming someone strong enough to protect other people so that no one will ever get hurt or lose their life in front of his eyes again.
The way his regrets and guilt consume him and put a wedge between him and other people on the anniversary of his mother’s death is reflected upon with surprising nuance. He doesn’t openly disassociate from other people, but he becomes much more quiet and contemplative, making it clear to Orihime and Rukia that something is bothering him. Visually Ichigo distancing himself from other characters is represented in them being in separate panels when talking to one another, including one choice scene where he and Rukia are talking in the woods, separated by trees in the foreground. When reflecting upon his guilt, Ichigo repeats that his mother was the center of his family’s universe twice. The first time establishes context of how important Ichigo’s mother was to him, and the second times provides reflective insight into Ichigo’s mind after witnessing the flashback of Masaki’s death. And that second utterance hits with genuine emotional force when Ichigo adds “I tore the heart out of our universe” on top of it. That one line encapsulates a powerful sensation of guilt that defines Ichigo’s desire for revenge against Grand Fischer perfectly, and the flashback as a whole redefines the character and elevates him from just being another shonen action hero who wants to protect others to a shonen action hero who is fundamentally driven to protect others to make up for the one person, the person he loved most, who he wasn’t able to protect. It’s perhaps not a strong enough characterization to keep Ichigo an interesting protagonist for a 70-volume series, but in the short term, and particularly this volume, he’s one you can readily sympathize with and root for, and want to see get stronger, defeat Grand Fischer, and avenge his mother in the future.
Characterization and character development is the biggest strength of the volume. Kubo spends time showing how Isshin, Karin, Yuzu, Tatsuki, and Orihime reflect on and process it, expanding on their characters. We learn Karin carries herself like an adult as a means to ground her family and support her sister emotionally. Yuzu’s cooking and cleaning responsibilities are given context in her taking upon those responsibilities in their mother’s stead. We learn Isshin’s goofy nature is a means to cheer up his children and keep a positive attitude in their household, especially since he deeply understands how much Masaki’s death still hurts them, especially Ichigo, whose guilt we see him assuage in a very thoughtful, mature moment. Tatsuki’s reflection on how Ichigo changed during childhood also provides context to her friendship with him and why she knows him so well, whereas Orihime’s relation of Ichigo’s mother’s death to her brother’s demonstrates her emotional growth from the incident with Acidwire and provides motivation for getting involved with him outside of just liking his goofy face. Ichigo’s mother’s death did not just effect him. Every member of the Kurosaki family and Ichigo’s friends was profoundly affected by her death, and the fact that it left such a big impact on so many characters lives gives it, and the events in the story, so much weight, as well as defines new layers and justifies various characterizations.
Ichigo’s internal conflict also provides the first big character development moment for Rukia so far, in her realizing that Ichigo needs to fight Grand Fischer alone for the sake of his pride, and relating that to her previous experience in an incident with Kaien, hinting at a similarly troubled past and drawing a connection between the two as kindred spirits.
If there’s one weak characterization in this volume, it’s Grand Fischer. In of himself, he’s basically Shrieker again. However, the way he preys on Ichigo psychologically by using a pastiche of his dead mother as a puppet and shield makes him a perfect adversary to facilitate Ichigo’s emotional growth in the volume. It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth that despite Ichigo’s bold claim that he’s going to get stronger and “kill that monster,” he never meets or thinks about him again. Such a waste.
Still, there’s a lot to like about this volume. I didn’t touch upon the art much, but the dark grey shading employed throughout the volume conveys such an oppressive and sorrowful atmosphere that perfectly fits the tone of the story and Ichigo’s internal torment. The way the art, plot, and character development complements each other and builds upon everything established about these characters and the themes discussed in previous arcs in the series gives the events contained in this volume so much weight, and makes it arguably series-defining. If you only ever read one volume of Bleach, this should be it. But if we’ve already covered the best of Bleach, then does that mean that it’s all downhill from here? Probably, but we’ll see. At any rate, given that I’ve only gotten through 3 volumes in 9 hours, it’s clear that to finish this in time I’m going to have to change my approach a bit…