Bleach Series 01 Part 01 Review

Ask any manga fan what the most popular comic in Japan is and they will almost all tell you: Weekly Shōnen Jump. The list of serials that have appeared in the weekly compendium speaks for itself: Dragonball, Slam Dunk, Kochikame, Fist of the North Star, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Quest, City Hunter, Bastard!!, Hikaru no Go, Death Note, the list goes on and on. Many of these titles have set the benchmarks and chiselled and defined the Shōnen serials we see today. Only Shōnen Magazine has managed to rival Jump in terms of sales figures and the quality of its output – even managing to outsell Jump for a good 5 year spell from 1997 – 2002. But Jump is now back on top, and that’s thanks to the quality of its current line up; featuring serials as big as: One Piece, Naruto, Hunter X Hunter, and The Prince of Tennis. In 2001 another series joined that list when manga-artist Tite Kubo turned manga-writer to create Bleach. Mixing action, comedy, and horror in that special way it seems only manga writers can, Tite drew his influences from some great series: Ranma ½, Rurouni Kenshin, Dragonball, Berserk, and Bleach immediately became a new favourite with Jump readers. Here in the west, Bleach’s success became intrinsically bound to the internet juggernaut that was Naruto, where many manga readers would post on Naruto’s internet boards recommending Bleach as an alternative Shōnen series for fans wanting the same mix of action & comedy, but with a slightly harder, cooler edge – appealing more to the demographic of late teens to young adults. In Japan too, Bleach’s sales figures have risen to the point where it now falls just a little short of Masashi Kishimoto’s Ninja manga.


How fitting and inevitable then, that when it came time to put together an anime adaptation of the Bleach manga it would be the network and production house who created the Naruto anime: TV Tokyo and Studio Perrot, who would get the gig. Perrot brought in the relatively inexperienced director Noriyuki Abe to take the directing reigns, and Neon Genesis Evangelion’s music master Shiro Sagisu to handle the music. Bleach: The Anime premiered on October 5th 2004 and has been extremely popular with Japanese audiences ever since. So popular in fact, that it placed #7 in TV Asahi’s 100 Anime Poll, in which fans voted online for their all-time favourite televised series. Bleach’s ranking was the 3rd highest for a show that was still being broadcast at the time of the poll, and the highest ranking of any Anime adaptation of a Shōnen Jump serial – ever! That in itself speaks volumes for how well regarded the Bleach TV series is by fans in Japan, and as I always like to say: 130million Japanese cannot be right, can they?

Bleach tells the story of Ichigo Kurosaki, a seemingly ordinary 15yr old high school student with a unique gift: Ever since he can remember he’s been able to see spirits. He’s not alone in this gift, his younger twin sisters Yuzu & Karin can sense the presence of spirits as well, but their senses aren’t so strong. Lately Ichigo’s powers seem to have amplified, and he’s being persistently bothered by the undead. One day he sees a mysterious girl take down a huge monstrous ghost in the centre of town and later wakes up to discover her in his bedroom. She is Rukia Kuchiki, a Shinigami/Soul Reaper. Her job is to hunt these monstrous destructive ghosts – called Hollows – and purify them by cutting through their head with her blade. In doing so the spirits are allowed to pass on to the other side peacefully. Unfortunately Rukia is severely injured whilst battling with a hollow shortly after her initial meeting with Ichigo, and the Soul Reaper has to make a choice to transfer all her powers into him so he can take care of the demon. In doing so she awakens Ichigo’s suppressed spiritual energy and a new, potentially far more powerful, Soul Reaper is born. Together Rukia and Ichigo continue to pursue and purify the Hollows that appear in town, whilst trying to keep their friends and family oblivious to what it is they’re doing; but when Ichigo’s powers start to affect his friends in unexpected ways - and Rukia’s seniors over in the Soul Society start investigating why she has been staying in the human world permanently - matters become all the more complicated for the ghost busting duo.


So have Studio Perrot and Noriyuki Abe done justice to Tite Kubo’s manga? The answer is a resounding yes; Bleach is every bit as inventive and engaging in animated form as it is on paper. Part of the reason Bleach has a good record of hooking viewers straight away is that it has a really excellent cast of characters introduced straight from the bat; as we’re introduced to Kurosaki family: Ichigo, his extremely over-energetic father Isshin and his sisters Yuzu & Karin, the high school friends: Orihime, Tatsuki, Chad, Asano, and Kojima, and of course the ethereal cohorts: Rukia and Kon. Pretty much all of these characters are assuredly reliable and essentially heroic characters – willing to put themselves in danger to protect their friends, and it’s a close circle of friends at that. This is a rather refreshing dynamic to have right from the onset in a shōnen series, where usually you’d see flawed individuals introduced one episode after the other who all become affected for the better from interacting with the central hero. Here in Bleach, Ichigo’s supporting cast are already well established and both aware and inspired by his more noble and kind hearted character traits. This leaves a lot of room to explore the central relationship between Rukia and Ichigo, and just have a lot of fun bouncing their personalities against each other and setting up the old “secret identity” chestnut so it can be bled for every last drop of comedy that’s available.

Which brings me onto the other reason Bleach hooks you fast: the comedy. Bleach is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. As mentioned before, the universe the story takes place in is very complex and needs a lot of exposition to establish and set up the spirit world – known as Soul Society – the human world, and the various beings that inhabit both, yet in creating all these plot devices, rules and contrivances, Tite Kubo has clearly sat down and thought of ways to wrangle every bit of comedy out of each new scenario that Ichigo faces himself in. An excellent example of this is in the character of Kon – a manufactured soul who Rukia accidentally “purchases” in order to act as a temporary soul in Ichigo’s body; while Ichigo’s real soul separates from his body so he can go fight spiritual beings. Ordinarily a temp soul would just act as bland and normal as possible so people don’t get suspicious about the person whose body they inhabit, but Kon turns out to be a Mod Soul, a genetically created experiment who was going to be destroyed by the powers that be in Soul Society until he managed to escape. So instead of simply creating a scenario where Ichigo’s soulless body is just dumped in some offhand location while Ichigo and Rukia go off and do some soul-hunting, we are given a supporting character who has to hang around Ichigo all the time so he can inhabit his body when needed – and of course Kon turns out to be a really hilarious incorrigible pervert who just makes the most out of this new lease of life he’s managed to gain. Also, when he’s not inhabiting Ichigo’s body he’s stuck inside the body of a cute little teddy bear and generally making Ichigo life hell! Fans of Ranma ½ will certainly see a lot of similarities between Ichigo/Kon’s relationship and Ranma/Ryoga’s. Kubo has definitely been influenced by the best here, and runs with it brilliantly.

In fact, if there’s one criticism I have about Noriyuki Abe’s direction, it’s that he’s excised quite a fair bit of the manga’s incidental comedy across these first 12 episodes. The two biggest victims of this are Kon and Orihime’s lesbian admirer: Chizuru, whose frequent sexual advances towards the large-chested Orihime are a constant source of great comedy in the manga. The latter is forgivable, given how tame Japanese TV usually is at the times Bleach is broadcast it was inevitable that some of Chizuru’s more risqué innuendo would be hitting the cutting room floor. But the removal of some of Kon’s interaction with Ichigo and company - including a nice scene between Rukia and Kon where we learn just how much he actually cares about Ichigo’s well being - in these early stories is a really tragic loss.


I’m sure by this point in the review, action fans will be bemoaning the fact that I’ve just waffled on about the comedy in the episodes that make up the first half of “series 01”, but the truth be told there’s not really any original or inventive action for fans to seek their teeth into. That’s not to say there aren’t numerous fights between Ichigo and various big nasty Hollows across the 12 episodes, it’s just they’re pretty much very generic “cackling bad guy” confrontations with a bit of melodrama thrown in to deepen the purpose behind them – like when Ichigo finds himself taking on the ghost of Orihime’s dead brother, who has been taken over by Hollows and turned into one himself. The only really big confrontation occurs in episode 09 when Ichigo finds himself up against the demon that killed his mother, but what was a relatively short, violent confrontation in the manga is marred by some pointless melodramatic revisions that involve the spiritually bound “memories” of Ichigo’s dead mother. Such lack of any really serious action in the first 10-20 episodes of a long running shōnen anime is par for the course though, and sure enough by the end of episode 12 we’re well into a new multiple-episode storyline that promises a lot more action to come in the next batch of episodes.

Presentation

MangaUK have decided to classify the first 20 episodes of the Bleach anime as Series 01, and this Series 01 Part 01 boxset presents the first 12 episodes of this first series. Somewhat bizarrely, MangaUK have decided to classify the final four episodes in this boxset as added extra episodes. I guess they didn’t like the symmetry break in spreading Series 01 across two boxsets of 12eps and 8eps respectively.

Optional English subtitles are provided on all episodes and extra features (when needed), with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall. However, for some reason there are no subtitles translating any on-screen Japanese text in the first 03 episodes. Luckily almost all the text is self explanatory and can be easily guessed, and from episode 04 onwards all signs and text is translated via the subtitles. However, there are a couple of instances in the first two episodes when a notable amount of Japanese text is displayed; so for those wishing to find out what the text says, please click in the spoiler box below:

The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.
Episode 01:The text right at the end of this episode when Ichigo has defeated the Hollow reads:

Kurosaki Ichigo: 15 Years Old
Hair Colour: Orange
Eye Colour: Brown
Occupation: High School Student (screen changes to new red text:) – SHINIGAMI!

Episode 02: The text written on Rukia’s hand reads: “Say anything and you’re dead”



Presented in the original 4:3 broadcast ratio, Bleach’s transfer generally looks quite pleasing: The print is in pristine condition and colours are crisp, bold and exhibit little to no noise or bleeding. Contrast and brightness levels are excellent and the image is about as sharp and detailed as you’d expect from the show’s varying production methods – plus there’s no noticeable Edge Enhancements either. However, there are two factors that let the transfer down a little: The usual NTSC-PAL standards conversion and the amount of Mosquito Noise in the image, pretty much every frame on these DVDs exhibits some form of Mosquito Noise!

Eschewing their recent trend of slapping on DTS and DD5.1 tracks to their releases, MangaUK have decided to just stick with the original Japanese DD2.0 track and an English DD2.0 track for the fans who like their American dubs. For the purposes of this review I sat down and listened to both tracks and can confirm they are both pretty equal in terms of quality. So with that being said I’ll just talk about both audio tracks as one singular track. The DD2.0 surround audio is of suitably high quality, handling the loud destructive action sequences with plenty of verve – thanks mostly to the punchy bass, good dynamics and some genuinely effective use of the rear channel. Dialogue too remains very clear and audible with no tearing when voices are raised; solid bass lends the voices a nice resonance as well.


As for the English dub, I was quite impressed by the job the American voice cast have done with this one. Johnny Yong Bosch is a good fit for Ichigo, Michelle Ruff plays Rukia more blandly than her Japanese counterpart Fumiko Orikasa, but she does a pretty good job of the role anyway. The supporting cast too is very solid, with the standout performance being Kate Higgins as Ichigo’s sister: Karin, who just nails the character. The only real criticism I have to make is that there is a lot of unnecessary waffle in the English dialogue, which results in some deviation from the intended spirit of the original Japanese script. A good example of this is in the way they dub the character of Chad: whose speech is supposed to be chronically terse, but the comedic effect of this is dampened somewhat in the English version where his sentences are noticeably longer.

Extras

If you ignore the “Includes 4 Extra Episodes!!” tag then you’ll find this set pretty light on extra features; there’s the Textless Closing sequence, a neat Production Art gallery, and various trailers for various games and other Anime shows MangaUK are distributing here in the UK.

Overall

Usually I rate a long-running series down a point when I cover the first volume of its release, as I’m always aware that these kind of shows always pick up substantially as the story arcs progress and get more complex. However, here with Bleach I’m going to start with a high score, because while there’s an over-reliance on exposition and a lack of any satisfying antagonistic presence at this stage in the story, the opening 12 episodes provides so much comedy and great character interplay to make up for any shortcomings. Clearly, the groundwork for a truly great action comedy series has been laid here.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
2 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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