It blows my mind that I’ve now read 79 issues of Bleach, and I’m still so microscopically behind in the overall plot of the series. The last issue to be published in Japan was #490 to put this into perspective. Now, if I maintain the momentum I’m at (which is reading 79 issues in a little over a month), I could theoretically catch up with the manga in about six and a half months. I don’t really see that happening because there’s not even a guarantee that I’ll still be this invested in the story a month from now. Our heroes have finally reached the Soul Society, and for better or worse, Bleach has officially become a very different comic from the quirky urban fantasy that I was unironically enjoying when I first began this series. I can already see how it’s becoming a more standard shonen series. The universe is still intriguing so I don’t care too much (though having watched the professionally translated anime as I’m reading the shoddily fan-translated manga, I’m growing tired of how shitty the translation work is in the version of the manga I read), but I can definitely see where this jarring transition rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Also, Tite Kubo keeps introducing an endless stream of new characters without giving any of these newbies a chance to really develop which is becoming semi-distracting.

Ichigo, Uryu, Orihime, Chad, and Yoruichi (from now on, this group will be referred to the “Ryoka” because that is the term in-universe for people who enter soul society without being cleansed by a shinigami) make it through the portal between the regular world and Soul Society by the skin of their teeth. However, their first test in Soul Society comes the second they land in the slums of Soul Society where the newest souls live. When they try to enter the Seireitei (the inner circle of Soul Society where the shinigami live), a massive wall appears along with a giant named Jidanbo who challenges Ichigo to a duel. Ichigo easily dispatches the giant (he spent five straight days training with Uruhara after he learned the name of his zanpakuto and has gotten immensely stronger), but a far more serious threat immediately emerges. The shinigami captain who was taunting Byakuya Kuchiki last volume (about the execution of Rukia), Gin Ichimaru, appears and slices off the giant’s arm (who was letting Ichigo and his nakama as respect for defeating him). He is preparing to execute the defenseless giant when Ichigo steps in to protect the honor of a man he just defeated. However, despite his zanpakuto being about as big as a dagger, Ichimaru easily defeats Ichigo and the door to Soul Society shuts behind them.

Ichigo’s decision to risk his life in order to protect Jidanbo earns the Ryoka the respect of the souls living in this section of Soul Society, including Shibata, the little boy whose spirit had inhabited the parakeet way back in the beginning of the series. Ichimaru’s arrival (and the re-closing of the gate) means that the security near the gate will be even tighter than before and the Ryoka will need another way into the seireitei. Yoruichi (who seems to know everyone in Soul Society) investigates the slums trying to find a person named Kukaku Shiba. As they’re investigating Kukaku’s whereabouts, a young man on a boar arrives (along with henchmen who are also riding boards) named Ganju Shiba that hates shinigami even more than Uryu did. He picks a fight with Ichigo and they fight roughly to a draw (and we learn that Ichigo is a pretty decent martial artist even when he doesn’t have his sword). However, the clock rings 9 and Ganju retreats under mysterious circumstances. The Ryoka is finally able to find Kukaku Shiba, who lives out in the middle of the Soul Society countryside in a house with a pair of giant fists holding a banner and a massive “chimney” behind it. It turns out that Kukaku Shiba is a woman (and a bad-ass one at that). She agrees to help the Ryoka get into the seireitei on the condition that they bring her brother along as a guide. Of course, the brother turns out to be Ganju and Ichigo and Ganju resume their fight (which Kukaku violently stops). And we finally learn her plan to get them into the seireitei. She’s going to shoot them in with a giant cannon.

This volume presents a bit of a conundrum. A lot of the material was really cool. We learned more about the hierarchy of the Soul Society. Specifically, we know about the fuedal Japan caste system that separates the shinigami from the regular souls (and also that Rukia and Renji both came from the lower castes originally. Also, we see the darker sides of Soul Society. Even in death, you aren’t reunited with your family which means that the things Ichigo and Rukia told Shibata when they cleansed him weren’t true (though you always got the idea during those scenes that Rukia was holding something back). You learn that the souls in the slums have a very low opinion of shinigami and that some people, like Ganju, don’t think that any of them are good. We know a little bit more about the process that is going to be used to execute Rukia, and through the introduction of a character named Aizen (whose true nature has been ruined for me by being roughly ten years late to this particular dance), we get hints that Rukia’s execution is certainly not normal and that someone may be pulling the strings to make it happen. However, for all of this cool stuff, the plot has gotten too complicated without becoming more substantive to back it all up. There were many, many new named characters introduced this volume, and to be honest, none of them really struck me as particularly interesting or compelling. I’d say Ichimaru was pretty bad-ass but he was introduced last volume. I’ve read where Tite Kubo just introduces new characters when he has writer’s block, and that unfortunately just means there could be dozens and dozens of flat and one-dimensional characters before I know it.

I’m going to stop now because I have to review an excellent German film, Wings of Desire, that I just finished and I want to have the energy to give that my full attention. Anyways, I’m still willing to put my time into Bleach and I don’t think that the quality has dropped in. Actually, besides the way that Tite Kubo introduced a million characters without really saying anything about them, my only complaint about this volume was the way that the other members of the Ryoka whose names aren’t Ichigo contributed jack squat to the proceedings. I like ensemble pieces, and by giving Ichigo a nakama of friends with super-powers, I thought that’s what Bleach was doing. If they all just sit around and watch Ichigo do bad-ass things and don’t commit any acts of bad-assery themselves, it’s not very entertaining. One man heroics get stale. I hope the rest of the Ryoka have their time to shine.

Final Score: B