Review for Bleach: Series 9 Part 2 (2 Discs) (UK)
I spent most of the last review whinging about Kazé Entertainment’s treatment of Bleach, now that they have picked up the rights to distribute the show to the UK via Manga, rather than Manga Entertainment distributing the show themselves. I’ll try and restrain myself this time around, which ought to be easier given that I now have one less thing to complain about. Can you imagine how much I’d be whinging if Bleach was actually a show that I enjoyed?
You’d think that a teenager’s life would be complicated enough if he could speak to ghosts. But that was only the beginning for Ichigo Kurosaki. When he literally bumped into a Shinigami named Rukia Kuchiki, he was introduced to a whole new world. The Shinigami’s mission is to guide forlorn spirits known as Wholes to the Soul Society, and protect them and the living from Hollows, perverted spirits that have become monsters that prey on other souls, living or dead. They are not supposed to let the living know about this supernatural world, but not only does Ichigo see Rukia, circumstances force her to give him her powers, and train him to be a Shinigami while she regains her strength. Through their adventures, Ichigo learns that his classmates Orihime and Chad are similarly bestowed with spiritual abilities. He also meets Uryu Ishida, the last Quincy, heir to a tribe of spiritual warriors from the human world that once sought out and destroyed Hollows, before the Shinigami in turn eradicated them for disrupting the balance.
When last we left the world of Bleach, Ichigo and the others were in Hueco Mundo, trying to rescue Orihime from the Arrancars, and all in the middle of getting their collective butt kicked by overwhelming opposition. But you don’t want to see what happens next. Indeed, at the start of this collection, voiceover guy appears and specifically informs you that you don’t want to see what happens next. We’ve come to that point most dreaded in shonen anime, where published manga material begins to run dry, leaving no story for the animators to adapt, and they instead have to insert some filler to keep the animation on screen for the next few weeks and months. In Bleach’s case, we have a whole season of filler material.
Cast your mind back to the end of the Soul Society arc, when Aizen, Gin, and the other one had betrayed the Shinigami, and left to carry on their rebellion elsewhere (resulting in the current Arrancar arc which is busy spinning its wheels on hiatus). That left a power vacuum at the top of three Soul Reaper squads, three vacant Captain spots that needed to be filled. This filler arc, The New Leader Shusuke Amagai arc relates what happened when a new Captain was recruited for Squad 3, to replace Gin Ichimaru. Squad 3 had been muddling along well enough under the temporary leadership of its Lieutenant, and the independent minded squad members weren’t too keen on following a new leader, but the unlikely Shusuke Amagai makes an immediate impression as their new Captain when he saves the squad from a tricky situation in the Precipice World. Meanwhile, in the real world Ichigo and his friends have a new complication when hordes of Hollows suddenly start appearing, around the same time as a new arrival to the living world, the princess-like Rurichiyo Kasumiohji, and her bodyguards Kenryu and Enryu. In this selection of episodes, the action transfers to the Soul Society, as the conspiracies surrounding the succession of the Kasumiohji clan and Squad 3 unfold.
The next eleven episodes of Season 9, 179-189 are presented across 2 discs by Manga Entertainment, sourced from Kazé.
Bleach has now gone widescreen. It’s now in the modern TV friendly aspect ratio of 1.78:1 anamorphic. And that’s the end of the good news. The last few releases of Bleach via Madman Entertainment had native PAL transfers, 25 frames per second with 4% PAL speedup, but of high resolution and free of any standards conversion artefacts. Not anymore. With Kazé’s release of Bleach, we’re back to the bad old days of NTSC-PAL standards conversions. It’s worse in my opinion, as my limited experience of Kazé output has shown that while their Blu-rays are sweet, and their PAL DVDs are acceptable, their NTSC-PAL conversions leave a lot to be desired, and are the least impressive of any distributor that I have reviewed.
Bleach’s 1.78:1 anamorphic image is now once more prone to significant ghosting and blended frames, a little more than would expect from a standards conversion, but you wouldn’t expect the resolution and detail to be degraded as much as it is on these discs, nor would you expect the constant judder in pans and scrolls that makes you want to watch it on as small a screen as possible to avoid nausea. Compare it to Madman’s current Naruto Shippuden releases, also in NTSC-PAL. You get the ghosting and blended frames certainly, but only really visible when using pause and frame advance, yet the resolution is almost on a par with native PAL images, and there is absolutely no judder whatsoever, just smooth animation.
There are some positives to be had in the audio department. The discs now have the surround flag activated, so you now have DD 2.0 Surround English and Japanese audio. It sounds exactly the same in practice however. More significant is that Kazé provide translated subtitles for the Japanese audio, and a signs only English track for the English audio. This season sees some new theme songs debuted for the series, but unlike the Madman discs, the songs don’t have subtitle translations for the lyrics. In this release there are a few missing subtitle captions, which is pretty annoying.
These being Kazé discs, you can’t change audio or subtitles on the fly, so Hard of Hearing English dub fans are out of luck.
You’ve probably already heard me whinge about Kazé discs and UPOPs, so consider it whinged again. These discs are locked up tighter than Fort Knox, and I had to guess at the run time for the episodes.
Kazé don’t put trailers on their discs, and neither do they offer a line art gallery. All you get are karaoke versions of the credit sequences, minus the credit text, but with a romanji (Japanese in English script) burnt in subtitle track that insists that you sing along.
It seems the previous volume’s omission of the Illustrated Guide to Soul Reapers Golden comedy sketches and next episode previews was a mistake down to a rushed schedule, and thankfully they are restored for this release. Kazé have missed a trick though by not adding those missing from the previous volume to a special featurette here.
There’s a golden rule in anime, that filler must reset the world at the end so that the state of play is completely unchanged. All of the characters that are introduced, all the developments in the story, must be erased by the conclusion of the filler arc, never to be thought about again. This means one thing for this Shusuke Amagai arc of episodes. The ending is eminently predictable. As soon as the new captain of Squad 3 was introduced, I knew just what the twist in his character arc would be, and sure enough, that is exactly what happens in this collection of episodes. After all, we have to return to the pre-arc state of affairs without a blade of grass out of place. It’s this which can make filler material so tedious to watch, and in the end, it boils down to how interesting the creators can make their predictable story, how likeable the characters are, and how much fun you can have watching it.
The Shusuke Amagai filler arc turns out to be quite good indeed. It’s an entertaining story with interesting characters, a nice blend of drama, action and comedy. It also has the benefit of being confined to a set number of episodes, so there is no need here to stretch things out with flashbacks and extended exposition. There are no fight sequences that go on and on for episodes on end. It’s briskly paced and holds the attention throughout.
The last collection introduced the young aristocrat Rurichiyo and her retainers Enryu and Kenryu, who came to Ichigo looking to him to serve as bodyguard. That’s because of machinations in her Kasumiohji clan, with minister Kumoi plotting to usurp her leadership and advance his own ambitions. At the same time Squad 3 of the Soul Reapers, at the time without a leader since Gin Ichimaru had betrayed them and fled with Aizen, now got a new Captain in the form of Shusuke Amagai. While Amagai was a genial enough fellow, his third in command, Kibune, was far more enigmatic and secretive. At the end of the previous set of episodes it was revealed that Kibune had some sort of affiliation to the Kasumiohji clan, while to protect her new found friends in the living world, Rurichiyo decided to return to her world and face Kumoi herself.
Naturally all these threads come together in this half of the arc, as Ichigo and Rukia head back to the Soul Society with Kenryu and Enryu to rescue Rurichiyo. They think they’re just trying to protect one little girl, but they wind up in the middle of a massive plot against the Soul Reapers, and when they first try and save Rurichiyo, they also find that the Soul Reapers have been ordered to hunt them down. Ichigo versus the Soul Society, we’ve seen that before, although thankfully we don’t get 3 seasons of it this time around. Help comes from an unexpected corner when they encounter Amagai. He’s established himself as something of a maverick free thinker among the Soul Reapers, and as he’s investigating Kibune’s actions, he decides to work with Ichigo and Rukia to advance both their causes.
What follows is a nice action mystery with a fair bit of light comedy as well, typical Bleach when it’s flowing well. It also culminates in a great action sequence, full of the levelling up and succeeding through superior willpower that is par for the course for this genre of anime. Special moves are pulled, and Ichigo goes from bad ass with an unfeasibly large sword, to bankai mode, to full Hollow, with ever more nuclear explosions of chi, just as you would expect. And even if the twist in the tail is telegraphed from the opening episodes of the arc, you don’t mind because it’s so much fun. Alas, just at the point where I should be recommending this release, and raving about the Bleach filler which in my warped dimension I actively prefer to the canon material, I’m brought back down to Earth by the thought of the delivery medium, and the technical quality of this release.
Those missing subtitles! There’s one line in episode 184 that is particularly jarring. In the real world, I’d just skip back, and click the audio button on my remote to hear that line again in English; problem solved. But not in Kazé’s world. I thought I’d do the next best thing, push the menu button, change the audio there, and resume where I had left the programme. But this disc doesn’t even let me do that. I have to start the wretched episode again from the beginning and skip forward. At this point I realise that I just don’t care enough to be bothered. And once more we have the problem of episode count. We got 11 episodes in the last box, and 11 in this. At the same point in the run, both the US and Australia got 12 and 13 episodes respectively. It looks like Kazé are sticking to the season episode counts, and not proceeding the same way as the rest of the English speaking world. This doesn’t bode well, as not only will we have more boxsets clogging up our shelves, but season 10 is 16 episodes long, while season 11 is just 7. I fully expect season 10 to be in two small boxes of eight episodes apiece, but I doubt even Kazé could justify splitting season 11 into two. Madman’s next boxset is out this month, and has twelve episodes. We apparently won’t see any new Bleach until 2013. I didn’t think it was possible, But Kazé have taken a series that I barely tolerated to begin with, and have now made me actively loathe it. The restoration of the next episode previews and omake is just a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Low quality NTSC-PAL video, extremely user unfriendly discs, and comparatively poor value for money; I wish Manga had stuck with Madman!