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So it took a bit, but I made it through both the manga and anime versions of the second and most highly-regarded arc of the series - I'd read the arc a few times before, but it was my first time watching it all the way through. So does it hold up 15 years on? Yes - but this reread/watch also served to deepen my conviction that the later arcs are unfairly criticized.
Let's start with the positives. The pacing is unquestionably the most solid of any arc in the series - no battle drags on too long or feels too short (well, sorta - we'll address that in a minute), every single fight serves to develop its participants in an interesting manner, there's a healthy amount of "breather" chapters between each conflict in the first half of the arc prior to when shit really hits the fan, and the story has a very Book-Ends feel to it with how it sets up and answers questions at the beginning and end, in a manner that no other arc manages to replicate. Of course, the rematches with Renji and Byakuya, Uryu vs. Mayuri, Ichigo vs. Kenpachi, and Renji vs. Byakuya are all still incredible, memorable, brutal and powerful - special mention goes to Ichigo's Bankai reveal, which STILL gives me chills 8 years after getting into the series, in both the manga and anime. During this read, I also noticed that Aizen's betrayal somehow remains pretty fresh, even though the twist that sets it off has been done to death since; I'm chalking this up to most other series not having the balls to have the main antagonist dunk on the good guys for literally 10 chapters in a row and then succeed in his plan without any real issues along the way. That was HORRIFYINGLY awesome to re-experience. And it goes without saying that the emotions setups and payoffs are still pretty raw to this day - Rukia's depression and guilt complex feels surprisingly real for "just" a shonen series, Renji and Sui-Feng breaking down/crying and asking their opponents for help once they lose is something you almost never see even nowadays, and of course the arc Byakuya goes through to proceed from a total asshole to a brother who would readily sacrifice his life to save his sister hits hard. This arc is highly-rated for a reason.
All that being said, however, it's not without flaws - or more accurately, it's not the "golden age" before Kubo's writing went to shit, or whatever it is some people will tell you. To be clear, the later arcs in the series are not perfect, but aside from pacing issues, this arc has a lot of the "problems" people will point to as reason to degrade everything past chapter 182/episode 63. Let's run down the list, shall we?
And here's the thing - none of those are complaints, at least not from me, because they're either not problems specific to Bleach or not problems period (like the background thing). It's just that this arc is so often held up as a holy grail of perfection on all fronts, yet seeing it again has convinced me nostalgia filters truly are real.
Okay, didn't quite mean to turn this review into an anticipatory rant against the rest of the fandom, so I'll leave it off here: this arc is real good. Is it the best in my opinion? No, that would be the final arc, actually. But it's tied for second with the first arc, and there's a reason it catapulted Bleach into the Big 3 for a time.
I still prefer the first story arc, whatever it\'s called. Soul Society is fine, and I rather like, say, the volume devoted to Ichigo and Byakuya going at it, but I guess it\'s not as special to me as those urban fantasy stories set in a relatively-grounded real world with ghosts and spirits.
It\'s good battle manga shonen, and as someone who likes the genre I like it... but it did feel like it was something different before, and now it\'s just another manga about colorful people with powers fighting each other.
All of that said, I want to give props to the only two moments Zaraki didn\'t kind of get on my nerves by the end of a fight in the entire manga: that bout with Ichigo made sense, since he was toying with an obviously-inferior opponent rather than in a life-or-death struggle while actually doing his job, and that fight with Tousen is the only time I enjoyed Zaraki winning, since he won in an entertaining way after an hilarious aside via a means that showed off his animal cunning.
I bring this up because, as someone who mostly agrees with your thesis that many later story arcs, while they have problems, are unfairly scrutinized while this one is given many passes for many of the same issues, that right there is two decent iterations of a character formula that did degrade into \"Guess I\'ll hold back less and instantly win!\" as the series progressed. And it sticks out to me because most other such formulae are far less stark.
First: How are your reviews so long? The word limit usually forces me to trim mine back.
As for the review itself: There's really only two things I'd quibble over. The first is the 'Aizen was behind it all' twist, which came outta nowhere. So I wasn't surprised when Kubo admitted (during an interview, at that time) that it wasn't something he originally planned. Rather, he thought it up after he had killed Aizen off and said he thought it would be a cool twist.
It wasn't. A twist like that requires proper foreshadowing to pull off.
As for the 'no backgrounds' part, backgrounds help establish setting and they're useful for keeping track of who's where, especially during battle scenes. For example: During Maken-ki's Okino Island arc, three battles took place simultaneously. A mini-map was used to show which parts of the island each battle was taking place and to establish their proximity to each other. The background details of each panel further established location and when/if any of them progressed to different areas. You can't get that with blank panels.
All of that said, while I liked the Soul Society arc, I can admit wasn't perfect. I also griped (at the time) how convenient it was that Yoruichi just happened to have that 'get bankai quick' doo-hicky right when Ichigo needed it. Not to mention seeing Ichigo go toe-to-toe with lieutenants and captains after only 2½ months "training".
Yeah, by the time I finished it I got that exact same vibe: \"this is good, but...it\'s not the same\". Really hurts that we never got to see the urban fantasy really get fleshed out, especially when the next arc tried to integrate the two styles together in a decently successful manner, only to then ALSO be cut short (those damn fans and their preference for Shinigami/Arrancar over Humans).
1) No idea, it doesn\'t let me edit them and keep them at that length but I guess the review format is glitched right now - wouldn\'t surprise me considering this site\'s code.
2) You\'re right and wrong, imo. I think Kubo was definitely setting up Urahara to be the main antagonist at first, which makes his shady behavior early on and a few lines of dialogue from Aizen pre-\"death\" make less sense post-reveal, but he figured out Aizen would be a more surprising reveal in time to drop a few hints (Aizen\'s handwriting being on the letter Hinamori got, him being unnaturally calm when \"saving\" the students with Gin in the school flashback, Gin having been his lieutenant at one point) so the twist at least lined up with some things rather than coming out of absolutely like, say, Kaguya in Naruto.
3) I think you\'re also right about backgrounds in panels in a general sense, but I started making an exception for Bleach after a review I saw that put the series in a new light: essentially, Bleach isn\'t trying to be a regular story, it\'s trying to be dramatic - it\'s all about the sudden reappearances (usually behind another character\'s back), the close-ups for dialogue, the focus on a character\'s pose and eyes, etc. etc. All this is enhanced when the background is minimal or completely white because, then, all that\'s left to focus on is the characters, who Kubo\'s great at portraying the mood and thoughts of purely through visuals. That\'s just my stance, though.
TV Tropes is fairly strange about the character limit for reviews. When you first post a review, the character limit isn\'t enforced, but if you try to go back and edit your review, it won\'t let you make the changes until you get the review into compliance. This is a problem, since it doesn\'t deter those who want to flout the character limit, makes it harder for those who are trying to abide by the limit to know how long their review is and gives an unpleasant surprise to those who accidentally post a review that\'s too long and try to go back to change it, so I hope they fix it at some point.
I mostly agree with the review\'s point that the Soul Society arc isn\'t perfect, but it\'s still my favorite part of the series.
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