Last Time On – Bleach
Two weeks have passed and we return to the dark wasteland of Bleach once more to round out the Hueco Mundo arc. Last time we covered from Orihime’s kidnapping up to Ichigo defeating Grimmjow. The beginning of this arc suffered the exact same issues as the Arrancar arc with horrendous pacing and not nearly enough time spent building on certain characters and elements of the plot. Despite the fact that this is called the Hueco Mundo arc, we get practically nothing from Hueco Mundo itself. The fact that this arc takes place in the realm of Hollows is near a moot point as any unique storytelling that could be drawn from such a scenario is cast to the wayside. It’s just an unintuitive rush to get to Las Noches and the Espada.
After analyzing it, it feels obvious that Kubo was just rushing through the story to get to the fights with the Espada. The battles with Aaroniero, Szayel and Grimmjow are the most well-written and hype moments we’ve had since the soul society arc. A high in the story that we’ve been missing for a long time, Kubo in his element as he gets to just make cool things happen. While it’s good that we get this payoff after the disaster leading up to it, the narrative as a whole has still been lacking. Hueco Mundo is empty. Orihime is just a carrot on a stick for the protag group to follow. Luppi was a character.
What I largely focused on in part 1 of this arc’s amendment was building on Hueco Mundo in a way it deserves. I put forward the idea of turning this arc into a more defined struggle for survival. More than just running straight into the middle of Arrancar territory, I wanted this to be an arc where the realm and its dangers are explored. Not just a simple matter of the protags being stronger than the enemies but a struggle to outlast the constant pressure of being in such vicious territory. Time for Ichigo to get to grips with his Visored abilities and slowly and subtley become more like the Hollow within.
With so much more time spent on the journey to Las Noches, this would also open the opportunity to actually give Orihime an arc. Kubo tries to pretend that Orihime isn’t just a plot device by giving her this goal of unmaking the Hogyoku but nothing comes of that. There’s no time for anything to come of that because of how little time it takes for the protag group to get to the enemy base. If this arc were just slowed down a bit then this sub-plot could be built upon, but there’s another important reason to focus on Orihime here. To see her interact with the Arrancar and build them up as characters, just like how we got an image of the soul reapers during the soul society arc.
The more major problems with this arc thus far don’t come from what happens. They come from what doesn’t happen. The story is missing elements, elements that were there back in the soul society arc. Elements that made the soul reapers into characters and that made us feel for Rukia as she was awaiting execution. We know Kubo is capable of making a great story, which is why it’s so disappointing to see here what boils down to the soul society arc but worse. Simplified down to just the fights and nothing more. That said, we left off part 1 of this arc on a high note, so I’ll tentatively ignite some faith as we go now into part 2. Going from after Grimmjow up to the end of the Urahara/Visored backstory.
What I Enjoyed
- Byakuya vs Zommari – I have a lot of problems with the captains vs Espada fights, all of which will be detailed in the what needs changed section. For now, though, let’s just focus on the one that has the most going for it. Byakuya has the most narrative worth of the three captain/Espada bouts as he comes to save his fallen sibling when no one else can. Rukia overcame a difficult foe and earned the right to rely on Byakuya a bit. This fight is a demonstration of the change that has occurred in Byakuya’s character since he lost to Ichigo. He’s now willing to come to Rukia’s rescue after attempting to aid in her execution during soul society. His new mentality is put into practice as he goes toe to toe with an Espada for her sake. He’s even willing enough to give up his pride and use techniques he was taught by Yoruichi.
Zommari’s ability to take control of what he sees is a well-designed ability. The conditions for it are clear and it has the power to instantly win a fight, yet it can be avoided or even countered if the instant victory condition is not met. Being afflicted by it does not immediately end the fight but it makes it tremendously more difficult. It also has very clear limits in Zommari’s number of eyes and is used within those limits in interesting ways. An example of this is Rukia’s unconscious body being taken over, which truly forces Byakuya to show how he has changed. It would be objectively easier for him to win the fight if he killed Rukia and used her as a shield against Zommari’s ability. That’s an option that soul society arc Byakuya might very well have taken for the sake of his task. Now, he avoids such a brutal decision even though it makes the fight relatively more difficult.
Admittedly, Senbonzakura is kind of the perfect ability to deal with Zommari’s takeover power but Byakuya overwhelming Zommari using it falls under the really goddamn cool category so I’ll forgive it. Even if he could have just ended the fight real fast by releasing it sooner. I reckon it would have been a lot better to see Zommari attempt to parry Senbonzakura Kageyoshi using the petals that he took over. Y’know, as if he were a competent threat or something. Some kind of struggle at least. I do also think that Zommari loses his cool way too quickly when he can’t move Rukia. Real bad image of a character when he just completely loses it because one thing goes wrong. All in all I’d say Zommari’s characterization feels rushed and inconsistent, I think the biggest casualty of the Espada having a lack of time spent on their development.
We also get to see Hanatarou get sliced in this fight which is honestly kinda satisfying in itself. Probably a little bad of me to say that, huh.
In the end, this fight is a bit short and it does still have its share of issues. Regardless, the value in demonstrating Byakuya’s development as a character is high so I don’t really have any intrinsic problems with it.
- Urahara & Visored Backstory – That’s right! Visored backstory! The thing I was asking for, like, two amendments ago! I believe some time was already spent focusing on this background in filler which I skipped just to try and take in the story as Kubo intended. That being said, I think the Visored lore is really weird to put here. The Visored are cool characters and I think Kubo did well to make them intriguing but that’s something that should have been done while they were still the focus. Since the Visored aren’t a part of the Hueco Mundo arc at all it just feels really detached to go back and randomly start talking about them again. A bad place in the narrative for it but not a bad story to tell.
The first big thing that’s revealed in this flashback section is the existence of squad 0. We learned about the soul king during the Arrancar arc but didn’t really get much other than the fact that he’s a figure of great importance. The knowledge that there is another squad dedicated entirely to his protection, one that holds a status above all of the other captains, is a nice tidbit to really highlight that he’s the most important figure in soul society.
It’s really nice to see how the soul society was back in this time and it’s exciting to wonder what it was that made the Visored into the outsiders that they currently are. They were once captains and lieutenants, from the viewpoint we built during the soul society arc that makes them the pinnacle of the gotei 13. What changed them must have been something huge. More Urahara backstory doesn’t go amiss either. Just getting to experience the character dynamics alone is reason enough to see this flashback through. Honestly, this kind of stepping back and slowing down the story’s pace is exactly what the plot has been needing for a while at this point. Things have been a reckless rush since the Arrancar arc and it’s great to see things going less erratically for a bit.
I like the whole idea behind the prison in which people who have committed no crimes are kept. One of the biggest worries going into a section that regards soul society’s past is if it didn’t highlight any of the society’s imperfections. After all, what was outlined during the soul society arc was an imperfect place, therefore it would make no sense to focus on all positive things in a time before that. What makes soul society such an interesting place are its imperfections, the brutal unfairness that it displays when one goes beneath the surface. The soul society that eradicated the Quincies, the soul society that made Byakuya fight for duty instead of family. The status quo is prioritized over morality, which is an image this confinement reflects.
The people here aren’t evil, they simply threatened the status quo that soul society holds in such high regard. That threat of something different, of change, is feared and it continues to be feared up until Ichigo and his friends invade the place. Displaying Urahara as a figure who attempts to incite such change, given we know that he does come to leave soul society, it great. We even learn that he started out as an enforcer of the metathesiophobic ways of soul society as a warden of this prison. The scraps of lore surrounding the stealth squad and by extension the Shihouin family are nice too.
Seeing the Visored during their time as part of the gotei 13 not only tells us more about them but how the others who remained in soul society felt about them. These are people who had bonds and relationships that they were torn away from, so presumably there is sadness and regret towards what happened to them. Feelings that lie underneath the remaining gotei 13 members, perhaps awaiting to surface when they meet once more. Given the existence of these relationships, it makes us wonder why the Visored now hold the soul society in scuh begrudging regard.
The reason why is the aforementioned intolerance of things that threaten the status quo. This isn’t some kind of deep analysis I’m making, we get to see it explicitly during Urahara’s trial before Central 46. Even though the Visored could be saved, they were determined as threats, condemned as part of a kneejerk reaction to something unknown. In trying to save them and cultivating the change happening within them instead of eradicating them, Urahara is punished as well. It’s all honestly written quite well.
The fact that Aizen is the one behind the transformation of the Visored is no big surprise. He fought to find a power that made use of both the abilities of soul reaper and Hollow, thus transcending both. A way of manipulating a soul past its logical limits and creating something new, something greater. The Visored were just an experiment, not really a huge shock. I definitely like hearing Aizen monologue to Shinji about how being entirely distrusting will never reveal everything about the subject of distrust, though.
I think one thing I would have liked to have seen more of during this flashback is how Tosen and Gin came to pledge their loyalty to Aizen. Tosen in particular, seeing as we still have little to no reason why Tosen thinks Aizen is the defining figure of justice. It’s a really odd viewpoint that has not been elaborated on at all when it really should be. This kind of thing is definitely being saved for the battle for Karakura town arc when Tosen and Gin get their defining fights but there’s still space to sew some seeds. In fact, while we’re at it I also want to see more of how Aizen went about subjugating the Hollows of Hueco Mundo. If it made some kind of master plan or if he just used his massive spiritual pressure. Could’ve been a good way to keep this flashback relevant to the Hueco Mundo arc if it showed when Aizen first started his rule in the realm of Hollows.
Also apparently Tessai is powerful enough to stop time which is pretty ridiculous. This character never gets a real fight in the entire series and really there’s just no justice in that. I cannot get over this.
What Needs Changed
- Ichigo & Nel vs Nnoitra – This fight and the backstory that comes with it is difficult to definitively rate in terms of good or bad. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s start from the beginning. To begin on a positive note, I like how Nnoitra is portrayed as this opportunist sort of character. He appeared after Chad’s battle to finish him off and now he’s here to take advantage of Ichigo’s exhaustion. Furthermore, despite this nature, he feels powerful and intimidating as he’s presented as a threat beyond Grimmjow. These traits set up well for his imminent backstory with Nel while simultaneously building him up as a real threat.
My primary issue with this fight is how it undermines the rivalry between Ichigo and Grimmjow. Ichigo vs Grimmjow was a fight that had been set up since the arrancar arc, the payoff for that should be a big defining fight for Ichigo’s character. One to prepare him for Ulquiorra, the other Espada foreshadowed as a rival to Ichigo. While Ichigo’s bout with Grimmjow was good, it’s disappointing when we get no time to reflect on it. Instead of exploring any kind of growth for Ichigo, which could have certainly happened given he and Grimmjow’s clashing mentalities, Kubo tries to cash in on the shock factor by having our protag immediately come face-to-face with the next Espada up. Nnoitra himself isn’t bad, it’s just that he completely overshadows the struggle that Ichigo just went through. The message I get from this is “Well I hope you enjoyed Ichigo fighting Grimmjow but that didn’t really matter actually and here’s this”. It feels as if Nnoitra addresses this when he berates Ichigo for thinking he can run into the enemy base and not have people come after him but that doesn’t help the narrative become any more satisfying.
All in all, though, my issues with Ichigo’s section of this fight aren’t really a huge deal. This is because this isn’t meant to be Ichigo’s fight, it’s not for his arc, it’s for Nel’s. The sub-plot of Nel being a former Espada and how she was specifically targeted by Nnoitra and Szayel is great. One of the more major issues with this arc is the fact that we barely get enough time for the Espada to really establish any character dynamics. I’ve said it already, they should have made time to see interactions between the Espada using Orihime as our connecting factor. The whole plot between Nel and Nnoitra is one of the few dynamics we get to see and it’s interesting! If only there was more of this kind of stuff, how the Espada feel about each other and who is a rival to who. The residents of Las Noches are so rushed in their presentation when compared to the soul reapers, they only get the time to be characters within the span of their fight and then they’re gone. It just leaves things feeling less satisfying than they could, especially if the fights themselves aren’t bad.
Little details like Nel subconsciously leading Ichigo into a bad situation because of her true self also adds a lot. Intrigue is raised for this character beyond just being an Arrancar kid who likes Ichigo. Nel and her group were interesting before because they were different from what we expected from Hollows. This twist helps to carry them on as one of the better written aspects of this arc. There’s a point where it feels like this fight is going to turn into Ichigo protects another girl but Kubo does the right thing and has him get his ass whooped. Between this fight and the last he’s been good about denying some kind of power of emotions victory.
Then, Nel transforms into her Espada state. In that moment, she isn’t just a small Orihime to be reliant on Ichigo’s aid, she’s a goddamn Espada. Even better, she was formerly ranked number 3. That’s not just stronger than Nnoitra, that outranks Ulquiorra. Nel is such an insanely cool character in this moment, disregarding a couple of non-narrative factors. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In this case, a really unsatisfying, abrupt end. Nel only returns to her Espada form this one time and she’s cool while she’s in that state but she achieves nothing. She doesn’t beat Nnoitra even though that’s what would make the most sense for her arc, heck she doesn’t even force him to use his resureccion. This becomes especially disappointing once we find out that Nnoitra’s motivation is some garbage “I can’t stand a female being higher than a male in battle” idiocy. The only correct ending here is Nel crushing this man and proving him wrong for good but that doesn’t happen.
This fight is Nel’s arc. It’s absolutely everything to this character and she doesn’t even get to see it through. The fact that she doesn’t ever return to her Espada state only makes things worse. Having the formerly ranked 3 Espada on his side is such a huge potential boon to Ichigo, not just because of her strength but because of the training she could offer. At this point, she is stronger than him, and Ichigo is someone who exponentially improves as he struggles in battle. Even in just a short time, she could possibly help Ichigo to get used to the weight of attacks from someone of that level. No, all Nel gets is denied closure for her arc and then she falls off the face of the plot entirely.
- Renji, Ishida, Pesche & Dondochakka vs Szayel – The first part of this fight came to a satisfying end. Even though Szayel didn’t use his resureccion, it was an interesting fight that couldn’t be won just by whoever hit harder. It was an actual contest of intelligence wherein Ishida and Renji had to find a creative solution to the power limitations they were facing. In this, they succeeded and got a gratifying upper hand against the Espada before them. Despite this, Szayel survived and with the abilities that he has already displayed he is certain to present an even more constricting situation for the two protags.
While I liked how the first part of this fight ended, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that it continues. It makes enough sense seeing as Szayel hasn’t released his resureccion at this point. Once more we have the scenario in which Ishida and Renji have to find ways of fighting outside of their relatively simple abilities. The two of them are made to battle clones, which is a concept that could have potentially been done well. Clone fights in stories are pretty explicitly scenarios in which the cloned characters must overcome themselves, going beyond their usual abilities and habits. This lines up with the themes already presented in this fight while making the situation more intense because he can analyse any new abilities they display. It creates a scenario that genuinely feels unwinnable for a reason that isn’t just ‘Szayel is stronger than them’.
Of course, this is in theory, because Ishida and Renji do just solve their clone problem by being stronger than their clones. This is not interesting in the slighest. In fact, it almost feels like a joke how much this fight represents the primary issue with a lot of the fights in this arc. Just two people with the same abilities going until one is just better than the other. This clone fight is also another classic situation wherein the humor is just really out of place. Instead of this being a building struggle of the protags having to overcome their own shortcomings, a lot of the fight is just played as a joke.
The first interesting thing that happens here is Renji baiting the now multiple clones into activating all of their bankais at once to produce an immense amount of force. It’s somewhat of an inconsistency seeing as they’re apparently in the same room where Renji couldn’t use his bankai earlier but we’ll overlook that for now. This is the kind of thing that could have been great, going beyond Szayel’s calculations through using the potential of multiple selves. Disappointingly, though, this deals no damage to the Espada himself.
Szayel’s voodoo doll ability is extremely bad. It’s literally just an ability that instantly wins him the fight if he’s able to activate it, it doesn’t at all add any kind of interesting dynamic or interactions with his enemies. The only way it’s countered is by Mayuri having fake organs, which doesn’t answer where his real organs went and how he continues to function without(?) them. It’s a stupid power that could only be answered with a stupid solution. This ability alone just kills any hope of this being a continuation to an initially creative encounter.
Given the concurrent plot regarding Nel, it would have been rad for Pesche and Dondochakka to have a real huge moment as well. It would be ridiculous to have them outright defeat Szayel but it’s not out there for them to get some kind of advantage over him. They’re figures of such unimportance that Szayel doesn’t have countermeasures for them, so it makes sense that they abuse this fact. Dondochakka’s ability is even perfect for this since he has an unknown amount of spirit insects inside of him all with unknown strengths. Then, while Szayel’s focus is split and he finally gives them the respect they’ve earned, Renji and/or Ishida set up for a finishing attack.
If it isn’t obvious, I just really wish that the four characters present were the ones to actually defeat Szayel. Just as I wish that Nel could have been the one to defeat Nnoitra. I mean, c’mon, if you’re gonna force Kenpachi into the plot here than at least let Nel and Yachiru be friends. Geez.
- Mayuri vs Szayel & Kenpachi vs Nnoitra – After an unsatisfying end to everything surrounding Nel begins a series of fights that I hate exist but tear me up because they’re so good in isolation. Kenpachi, Byakuya and Mayuri; the three captains defeated by the protagonists in the soul society arc show up to fight what are essentially their Espada counterparts. There is no narrative gain in this and the fights are literally them fighting Hollow mirrors of themselves, which is something I’ve already highlighted as a major issue in this arc. Kenpachi fights the tough-skinned strong one, Mayuri fights the smart one and Byakuya fights the fast one. It’s extremely dumb and simple and the only one of these fights that I think serves a good story purpose of Byakuya vs Zommari. That’s why I hate so much that these fights are some of my favorites in the series.
I’ve watched Kenpachi vs Nnoitra and Mayuri vs Szayel so many times over the years. I enjoy these fights a lot even though they are complete narrative trash. It’s just so cool to see these characters in action again, especially since they are good characters. These two fights in particular are pretty much entirely carried by the fact that they’re just extremely rad. It’s sick to see Kenpachi overpower Nnoitra and Szayel getting put in his place by someone smarter is just so satiating. I mentioned earlier the dumb way in which Mayuri overcomes Szayel’s doll ability but it’s just such a stupid thing that I can’t help but love it. This fight is why Mayuri is one of my favorite characters in Bleach. His characterization in this fight is amazing. I love the concept of the superhuman potion and how brutal it is, I love that Mayuri has countermeasures against his own bankai and I love his speech on perfection. He’s just all around so good.
I once saw a comment that showed distaste as to Mayuri and Ishida being on relatively good terms now considering what happened during soul society. I don’t really see an issue, Ishida absolutely still shows displeasure towards Mayuri and it would be out of character for Mayuri to hold a grudge. He lost the fight between them in the past, sure, but not every fictional character is going to automatically seek revenge. He’s not an emotionally charged character, or at least he shouldn’t be, to him Ishida is basically just a camera at this point. You wouldn’t smash one of your own cameras, would you?
All this being said, these fights are in the what needs changed section because they cannot co-exist with what I see as a better narrative. In a better world, there is no Szayel or Nnoitra at this point for Mayuri and Kenpachi to defeat. They’re objectively pointless and are only here for coolness’ sake. Not necessarily a bad thing but there are plenty of other opportunities to give Kenpachi and Mayuri the spotlight. Here isn’t the place.
- The Transition to the Battle for Karakura Arc – After the captains vs Espada fights end, Aizen leaves Hueco Mundo to begin his attack on Karakura town. Because we already know everything about his plan this just kinda happens, no shock value as to Aizen’s targeting Karakura specifically has been preserved. Therefore, it doesn’t feel as intense as it maybe should. Moreover, Aizen’s plan to draw multiple captains into Hueco Mundo and trap them there feels forced since there’s not actually that much reason for them to be there. Oh yeah, Aizen just predicted that those captains would come to Hueco Mundo for no reason, sure.
The fact that soul society has already made countermeasures to Aizen’s plan only makes this more weird. They knew that Aizen would be coming for Karakura, replaced it with a fake and were even already stationed there when he stepped through. Despite that, they sent four captains to Hueco Mundo without knowing enough about the travel process to carry it out themselves. It feels like a forced situation made just to move the plot along in a convenient way. Ulquiorra is the only enemy left in Las Noches so he can fight Ichigo and the battle for Karakura arc can begin in the simplest way possible.
Despite the vastness of my negative points here, I feel like most of what’s bad here can be fixed relatively simply. First and foremost, Nel should be the one to kill Nnoitra. There’s just no excuse for her not to, this is her arc-defining moment and she deserves better than to have it stolen from her. Renji, Ishida, Pesche and Dondochakka should also be the ones to defeat Szayel. It would give the latter two a cool and unexpected moment of glory as well as making the prior two feel less worthless. The fact that they just get taken down by some bs ability really takes away from the creative first part of this fight, an element which should have been carried on up until the end.
The issues with Zommari’s bad characterization could be fixed with my focusing on Orihime solution put forward in the previous amendment. Just have him show up, be a character, it’s not all that hard. Mayuri and Kenpachi aren’t here because their fights no longer exist. Maybe Mayuri is still here for the sake of raiding Las Noches. That much I would accept. It’s a little harder to find a more elegant solution to the transition to the battle for Karakura arc. It’s certainly in-character for Aizen to taunt the protags before he leaves. I suppose it’s still a victory for him if only three captains are trapped in Hueco Mundo. He also absolutely can’t just go to Karakura when soul society don’t expect him to because if he does then he crushes the entire town instantly. It isn’t as heavy of an issue if all of the captains who came to Hueco Mundo have a purpose there. It feels forced how it currently is because both Kenpachi and Mayuri’s fights feel pointless, if both of those are fixed then there isn’t really that massive of an issue. Either way there’s going to have to be some convenience here to prevent Aizen from just instantly winning.
The Urahara & Visored flashback is fine in its contents, I would just move it to a different point of the story. Most likely to either the beginning or the end of the Arrancar arc. Just while our interest in the Visored is at its highest. My amended version of Hueco Mundo would overall be a lot slower anyways, so there wouldn’t be as much of a need to take a break from the high-pace plot here.
Despite how much I have to say about it, there’s not really a whole lot wrong with the second part of this arc. The biggest issue is just the fact that Kubo really wanted to force a couple of fights in where they didn’t need to be. Even then, these fights are great, so there’s not a lot to complain about despite their worthlessness with regards to the story. Overall I’d say this arc actually ends pretty strong, there’s some disappointing and unsatisfying moments for sure but the fights continue to be really exciting for the most part. Given there’s going to be a lot more fighting going into the next arc I hope this is a consistent theme but for now there isn’t really much more to say. Even the pacing got a breather for the first time since the Arrancar arc started.
I can say now that the Hueco Mundo arc’s issues are most entirely in the run-up. Everything leading up to these fights was rushed, it left things underdeveloped and enjoyment of the story suffered for it. After that, the conflict with the Espada was like being given a piece of candy after going to the doctor’s. On their own they’re great but they could be so much more if the rest of the story leading up to them was up to par. In the story as it is now, they’re just something to distract from the bad you just went through. The Hueco Mundo arc is such that I would recommend people don’t even bother watching the first half of it because it’s pointless. Just skip to Rukia vs Aaroniero and take it from there.
That said, Bleach has once again managed to dangle just enough promise in front of my face to keep me hopeful for the next arc. What this section has told me is that if there’s one thing Kubo can do right, it’s fights. Something the next arc is certain to have no shortage of. Logic would have me assume that means the next arc is Kubo in his element, free to do what he’s best at. We’ll find out how true that assumption is next time on Bleach narrative amendment!