Bleach – Substitute Shinigami Arc (Episodes 15 – 20) Review

It’s time to end the year with a not-every-week-but-close look at the Soul Society arc in Bleach… but first I need to finish off the preceding arc that I left with six episodes left to review (which is fairness to my past self, makes sense as these episodes are far more a prologue to the next arc than anything to do with the 14 episodes before it) These six episodes are very important to the series as a whole: we have our first Shinigami vs. Shinigami fight, we’re introduced to the idea of Captains and Lieutenants, we actually see Soul Society, and Ichigo gets his Shinigami powers, including his trademark large butcher knife blade! Does it all work in such a short amount of time? Let’s have a look!

Synopsis:

Rather than endanger Ichigo any further, Rukia runs away only to end up face-to-face with the newly-arrived hunters from the Soul Society…

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

“Thanks for keeping the rain off, but… are you actually going to help me, or…?”

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph these six episodes are more setting up the next arc than anything else. After a comedic mishap episode with Kon (the false soul in a teddy bear…) Rukia leaves the life she’s come to love behind because she knows Ichigo’s injuring of a Menos Grande in the previous batch of episodes will get the attention of Soul Society. As she leaves she comes across her old Shinigami friend Renji and his Captain Byakuya Kuchiki, who also happens to be her adoptive older brother. Ignoring some… plot inconsistencies I’ll get into later, Ichigo goes against orders, so to speak, and follows her rather than letting he go as she wished. Not knowing a thing about being a Shinigami other than “I have a big sword”, Ichigo is schooled by Renji not just on skill but how an actual Shinigami’s sword is called a Zanpakuto and by calling out its name it changes shape and grants powers. Ichigo is bloodied, but manages to find some unnatural power and wounds a confused Renji… before suddenly realising his blade had been snapped. Byakuya had done it so fast he didn’t even notice, and then just as quickly Byakuya is suddenly behind him and he falls to the ground near-death. It’s a perfect way to introduce an antagonist, make it seem like our hero will never be able to beat him!

Ichigo tries to stop them from taking Rukia, but she pleads with him to lay there and die peacefully and manages to convince her brother and friend to just take her back to Soul Society for trial and not finish him off. As Ichigo is on the verge of death, Urahara shows up. This all leads to that classic shonen staple: a training mini-arc! Very mini, thankfully. Ichigo is now a regular human again, the Shinigami powers he took from Rukia were the ones destroyed by Byakuya, so Urahara effectively “kills him” so his soul can gain its own Shinigami powers. After a small bit of a run around, including some classic Kubo humour (seriously forgot how much I love Ichigo’s voice actor, Masakazu Morita, and his ability to switch from serious bad-ass to annoyed comedy person in the blink of an eye). Ichigo is thrown down a hole and told he’ll turn into a Hollow in three days if he doesn’t find a way out, and sure enough he… doesn’t make it, and begins to turn into a Hollow. Ichigo enters his inner-world for the first time and meets his… erm, I guess I should avoid final arc spoilers here, so let’s say his Zanpakuto spirit and gains his own Shinigami powers, plus a Hollow mask for good measure…

It’s Zangetsu! … or is it?! Find out in 2021 (if you haven’t read the Manga already…)

Urahara’s final test of trying to kill Ichigo with his own Zanpakuto leads to our orange-haired protagonist finding out his Zanpakuto’s name is Zangetsu and it appears in the now iconic form of a large butcher blade with no handle. The training continues off screen, but while this is going on Ichigo’s friends have been training as well. Uryu the Quincy practices by himself, as all serious stoic allies should, while school friends Orihime and Chad train with a talking cat called Yoruichi (yep, there’s more to come on that thread…), bringing out the odd powers they used during the previous arc and learning to control them. This all leads to a fireworks display where everyone is having fun, but individually they all know what’s to come (apart from the school friends and family that have no idea, obviously) and a meeting at Urahara’s Shop, where Ichigo is shocked but happy to see Uryu, Chad and Orihime were coming for the ride (and generally shocked at a talking cat, which is fair enough). They all jump through the portal to directly lead into the next, long (and great!) story arc.

There are little hints to the future I love: Byakuya says he understands why Rukia did what she did because Ichigo “looks just like him”, Ichigo’s Dad Isshin gives his son a “lucky charm” and clearly knows more than he’s letting on, and Urahara tests following them in the portal but burns his hand instead, showing he can’t follow them to Soul Society. For six episodes it establishes a lot, but at the end of the day we find out that Rukia will be executed and Ichigo and his allies have arrived in their enemy’s home base to rescue her. That’s all we need to know heading into the next arc!

The Bad:

Reunited and it feels so… inexplicably different.

The only thing I dislike about these episodes is how it was pretty clear that Tite Kubo hadn’t thought up Rukia and Renji’s close relationship when he created their first showdown. Renji takes great enjoyment from knocking her about, threatening to kill her and generally pointing his sword at her throat, which given he’s attacking a close friend who he grew up with and climbed through the ranks with, it’s kind of hard to swallow. He should be angry at her and desperately pleading she come quietly, not loving every minute of hunting her down! Ah well, things are very quickly put on track, in fact when Rukia finds out her execution date the two are already arguing like old friends, so Kubo obviously thought of it pretty damn quick…

We also get a quick glimpse at Gin Ichimaru and Kenpachi Zaraki, two of Byakuya’s fellow Captains, in Episode 20. Looking back Gin is in-keeping with his later self, but it’s weird to see Kenpachi’s first appearance be so comedy based as he’s taken away wrapped in bandages screaming like a baby. That being said, him hoping Byakuya would try and rescue his sister so he could fight him is perfectly in character…

Overall Thoughts:

Orihime’s powers are one of the weirder, unexplained things in Bleach really. Especially in this early “lots of little people” phase…

So the Substitute Shinigami arc closes with what is really a prologue for the Soul Society arc, and it does it perfectly. Our heroes are powered up, we’re introduced to their main objective, and the lead antagonist is made out to look unstoppable. So for a six episode chunk of story that exists to set up what’s to come, I have to give it full marks, and it only gets better from here…

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