Bleach volumes 35-48 (White Invasion/Battle of Karakura Town)
Art/story by Tite Kubo
Published in English by Viz Manga/Shonen Jump
The plot continues to show the fight between Soul Society's group of Soul Reapers against Sōsuke Aizen's army of Arrancar, with the former defending Karakura Town, and the latter planning to use Karakura to invade and destroy Soul Society. The story will continue the fight between Soul Society's Soul Reapers and Sōsuke Aizen's Arrancar army as the former defends Karakura Town from the latter's invasion, while Ichigo and his group fight the arrancars in Hueco Mundo to rescue Orihime Inoue. (Source: Wikipedia)
Spoiler warning: Post contains spoilers for pretty much all volumes following the Soul Society arc. Read with caution!
Having recently finished the 50th volume of the Bleach manga with The Lost Agent story, I thought it apropos to reminisce about the latest story arc in the series, which covers the showdown between shinigami and Arrancar in Karakura Town, both fake and real. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of screaming and a lot of shiny bone masks, and in the end the good guys saved the day. Err, right?
A lot - okay, 95% - of this arc was fights. Either fights between a Soul Society shinigami and an Arrancar or between Ichigo Kurosaki and someone from Hueco Mundo, whether it be Ulquiorra or Grimmjow or Aizen Sosuke, the man who seemed to be set up as the final boss of the series. And if you get super jazzed about reading battles and seeing characters' various abilities and powers on display, than this arc was totally up your alley.
For me, this stuff kind of bored me. Except for seeing everyone's ban kais, which was awesome. Hitsugaya's icy Hyorinmaru continues to be my favorite ban kai, while Soi Fon's missile-like Jakuho Raikoben has become a close second. But an arc that's nothing but a series of battles without break? Yawn.
Having said that, seeing the various members of Soul Society's factions interact with each other under great duress brought a surprising amount of depth to their characters. This makes sense, considering that the life of a Soul Society shinigami is by the sword; their truest nature is revealed in the heat of a fight. It's the kind of thinking that characters like Yumechika and Ikkaku live by.
Plus, this has been a good arc for highlighting characters who have up to this point not been in the story's focus. Like, for instance, Head Captain Yamamoto, the old man of Soul Society who is also its strongest shinigami. We don't often see him fighting, and for good reason. If Yamamoto has to thrown himself into the battle, it must be serious. And he's no stranger to the sword; his body is absolutely covered in crisscrossed scars that have been there for years. Plus, the man is barely bothered by the lack of a limb. Kubo, please, I desperately want to know Yamamoto's back story!
I found it interesting that when it came to Hinamori and Rangiku, two women whose narratives directly tie into those of Aizen and Gin, only one actually reached a satisfactory conclusion with their respective ex-captain. Rangiku is given the chance to confront Gin and learn the truth of his character, and she is given closure over his apparent betrayal.
On the other hand, Hinamori does not ever seem to get closure over her captain turning on her. She isn't even around to see Aizen's downfall; only a select few get that honor. Hinamori is left to deal with the truth of her captain by herself, having spent so much time being thoroughly manipulated by him physically and emotionally.
Of course, in the end Aizen Sosuke is utterly non-redeemable and a villain through and through while Ichimaru Gin actually redeems himself as he turns on his old friend. For Aizen, there is no happy ending. He doesn't get the benefit of atonement in the eleventh hour, his back story does not save him. Ex-Captain Aizen gets to spend the rest of his life locked away in the very institution he fought to destroy. He may not be dead but he has been destroyed.
The real star of the Karakura arc has been Ichigo Kurosaki. It is his story that drives everything, and we find out that every moment in his life, from becoming a substitute shinigami to coming to Soul Society has been manipulated from the beginning.
At the end of this story arc, he has brought the very man responsible for this to his knees, but at a terrible cost: Ichigo Kurosaki has lost his shinigami powers. Not only that, he can no longer see or interact with the spirit world, including Rukia and the other people he had grown to consider close friends. The very abilities that had first set him apart from everyone else then drawn him into his current world have now left him, all because he had to sacrifice them in order to win and save the people he can no longer see.
If, like all good shonen heroes, Ichigo Kurosaki is following the Hero's Journey to the letter, then he is now in the abyss, on the verge of rebirth and transformation. Having loss his shinigami status, relegated back to the world of humans, the Ichigo we once knew is dead and waiting for rebirth, however that may come. Ichigo is literally in the darkness, having lost his special sight. He needs a revelation, a realization of his true self, and that may come in the form of the 'Lost Agent' who promises the return of Ichigo's abilities. One thing is for certain: his victory against Aizen cost him everything, so he will certainly do anything to get them back.
Consider, of course, that by the time Ichigo Kurosaki battles Aizen Sosuke, he has already sacrificed much of his humanity in order to win. The farther he goes down the hole – fighting Grimmjow, fighting Ulquiorra, tackling the spirit of his sword – the more of Ichigo the human disappears and Ichigo the shinigami/Hollow hybrid emerges. Which is his true face: the one he wears as he fights Aizen? The one he wears behind a mask of bone that frightens Orihime? The one that actually looks the most human, his 'normal' face? It's another question that goes unanswered as Ichigo continues to struggle to understand his true nature. The person who emerges at the other end of this next story arc won't look like the same person who started this series, the cocksure arrogant man who beat up three teen delinquents because they knocked over a dead girl's flower vase.
Overall, if you are a Bleach fan who is heavily invested in the Soul Society dynamics, Ichigo Kurosaki's transformation, and seeing shinigami beat the crap out of Arrancar, the Karakura Town story arc is best story arc. If you were wishing that Ichigo would be delivering Aizen's charred corpse to Seireitei or that certain characters would survive the onslaught, then you were disappointed.
Honestly, if the Lost Agent arc doesn't build upon the loss of Ichigo's powers in a satisfactory way then perhaps it would have been best if Kubo had just ended it with saying goodbye to a very human Ichigo Kurosaki.