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Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Story So Far: Bleach (Lost Agent Arc)

Bleach volumes 49-54 (Tale of the Lost Agent)
Art/story by Tite Kubo
Published in English by Viz Manga/Shonen Jump

Spoiler warning: Post contains spoilers for the entire Lost Agent arc and events leading up to it.

The Tale of the Lost Agent is a major conflict detailing Ichigo Kurosaki seventeen months after Sōsuke Aizen's defeat, completely devoid of any spiritual power or awareness at all. Following his friend Uryū Ishida's attack, Ichigo decides to regain his lost Shinigami powers. He enlists the help of Fullbringers calling themselves Xcution. (Source: Bleach Wikia)
Tite Kubo could have easily ended Bleach with volume 48. He could have had Ichigo ride off into the Karakura sunset, having said goodbye to Rukia and in turn his abilities and the world of Soul Society and shinigami and spirits. He could have ended the series with Ichigo as a human, back in 'normal' society with his friends, forever changed by his experiences but unable to return to that place.
But, naturally, Bleach makes too much damn money for the folks behind Shonen Jump, and so once again we return to Ichigo Kurosaki's world, in which the young man is determined to see a return of his shinigami abilities as well as his abilities to see the spirit world, the ones that had previously made his adolescence a terrible experience. Plus, it wouldn't make narrative sense to leave Ichigo alone after all he's been through. Thus, in usual shonen fashion, we are treated to a time skip before joining a very human Ichigo and his new life in Karakura post-Aizen.

Enter the group Xcution and their leader Kugo Ginjo, who promises Ichigo the one thing he wants more than anything: restoration of his shinigami abilities. Ichigo is naturally skeptical, but it does not take much to convince Ichigo that Xcution is the best, fastest path to his old self. 
As the trials begin, it becomes obvious that not everything is what it seems, especially when Fullbring user Tsukishima comes calling and targets Ichigo's friends - mainly Orihime, Chad, and Uryuu.
As usual, Kubo went a little new character crazy, throwing over half a dozen new characters - Fullbringers and human alike - into a cast that is already sprawling and out of control. Ichigo gets a new boss, Xcution has a good handful of characters, and several less-that-secondary players pop in and out of the story. Of all the Fullbringers, Riruka has the best chance of being a reoccurring character after the end of the arc, if she ever decides to return to Karakura Town.
The two villain types of this arc, Tsukishima and Ginjo, are pale imitations of Aizen, and their lackeys are a poor man's Espada squad. Tsukishima's ability is truly frightening - his manipulation of memory makes his powers one of the most threatening of the series so far, and he is successful in nearly breaking down Kurosaki due to his control over the boy's friends and family - but outside of his Fullbring, he lacks the real gravitas of a nemesis. Ginjo's character strength only comes out in his back story, which will be touched upon later.
It's no wonder that after spending so much time training to squash Aizen, arguably the strongest shinigami to walk through the halls of Soul Society, the various Seireitei captains that come to Ichigo's assistance don't really break a sweat as they sharpen their swords on the various Xcution members. Having said that, Rukia's bout with Riruka is definitely worth the ink on the page, as is Hitsugaya's fight with Yukio. And of course, it's nice to see Byakuya with his newly tailored uniform, which works well with his ban kai. It's all visually coordinated!
The reveal of Ginjo being the first deputy shinigami, a post which is now filled by Ichigo, was a shock at first but now feels like a shoehorned way to make Ichigo question his loyalty to Soul Society and to Ukitake. Even the reveal that his deputy badge is basically a tracking device didn't shake me - but then again, after everything with the NSA and Edward Snowden in real life, learning that Ichigo Kurosaki has been ki-stalked by his employers isn't exactly earth-shattering news.
(Also, after what Aizen revealed in his own battle with Ichigo, blowing the whistle on Ukitake's secret GPS seems weak by comparison. "Yes, Aizen has been actively manipulating your life from the first time you met Rukia Kuchiki but - um - we know whenever you're in the bathroom! Ha ha!" Who wrote this script, Yachiru?)
At first, the Lost Agent Arc seemed like so much inconsequential filler in the grand scheme of Bleach - just an overblown way for Ichigo to regain his abilities and fill page space in Weekly Shonen Jump. But at the end, it isn't so much filler as the set-up for something much greater and grander, giving the story of the Fullbringers a sudden importance beyond the fact that having spirit-based powers affect more humans than previously thought. It's a shame it took so long to come into fruition.
By the end of volume 54, we are taken further inside how Soul Society works as well as how they treat the few humans that have joined their ranks as well as the dubious morality of Ukitake Jyushiro, the man responsible for tracking Kurosaki the whole time. We are given reason to look sideways at Urahara Kisuke and Isshin Kurosaki, two men who have a long history together (they're like the Science Bros of Bleach, well, them and resident mad man Mayuri Kurotsuchi). The stage is set for something involving Soul Society and Uryuu's Quincy folks - thousand-year blood war? Sounds . . . well, bloody. As in, folks won't be surviving this particular arc, if Kubo feels like actually killing off main characters this time.
Plus, Ichigo is back to normal. That cocky, self-assured, Zangetsu-swinging hothead that we all know and love is back in proper form. As interesting as it was to see him as a full 'human', powerless, Ichigo isn't himself without the physical strength that defines him and helps him protect the ones he love. Plus, he looks absolutely darling in his (new?) Soul Society uniform. Although I wonder what will happen to Karin's abilities, as apparently the absence of Ichigo's powers heightened her own greatly... Kubo, please don't sacrifice Karin Kurosaki's character development for Ichigo's!
I found the Lost Agent Arc to be entertaining enough, a lighter follow-up to the depressingly dark war against Hueco Mundo, and that it finished with hope for the future. Now that Ichigo is back to being a shinigami, that the cast isn't perpetually engaged in mutually assured destruction with Aizen Sosuke, and that Soul Society is seemingly back in order, everything is ready to bring another huge story arc that will hopefully be as engaging as those set in Soul Society.

And hey, what the hell happened to Hirako Shinji? He's a captain again? Seriously, y'all, someone explain how this came about because I must have missed Soul Society accepting a bloody Vizard into its ranks without incident.