Okay, well we’re now only officially three weeks in, but this also marks the beginning of the next arc of Bleach, which tells the story of our heroes’ entry into the Soul Society, known as the Entry Arc, which can be seen as a prologue to the overarching Soul Society Arc, one of the most important in all of the Bleach canon.
What is exciting about this is that this is the first time that we, and the main characters, are shown the afterlife in detail, where previously all the action was set in the living world. Now all the familiarity of the real world is gone, replaced by the unpredictable and unknown setting of the Soul Society.
But first, they have to contend with the danger of traversing the space between worlds…
Ichigo and company are literally beset on all sides by mortal danger. They’re running through a narrow corridor, the walls of which are made of some murky fluid (the aptly named Restrictive Current) that seems intent to get int their way and impede their progress. Just when it seems things can’t get more uncanny, an entity called the Cleaner appears, pursuing them at breakneck speed. The Cleaner, which appears once every seven days, looks less than what it sounds like, and more like a demonic runaway train.
While this chase scene is a pretty nail-biting affair, one of many in this series, it also serves the purpose of showing us the teamwork of the entire cast of main characters. While we have seen characters collaborate before, this is the fully formed team before us, and they effectively save each other’s skins a couple times, as a great team should. Chad saves Uryu from the clutches of the fluid wall, and Orihime narrowly saves everyone, by erecting a shield against the Cleaner. They barely make it out alive, and suffer a pretty rough entry into the Soul Society.
The more we see of the Soul Society, the more frighteningly astute and ruthlessly efficient they seem. Ichigo and friends aren’t even given the opportunity to sneak in undetected, when an alarm sounds off, alerting the shinigami of their impending intrusion.
The world of the Soul Society looks and sounds a lot like the real world. They land in a place called the Rukon District, the Drifting Spirit Town. Yoruichi, not just their guide, but the expository character at this point, tells them that it’s the poorest area, so naturally, it’s the most populous, once again echoing the realities of the real world. Personally, the fact that social and economic factors come into play, affecting your lived experience even after you die, is kind of depressing.
Making this even more pronounced is the vast, pristine majesty of the Seireitei, the great fortress of the Shinigami, standing in contrast to the background of the humble neighbourhood that the regular folks inhabit. As soon as the ever impatient Ichigo sees it, he starts running towards it at full speed, but a great white wall descends before he can get close enough for an infiltration… along with an axe-wielding, imposing giant man with the name of Jidanbo, who has successfully guarded the Seireitei’s entrance (the White Road Gate) for 300 years.
Chad and Orihime run to help Ichigo, despite the protests of Yoruichi. They are, after all, officially a team now (Uryu initially relents, but makes it there eventually). However, Jidanbo states that he only wants a one-on-one fight with Ichigo, without the interference of anyone else. Using his giant axe to smash the ground in front of him, he creates a rocky barrier that prevents the others, while essentially isolating himself and Ichigo.
To Jidanbo’s surprise, Ichigo counters his attack, despite the relative size difference between the two. To everyone’s else’s surprise the giant begins laughing. He’s actually happy about this, since it’s been a long while since he’s actually been challenged. Only three people, including Ichigo, have stopped the first thrust of his axe, but no one has ever countered his second thrust. Ichigo become the first to do this as well. Surprised, but still unfazed, Jidanbo releases a whirlwind of strikes that demolished everything in its path, but when the dust clears, Ichigo is still standing, to everyone’s shock.
It’s now that we are seeing the benefits of Urahara’s training. Experience is the factor that matters. Ichigo recounts his ten-day training, and how he regained his powers in five, using the remaining five fighting with Urahara. This reveals one of the main themes of this episode, along with the virtues of their newfound teamwork; natural ability notwithstanding (and Ichigo has this in spades), nothing takes you along the path to mastery like sustained, dedicated practice.
Enraged, Jidanbo produces another identical axe. Ichigo almost immediately destroys both his axes and sends the giant flying. Ichigo’s friends look on, incredulous. Jidanbo then starts… crying?
It’s such a pathetic display, even Ichigo feels sorry for the guy, and starts apologising. Jidanbo, really appreciative of Ichigo’s sympathy, allows Ichigo to pass. Jidanbo now has no choice but to let the battle’s victor through… because apparently that’s how it works? Also, Uryu isn’t happy about Ichigo being proclaimed the leader of their group.
Jidanbo lifts the gate to let them through, but as he does so, a figure appears to meet him. Jidanbo is immediately filled with apprehension at the sight of him.
It’s the Captain of Squad 3, Gin Ichimaru, whom we’ve met before. If this hulking giant is scared shitless of him, exactly how dangerous is he?
It looks like even more powerful opponents are on the way for Ichigo and crew. Looking forward to the inevitable confrontation in Episode 22, see you there!