A Bleach manga review: why I think the Soul Society arc was the best
The Soul Society arc was the first of the long arcs in Bleach, which ended the more episodic way the manga had been written before and started the trend with year-long epic stories, filled with explosions, strange powers and a whole lot of enemies and plot-twist added just to make the arcs even longer. Going by the volumes, the Soul Society arc, or the Ryoka Invasion, lasted from the middle of 2003 to the end of 2005. That is two and a half years and 12 books.
More than ten years have passed since the Ryoka invasion, yet I can not help but think that this arc is the best one. I could of course fear that this is merely nostalgia, but I think I have some points to justify it. So here is the first one:
The villains are better. By that I not only mean Aizen, Gin and Tousen. I mean all the 13 captains, because for this arc they were villains. And it is precisely because they were set up to be future heroes that they work so well, they interact, they worry, they have fun between the battles. They seem so much more real than the Espada, who were always fighting and quarreling. I like my villains with some humanity in them.
But what really makes the villains so interesting, is the mystery they are facing. This arc has a lot more mystery and secrets, namely the murder of Aizen. Hitsugaya is the main detective, dealing with Gin, Kira and the mystery of central 46's actions. This mystery is a driving force of the plot, and I remember it being what really caught my interest when I first read it. Ichigo skipping along defeating stronger and stronger enemies is good, but it could not match the mystery of what was going on behind the scenes of Soul Society. It was also always interesting to see the captains zanpakutos and what their true abilities where, but that is also present in later villains. As a final mystery, we have the demon lurking inside Ichigo, his hollow self, which created some great surprises, but was not resolved until later.
Kubo often lets one of Ichigo's friends be captured by the enemy before the fighting begins. Rukia in the Soul Society arc, Inoue in the Arrancar battles, and it seems like Ishida will serve a similar purpose in the new arc. It may be a bit cheap to reuse this way of getting emotionally invested in the battles time after time(especially since the kidnapping of Inoue was not really necessary from the kidnappers point of view), but it is often necessary with a gimmick like this to keep readers interested.
I can not say how Ishida will work in this role, but Rukia works much better than Inoue, because there is simply more emotion. Ichigo feels like he really owes something to Rukia, because of the awakening of his powers. Meanwhile Rukia is struggling with the death she blames herself for, and accepts the death penalty she is given. That is great drama.
As for the main heroes, we explore Ichigo's relationship with Rukia, Rukia's past, Ichigo's relationship with Chad, Rukia and Byakuya past and Ishida confronts his family's murderer. This is most of the backstory I think was planned for these characters and it is all used here. Not much for the later arcs to explore, but it is another thing that makes the Ryoka invasion so good.
Maybe the simple fact is that Soul Society seems better because it was the first. Kubo would repeat several story elements in his later arcs, but Soul Society was where we saw them first. I do not know, but unless the last arc of Bleach surprises me, the Soul Society arc will for me be the best of them, simply because the story is so much more compelling. And let us not forget, the Soul Society arc has one of the funniest endings, at least for me who has never cared much for Ichigo: the dramatic buildup to the final confrontation between the hero and the villain, the dramatic music starting, and then Ichigo being slaughtered. I will remember that for decades to come, that expression Aizen has when he refuses to comply with classic action-manga conventions, and instead opts to break the hero completely.