The Soul Reapers have finally come for Rukia -- and they aren't happy, at all.
That's the beginning of a shocking twist ending for the first season adapted from Tite Kubo's anime, "Bleach Volume 5." These four episodes shift suddenly from a series of Hollow-of-the-week standalone arcs and episodes to something that is obviously much larger than just Ichigo Kurosaki. And it also gels together the main cast of the series into a little fighting unit.
Ichigo gets a nasty surprise when he clashes with Renji, and discovers that the Soul Reaper lieutenant has a power and ability that Ichigo hasn't gained yet. But he's starting to gain the upper hand when the aloof Byakuya Kuchiki steps in -- and first slices Ichigo's blade off, then slashes his chest, destroys his Soul Reaper powers, and leaves him to die in the rain. Only Rukia's intervention keeps Ichigo from being murdered on the spot.
But he's unexpectedly rescued by Urahara, who offers to help him regain his powers so he can save Rukia. Unfortunately the training turns out to be far worse than Ichigo expected -- he's chased by the freaky little girl Ururu, forced to duel with Urahara with a stump of a sword, and thrown into a vast pit with his Soul Chain severed (meaning he'll turn into a Hollow unless he becomes a Soul Reaper). Only by accessing his secret inner powers will he be able to survive... and set off to rescue Rukia.
In the meantime, the talking cat Yoruichi starts training Chad and Orihime in their newfound powers, so they can accompany Ichigo; Uryu has started a solitary training regimen as well. And in the Soul Society, Rukia receives some shocking news about her sentence....
"Bleach Volume 5" is basically about our Designated Shonen Hero powering up for the next phase of the series, and the other characters preparing to unite in a little gang of friends (or temporary allies) to help him. In other words, these four episodes are all about revving up into the second season and a big arc in the Soul Society -- which turns out to be a matter of life and death for Rukia. Man, the Soul Reapers have some stiff penalties.
Fortunately Ichigo's training is fairly interesting, even if our hero gets put through the grinder -- boxing matches with "little miss muffet," an internal journey to find his sword's name, and the harrowing "Shattered Shaft" ordeal. The last in particular is a horrific affair, with a shrieking Ichigo wrapped in bandages and skewers as a Hollow mask forms over his face. And the whole fight with Byakuya is pretty horrendous, especially when our seemingly unstoppable hero is almost effortlessly cut down.
Sadly there aren't many glimpses of Orihime and Chad's training, unless you count tiny angry ninja fairies pulling Orihime's hair ("You terrible little hussy!"). But we do get some comedy (Ichigo waking up in bed under Tessai -- cue bloodcurdling shrieks) and some quiet reflective time before the gang disembarks. It ends on a mild cliffhanger, since we don't get to see what our heroes will face next.
It's kind of painful to see poor Ichigo going through such a nasty ordeal ("I'm so disgusted with myself! It's PATHETIC!"), and being so horribly defeated by Byakuya Kuchiki. Johnny Yong Bosch has a brilliant scream, though. And Urahara is clearly more than he pretends to be, since it's revealed that he has a zanpakuto and the will to use it -- similarly, the cat Yoruichi not only talks, but seems to know an awful lot about how to train newbies.
"Bleach Volume 5" is a harrowing, grueling ending to the first season, and serves as the gateway into the second. Everything in the next two seasons starts here.