PERSONAL NOTE: My new graphic novel Hazel is out right now, and I’d be honored if you considered picking up a copy!
Spoiler free summary: In Volume 54 of Bleach by Tite Kubo, Ichigo has his powers back, but the looming secret behind Kugo’s past and the role of a substitute soul reaper present a test that might lead him to doubt the soul society.
Character: I think the author was trying to establish Ichigo as one who stands by his convictions and beliefs. The problem is, we already knew that about him. So the story lost interest for me because there was this “shocking” plot reveal, and Ichigo kind of shrugged at it. Yeah, it’s cool seeing Ichigo say he’s all in no matter what, but given there was not even any sort of doubt or real apparent test of his philosophy, it fell short.
Exposition: I don’t really remember any exposition here. The dialogue covered most of the data (more on that below). Here, the dialogue and action carried this volume.
Worldbuilding: I mentioned this plot reveal last week. It closed a gap that we saw happen very early in the series, but it wasn’t the real question mark I was looking for. Sure, it expanded the world of the series, but it at least gave us something.
Dialogue: While it’s true that the dialogue was the plot device used to drive this story, it wasn’t unnatural even though it was unsatisfying. To me, this felt like, “I am your father.” Only this time, Luke shrugged and said, “Maybe, but I’m still fighting for the rebellion.” So I’m divided on my feelings in this matter. It wasn’t bad dialogue, but it was probably not great writing.
Description: This is the end of this arc. The fight scenes are good. The art is good. The visuals are satisfying. The cool fight scenes really drive an arc that was essentially thrown in to get Ichigo back in the fight.
Overall: I think I hit the nail on the head in the last section. This arc felt very forced to me. Everything was driven at getting Ichigo back at it, and every interesting plot element was literally slashed aside by Ichigo. It does the job in that it gets Ichigo in position, but that’s literally all it does.
PERSONAL NOTE: My new graphic novel Hazel is out right now, and I’d be honored if you considered picking up a copy!
Spoiler free summary: In Volume 53 of Bleach by Tite Kubo, Ichigo has reached his lowest point, but some old friends return to hel out. They also bring with him a true return to the fight, which was brought by scheming and betrayal. Does he still have the will to win?
Character: So the character and worldbuilding sort of tie together in this volume. Also, a few of my favorite characters are back, and they easily make this volume fun to read. If the payment for the action in this volume is the redundant story arc from the previous ones, I’m at least willing (if begrudgingly) to pay. The character development belongs to the Fullbringers though. We learn a lot about them through these fights.
Exposition: There is probably less in this volume than in the others, which is true of action volumes (volumes that are more about the fight than plot). There’s the usual explanation of, “Look at see why my ability is so horrifying!” However, that’s about the long and short of it.
Worldbuilding: Here, as we learn about the Fullbringers and their pasts, we also learn about the lore of the Soul Society and some history about substitute soul reapers. This is the interesting part about the arc and it helps set the stage for the final arc of the series. It’s great that the world is deeper; it really is, but that depth comes with little context, and that diminishes the impact of the revelations in this and future volumes. One on hand, I think, “That’s pretty cool,” but I don’t have an emotional connection to the world and these particular characters, so it’s cool, but not emotionally valuable.
Dialogue: This is pretty much on par with the other volumes. Ichigo: “We fight to protect, and I’m on team Soul Society!” Bad guys: “Soul Society is bad, and we support this cause! Behold my ultimate power.” Ichigo shrugs and goes ultra mode. Conversation over. Butt-whooping to commence.
Description: The fight scenes are well rendered. The action sequences here would translate better to anime. I keep hearing that these are being adapted to animation, but I don’t really know. If these are coming, would you let me know. The plot isn’t as wonderful, but the fight scenes should be entertaining to watch.
Overall: If your favorite things about Bleach are the fights, this volume gives you what you’ve been waiting for. What we have in some 40-something volumes of buildup for Aizen’s arc, we get some 10 volumes that lead to a reasonable plot twist that lacks any sense of danger. However, if you’re just here for the cool fighting, then sit down and enjoy!
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 22 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the twenty-second and penultimate volume in the Demon Slayer manga. Everyone who has an ounce of energy is doing their all against Muzan Kibutsuji, but many have already died, and most of the rest are inches from death. Tanjiro is somehow still standing, and a connection to his ancestor may provide the key to finding some way to win.
Character: The pace of the last three manga make this a hard thing to evaluate. I don’t know that the characters evolve so much as fill their potential. It’s satisfying to see everyone come into their own, but here at the climax, the focus is on winning the fight. There is development, but it’s more relevant in a different section.
Exposition: This volume follows the same pattern as the issue before (and the one that follows). Everything has come to a head. We might get a pice of information here or there to set a bit of context, but that’s it. When evaluating exposition, the best way to do it is to ask yourself if the story is moving or if you’re getting an information dump. Another way to evaluate it (especially as a reader) is to see if you’re turning the pages quickly or slowly. Slow page turning usually means focused reading. These pages flew by.
Worldbuilding: This is where the pieces of Tanjiro’s ancestry come together. The complete picture isn’t as satisfying as say, the plot reveal in a great mystery, but it still establishes how things have been building and what they’ve been building to. So while it’s not the most satisfying revelation, it’s still a cool connection of the plot elements we’ve seen for the last eight or so issues.
Dialogue: This falls back to the more normal style Gotouge uses. There’s a lot of, “Why aren’t you dead! I’ll kill you all!” If one were to say it was the weakest area of the story, I wouldn’t argue, but I also wouldn’t really care.
Description: The best storytellers create the illusion of failure. Most stories have the happy ending. Most stories have everything work out. Readers (and viewers) expect this, so it’s extremely hard to get the reader to think, “Wait, are they going to lose?” This volume leaves one more with a feeling of “Holy crap! They’re going to lose!” Maybe they do; you’ll have to read to find out. The point isn’t whether they win or lose; it’s making the reader wonder. Creating doubt in the reader is essential, and it’s that much more critical in anime. These comments are appropriate in this section because we see how the fight is going. The art shows just how bad things are. Everyone is holding on by a threat. Tanjiro himself already looks like a dead man walking. These fight sequences and the brief glimpses we have of the currently surviving cast members all create a heart-wrenching tension, and that’s what makes this particular manga stand out.
Overall: If I were teaching a class on plot progression, conflict, and making readers worry for the main characters, this volume would be a critical case study. Everything in this volume is critically balanced on a precipice between victory and defeat. It’s truly compelling. I’m honestly sad that the review for the last volume is next week. This is the volume that I had to wait for, and I had to wait a whole month for the next volume. It was torture! Don’t do it to yourself. Just grab the last ten volumes, sit down, and enjoy!
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 21 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the twenty-first volume in the Demon Slayer manga. The battle with Kokushibo, the number one upper rank demon, is over, but what was the cost? As Tanjiro and his friends finally reach Muzan, they’ve already lost so many of their number. How will th final battle go?
Character: This is less about characters developing than it is about character sympathy (which is important). These victories are tallying casualties at an alarming rate, and then Muzan steps onto the stage. This is the devastation that that hides the sun behind the clouds, and some of the losses are heartbreaking, even if those losses relate to side characters.
Exposition: There’s not much in the way of Exposition here. This volume is honestly more like a series of punches to the gut that make you wonder if you’re ever going to breathe again. Sure, there’s probably an explanatory box here or there, but most of what’s going in is related to the oncoming climax.
Worldbuilding: A common theme in anime is that one must establish power levels. We do that by letting characters fight. This guy beats one guy, but then loses to another, creating an unofficial tier system. We’ve seen the upper ranks and how hard they are to beat. Muzan’s entrance to the battle shows just how far he was above the upper twelve. This aspect of the worldbuilding provides a brutal blow to the heroes’ hopes of victory.
Dialogue: Where most of the dialogue for the series is cartoonish in a charming way, this dialogue is both more heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Gotouge is a master guitarist, plucking the strings of your heart, and where dialogue is usually his weakest area, here it is the hammer he uses to crush your spirits.
Description: Just as the winners and losers of fights in a manga establish a power hierarchy, the artistic rendering of those battles (or massacres) is devastatingly beautiful. These images are par for the course of Gotouge’s work, which is to say they’re miles above the rest of the mangas out there today. True, there’s a certain amount of expected gore, but this isn’t the only tool Gotouge relies on. Instead, his style is just as visual for the details of a face or look as it is for the gruesome reality of war.
Overall: So I’ve been saying for a while that one should just read volumes eighteen to the end all the way through, and I hope you heeded that advice. However, if you haven’t yet done so, I caution you not to read Volume 21 without volumes 22 and 23 handy. From a literary perspective, one could say 21 and 22 are cliffhangers that would drive anyone nuts waiting a month to have. This isn’t the volume that one finishes and finds closure in. This is the volume that takes your hopes for the series and stomps on them for forty pages. Read with caution, or have the other volumes ready so you don’t have suddenly buy them when you finish reading this one.
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 16 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the sixteenth volume in the Demon Slayer manga. Tanjiro is training to become a Hashira, but that means training with several others, one of whom is Himejima, the Stone Hashira, whose tasks seem every bit as impossible as they are rediculous, but is ther ea method to the madness?
Character: This is (what I think of as) the last training volume before the big (BIG) fight. The training is comically ridiculous, and it’s fun to see the characters interact. With the main characters already developed (as far as character goes), it’s nice to see some of the other characters.
Exposition: This manga (and a few others in the later books) is probably heavier on exposition than th rest of the series as a whole. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s to an annoying degree, but it was certainly noticeable. On one hand, it’s nice that we don’t have volume after volume of back story (I actually like that), but on the other hand, the sudden exponential jump in exposition jarred me a little.
Worldbuilding: This confused me a bit. I thought one became a Hashira the moment they killed on of the upper twelve and the training isn’t really anything truly unique, just extreme. I guess one could say it was unique in how extreme it is, but I’ll admit it was a bit of a double disappointment. I expected the training, but I wish it had more content value than comedic.
Dialogue: Where the exposition and worldbuilding probably left a lot to be desired (in comparison to the other volumes), this is probably improved if not as drastically as the others shifted. The conversations are a bit more natural than normal.
Description: The art is wonderful as always. It was nice seeing more of (what I call) the training complex. So we get to see more of the landscape and world, which is nice.
Overall: This is a pretty amusing training volume that sets everything up, but I do think that it failed to meet its potential. Yes, it was fun to read and watch the characters get physically stronger, but I think this had more potential to have more depth than it did. Maybe it was too loyal to the pattern. However, it was still good to read and didn’t frustrate or annoy me. So though it could have been so much better, it wasn’t exactly bad.
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 13 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the thirteenth volume in the Demon Slayer manga. Two more members of upper Twelve Kizuki have started an all-out attack on the sword smiths, which just happens to be where our heroes and a few Hashira happen to be training. It’s been more than 100 years since any one upper Twelve Kizuki have died, so what are any number of slayers going to do against two?
Character: As the cover suggests, we finally dig deeper into one of the quieter side characters. All of these characters have satisfying back stories, and this one is no different. Don’t blame the writer because I can’t remember the name. I really struggle to remember names. The world is expanding quickly, and as a fight of this magnitude begins, it’s cool that we still take a bit of time to get to know some of the other characters more.
Exposition: There were a few exposition boxes in this issue, but only to give context. I feel like this volume did a great job only relying on those boxes when there wasn’t another way.
Worldbuilding: This volume doesn’t do a ton to expand the world, but it has a few subtle points that a discerning reader should look for (no spoilers). The safe thing to say is those Kizuki all have unique traits that make the simpler methods of beating them unreliable if not hazardous.
Dialogue: I think if there’s a knock on this manga, it’s that the fight dialogue is pretty dated. I’ve mentioned this a few times, and I still don’t mind it personally, but I can’t deny it might rub some readers the wrong way. In fact, this particular manga has a few 1980-cartoon habits that wouldn’t work if the characters were any less appealing or the fights weren’t that interesting. Still, I have to tell potential readers they have to be ready for those kinds of things.
Description: The art is fantastic as always. I love the way the different breaths (as I call them) are illustrated. I could stare at any page for hours and just enjoy it (if I had hours to spend looking at art).
Overall: I’ve already read this volume twice. Honestly, every volume from 12 up is just amazing. I’m so glad I had most of the other issues out before I started this. I’d be so mad having to wait months for the next volume. This is the kind of binge read action manga and anime fans should love. I know I do.
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 12 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the twelfth volume in the Demon Slayer manga. A member of the upper Twelve Kizuki has been killed. Muzan is furious, and now he’s seeking to go on the offensive. Meanwhile, Tanjiro has to recover and train. He also has to explain how he keeps breaking his swords to the swordsmiths. This provides an opportunity to learn more about his abilities and improve, but Muzan’s plans and Tanjiro’s training are destined to collide.
Character: One thing I like about these later volumes is we start to further expand on the characters outside the main cast. We start to get to know the members of the Hashira, and some of them have some awesome backgrounds. While this book starts to establish a pattern in where we typically have one “set-up” volume and one action volume. This was the set-up volume. It’s probably my favorite of the set-up volumes though because we see Tanjiro train. We also see a few of the higher ranks.
Exposition: There’s a bit more exposition (in terms of narration boxes). This is because there’s some background and new locations we need to learn about.
Worldbuilding: This volume has a fantastic quality in that we start to see more of the Kizuki and their hierarchy. We learn the group dynamics and a bit about how they establish their ranks. We also learn more about how some of the Hashira are somehow related Tanjiro.
Dialogue: This dialogue is more natural than the last few volumes. This is an improvement. The conversations they have absolutely provide background, but they don’t feel so forced.
Description: This is it’s typical outstanding stuff. The art is wonderful. The way the artist portrays movement is particularly interesting in this case. There are a lot of beautiful landscapes and scenes that really help draw the reader into the world.
Overall: This is probably my favorite set up volume in the series, and that’s also taking into account the other volumes I read. it was real cool seeing the Kizuki as well. This volume ends and makes a reader want to just devour the next ten. I guarantee it.
So I wanted to do a case study today, and I’ve been thinking a lot about anime and how it works. To be fair, I probably haven’t seen as much anime as a lot of other people. What anime I watch, I watch all of, but I’ve seen about ten anime series, and they’re just about the same, but in a good way. How is it anime can be so formulaic and still be entertaining? Sure, the magic system or fighting system is unique. The characters are sort of unique. But if you’ve watched Dragonball Z, you’ve seen Naruto, Bleach, and a host of others. Again, I don’t mean that as an insult. I love all of those shows, but they all follow a pretty basic formula, and I’m going to go over that today.
Step 1: Isolated hero seeks to be accepted/respected/befriended or the rogue hero who stands up because “someone must.”
Ichigo and Naruto are isolated people who either form small groups or seek small groups of friends. They either earn those friendships quickly or must fight doggedly to earn them. In either case, they’ll risk everything to save their friends. This is where they’ll risk their lives to protect others.
In either case, these bonds are the catalysts for the first arc. The bulk of the first arc is all about the development of the friendships or the establishment of the lengths the hero will go to in order to protect those friendships.
Step 2: Enter powerful antagonist 1.
When this person arrives, there is immediate dislike. There is rivalry. This new arrival has (at the very least) a leg up on our hero.
Step 3: The fight.
This fight either ends with one winning, and therefore winning over the antagonist, creating a new friendship or ends with a more frightening opponent arriving, forcing the original combatants to join forces.
Step 4: Enter even more powerful antagonist.
This villain walks in and wipes out pretty much the entirety of the original cast, and they do it with ease. This butt whoop’n either establishes the larger arc or teases it before the next phase (or both). The heroes somehow survive (or die and maintain the ability to do the next phase).
Step 5: The training arc.
This is where our heroes get down to business. They usually meet a mysterious mentor around here who beats them until they reach the next stage of their abilities. Our heroes are often given some sort of “uber level” attack or state of being they must reach within a deadline that is impossible. But somehow, they pull it off. Sometimes the writer makes us wait to see if the move works or not, but the training is the bulk of this stage.
Step 6: The underling or main event.
Our hero either takes on the current big bad or starts his way up the chain. The fight is close, but our hero reveals his/her new ability and wipes out the current challenger. But then an even stronger foe arises, who beats up our heroes, who barely survive and find somewhere to train.
That’s right folks. Hero wins. Go back to step 4. Rinse repeat until the ultimate of ultimate level 80 villain is vanquished.
All the while the previously defeated foes become fast friends and members of the metaphorical Scooby Gang.
To be honest, I don’t know why it works (on me every time), but it does. I love Dragonball Z. I love Naruto. I love Bleach. I love Jujutsu Kaisen. I love Demon Slayer. All of those shows follow the same template. The moves have to be cool. The fight scenes have to be epic.
Most importantly, even though everyone who’s been watching anime since Goku was a baby knows the hero is going to win (at least in the end), the writer has to make the fight seem impossible. The hero must get beaten and battered to such a degree that the reader says, “Wait, is he really gonna lose?” That’s the magic part.
Some anime throws in a twist.
Twist angle: Hero has some indwelling creature who offers great power at a great cost. This indwelling creature is another antagonist, but the relationship is literally symbolic. In this case, the hero reaches his Epic Tier when the hero converts his indwelling pest into a true ally. Then the hero does that last step mentioned above.
So there it is. This is the only genre I’ve ever seen that never gets old for some reason. Interestingly, I haven’t seen it used that much in books, which is why I want to give it a try at some point.
Did I miss a step? I will say I understand that there are other anime that don’t remotely follow this formula. There may even be the great majority of anime that don’t. But if the hero is a plucky fighter of some kind, I promise I know what’s going to happen. The excitement for me is to see what the “next level” ability or move looks like.
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 11 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the eleventh volume in the Demon Slayer manga. The fight against Daki enters its final stages. Every time our heroes feel like they have found a new level, we see the upper Kizuki are still just that much better. No one demon slayer stands a chance, but what if they fight as a team?
Character: The development continues here, but this volume is far more about the fight scene (and man is it great). Here what makes the character work is something important: I was genuinely worried about the characters. To make a fight scene great, and to make a character sympathetic, we have to worry for them. We have to be afraid that they hero might lose, and that’s an impossibly high standard sometimes because who goes into a story genuinely expecting the hero to lose. We’ve seen an uptick in side-character deaths, but it’s a rare author (Martin) who’s willing to kill off any character. This means establishing that worry is very hard. I had that from this issue through (I’m currently caught up and eagerly awaiting Volume 22).
Exposition: Once more, we’re seeing an actual fight, so the exposition is pretty much non-existent and not necessary.
Worldbuilding: The worldbuilding doesn’t really shift from the earth-shattering reveal in Volume 10, but I don’t need every volume to have that. This issue is the culmination of an arc, and so all the worldbuidling had been done. That lest us readers sit back and enjoy the show.
Dialogue: That 1980’s cartoon villain banter was still present, but I didn’t mind. There is minimal dialogue in this volume aside from “I can’t believe you’re still alive!”
Description: The art is amazing. The way the breathing forms are done is just wonderful. I love aspects like that, and I intend to steal it at some point (the technique, not the literal names). There isn’t any description via the written word, but the detail of this art is second to none (at least outside of anime/manga).
Overall: This volume ends the fight that started in Volume 9. It’s not the best fight anymore (see later reviews), but it still really holds up. To me, this volume represents the last surge before the final push that begins in Volume 17. From 11 to 17, there is a lot of great stuff, but once you start 17, you better have the rest ready to go. This arc, however, is similarly (if not as) difficult to put down. I love it when a conclusion (even to a chapter) is worth the build up, and this volume is.
Spoiler Free Summary: Demon Slayer Volume 9 by Koyoharu Gotouge is the ninth volume in the Demon Slayer manga. Tanjiro and his friends agree to join Hashira Tengen Uzui (if only to protect his young friends back at what I call the base camp). Unfortunately, none of the boys asked why Uzui wanted women for this mission. They have to infiltrate a Geisha house, and Tanjiro and his friends volunteered. When they learn one of the Upper Six is hunting in the area, they’ll have to decide if they’re ready for such a challenge.
Character: Tanjiro is adorable as always, and this chapter is strictly comic relief. Sure it builds to a large plot, but it’s really just putting the characters in shameful positions for the sake of laughs, which, I guess, some people like, but I think Tanjiro’s innocence is funny enough sometimes. There is a “beauty” angle (a little on the nose even from my perspective), but we don’t see him grow in this volume, and that’s frustrating.
Exposition: This volume was necessarily heavier on this than others because we actually do get to know Uzui as a character along with his background. I’m not particularly fond of Uzui, so I’m not particularly thrilled with this exposition, but that’s only because of my opinion of the character. Creatively, I respect that exposition was necessary to help establish the next arc.
Worldbuilding: Here’s where the volume gains momentum. You see, while there were several chapters of kooky action, we do get to see more of Tanjiro and his ability. The end of this volume is worth the beginning and middle. I may be confusing Volume 9 and 10 here (let me know in the comments), but I feel like this is the Volume that establishes the deeper history of Tanjiro’s technique and how much of an impact it had on the big bad (whose name escapes me at the moment). The fight is awesome. The flashback is cool. The context it reveals is super satisfying.
Dialogue: Most of the dialogue I mentioned above is thinly hidden in the dialogue. It’s mostly a get to know Uzui volume, and that greeting is shown in dialogue. The voice is unique, and the character reactions to some of Uzui’s habits are hilarious. But this sort of stuff is par for the course in this series.
Description: So the fight scene in this is particularly stunning. There’s so much going on here and so much detail. the Upper Six they fight has an ability that requires so much detail. It’s really a visual fight that only a manga or anime could do any justice too. This fight might be my second favorite so far (the spider arc is my favorite to date).
Overall: This volume is probably my least favorite so far, but that’s not saying a whole lot. I think zany humor is kind of hit of miss for me. Let me read this later on in a different mood, and I probably love it. But this sort of humor is a kind of humor that relies on mood. However, the last chapter or two really sings with great action, plot development, and world building.