The conclusion of an unexpected battle and the introduction of another eccentric villain highlight a promising chapter of Bleach. The recent apparent death and “zombification” of Hitsugaya is a genuinely shocking twist, even for a series that loves twists as much as this one. Even more surprising is the decision by Kubo to match the manipulated Hitsugaya, perhaps the most popular of the Gotei 13 captains, against the intriguing but unapologetically evil Mayuri, who is forced to act as the hero.
Mayuri is always a fun character to see in action, as his mad scientist style of combat contrasts greatly with the other characters based around swordsmanship or physical strength. His victory over Hitsugaya in this chapter is reminiscent of his fight against Szayelaporro during the Hueco Mundo arc, and demonstrates inventiveness on the part of the author. His brief off-handed expression of loyalty to the Seiritei is a nice touch as well, as it gives a rare amount of depth to a thus far underused character.
As great a twist as Hitsugaya’s death was, there are numerous hints given in this chapter that this will not be a permanent state of affairs. The mysterious injection that Mayuri gives to Hitsugaya at the conclusion of their battle is almost certainly a cure for the Sternritter’s mind control, and the revelation that two other captains plus Matsumoto, a long established character, are also zombies leaves little doubt that their condition is reversible. While the permanent deaths of these characters off-panel are certainly within the realm of possibility, it would be a massive and shocking departure from Kubo’s usual writing.
The second major point of this chapter, the introduction of Pepe and his abilities, highlights just how unusual and eclectic this group of villains is. The Sternritter members have ranged from fiery hotheads like Bambietta and Bazz-B, to the creepy design of As Nodt, to the bombastic Mask De Masculine, to the member introduced in this chapter, Pepe. The relative quality of these characters and their arcs has varied, but at the very least Kubo is not afraid to introduce a large variety of creative ideas, and as a whole the Sternritter are a much more interesting and developed group of villains than the Espada were. Whether or not Pepe, who acts much like an evil version of Don Kanonji with a theme of butchered soul music, leaves any impression on the audience remains to be seen. Many of the Sternritter, such as Gremmy and Giselle, were introduced in a lackluster manner, but gradually became interesting characters in their own right.
While the flaws of the series have remained ever-present during this arc, such as Kubo’s fascination with limb removal and the excessive focus given to uninteresting Gotei 13 members at the expense of Ichigo and the other core characters, many of its strengths have been on display as well. The abilities of the Sternritter, and their interaction with those of the Gotei 13, are creative and clever, and Kubo continues to take risks while making this series once again fun to read. If this level of quality can be maintained, the imminent conclusion of this series will be a satisfying one.
Final Flash: Another weird but fun chapter keeps the momentum going steadily.