Up front, I was never the biggest fan of Bleach. I do like some anime and manga (One Piece is still amazing) and I did enjoy the first two or three arcs of the series (I don’t know how it’s organized), but it started to fall prey to Dragon Ball-esque Serial Escalation and the characters didn’t interest me enough to put up with it. If you’re not familiar with Serial Escalation, it’s where a series is forced to constantly increase the power of the opponents in order to maintain some semblance of threat to the hero. Basically, if you beat a demon, you then have to beat a super-demon, then the devil, then the super-devil, then the anti-God (this example is pulled from the show Supernatural). Bleach does this so badly, the final opponent in the series EATS GOD. Still, the art style and universe were always pretty creative and this adaptation manages to keep that as much as a live-action movie can.
Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) is a high-schooler who has three unusual traits: First, he has naturally strawberry blonde hair (and his name means strawberry, so his parents picked well). Second, he’s extremely strong and fast with solid instincts for fighting. Third, he can see ghosts. Guess which one this series is about?
Ichigo spends much of his time trying to bring peace to the spirits he finds around Karakura Town in West Tokyo, Japan. One day, however, he spots a girl wielding a sword and wearing a black kimono who seems surprised to see him. She reveals herself to be Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki) a Shinigami (God of Death) or “Soul Reaper.” Basically, they guide souls to the afterlife. However, when a soul dies while filled with rage, despair, or teenage angst (I assume), then their ghost wanders around with a hole in it that eventually expands, turning them into a “Hollow,” a demonic ghost that has to be purified by being slain by a Soul Reaper. One of these Hollows attacks Ichigo’s family and Rukia is injured in the process. Deciding that there’s only one way to stop the monster, she gives Ichigo her powers, despite it being forbidden.
Rukia discovers that she can’t just take her powers back until she recharges her spiritual energy and Ichigo builds up his own, so she has to pretend to be a normal human for some time while training Ichigo to do her duties as a Soul Reaper. At the same time, her brother Byakuya (Miyavi) sends her friend Renji Abarai (Taichi Saotome) to bring her back, but he ends up misunderstanding the situation and threatens Ichigo until they’re interrupted by a third person shooting magic arrows. The shooter is revealed to be Ichigo’s classmate Uryu Ishida (Ryo Yoshizawa), a member of the Quincy race, a group of superpowered humans who fight hollows but were massacred by the Soul Reapers in the past. Renji flees.
Uryu challenges Ichigo to a contest of banishing Hollows, which he does by summoning a number of them to the city. Renji returns with Byakuya, who issues an ultimatum to Rukia: Kill Ichigo by taking back her energy or face capital punishment. Ichigo points out that, if he slays a strong enough Hollow, he should be able to survive the transfer. So, he trains to build himself up to be able to kill the monster, known as the Grand Fisher. It’s also revealed that Grand Fisher actually killed Ichigo’s mother using its power, with which it conjures a luring image of a small girl to throw its prey off guard. He succeeds in killing the monster, but Renji returns to fight him. Ichigo manages to defeat him, however Byakuya finally intercedes and proves that he is on a completely different level. Rukia agrees to extract Ichigo’s energy to save his life and bids him farewell. As the movie ends, it appears that everyone has forgotten Rukia except, maybe, Ichigo.
So, this movie tries to cram like three storylines into one film, something that usually produces a movie like The Last Airbender or Ghost Rider: Poorly paced and with mostly underdeveloped characters. This movie manages to avert that by avoiding exposition, letting the performances of the actors really handle the characterization and emotional aspects of the film, and making the film as streamlined as possible so you don’t really question how little of the universe is actually explained to you. This movie isn’t going to win any Oscars, but it’s not supposed to, it’s just supposed to be entertaining and that’s exactly what it delivers.
There are a few standout elements, though. For one, the characters manage to really look like a cross between their anime character models and physically possible Japanese people. If you look at them next to their designs, you wouldn’t say they’re identical or even that similar in some cases, but you also would immediately know who is supposed to be who. While some of the character aspects are made more realistic or grounded, they did also keep some of the more outlandish anime elements. This serves to emphasize those elements through contrast, which, since they’re some of the most memorable aspects of the series, is actually a good thing here.
Another big positive is how the characters play off of each other. When the manga first started, that was one of the most amusing and compelling parts of the series, before eventually becoming “get a higher power level.” Ichigo’s relationships to everyone, while fairly simple and direct, are obvious by how he relates to each of them, including how he becomes more familiar and open with Rukia over the course of the movie. Sota Fukushi plays everything over-the-top which, since this is supposed to be a cartoon, works perfectly.
The pacing is pretty solid, which was important. The movie never feels rushed. They cover a lot of ground, but at the end of the film you feel like it was just the right amount of ground to cover in 108 minutes. The ending is basically a teaser for the next movie, but I think years of Marvel films have led me to accept that this is something that just happens now.
There aren’t a ton of things I’ll take shots at within the movie, but here are a few:
Compared to the manga and anime, they do have fewer Hollows and overtly supernatural images, probably due to budget. However, they properly emphasize the ones they do have, which is the best thing you can hope for. This also serves to sort of streamline the mythos and the rules of the universe, something that, honestly, the anime itself should have done more often. This is like a survey course in Bleach: You get all of the key stuff, but if you want to get into why Hollows have Spanish names or how the Soul Society works, you’re going to have to break open a book.
Also, they seriously didn’t develop Rukia enough. She’s such a great character and she owns almost every scene she’s in. I think that Hana Sugisaki is probably the best actor in the film, managing to run the gamut of emotions when dealing with either normal people (who she doesn’t understand), Ichigo (who she feels both indebted to and anger towards), Renji (who she clearly has feelings for), and Byakuya (with whom she has an incredibly complicated relationship). She always sells a lot more with her delivery than the lines would normally merit, which makes it kind of sad that she doesn’t have more of them. Hell, I’d watch a remake of this movie’s arc that’s just more focused on her than Ichigo, but Bleach is Ichigo’s story, so that’s not going to happen.
Overall, this isn’t going to go down as a movie that people who don’t like anime can still enjoy, like Oldboy, but if you’re a fan of the genre, this’ll work for you.
And hey, at least it isn’t Dragonball Evolution.
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