Japan (2018) Dir. Shinsuke Sato
I apologise for the ensuing fan boy ramblings you are about to read, but Bleach is one of my favourite ever anime series, making it very difficult to appraise this live action adaptation without regular comparisons to the expected differences and liberties taken during the transition between the two visual mediums.
Bleach is the creation of Tite Kubo, the manga first published in 2001 and concluded in 2016, with a 366-episode anime adaptation that ran for ten years starting in 2004. Kubo was always resolute that a live action version of Bleach wouldn’t work yet when this project first came together, he made sure to participate in it so it remained faithful to the source material, or, as it seems, the basic gist of the story.
Fifteen year-old Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) has the uncanny ability to see ghosts but doesn’t know why. One night a strange girl in black robe brandishing a sword (Hana Sugisaki) appears in his bedroom claiming to be a Soul Reaper named Rukia Kuchiki hunting creatures called hollows. Suddenly something extremely large bursts through a wall of the house and snatches Ichigo’s youngest sister Yuzu.
With Ichigo in tow, Rukia confronts the hollow, saving Yuzu but is injured in the process and cannot fight on. In desperation, Rukia passes on her Reaper powers to Ichigo who easily defeats the hollow. Without her powers, Rukia can’t return to her home world, the Soul Society, so she trains Ichigo to be a proxy Soul Reaper. However, as this against Soul Reaper law, Rukia and Ichigo are about to find themselves in deep trouble.
Given the amount of the source material to draw from, there was always going to be a LOT of omissions and changes. That this film runs for 108 minutes really makes it challenging in successfully condensing the material to satisfy old and new fans alike. Ironically, the only thing Tite Kubo was worried about was Ichigo’s bright orange hair not working in real life, and whilst they did find a suitable colour, this really should have been the least of Kubo’s worries.
This probably makes it sound like this film is a disaster – it actually isn’t, but there are issues that established fans should be aware of. This being something of a sprint, many of the supporting cast are either thinly sketched and shunted to the background – Yosutora “Chad” Sado (Yu Koyanagi) is a blank slate while Orihime Inoue (Erina Mano) is effectively just some girl – or excised completely, e.g. – no Kon!
Kisuke Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe) makes a few appearances but nothing about him is ever revealed, leaving Quincy Uryu Ishida (Ryo Yoshizawa) to deliver the info dumps Urahara would normally impart to Ichigo. Such conflation of vital characters will hurt them if a sequel is made (something the ending alludes to) if they continues to adapt the manga.
The action is contained to the human world setting of Karakuchi Town, now a lively metropolis, sparing the budget in trying to replicate the Soul Society. Only two scenes are set there, shot in a darkened room to convey the gravity and sinister roles of its occupants, Renji Abarai (Taichi Saotome) and Rukia’s older brother Byakuya Kuchiki (Miyavi).
What stands out most about the characters is how animating them can somehow create a believable personality that the voice can bring out which human actions simply can’t. For example, Renji is sneery and aggressive here lacking the humour of his anime counterpart that suggested he wasn’t all bad. Stickler for the rules Byakuya was simply stoic and proud before, here he is borderline evil.
Of course, newcomers to the story won’t know any of this and the reasons behind their actions hasn’t really changed so contextually it won’t make much of a difference, but it is a nuance that matters in the long run. This extends to Chad and Orihime with only the briefest of hints as to their role in future storylines, whilst Ishida’s character is almost fully defined.
So, do they do anything right? One thing that does work very well is framing Ichigo’s sense of righteousness and resolution to protecting his family by opening the film with a flashback to the death of his mother (Masami Nagasawa), something not revealed until later on in the manga.
The special effects are remarkably good, especially in recreating the hollows. The Grand Fisher is an admirably hideous and effective replica of its animated predecessor with added menace courtesy of the extravagant movements afford by CGI. The fight scenes follow the template of the anime yet remain grounded enough with standard combat parries to avoid looking too hokey, even with the appearance of Renji’s Zabimaru!
I can’t deny not being completely sold on the cast but that is really down to the scripting and characterisations not given them all a chance to breathe life into their roles. One problem is the ages which are indeterminate in the manga and anime, and whilst Hana Sugisaki does a good job as Rukia, looking 12 years-old harms the gravitas the character needs. But her youthful appearance helps the transition to Rukia’s school girl disguise so it’s swings and roundabouts on that one.
Bravely tackling the toughest job as the main focal point, Sota Fukushi does manage to capture the raw essence of Ichigo, essaying his journey from laid back teen to substitute Soul Reaper with enough gusto and awareness that his character isn’t compromised. Whilst she only appears randomly in flashback, Masami Nagasawa brings some much needed purity to the proceedings as Ichigo’s late mother.
Director Shinsuke Sato has many live action anime adaptations on his resume, including GANTZ, so he is eminently qualified to tackle arguably one of the more difficult titles to bring to life. His take on Bleach is as good as it gets, its biggest achievement being how it successfully gets across what made Tite Kubo’s original work so popular in the first place.