Two years after Tite Kubo’s Shonen Jump hit Bleach ended its 15-year run, director Shinsuke Sato takes us back to where it all began in this decidedly mixed-bag of a live-action adaptation.
If you had any interest in anime and manga in the mid-2000s you’ll know the story: high-schooler Ichigo Kurosaki is gifted supernatural powers by soul reaper Rukia Kuchiki to defeat a Hollow (evil spirit) that threatens his family. From there he is drawn into a world of monsters, spirit samurai, and afterlife bureaucracy. The early moments of the film follow the manga closely, if somewhat quicker than the anime version, only truly diverging after Ichigo and Rukia meet at school the following morning.
By and large, the changes to the story are well-thought out, writers Sato and Daisuke Habara managing to craft a cohesive two-hour story out of material that takes over three times as long in the anime series. The plot is essentially comprised of three (heavily altered and abridged) storylines from the Agent of the Shinigami arc, ending with Rukia’s capture and return to the Soul Society. The primary storyline follows the hunt for the Grand Fisher, the Hollow that killed Ichigo’s mum; and in this version at least, the reason for Rukia’s visit to the human world. This is an inspired choice, as it keeps the film grounded in Ichigo’s emotional journey – his self-blame for his mother’s death and consequential desire to protect others – which prevents the story from becoming lost in the various plot threads that come from condensing this much material into one movie.
Taking place alongside this is the budding rivalry/friendship between Ichigo and his classmate Uryu Ishida (Ryô Yoshizawa), a human with supernatural powers and a deeply-held grudge against soul reapers. Like much in this movie, the Uryu subplot is hit-and-miss: it largely works to introduce the character and add a new complication to the narrative, but further development and exploration of his backstory would add emotional weight to a plot thread that seems rushed and at times superfluous.
The main weakness of the film comes with the handling of the third storyline, which sees soul reapers Byakuya (Miyavi) and Renji (Taichi Saotome) tasked with capturing Rukia and returning her to the Soul Society, where she is to face trial for breaking the Soul Reaper Code. While their appearance at the end of the anime’s first season hints that they could be villains (they almost kill Ichigo), the truth is later revealed to be much more complex. Not here: they double-cross Ichigo, show no qualms about killing Rukia without a trial, and Renji in particular acts like a cliché boasting villain, unrecognisable from previous incarnations.
Elsewhere, characters are largely faithful to the source material. Sôta Fukushi is a good fit for Ichigo, and Hana Sugisaki brings moments of pathos that add depth to the steely Rukia. Unfortunately, a consequence of cutting so much material is that many of the side characters are left with little development, and the likes of Chad (Yû Koyanagi) and Orihime (Erina Mano) seem to be included simply to appease existing fans rather than because they have any purpose in the story.
One unexpected delight comes from Ichigo’s family, who have a larger presence here than in the corresponding anime and manga arc. The relationships between Ichigo, his sisters Karin and Yuzu, and their father, Isshin (Yôsuke Eguchi), are instantly believable and compelling, and all performers manage to bring an authenticity and warmth to a dynamic portrayed in the anime as over-the-top and comedic. Eguchi in particular is a pleasure to watch, capturing his character’s humour, love, and grief perfectly in every one of his short moments on screen.
Director Sato is no stranger to anime adaptations, having helmed big-screen versions of the likes of Death Note and Gantz, and the direction is confident and stylish. Nonetheless, there is a tonality problem in Bleach that prevents it from forming a clear identity: the opening moments, showing a flashback to the death of Ichigo’s mother, are reminiscent of J-Horror, with muted tones, heavy rain and a cute-but-creepy little girl complaining of the cold. After a short and moody opening credits sequence, shot mostly in black-and-white, the film suddenly shifts to a highly saturated colour palette and obnoxious on-screen text, making it feel like the filmmakers had a chance to make a unique, horror-inspired take on the story and bottled it five minutes in.
Far from the car-crash many were expecting, Bleach manages to avoid many of the flaws that so often plague anime adaptations, and provides some engaging and humorous character moments. Nonetheless, the overall result is too uneven to elevate the film above mediocre curio for manga devotees. It’s unlikely to win the franchise any new followers, but existing fans will be intrigued enough to hang around for a possible second installment.
Bleach is streaming now on Netflix.