The time is right for a live-action Bleach movie.
After rushing to an unnatural conclusion two years ago, the once-popular action manga’s resonance has flatlined. The anime adaptation came to a similarly abrupt close in 2012 and, despite 300-plus episodes, was unable to cover all the source material.
So while the Bleach heyday has long passed, nostalgia and curiosity make it the perfect discovery for Netflix, where Warner Bros. Japan’s live-action Bleach movie has now premiered. Bleach joins the Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist and the American whitewashed Death Note for questionable adaptations of good, popular franchises, albeit with a key difference: Bleach survived the conversion process.
Helmed by director Shinsuke Sato, who’s carving out a niche for these adaptations between this and Gantz, Bleach charts how red-headed, ghost-seeing high schooler Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) first becomes a grim reaper, of sorts. Draped in a black kimono and wielding a huge anime sword, he exorcises friendly spirits and fights malevolent beings called “hollows,” towering monsters in masks that manifest from the pain of a restless soul. Ichigo, however, is just a substitute, having received his powers from a real “soul reaper,” Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki). Accidentally drained of her abilities, she’s stuck in the human world, attending Ichigo’s high school and camped out on a makeshift bed in his closet.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course; the Bleach manga ran for 15 years across nearly 700 chapters collected into 74 volumes, eventually going the way of Dragon Ball and Naruto, piling up a huge expanded cast of characters with a variety of outlandish powers. But the movie’s best decision is to stick to the early material, which happens on a much smaller scale and emphasizes character-driven plots rather than lengthy story arcs.
Early on, Bleach author Tite Kubo created the effortless sense of cool that would define the series, an easygoing vibe punctuated by big, roomy panels for stylish character poses and a noticeable eye for fashion. The anime enhances this feel with some great music and equally hip openings that play up the urban fantasy angle, depicting the characters in their street clothes in a sea of bright colors.
The Bleach movie loses a lot of this style as it rolls along, but the short length keeps it immersed in the series’ early conventions, with a fun contrast of people in black kimonos battling monsters in a modern-day city. Sato captures the series near its peak and captures it well, not least of which because the setting makes for a smooth transition to live-action.
One of the largest shortcomings of the recent Fullmetal Alchemist movie was the ambition of its concept: a period-specific setting with characters in stylized costumes who use fantastic powers capable of transforming the scenery. While being set in the modern day doesn’t guarantee success (see: Death Note), it doesn’t take much for Bleach to remain faithful and high-quality. The costumes are largely limited to street clothes and kimonos, the background is your average cityscape, and the ghostly nature of the hollows provides an acceptable reason for why their effects don’t always blend seamlessly into the world around them.
Which isn’t to say, unfortunately, that Bleach entirely avoids the issues of other anime/manga-to-live-action adaptations. A handful of exceptions aside (the Attack on Titan movies differ significantly from their source material), these movies frequently prioritize faithfulness to the source material over making judicious cuts that make a good movie. For as many changes as 2017’s Death Note makes to the material, its crowded storyline and rushed pacing are unmistakable marks of apprehension for cutting too much. Even the legendary director Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal clocks an overlong, somewhat repetitive 140 minutes.
Bleach isn’t much of an exception here; notable side characters from the series like Orihime, Chad, and Tatsuki hang around despite being given nothing whatsoever to do, while Ichigo’s rival Uryū fares only slightly better. Some of this rigid faithfulness is down to sequel prospects — Chad, Orihime, and Uryū would doubtlessly figure into any future films — but the rest is as much an attempt to cater to the existing fanbase.
As much as the production company wanted the Bleach movie to really take off, it’s every inch the disposable for-the-fans project that’s very much in vogue (although the fans didn’t exactly show up, as the movie’s theatrical release in Japan only mustered around $4 million USD). The movie is a pleasant, diverting that, despite Bleach’s waning popularity, fits neatly and innocuously into the brand saturation at the heart of the 2018 media climate. I’m just not so sure that’s what longtime Bleach readers really wanted.
Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelancer who has fumbled into being published at The Awl, Buzzfeed, Paste, The Verge, Vice, and others. He also writes fairly regular video game reviews for Slant Magazine. Find him on Twitter @midfalutin.