Tite Kubo’s Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ) had the distinction of being one of three phenomenally popular long running manga series (alongside Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto) which dominated the industry from the early 2000s until its completion in August 2016. The series spans 74 collected volumes and was also adapted into a successful television anime which itself ran for several seasons and spawned a number of animated movies. It might seem like a no brainer to bring the series to the big screen with a live action adaptation but Bleach is no ordinary manga and the demands of recreating its fearsome world of cruel death gods and huge soul sucking monsters are a daunting prospect. Perfectly placed to tackle such a challenge, director Shinsuke Sato (I am a Hero, Inuyashiki) spent more than a year in post-production working on the CGI and has brought his characteristic finesse to the finely crafted world of Kubo’s Karakura.
Our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi), is a regular fifteen-year-old high school student, save for his fiery orange hair and the ability to see ghosts. He lives with his relentlessly cheerful father (Yosuke Eguchi) and two cute little sisters but is also nursing guilt and regret over the death of his mother (Masami Nagasawa) who died protecting him from a monster when he was just a child. Feeling disconnected from his family, Ichigo likes to put on a front of bravado – taking on petty punks to teach them a lesson though, in a motif which will be repeated, he only escapes an early encounter unharmed thanks to the intervention of his unusually strong friend, Chad (Yu Koyanagi). Ichigo’s life is changed forever when he finds a strange girl, Rukia (Hana Sugisaki), in his room where she despatches a lingering spirit back its rightful destination of Soul Society. That was not, however, her primary mission and a giant “Hollow” suddenly punches a fist through Ichigo’s living room and scoops up his littlest sister. Rukia does her best to defeat the beast but is seriously wounded. Sensing Ichigo’s high psychic ability, she breaks the rules of her own society and transfers her powers to him but later discovers she gave him too much and is unable to return to Soul Society unless Ichigo ups his Soul Reaper rep to the point he is strong enough to survive giving her powers back.
Loosely speaking Sato adapts the “Soul Reaper Agent” (which is eventually attached to the title during the credits sequence) arc, otherwise known as “Substitute Shinigami”, in which Ichigo gets used to his new life as a Soul Reaper. Condensing Kubo’s considerably lengthy manga to a mere 108 minutes is obviously a difficult exercise necessitating a slight refocussing of Ichigo’s essential character arc as well as that of the feisty Rukia. Sato’s streamlined narrative emphasises Ichigo’s ongoing psychodrama as an adolescent young man attempting to deal with the repressed trauma of his mother’s death and his own feelings of guilt and regret in having unwittingly dragged her into a dangerous situation from which he was unable to protect her. Being “the protector” remains a primary concern of the young Ichigo who withdraws from his family but is determined to protect them from harm. His odd friendship with the similarly conflicted Rukia whose upbringing in the austere surroundings of Soul Society has left her also feeling isolated and friendless (but believing these are both “good” things to be) paradoxically returns him to the real world just he’s turned into an all-powerful monster fighting hero.
Yet the important lesson Ichigo learns is through repeated failures. His mother died saving him, his first fight is ended by a friend, and he is finally redeemed once again by an act of selfless female sacrifice. What Ichigo is supposed to learn, is that he doesn’t always need to be the protector and that being protected is sometimes alright because what’s important is the mutuality of protection, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Meanwhile Rukia, having lost her powers, is perhaps sidelined, rendered both vulnerable and empowered as she becomes Ichigo’s mentor in all things Soul Reaper. This quality of restraint is also how she chooses to make use of her power – something beautifully brought out in Sugisaki’s wonderfully nuanced performance as Rukia’s icy Soul Reaper exterior begins to thaw thanks to her unexpected connection with Ichigo.
Rather than get bogged down in exposition, Sato is content to let the world simply exist with occasional explanations offered in the form of Rukia’s improbably cute rabbit drawings in a motif borrowed from the manga. Sato makes sure to include a number of background players including the strong armed Chad and the lovelorn Orihime (Erina Mano) as well the omniscient shop owner Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe) though their role is strictly to add background colour rather than actively participate in the plot. Despite occasional narrative fudging, Bleach succeeds as a high-octane action blockbuster, by turns slick, ironic, and affecting but always grounded in the real even in excess.
Bleach is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.
Original trailer (no subtitles)