Hard-Core (ハード・コア, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2018)

Hard-Core retro poster“The world will always be corrupt”, the cynical brother of the angry young man at the centre of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core (ハード・コア) advises him, “you just have to work around it”. Unfortunately, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) just wants to do “the right thing”, but it is constantly unsure of the best way to do it while remaining resentful and conflicted in his conviction that the world has already rejected him. Yamashita has made a career out of chronicling the struggles of disenfranchised young men but Ukon and his pals are less genial slackers than potentially dangerous idealists looking for a way back to a simpler time in which the world was not quite so rotten.

An opening bar scene in which Ukon gets slowly drunk and then lays into a rowdy bunch of guys bothering a middle-aged woman (Takako Matsu) just trying to enjoy a drink showcases his propensity to abruptly lose his temper and fall into a self destructive cycle while also subtly pointing out his entitlement issues in his taking the guy to task by praising himself for leaving the lady alone while he presumably had exactly the same desire not to. In any case, after getting banned from the bar, he ends up joining an ultranationalist political cell, the Crimson Hearts, which aims to teach the youth of Japan to re-embrace its traditional culture. In order to facilitate his goals, the elderly and eccentric leader, Kaneshiro (Kubikukuri Takuzo), has enlisted Ukon, along with a friend, Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who is almost entirely mute, to dig out a mysterious cavern where he is convinced there is buried Edo-era treasure.

It’s easy to see why Ukon might fall for the rather insane ramblings of Kaneshiro. They reinforce his sense of moral decline while giving him a banner to follow and a place to belong. His loyalty to Kaneshiro is as absolute as a retainer’s to his lord, though he is perhaps conflicted in his commitment to the core ideology even as he sees obvious merit in wanting to reclaim something of the old Japan. Meanwhile, his relationship with his family appears strained. His younger brother Sakon (Takeru Satoh) has become a cynical salaryman out for nothing other than greed and self interest, staring into his own empty eyes in the reflection of the full glass panelling of his high rise office as he has meaningless sex with anonymous office ladies. Ukon just wants to do the right thing, but Sakon wants to make the smart choice and doesn’t particularly care about the wider implications of his choices.

Meanwhile, Ukon is fiercely loyal to his friends and fellow outsiders in solidarity with all those who feel the world will never be willing to accept them. Ushiyama, a man laid low by familial expectation and societal pressure, lives in an abandoned factory where he has made “friends” with a broken robot that Ukon manages to repair and names “Robo-o”. Believing that Robo-o is just like them in that he would be ostracised if people discovered his true nature, Ukon and Ushiyama set about disguising him and even get him in on their gold hunting gig (where he gets paid!) at which he proves adept considering his considerable technical superiority. Ukon’s first instinct is to protect his friend, while Sakon’s is how best to exploit him.

Nevertheless, events at the Crimson Hearts begin to escalate as unpleasant underling Mizunuma (Suon Kan) considers taking the battle to the next stage to “overthrow the corrupt totalitarianism masquerading as democracy” through actions others will regard as terrorist. Meanwhile, Ukon has also begun to fall for Mizunuma’s damaged daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) whom he met by chance after being inappropriately charged with spying on Mizunuma’s new girlfriend to make sure she wasn’t sleeping around (as women do, according to Mizunuma). Ukon, as the first scene implied, is not in favour of all this obvious misogyny but can only find the strength for passive resistance. What he chooses, in the end, is his friends and his precious group of outsiders, albeit with his hopes pinned on his cynical brother and the illusionary lustre of historical treasure. The power of friendship eventually enables even Robo-o to break his programming, though it’s Sakon’s cynicism that, in one sense at least, seems to triumph. Yamashita takes his troubled young heroes on a rocky, noirish path through the “rotten” world which they are increasingly convinced holds no place for them but finally finds hope in human compassion even if that compassion may be the long buried treasure of an archaic civilisation.


Hard-Core was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 31st May at 22.30pm and 1st June, 22.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Yuichi Fukuda, 2017)

psychic kusuo posterMany may bristle at an attempt to label director Yuichi Fukuda an auteur, but you can’t argue with the fact that he’s developed something of a house style. That house style may have just catapulted him to the top of the box office with two successful movies inspired by the gag filled Gintama, but outside of his big budget studio efforts he’s something of an acquired taste. Take Hentai Kamen, for example. For some a hilariously perverse super hero adventure comedy. For others one childish joke stretched out for 90 minutes. Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Saiki Kusuo no Sainan), coming from the same general area as the phenomenally successful Gintama in adapting an absurdist gag manga only this time one by Shuichi Aso, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

16-year-old Kusuo Saiki (Kento Yamazaki) is the most powerful esper on Earth. Seeing as he was born to a lovely, hippyish couple who didn’t mind that he was a bit strange, Saiki grew up appreciating his superpowers for what they are but also mindful that they could cause him a problem if they got out of hand. He uses his powers to hypnotise those around him so that they don’t notice his neon pink hair or the antennas in his head which keep his emotions in check and prevent him accidentally destroying all of Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is quite a bother to be burdened by unnatural abilities especially in that it makes life extremely dull not to mention a little stressful when you can hear everything everyone is thinking in every tiny detail.

The big problem is that Saiki is coming up on his first high school culture festival. Saiki is not big into celebrations and hanging out with other people so what he likes about festivals is that no one’s going to miss him so he can escape for a little me time. The last few festivals, however, have each descended into chaos and if it happens again this year they’re going to be cancelled for good. In order to save his precious haven of relaxation, Saiki will have to forgo it this time to make sure no one starts any trouble.

Fukuda began his career writing skits for TV variety shows and the humour in his films is indeed very specific and of the kind familiar to fans of Japanese television comedy, which is to say it is extremely broad and somewhat meta with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The major antagonist of Psychic Kusuo is conceited high school classmate Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto) who is accounted by all as the school’s number one beauty and knows it. As he’s able to read minds, Saiki knows she’s in no way as pretty on the inside and makes a point of ignoring her. Of course, this only ends up attracting her attention because she’s incapable of accepting that there’s a boy who doesn’t instantly sigh on catching sight of her. In keeping with Fukuda’s over the top approach, Kokomi becomes little more than a collection of preening looks alternating between calculated cuteness and outright bunny boiler villainy.

Meanwhile, Fukuda throws in a series of in jokes and random references to other franchises from Assassination Classroom to Dragon Ball, piling absurdity on top of absurdity through a series of possible crises as yankees from another school threaten to cause a ruckus and the Dark Reunion turn up to prosecute their conspiracy on school grounds. Meanwhile a creepy stage magician and his surprisingly sprightly mother/assistant take credit for all the strange goings on and Saiki accidentally ends up marooned in space.

Yet the problem is that it just isn’t very funny or particularly interesting. It comes to something when the most entertaining part of the movie is Saiki’s extremely nice parents and their unflappable acceptance of the strange goings on which often befall their family. Over reliant on reaction shots and schoolyard humour, Psychic Kusuo may play well to Fukuda’s many fans, those familiar with the anime or manga, and lovers of TV variety skits but anyone else may find themselves scratching their heads at its decidedly lowbrow, scattershot attempt at humour and longing for an end to its considerably dubious charms.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Takahiro Miki, 2017)

My Teacher posterJapanese cinema is having a mini moment of shojo crisis in its awkward obsession with student/teacher romance. While similarly themed age-gap “romances” such as After the Rain might have been better able to navigate the difficult seas of misplaced adolescent affection, Narratage and latterly My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Sensei! …Suki ni Natte mo ii Desuka?), seem to have gone in a less palatable direction in accidentally implying that our squeamishness with these obviously inappropriate attachments might not be justified. The latest from romantic melodrama veteran Takahiro Miki, My Teacher is a perfect exemplification of the inherent problems with shojo romance and, in this case somewhat ironically, its inability to process the implications of a necessarily romantically naive perspective.

Our heroine, Hibiki Shimada (Suzu Hirose), is a shy, awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on her handsome, if somewhat aloof, history teacher, Mr. Ito (Toma Ikuta). Unlike her classmates, Hibiki has been slow to a romantic awakening and confused by her friends’ various and rapidly changing crushes. Nevertheless, like her best friend Chigusa (Aoi Morikawa), Hibiki has begun to develop feelings for a teacher – Ito whose gruff exterior hides a considerate heart. Mistaking his general kindness for an extension of personal affection, Hibiki has fallen in love and even whilst knowing that there is something not quite acceptable about her feelings decides to pursue her inappropriate crush in the manner only a naive schoolgirl can.

Ito, as expected, turns down Hibiki’s confession with weary resignation. A kind man who seems to limit his interactions with other humans in order to avoid becoming over involved, he is aware of the delicacy of the situation but also of its dangers as regards his own standing as an educator and responsible adult. He wants to protect his student, emotionally and physically, but is at a loss as to how to handle his dilemma without causing her further distress. Consequently, he fails to definitively shut down a tricky set of circumstances in good time, allowing to Hibiki to bamboozle him into an awkward bargain in which she asks him if her crush will be “OK” if she manages to score over 90% on the upcoming test. Surprised, Ito laughs and reminds her of her woeful results in the previous midterms. Understanding that she’s been turned down, Hibiki nevertheless regards Ito’s awkward laughter as a flicker of possibility and continues on in hope.

Had My Teacher continued in the same vein, with Mr. Ito valiantly attempting to guide Hibiki towards a healthier romantic consciousness while remaining mindful of the tenderness of her feelings and the delicacy of the situation as a whole, it might have entered more interesting and less problematic thematic territory. Unfortunately, it remains firmly rooted in shojo romance in which the heroine’s innocent desires must be recognised and so Mr. Ito’s nobility eventually crumbles as he begins to fall for the “earnest”, “awkward” schoolgirl and forgets his “position as a teacher”, finally giving in to “temptation” even if he then agrees that the responsibility for his transgression must rest entirely with him. Ito attempts to remove himself from the situation in recognition of the harm he may be causing, but the film won’t let him because it needs a resolution that is “romantic” rather than “realistic”.

“Realism” rears its head when the inappropriate relationship between the pair is eventually uncovered and Ito hauled before a staff committee to explain himself but the school’s understandable decision that he must be summarily fired for gross misconduct is undercut by its presentation as an act of unavoidable tragedy that fails to make a distinction between “genuine feeling” and “abuse of position”, conveniently forgetting that in these kinds of cases that is not a distinction that it is useful to make. Chigusa, trying to encourage her friend in her great romance, affirms that there is no one in the world it is not OK to love, which might have some truth in it seeing as love itself is rarely wrong, but there are instances where acting on that love would be and a teacher/student relationship is definitely one of them especially where the student is still a minor.

Indeed, the kids resent the fact that everyone treats them as children but they are, as a similarly exasperated teacher tries to explain to them, not yet adults as exemplified by their consistently self-centred perspectives which prevent them from realising the difficult position in which their decision to air their inappropriate feelings places those whom they claim to love. This dawning realisation is heralded as the pathway to adulthood in finally coming to an acceptance of the individual’s place within a community bound by ethical rules and the responsibility one has towards the feelings of others most particularly when they conflict with one’s own. It is however undercut by the irresponsible decision to push the innocent romance to its “natural” conclusion even if it has the decency to wait until after graduation until it does so. Ethically questionable as it is, Miki’s obvious talents are not in question and his beautifully composed emotionally moving aesthetics are out in force but only serve to emphasise the uncomfortably naive sensibilities of the source material.


International trailer (English subtitles)

After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Akira Nagai, 2018)

KoiAme_teaser_B5_F_outAdolescence is a difficult time for all, a period of waiting, in a sense, for the rain to end and everything to make the kind of sense you’ve been led to believe life is supposed to make only to finally see that the thing about life is there is no sense to be made of it. After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように, Koi wa Ameagari no yo ni), adapted from the popular manga by Jun Mayuzuki, is touted as an admittedly creepy age gap romance between a confused teen and a melancholy middle-aged man but thankfully arrives at something more thoughtful and less problematic in its philosophical look at self-imposed inertia seen through the lenses of age and youth.

High school girl Akira (Nana Komatsu) loves nothing more than running but her record-breaking track career was brought to an abrupt halt by a ruptured achilles tendon. Having given up on her athletic dreams, she now spends her “free” time on a part-time job in a diner-style “family restaurant”. Unbeknownst to all, the reason Akira took the job was that the restaurant’s manager, 45-year-old divorced father Kondo (Yo Oizumi), was once nice to her after her accident and now she’s developed an almighty crush on his mild-mannered charms.

While Akira is processing the loss of her future as a top runner, Kondo is trying to get over not only the failure of his marriage but of his own dreams of literary success. Jealous of a college friend with a bestseller, Kondo has barely written anything in years and has all but resigned himself to a lifetime of managing a low-level chain restaurant in suburbia.

Kondo, for all his faults, is essentially a good guy whose major problem in life is being too nice. Needless to say, he’s not enthused by Akira’s surprise declaration of love and understands that it could cause him a lot of trouble but even so he wants to help her get over whatever it is that makes her think an affair with an older guy might be a good idea. Realising that her misplaced crush is most likely a displacement activity born of her grief for her racing career, Kondo sets about trying to coax Akira back towards something more positive than unwise romance through genial paternal attention even if she finds his attempts to make clear that he is only prepared to offer friendly support somewhat frustrating.

Akira’s problems are perhaps greater than they first seem. A strange girl with underdeveloped social skills and a relatively low need for interpersonal interaction, Akira has few friends and a habit of accidentally glaring at everyone she meets (which is not an ideal quality for a diner waitress). She is however very beautiful which also earns her a heap of unwanted attention precisely because of her angry aloofness. Neither of the boys her own age who declare an interest are very promising – both of them are unwilling to take a flat no for an answer and continue to chase Akira even though she consistently ignores them, though sous-chef Kase (Hayato Isomura) is at least a little more perceptive than he originally seems and finally able to offer some impartial advice to the confused young woman once he’s realised that his attentions really are unwanted.

Unwilling to engage with anything that reminds her of what she’s lost, Akira has been avoiding all her old friends. Haruka (Nana Seino), who has been chasing along behind desperate to catch up ever since they were kids, is as broken-hearted about their ruptured friendship as Akira is about running and longs to repair what was broken if only to prove that there’s more between them than just sports. Originally worried about Akira’s interest in Kondo she relaxes when she realises that he, like her, just wants to help Akira escape her moment of wounded inertia.

As Kondo puts, it’s boring waiting for the rain to stop. Like the heroes of Rashomon which becomes a repeated motif, Akira and Kondo are essentially just marking time waiting to be released from a self-imposed sense of frustrated impossibility. Kondo needed a dose of self-confidence which the decision to help a depressed high school girl who seems to be the only person who doesn’t find him pathetic just might offer, while Akira needs to realise that her life isn’t over and that she may have been too hasty in abandoning her dreams over what could be nothing more than a minor setback. Through their awkward non-romance the pair each rediscover something about themselves that they’d forgotten along with the courage to face their painful failures head on rather than attempting hide and living on in melancholy resentment.

Thankfully not the creepy age gap romance the synopsis teases, Nagai’s adaptation perhaps fails to mine the unexpectedly rich philosophical seam of Mayuzuki’s manga to its fullest extent in its powerful confrontation of age and youth sheltering from the storm of disappointment, but nevertheless presents an oddly warm tale of serendipitous friendships and mutual support as two frustrated people at different points of life each find the courage to move forward through helping someone else do the same.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

BL_honpos_setTite 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)