'Bleach' Review: As Live-Action Manga Adaptations Go, This Is Definitely One (Fantasia 2018)

Bleach

Don’t worry about wiping it clean from your memory, it’ll fade on its own.

Live-action adaptations for the big-screen of manga/anime titles are nothing new, and as with adaptations of other sources — novels, stories, comics, TV shows — there’s no thread of consistency between them. Some are fantastic, some are terrible, and most fall somewhere in between. That said, director Shinsuke Sato is quickly becoming ubiquitous enough to qualify as something of a constant himself. He’s so far adapted six manga stories and four novels into movies — two just this year! His success rate fluctuates as expected, though, and while 2015’s I Am a Hero (my review) is aces his latest is sadly forgettable.

Ichigo (Sota Fukushi) is a teenager with a gift he feared at first but has since come to terms with — he can see ghosts. As a child it terrified him and led to tragedy, but now he occasionally defends their memory against punks and bullies. Things take an even more fantastical turn when Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki) enters his life clad in warrior garb and surprised that he can see her. Ghosts aren’t the only spirits roaming the land, and when a Hollow — an evil spirit — attacks she’s wounded and transfers her powers to Ichigo in a last-ditch effort. Coupled with his own dormant powers he turns out to be a formidable fighter in his own right, and soon he finds himself facing off against both Hollows and other Soul Reapers upset at Rukia’s actions.

Any film should hope to hook viewers as early on as Bleach does with its introduction to our two lead characters. One is teased as something of a mystery with his ability to see the dead and his current existence as a teenage avenger of sorts for the deceased, and the other arrives as a fantastically fun badass wielding immense power from a tiny frame.

And then the movie throws it all away.

Just one fight into the film Rukia gives away her power, and for the rest of the film Ichigo’s the resident badass who no longer feels the need to converse with the deceased while she hangs around on the periphery. Talking to ghosts is no longer a story element, and the female warrior is now “just” a girl. It’s disappointing to say the least, and it hurts the film’s narrative, characters, and chances with viewers looking for an action film with a fresher spin.

This unfortunate story choice is bad enough, but while it could have been mitigated somewhat elsewhere with strong action or engaging character work neither is truly present. The action set-pieces underwhelm in their frequency and execution, and while the CG effects are solid enough they don’t help the fight geography. Action often occurs too tightly, only pulling back to reveal the wider impact as a body flies across the screen to slam into something, and it leaves viewers with uninspired choreography. It does feel in line with anime style fighting, but while that may be a plus in some eyes it doesn’t translate well to live-action.

Attempts to craft depth in the characters are equally half-baked as elements are either underdone (as with Rukia’s sibling relationship) or overplayed into redundancy (as with Ichigo’s childhood loss of his mother). The performances carry the missing narrative weight, though, with both leads and supporting players doing good work. Sugisaki is particularly strong, and one only wishes we were privy to the weighty drama she’s reacting to.

Fans of the original manga and anime version will most likely find more to enjoy in Bleach, but as a standalone movie it fails to engage through its characters, story, or action. It teases far more fun than it delivers.

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