This one’s been a long time coming. Dedicated readers of this column may recall my scathing (read: bored) review of Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist in January – a feature-length epic which feels both unnecessary and inadequate. To all intents and purposes, Netflix’s Bleach should fall into the same category: CGI-heavy epic with terrible wigs. Surprise! It doesn’t. It’s pretty damn good.
So what separates the critically-panned FMA from the critically-‘hey-this-is-sort-of-alright’ Bleach cash-in? Maybe it’s the endless nostalgia. (Maybe it’s that Bleach isn’t a masterpiece in the same way FMA is.) Who knows!
Or maybe it’s that this adaptation doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s ridiculous. It’s camp. It’s got the same rock song that plays every time a cool action scene starts, the killing blow delivered to the line ‘drink all your milk’.
It’s got Ichigo Kurosaki, the coolest (and tallest) 15-year-old you ever did see, with the eponymous shock of orange hair (surprisingly, this time, not looking like it’s from the fancy-dress shop). Sota Fukushi is surprisingly convincing as the spiky hero, infusing a good amount of charisma and warmth into what could easily become a one-note hot-headed protagonist. In the film’s funnier moments the Ichigo-Rukia dynamic almost becomes something approaching slapstick, with physical comedy and expressions turning the two into the Laurel and Hardy duo we never knew we needed.
It’s also got surprising reverence for its source material. The first half-hour is practically a frame-by-frame remake of the first volume – we even get Rukia’s terrible drawings in all their glory – but nothing feels stilted or forced. The film’s complex lore is introduced in simple exposition with sharp editing, which lets us get down to the real stuff we want to see: badass fight scenes with massive swords and flames.
In short: it’s a film which both knows what it’s about, and doesn’t take that as a lazy excuse.
Sure, it’s sometimes primarily concerned with replicating the rock-and-roll influences of the original – the man’s bedroom has Bad Religion and Rolling Stones posters all over the shop, for goodness’ sake, and everybody in this town seems to hang out at one burger joint. But it also recreates the sheer spookiness of the whole affair with surprising intensity, whether that’s a 50-foot hollow or a haunting child ghost.
If there is a criticism, it’s that it doesn’t quite make the most of its fantastic (and plentiful) side characters. This does mean we miss out on the perverted body-possessing teddy-bear, which is only a positive. This also means we get Chad beating people to shit without any explanation, which is sort of funny in itself. But it unfortunately means once-central classmates get relegated to side-characters, and that’s more of a shame.
I’ve mentioned in the past how a short runtime produces a real fight-or-flight conundrum for live-action adaptors. Either you run away from the challenge – and try and cram entire narrative arcs into one compressed story – or you hone right in on what makes it important. What is the key message of your story? What do you want it to be?
It’s a question that often gets lost in epic, sprawling manga in the first place; series often lose their plot and characterisation as the years go by, resting instead on a grand show of fight battles and constant one-upmanship. So like successful adaptations before it, Bleach recognises it can’t tell the whole story. Instead, it gives us an ending that makes sense.
We don’t get Soul Society (thank goodness). That’s sort of a given. What we do get is a weirdly touching story about friendship and responsibility, with a final confrontation which almost… wait, is that a tear in my eye? Why is my face wet? Am I crying? Why am I crying?
I’ve remarked previously that die-hard fans go into live-action adaptations expecting a bitch-fest. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the case here: which made it all the weirder when it didn’t happen.
Every time you expect the film to put a foot wrong, it stays on track: it would have been so easy to skimp on the Grand Fisher subplot, for example, or that final scene, but it doesn’t, because it recognises its emotional heart is what keeps the thing going. And this Bleach film ends up all the better for it: a film which has its cake, and eats it, too.
Katie Knight (@codaevermore) is a Classics grad and librarian working in the UK. She spent her first lockdown discovering the Death Note Musical. She’s spending her second lockdown trying to catch up on 5 years of One Piece (before its 1000th chapter).