3 out of 5

Directed by: Shinsuke Sato

One of the appealing aspects of a fair amount of anime / manga – at least to me – is the willingness to drop a reader into some pretty deep in-world mythology without frontloading things with an explanation.  Some of this is due to the now ingrained sub-sub-sub-genres that allows a viewer / reader to just “get” living MMORPG worlds or whatnot, but, very generally, I do also think its something of a cultural divide: US creations might require a bit more hand-holding, which I’m not against – I like a relatively logical origin – just as, sometimes, the “just take it as it comes” delivery of the Japanese works I’m summarizing results a in high-speed splatter of disconnection which doesn’t (again: for me) work.

In adapting this anime / manga style to a live action film, things can go a few different ways, each with their own pluses and minuses: stick with the original pacing; try to condense and bring some explanatory bits into the mix; or toss it out and treat it as a standalone event.

I have no experience with Bleach’s other formats, so one might think that I’d prefer one of those latter two approaches, giving me some grounding in things.  After all, live action – regardless of how effectively flashy you can make it – is not anime, and isn’t manga, and the flow is ultimately different.  Whether or not director Shinsuke Sato’s take visually syncs up with either source, I can’t say, but to me, this came across as an excellent balance: a stylistic flick that captures the high-jumpin’, large-sword-swingin’ adventuring of anime, with the dense but flowing head-first plotting of some of the best manga, but with a keen sense of pacing and framing that works very well for real people in real locations on a big screen.  Bleach seems like an ideal way to bring this stuff into the realm of flesh and blood, with the main downside being that I’m now likely to have another anime to watch and more manga added to my growing pile.

Told to us via quick cut intro cards: Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) is a high school student, has orange hair, and… can see ghosts.  We open on him trying to usher a young kid ghost on to the afterlife, then get similar slice-and-dice intros to his family – single father and two sisters – and classmates, who offer up comedy relief via repeated jokes of either doting on Ichigo or telling tall tales of his scuffles, always ending in his death.  Which is, of course, ironic, given that a ghost siting later that night puts him in to contact with a shinigami – a reaper; a taker / guider of souls – named Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki), who’s forced to turn Ichigo into a reaper as well when she’s put down by an evil spirit type called a Hollow.

We’re, like, fifteen minutes in?  Head first.

And yet, Bleach remains miraculously grounded, thanks to appealing performances by its two leads and smart effects framing by Sato that mostly remains motivated by, firstly, keeping our characters forefront – it always looks like our actors, in non-CGI bodies, doing real wire work and handling swords and whatnot – and by limiting the camerawork to moves that remain rooted to that focus.  Intercutting the pacing of Hollow battles with Ichigo’s reluctance to train to be a shinigami – Rukia is now stuck as a human until Ichigo can gain enough energy to essentially turn her back – keeps us in the “human” world often enough to further give the flick a solid base so that the suddenly wacky scenes feel appropriately wacky.  While most of this stuff follows a hero’s journey template, and the main characters – including some other shinigami who show up to chastise Rukia for breaking their code by going all human – are pretty much defined by one attribute, the script (from Sato and Daisuke Habara) allows just enough room to tie Ichigo’s growth into his past, giving his arc some weight, and Rukia’s role similarly is able to work the shinigami lore tidbits into an emotional component for her arc; as both Fukushi and Sugisaki are engaging actors, they take this offered scripting and use it well.

Sato is attached to / has been attached to several manga and anime adaptations, and I’ve been skeptical of such things in the past – since they often take the wrong route in what they choose to throw at the screen – but I’m very encouraged by Bleach to check out some of his other projects.