If you had ever told me that one day I would review a live-action film remake of an anime series—one as fantastical as Bleach—and graded it as an A, I would have told you to hang up my pen and never let me write again, because clearly my tastes and sense have gone out the window.
And let me tell you, it feels weird to be grading it so highly. I almost feel compelled to knock it down to a B simply because it's live-action anime, and we all know that live-action anime sucks. Right? Right?? Shianne even ranted about being tired of live-action remakes, and sure, she wasn't talking about anime per se, but let's be real: anime adaptations tend to be way worse than, say, adaptations of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Just look at how Netflix's Death Note turned out.
So to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Bleach would be an understatement. Was I blown away? Not quite. Was I impressed? Heck yeah, I was. And to be clear, I'm not even a Bleach fan. I watched the Soul Society anime arc as it aired in 2004 to 2006, then soon gave up. Series fans may perceive this film differently, but all I'm saying is, I ain't biased.
This film covers the Agent of the Shinigami arc and delivers a proper standalone story with a beginning, middle, and end.
First, the elephant in the room: When anime series receive live-action adaptations, the biggest stumbling block is usually the special effects. It's just far more expensive and time-consuming to create visually stunning 3D effects than it is to draw them, and either it looks bad or the narrative is changed to accommodate lesser effects.
Going into Bleach, I was most skeptical about how they'd pull off the Hollows that appear in the first major arc—and given how they turned out (see above), I knew this film was in good hands. The special effects neither dominate the movie, nor do they play second fiddle; they appear when they need to, and they look great when they do, always looking as if they fit right into the world. Now that's what good CGI looks like.
Just as good as the CGI was the directing. I've never heard of Shinsuke Sato before, and having looked up his filmography after the credits rolled, it seems I haven't seen any of his other works either. But if this is the kind of quality he's putting out, I look forward to seeing what else he can do. Another successful anime adaptation and I may just become a fan.
What I mean is, Bleach feels like a real film that was crafted with care, much in the same way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films clearly are. Sure, they both deal with fantastical elements and may seem childish on the surface, but I'm not talking about the subject matter—I'm talking about the craftsmanship that goes into lighting, staging, blocking, lens choice, and all that behind-the-scenes stuff that translates into the image we see. Bleach never once feels like a direct-to-video embarrassment; it rings out as a cinematic achievement. Finally, a live-action anime film that doesn't suck!
Don't go into Bleach expecting a play-by-play reenactment of every scene from the anime or manga; there's only so much that can fit into the running time of a film. But it wouldn't be a lie to say that Bleach stays true to the source material, so much so that some frames actually do resemble what's depicted in the anime or manga.
Indeed, all of the important story beats are there, even if some minor details are changed or cut out altogether. (I hope Kon makes an appearance if sequel films are made, but I won't hold my breath.) And most importantly, the emotional core is in tact—and dare I say, the payoff is stronger in the film than in the anime arc. Then again, it may just be that I've matured since I saw the anime so many years ago, so I won't blame you if take that last statement with a grain of salt.
All of the main characters make an appearance: Ichigo and Rukia, of course, as well as Chad, Orihime, Uryu, Renji, Byakuya, and two different Hollows. Seriously, I'm surprised by how much I liked the Hollow designs! And not just the Hollows, but the characters as well—another example of how they stayed true to the anime/manga while keeping it grounded. (Except for Renji, which I'll talk about below.)
I only have two minor complaints.
First, Renji. The actor who played him hammed it up quite a bit, and his performance was the only one that broke my movie-watching immersion. It's not that his acting was bad, just exaggerated. And it didn't help that his character design and costume were also the least grounded of the cast. Yes, everyone had "anime styling," but Renji's hair went a little over the top.
Second, the third act could have been edited down by 5 to 10 minutes. On the one hand, I understand why it was. After all, Bleach is an action-oriented series and you gotta please the fans. There's a certain expectation of long anime action sequences going into this film, and it delivers in the third act. I'm not ragging on the choreography or direction, which were fantastic. But there were two sequences—I won't spoil which ones—that went on a bit too long and felt repetitive without adding much value.
How do I end this? All I can say is, I don't usually care whether a film comes out with a sequel or not, but I do hope there is one for this. Knowing what director Shinsuke Sato can do, I'm excited to see how he approaches the full Soul Society arc, and I would watch it in a heartbeat.
This film feels reminiscent of the Phase One films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: not as epic in scale or funding as the more recent entries, but oozing with potential. That's how much I enjoyed Bleach.