So let’s talk about manga-to-motion picture adaptations! Common knowledge is that American studios should not try to do it. Most of the time you get hot messes like the American adaptation of Dragonball Z or Ghost In The Shell or Alita most likely or the controversy surrounding Akira. The Edge of Tomorrow is the only time I’ve ever heard of people reacting positively. On the flipside, most people will tell you that Japanese adaptations are pretty good! I can’t say that with any amount of certainty, since I haven’t seen many of them… only Bleach, which debuted on Netflix last month.
It’s sort of a weird beast, though. Bleach was made by Warner Brothers Japan. Between that and Netflix, there’s some major American backing behind it. Unlike something like Death Note, though, this movie features a Japanese cast. I will say that this is more or less a Japanese adaptation with an eye toward acceptability in American markets… kinda like the second season of The Big O.
Now, upon watching the movie I’d never read the manga (which ended two years ago after a run of 15 years) or watched the anime that the story is based on. Beyond, say, AMV’s set to Ghostbusters or some uptempo rock back I’d never seen before. Had you asked me, “What is Bleach?”, I would’ve told you, “It looks like Dragonball Z… but with ghosts.”
It also looked excruciatingly stylish. Its protagonist, Ichigo (played by Sota Fukushi), was always striking cool poses, wearing either a scowl or a smirk and exuding raw counterculture. The title was also fresh: rather than a torturous mishmash of several adjectives or an alphanumeric suffix, it’s simply BLEACH. Toxic. Corrosive. And totally the name of a rock band for cool people. (His bedroom is chock full of Bad Religion posters, which is a nice touch.) Characters in the movie snidely remark how Ichigo is an outsider and a weirdo because of his bleach blonde hair. Me, I don’t see how this guy isn’t the most popular guy in school.
He’s not the only cool guy. Some guys actually end up cooler than the source material. Chad (played by Yu Koyanagi) is supposed to be a mentally slow guy who’s the heavy. Instead, he’s a handsome big guy, and rather than come off as slow he seems more like a quiet, brooding strong man with a punk rock hairstyle. I imagine Uryu (Ryo Yoshizawa) is supposed to be a nerd, what with glasses being a key component to his entire look. Instead he comes off as smooth, sly, and sexy. Typical anime cartoonishness has been replaced by a GQ style of subtle suave.
Thanks to some helpful captions that look like they were written in a font straight out of the early 2000’s, we learn that Ichigo has the power to see ghosts. Early on he scares off some punks who disrespected a makeshift memorial, causing distress to an unseen spirit. His ghost-hunting ways causes him to cross paths with Rukia (Hana Sugisaki), a Soul Reaper. Like ghosts, she is unseen by the physical world. Her task, though, is to see out spirits and send them on their way to the afterlife.
Most spirits are scared humans who just need a tap on the forehead to send them off on their merry way to the Soul Society. Some spirits, though, are malevolent. They are known as Hollows. To typical humans, they manifest as windstorms that can cause massive damage to surrounding areas. To Ichigo and Rukia, though, they look like giant Godzilla creatures with skull masks.
Things go sour for Rukia in her most recent battle with a hollow, and she requests aid from Ichigo. She tries to transfer some of her powers, but because Ichigo is strong in the Force he ends up absorbing her entire Reaper power set. He easily dispatches the Hollow to a hip-hop jam that, for some reason, ends with a line about drinking your milk.
So Rukia is now condemned to walk the earth in human form while Ichigo tries to level up so he can transfer the Reaper powers back to her. This means… high school hijinks! Rukia moves in with Ichigo but sleeps in his closet because his dad might get suspicious! Rukia and Ichigo run off to do some training montages and everyone assumes that they’re dating! And some of Ichigo’s classmates might also be part of rival secret societies? This is the part where it most feels like they’re condensing thirty or forty episodes of the show into a tidy hour-long span. Some of the characters barely get any development, but they have to be there or long-time fans might get upset. References to popular storylines are paid some lip-service.
And honestly, it’s the most fun part of the movie. I didn’t mind only get small glimpses to the story at large. It gave you a hint of a larger universe in the background without being bogged into the details and minutae. If you want to know more about, say, how the high school drama plays out, there’s an entire 15-year long manga that you can check out.
I regret this next part, but what the hell, we ARE talking about manga-to-movie adaptations here: LET’S TALK ABOUT SHIPPING. I got curious about how a particular romantic pairing worked out… and man did I fall into a Wiki Wormhole of of sites populated by angry shippers. And let me tell you… this movie leans very heavily on this ship, as if it were 100% on their side. It also made me wonder how much the director would deviate from the source material. Sure the creator of Bleach would want a certain couple to end up together at the end. (And they did, even having a kid in the post script.) But what happens if the actors playing two other characters just naturally have more chemistry?
If you think casting older people as high school teenagers is a uniquely American thing, let me tell you: the high school in Bleach looks like it’s attended exclusively by young adults in their mid-20’s. I checked the ages on the main cast as most are betwen 25 and 27 years old. The youngest is Hana Sugisaki, who is 20, and is the one character who’s supposed to be over 100 years old.
Now, this is typically not a problem except for some plot elements. We know that Ichigo’s mother died when he was a kid, and the actor playing young Ichigo looks to be about 6 years old. The story is being recounted by older Ichigo, who looks 25 but is supposed to be 15. However… Ichigo also has two sisters who also look like they’re roughly 6-8 years old. And we’re also told that they loved their mom. Wait… so are the little sisters supposed to be more, like, ten years old? Or was young Ichigo cast too young, and he’s really supposed to be 10? If so, he’s had an interesting five-year growth spurt because that’s all it takes for him to look like an underwear model.
After watching the movie, I decided to catch up what I was missing on by watching a couple of the anime episodes. The biggest difference is that the movie is a lot less shouty, and the characters don’t seem to be hopped up on cocaine. Ichigo’s dad, for example, gets into martial arts fights when he sees his son. In the movie, it’s been transformed into a playful noogie.
Most telling, though, is the portrait of Ichigo’s deceased mother. In the anime, Ichigo’s dad had a giant poster of the mom in a smiling anime pose. Here, it’s more somber. The picture is still there, but it’s more subdued and respectful. When you see it, you’re not supposed to laugh at the absurdity. You’re supposed to be reminded that this is the tragedy that defined Ichigo’s family. Ichigo even has a small photo of his mother in his bedroom to remind him of the day she protected him from a spectral attack.
The special effects aren’t bad, and if they look dodgy from time to time it’s easy to write it off as ghosts being ghosts. Of course they look slightly off! Meanwhile, the movie is chock full of moments that made me smile. There’s a scene where Ichigo and an ally stand back to back while facing a kaiju-sized beastie like they were a two-man Avengers squad. In another, a sign goes flying off and is about to hit some civilians… when it’s stopped by Chad, who grabs the sign like it’s no big deal. My wife speculated the whole movie that Chad just had to have a bigger role, right? He was too cool to be wasted! Sadly, his appearance basically amounts to a cameo, but mad props to Yu Koyanagi for infusing such a minor character with so much on-screen presence.
The movie ends with a very long action sequence where Ichigo and friends tangle with a massive beastie… but uh-oh! Just like a JRPG, it turns out that wasn’t the final boss at all. Throughout the movie, Rukia has been pursued by other Reapers, because give your powers to a human is a felony. They catch up with them and it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for all movie: straight up Dragonball Z one-on-one action. Having seen the American Dragonball movie, I will agree with the pundits. Leave the manga/anime adaptation to the Japanese. They’re far better at staging the fight scenes.
Part of it is because they don’t care if a scene drags out too long. It’s a hallmark of this particular genre, to the point where over-long fight sequences have become a meme! The point of the fight is the fight, and you let the punches, blows, slight defeats, and improvisations tell the story. Some people might find this segment to drag. I didn’t.
Then again… I’m the guy who took the name of a Mexican luchador as an online moniker.
I liked this movie enough that I’m hoping that there’s a sequel. I’m not holding out much hope, though. Bleach only did $4 million US in Japanese theaters. Who knows how well it’s doing on Netflix, especially compared to past adaptations like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note? Bleach, though, succeeded in setting up a world that I wanted to see more of. (Unlike the anime, which kinda gave me a headache after two episodes.) It’s been less than a month, but I’ve seen it twice. I’m totally up for a Part 2.
Bleach is available for streaming on Netflix.
NEXT: It’s ninja clowns, Michael Douglas, and the world’s most intense game of Rock, Paper, and Scissors in Animal World. Then in time for Halloween it’s The Ring (1998) and Sadako vs. Kayako (2016).