Browsing through the internet, there were whispers of it. The makings of another live action movie based off one of those Japanese animes, this time, one seemingly named after a popular cleaning solution, “Bleach”. A few behind the scenes shots would sprawl to the surface here and there, but for some reason, it didn’t get as much attention as other movies in the works. Perhaps hopes just weren’t high enough for it, this thing called “Bleach”. Fast forward to September 14th, 2018 when Netflix released the film for English audiences (July 20th for Japanese audiences) – And it was GOOD.
The curse upon anime-inspired live-action adaptations has been a tremendous point of agony for film for years. Hollywood has struggled to capture what made originals so beloved, such as with bombs “Ghost in the Shell”, “Death Note” (Okay, it was Netflix but still, that almost makes it worse) or the unspeakable “Dragonball: Evolution”, not unlike DC Comics’ recent attempts to recreate their own stories for the big screen in a live-action storyline mind you. In response, many have turned to the Japanese movie industry, with the thought process that maybe it just takes a native of Japan to tell these stories. However, the Japanese movie industry has been trying its best to do their own adaptations of their treasured hit anime and manga, sadly, without much of a budget or with unsuccessful adaptation writing strategy, leaving fans only mildly satisfied at times, particularly when it comes to their ‘summer blockbusters’ which get their names from the massive amount of action they include.
There have been some successes, such as the “Rurouni Kenshin” films and various Shojo-manga inspired stories, made by the Japanese industry, however others of much larger proportions requiring more massive special effects, such as “Fullmetal Alchemist” or the near unmentionable “Attack on Titan” films fell short. I would argue that these didn’t fall short due to special effects though – They fell short due to the way the stories were adapted. “Attack on Titan” was almost unrecognizable in comparison to its original counterparts, leaving out fan favorite character Levi Ackerman and reducing the strongest female character, Mikasa, to a victim of PTSD reliant on a man (the complete opposite from her character in the original). Meanwhile, “Fullmetal Alchemist” rushed to get through a condensed (and slightly confusing) version of the entire storyline of the manga, leaving out key character developments and relations that made characters of the original so relatable and adored (not to mention the high number of unnecessary shots that catered to fans but meant nothing to the casual viewer). So really… what hope did “Bleach”, a film based of of the 2001-2016 manga by Tite Kubo have?
The answer is: Not much, were it not for the mangaka.
Originally licensed by Hollywood for a live-action adaptation in 2010, plans fell through when Hollywood writers could not adequately satisfy Kubo’s vision of the story. After disasters like “Dragonball”, fans of “Bleach” might honestly have seen this as a bit of a mercy upon their poor souls. In recent years though, with the success of “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the drive amongst film makers to recreate their favorite stories has grown, and that isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon. It certainly had spread to Japan too. Again though, the Japanese have struggled with budgets and balancing storylines. So that brings us back to “Bleach”. What makes it, well, so uniquely good?
Very simply, what makes it good is its balance of character development, action, purpose, and faithfulness to the original, all of which can be linked back in thanks to Kubo’s determination that Bleach be adapted with all of these key elements. “Bleach” isn’t without its faults. The CGI can be questionable at times and it is very exposition heavy (to its credit though, thankfully all of the exposition is quick and at times, done pretty naturally as the audience is able to learn along with the protagonist – think of how Harry Potter learns about the wizarding world with the help of Hermione and Ron). The pacing of editing too can also throw off viewers at times. But the thing is, “Bleach” does what in essence, the first “Spider-man” movies of the early 2000s did so well. It keeps the quirkiness of the manga, the language style, the tones (such as music and visuals), the intriguing elements of characters, and the drives behind what moved the story forward. It’s not the exact same story, but fits naturally with the characters and the original world that they were created in as an alternate retelling, thus resulting in a distinct and intriguing plot for fans and newcomers alike.
The main character, Ichigo Kurosaki (played by Sota Fukushi), is a young man forced in many ways to face obstacles he knows he might not be strong enough to take on, all the while feeling as though he failed when he was unable to protect his mother at a young age. The supporting character of Rukia Kuchiki (played by Hana Sugisaki) is shown to audiences as a clearly conflicted character dedicated to both her role in her family and the Soul Society as well as doing all she physically can to save others. These characters, along with others such as Chad, Orihime, Renji, and Byakuya, keep their core characteristics even while set in our “real” world, making them familiar to fans, but still distinctive and memorable, even to new viewers. Not to mention, the acting is kinda great and fits into the world perfectly. Just saying.
Perhaps most beautifully done in this adaptation though was how the core struggle of Ichigo’s character development, going from a teenager simply able to see ghosts growing into a defender of such souls, was balanced with the revelation of just how much bigger the world he lives in actually is (for instance drawing in ramifications in place by the Soul Society), making his choices all the more important as he moves forward in his journey.
Film is a tricky medium. Unlike TV dramas, which have episodes upon episodes in which they can develop plots and characters and draw out these elements in subtle ways, in film, a crew and cast must effectively condense a story into a short time frame while still keeping it believable. “Bleach” not only does this quiet well (again, with some pitfalls, though nothing too condemning), but it goes beyond satisfying such requirements in order to create its distinct vision of a new world and environment for audiences to experience and explore. And it’s a world that I for one hope we get to go back to again.
So is “Bleach” a turning point for the anime-adaptations? We’ll see. It might be the inevitable turning point that was going to come out of the Japanese film industry, much like the first two “Spider-man” films were for Superhero films coming out of Hollywood – when people realized they could be both good visually (in regards to multiple special effects) and full of compelling storytelling.
The question of if Hollywood can follow up with such an adaptation remains to be seen though. Particularly with rumors of the upcoming “Your Name.” adaptation licensed by Star Wars and Star Trek veteran film maker J.J. Abrams’ and his company, Bad Robot Productions (one might say Abrams has made a name of himself as a king of reboots and adaptations at this point), there doesn’t seem to be any sign of Hollywood giving up just yet. They’ve got their best batter up. Hopefully Abrams won’t let us down and will show Hollywood how it’s done. Until that day though, it looks like our hopes will likely be able to be placed safely back with the homeland of anime and manga when it comes to adapting such stories. After all, what is anime and manga without Japan and their mangaka?