Directed by: Shinsuke Sato || Produced by: Kazutoshi Wadakura
Screenplay by: Shinsuke Sato, Daisuke Habara || Starring: Sota Fukushi, Hana Sugisaki, Ryo Yoshizawa, Erina Mano, Yu Koyanagi, Taichi Saotome, Takamasa Ishihara, Seiichi Tanabe, Masami Nagasawa, Yosuke Eguchi
Music by: Yutaka Yamada || Cinematography: Taro Kawazu || Editing by: Tsuyoshi Imai || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese
Running Time: 108 minutes
In another snarky, trolling essay I’ll write in the near future, I’ll include Japanese animation (anime) on a list of popular culture phenomenons of which I’m not a fan. This rant-to-be will include other cultural icons such as other people’s dogs, inspirational quote-memes, trap music, comic book movies, Saint Patrick’s Day, and light beer — all stuff that significant portions, if not outright majorities of the human population worship.
But that’s a rant for another day. I only tease it now because the film to be reviewed, Bleach, is an adaptation of the popular manga (another popular art format of which I’m no fan) series of the same name, which has also been adapted to multiple anime shows and miniseries. Co-written and directed by Shinsuke Sato, a specialist in adapting Japanese comic and animation media to film, the movie has been lauded as a benchmark for faithful manga-adaptations as well as an effective introduction to Japanese pop culture for non-manga fans like me. This was my first live-action manga or anime-adaptation, compared to the near infinite supply of anime series, manga comics, and anime feature films with which I’ve been bombarded against my will or through osmosis (re: my peers) alone. If this initial tasting is representative of the broader field of live-action Japanese comic adaptions, perhaps I may renew my interest in modern Japanese filmmaking.
Bleach the movie feels standard-issue from a screenwriting or structural perspective to its benefit. Sato introduces our nonchalant everyman protagonist, Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi), as a jaded, scrappy teenager with a somewhat angst-ridden backstory, an endearing family of supporting characters, and a casual Six Sense (1999)-superpower of detecting, interacting, and on some occasions, fighting with ghosts and various other supernatural entities. His meeting with female-lead, Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki), snowballs this relationship with the fantastical into an action-packed yet grounded underdog story with enough humor, drama, and digital FX-powered set-pieces to appeal to all ages.
Bleach’s strongest attributes are its characters, led by the aforementioned Kurosaki and Sugisaki. Their relationship is platonic yet affectionate, and the way they interact with each other’s social circle is humorous and realistic. Their arcs are traditional in the monomythic sense, yet their dialogue and performances elevate that formula how most strong blockbusters do. Both they and their supporting cast have strong chemistry to carry the film in between its over-the-top surrealist action sequences, and whether viewers realize it or not, that chemistry becomes the star of the show over the latter.
As for those surrealist, FX-driven action sequences, they hold up well through smart choreography, sharp, deliberate editing, and limited wire-fu. Bleach only contains 3-4 set-pieces in total, depending on how you count its extended finale, but against its slim 108-minute running-time and smart pacing, these sequences feel larger without bloating themselves through excessive special FX.
I appreciate how seldom characters defy gravity, twirl through the air, or scream in slow-motion like most anime, kung-fu, and Bollywood action movies do (there’s some of all that, but it’s precise and sparingly used). Much of the overindulgent rubbish and comical melodrama typical of Asian genre filmmaking is minimized or avoided altogether in Bleach, focusing instead on painful, well choreographed (i.e. not over-choreographed) fisticuffs with occasional computer generated imagery (CGI) flourishes. The movie’s spectacle feels more grounded than Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-2004) or Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, themselves homages to Japanese and Hong Kong filmmaking, among other things), which shocked me.
The final notable strength of Bleach is its impressive artistic design, a function of its manga comic source material, which I do credit despite my prejudices. The movie’s CGI FX are not always seamless, but the designs of everything from the costumes to the monstrous antagonists are impressive. The fantastical artwork of the narrative’s supernatural elements juxtapose well against its modern, mundane urban setting, making the action scenes that much more entertaining.
Bleach’s weaknesses are minor, but worth mentioning, including its repetitive rock ‘n roll soundtrack, that aforementioned bloated finale, and a clunky prologue. The latter feels saccharine compared to the blunter, more grounded story that follows, although I’m sure Sato’s intent was to juxtapose the two, while the former is generic at best and distracting from the action at best. Musicians who work in filmmaking can produce great soundtracks based on electric guitar riffs (e.g. Tyler Bates, Ramin Djawadi), yet Bleach’s use of rock music, original or otherwise, falls flat. The film sounds like a wannabe punk-emo kid scored its scenes, which is disappointing considering how the right soundtrack could’ve elevated Bleach’s set-pieces that much further, its third act most of all. As for the film’s overextended finale, I don’t feel it wise to pack three back-to-back-to-back fight scenes in one set-piece. Not even Gareth Evans can pull that off. Things aren’t helped by the final antagonist, Takamasa Ishihara, being the lone uninteresting character in the film, though at least he’s able to subvert audience expectations by easily dispatching our protagonist.
Still, Bleach is a memorable film with strong characters, a simple yet effective story, and eclectic action sequences that embrace the stylistic elements of its manga source material where appropriate. It modernizes aspects of Japanese comics and animation for a broader audience without compromising its core appeal, making for an enjoyable teenage-centric action film that feels relatable to all audiences in a fun way. Its action is hard-hitting without resorting to buckets of Tarantino-esque gore or Game of Thrones (2011-2019)-level sadism, and this level of precision coalesces with its likable characters and their mundane, middle-class livelihoods. Whether this recommendation from a Japanese pop culture-skeptic encourages or scares you, consider it notable I approve of this manga-inspired film with no regret.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bleach is a short, sweet, action-packed nod to a popular manga series that doesn’t skimp on characterization or charismatic spectacle, wrapping the whole package in an endearing, positive message. For my part, I related to, if not outright liked all of its cast and characters, while its bombastic FX and eclectic cinematic violence won me over instead of turning me off. Those are big compliments from an action-junkie and manga/anime non-convert like me.
— However… Bleach’s soundtrack draws attention in a bad way, its prologue is truncated and on-the-nose for no good reason, and its final set-piece needed a rewrite.
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