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Premiere Report: BLEACH (Live-Action 2018)

by Cindy Sibilsky,

BLEACH is the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of the world-renowned Tite Kubo manga and anime series about the adventures of supernaturally gifted, orange-haired teenager Ichigo Kurosaki (Sōta Fukushi). Capable of seeing spirits, Ichigo meets a “Soul Reaper” (shinigami) by the name of Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki), who transfers her powers to him after being injured by an evil spirit known as a “Hollow.” Under Rukia's guidance, Ichigo trains to harness his newfound Soul Reaper abilities in the battle against Hollows while Rukia does her best to fit in as a human high school girl. Directed by Shinsuke Satō (I am a Hero, GANTZ) BLEACH premiered in Japan on July 20th with the U.S. debut on July 28th for two sold-out screenings at the JAPAN CUTS annual film festival at Japan Society in an event co-presented with Anime NYC.

Spoiler Warning: the following review contains mild spoilers for BLEACH (2018)

It's not hard to understand the appeal of BLEACH. It contains most of the hallmarks and cliches of a great manga or anime: unlikely heroes, the supernatural and ancient worlds mixing with the modern era, boy-meets-girl, high school setting, well-endowed naive damsels in distress and children in peril, even a rambunctious yet kawaii animal sidekick (Kon, who is not in the live-action film) and plenty of action, monsters and samurai chanbara. But it stands apart from others like it because at its core BLEACH carries a lot of emotional depth in dealing with the inevitable -- death, as well as the existential questions that have plagued humans for eternity. Creator Tite Kubo sprinkles many allusions to Eastern traditions surrounding death such as incorporating Shinto practices (purification of evil spirits and honoring the dead and ancestors) and Buddhist themes and beliefs (such as the six realms of Samsara, all of which are featured in the series, and the practice of speaking the words from what is known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead aka “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is similar to what a Soul Reaper does to guide the spirit to the next realm). But most of all, what makes BLEACH a classic is that the characters are captivating, flawed but likeable and their stories are compelling. There is all of that and more in the live-action adaptation.

BLEACH images copyright: © Tite Kubo/Shueisha © 2018 "BLEACH" Film Partners

BLEACH opens in Karakura, a modern day Japanese town (albeit fictitious), to establish Ichigo Kurosaki (performed to perfection by Sōta Fukushi) as a young boy on the day he lost his mother Masaki Kurosaki (Masami Nagasawa), which was when he first encountered a ghost girl -- the two moments intrinsically related -- thus establishing the orange-haired hero's modus operandi: to be a protector. Flash forward to a 15 year old High School Ichigo single-handedly penalizing a group of rowdies for disrupting a ghost-child's memorial, aided in the 11th hour of the fight by the lovable oaf with colossal strength, Chad (a dead-on interpretation by Yû Koyanagi). From then on it is a nearly frame-by-frame faithful representation of Episode 1 of the anime series: complete with the bizarre father-son rivalry and camaraderie (the father, Isshin Kurosaki, played by Yôsuke Eguchi, is even more charming, humorous and sweetly vulnerable than in the series) with sisters Karin and Yuzu rolling their eyes. As in Episode 1, it quickly progresses to the introduction of Soul Reaper Rukia Kuchiki (performed with a petite, quiet intensity like a pocket full of dynamite by the superb Hana Sugisaki). Of course, those familiar with the series know this leads to Ichigo's first encounter with a Hollow and his transformation into a “substitute” Soul Reaper. The CGI effects on the debut Hollow, Fishbone, are astounding to say the least, as they blend seamlessly with the dynamic action scenes and are unmistakably true to the original design. When Ichigo finally breaks out his Reaper powers, Rukia exclaims: “His strong spiritual pressure has made his sword huge!” Indeed, a little blue humor never hurt anyone -- the audience agreed! Gasps of joy and approval, hearty laughs and applause greeted every moment a familiar character appeared or favorite scene unfolded.

Rukia joins Ichigo's high school and more recognized figures appear. The arrival of precious and innocent Orihime Inoue (the beautiful Erina Mano) whose crush on oblivious Ichigo can hardly be contained, was followed by a hilarious “Reaper Training” sequence as Rukia tries to get Ichigo to accept his fate while the rest of the high school thinks they are a new couple sneaking around. Trouble brews shortly after Rukia, frustrated with Ichigo and still getting used to her false body visits Urahara Shop, the supernatural superstore of a former Reaper, Kisuke “hat and clogs” Urahara (portrayed with his signature cool aloofness by Seiichi Tanabe). He reminds her of the danger she is in for engaging a human -- to her and him. This sets up a speedy introduction to other key characters who appear a bit later in the series but are vital to the story -- the red-haired Renji Abarai (Taichi Saotome, whose sneering, curl-lipped interpretation is stellar) who confronts Ichigo and is foiled by the stone-faced, bespeckled and blue arrow of light wielding Uryu Ishida of the Quincy Tribe (Ryô Yoshizawa, an ideal casting choice). Also posing as a High School peer, Uryu explains that he is also a part of the supernatural world, but a foe of both Hollow and Reaper. Ichigo's confusion and challenges only mount when Rukia is confronted by her Soul Reaper clan and kin, Renji Abarai, and her brother, Byakuya Kuchiki (played by J-Rock star MIYAVI, in his second big screen role) who remind her of her folly, and that the human will have to die as a result of this - or they both will, if orders are disobeyed. Determined to prove her fellow Reapers wrong and growing more attached to Ichigo, Rukia enforces a do-or-die training routine set to music by Yutaka Yamada. The pulsing title track “Milk” by [Alexandros] drives the intensity of the action even harder.

BLEACH images copyright: © Tite Kubo/Shueisha © 2018 "BLEACH" Film Partners

Ichigo is set up as bait for the “big fish” Hollow who has been eluding him -- Kingfisher. They encounter Kingfisher on their way to the Kurosaki's annual pilgrimage to their wife and mother's memorial and Ichigo discovers that this is personal. This sets up an incredible action sequence where Kingfisher and Ichigo embark on an epic battle of destruction across the busy city of Karakura, both invisible to all but the highly spiritually inclined, including two High School peers who lend a helping hand. But after the bait has hooked and destroyed the Hollow, Ichigo finds his true matches are more deadly than monsters -- Renji and Byakuya, who have come to end his tenure as “substitute” Soul Reaper and his life. Thus ensues an iconic clash of Zanpakutō (unique swords generated from their owner's souls that differ in shape depending on the owner) between the sneering Renji and heroic Ichigo. This fight to the finish introduces Renji's Zabimaru, a “snake tail” sword whose blades can be used as a sword, or whip around like a razor-edged snake and scatter its blades. Though an inferior fighter to Renji, Ichigo is relentless to the point Byakuya forces his fellow Reaper to step down and takes the young human on with his signature barely-lifting-a-finger prowess. Though he is clearly the loser in the battle, Ichigo's stubborn, dynamic willpower is utterly indestructible, even as he clings to his last breaths. The only one who can cease this pummeling is Rukia, who betrays her feelings for Ichigo in a heart-wrenching moment where she pledges loyalty to her brother and erases Ichigo's memories, thrusting him back into the “normal” life of a High Schooler. All, indeed, does seem to have returned to routine until a note in his schoolbook jogs the memory of an unforgettable presence… and sets up the possibilities for a sequel!

Shinsuke Satō (center) at the film premiere. Photo Credit: Cindy Sibilsky

Adaptations are notoriously tricky. How can one sum up a beloved character, myth, book or moment in history into a neat ninety-minute package and be faithful to the original while making a work that can stand on its own? Try adapting a such an entity as the utterly addictive BLEACH, the mega popular manga (which boasts 74 volumes and sold over 120 million copies worldwide since 2001) and anime series (2004-2012) that kept turning out new stories, characters and plots twists to loyal affectionados for over a decade, garnering new admirers all the time. Smart money was on engaging the best in the business, known for their attention to detail, knack for adaptations and smart execution of plot and action. Director Shinsuke Satō (who helmed box-office hits GANTZ, I am a Hero, Death Note: Light Up the World and Inuyashiki, all based on popular manga series) was in attendance at the U.S. premiere and eager to see for himself how the American fans received the fruits of his labor. He was clearly delighted by their enthusiastic response and proclaimed, “I was watching you all more than the film. Japanese audiences tend to mind their manners and it's hard to tell what they feel. You all had the reactions I wanted.” Sato spent over a year with the screenwriter, mulling over every BLEACH manga volume and anime episode to narrow down the scenes they wanted to recreate while focusing on the heart and throughline of the film. “In essence, it's a boy-meets-girl story,” Sato explained, “I didn't want to make a copy of the manga or anime but use them as an inspiration and create something else, something new.” As for the iconic Zanpakutō battles: “We tested different lightweight cardboard and materials to get the size and shape right, then focused most of the fight choreography on the escalation of intensity in the movements and the sword's evolutions” (like when Renji's Zabimaru transforms). As an admirer of the legendary cinematic master, Akira Kurosawa, Sato always dreamed of making a samurai film but one set in modern times instead of ancient Japan. It seems he got his wish with this spectacular adaptation of BLEACH. One attendee posed a final question: “Will there be a sequel?” Sato smiled, “If the fans demand it, I will ask my producers!” he exclaimed. Fingers crossed, this incredible series can be fleshed out even more.

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