I’ve never really been able to get into Bleach, though not for a lack of trying. Around the point I was getting tired of Naruto, a likeminded friend tried to get me into Bleach, which he was quite enjoying. I sampled the earlier parts of the story, but from that and a look around online nothing really grabbed me, and I instead ended up delving more into the likes of One Piece.
For those even less familiar with the material, Bleach chronicles the adventures of teenager Ichigo Kurosaki, who through a bizarre series of events becomes a Soul Reaper tasked with protecting Earth from rampaging restless spirits and ferrying innocent ghosts on to the next life. Ichigo and his allies achieve this by primarily waving around elaborate magic swords that look like they came from a college art student’s sketchbook and eventually facing the messy politics of the after life world ‘Soul Society’.
Movie 1: Memories of Nobody is a surprisingly enjoyable effort. In the extras the staff talk about how they wanted to make a focused, standalone story that didn’t require a viewer to be versed in Bleach lore, and I think they succeeded. Whilst out on patrol with his mentor, Rukia, Ichigo encounters a new group of wandering spirits which are taken out by a Soul Reaper neither of them has seen before, a girl named Senna. Senna’s carefree indifference quickly gets under their skin as she proves unwilling to share any information on herself and instead focuses on enjoying life. At the same time, both Soul Society and our world face imminent destruction due to the emergence of a new dimension between the two, a situation being aggravated by an exiled disgraced clan.
It really doesn’t take too much to link the various threads together, to the point that it’s awkward that the characters seem to take so long to join the dots. However, the story is well-paced, and the focus on the growing relationship between Ichigo and Senna gives the film a well-placed heart. It’s actually rather sad to see her attempt to come to terms with the swirling paradox of memories in her head, initially remembering a happy home life with a loving father before later picturing a completely different and abusive man. The film offers a surprisingly fresh spin on the question of what determines an individual and the value of a life, and whilst I wasn’t crying by the end as the creators hoped, I was certainly very touched. It helps a great deal that rather then prioritise pointless fight scenes the film focuses on building up the character relations, only including fights when they’re perfectly placed to carry clout, and avoid feeling mandatory or melodramatic.
Movie 2: The DiamondDust Rebellion opts for a story which is more rewarding for long term fans. Whilst transporting a royal heirloom, one of the Soul Reaper teams comes under attack. The team’s captain, Toshiro Hitsugaya, recognizes the masked enemy leader and abandons his post to give chase. Branded a conspirator, his team is placed under house arrest whilst an investigation takes place. Taking refuge in the normal world, Toshiro is sheltered by Ichigo, who makes it his business to ensure he doesn’t make the wrong decision.
The actual drive of the movie is compelling: What if you had a second chance with someone you feel you betrayed? Would you cast your lot with them regardless or stop them if you felt it was needed? This is the kind of plot that is most interesting when explored with a character like Toshiro, who had enough of a showing in the previous film to establish him as a strictly by-the-book sort. As an antagonist, Kusaka has an interesting trademark. The enchanted swords are one of Bleach‘s signature elements, with each one being unique, so the question of what happens when two people end up wielding the same sword is a nice plot twist for this universe. Giving a villain a copy of the hero’s special weapon is common in fiction, but with the established rules of this story it stands out more, and it’s intriguing to follow the story and see how it’s even possible.
Ichigo’s motivation for helping Toshiro is another element that will likely carry more clout with those familiar with the ongoing Bleach narrative, but it still works here and helps paint him as a pretty respectable guy.
Movie 3: Fade To Black might be the weakest offering. A pair of youths attack Soul Reaper HQ, wiping Rukia’s memories and spiriting her away. This has the knock-on effect of wiping everyone’s memories of her and in turn Ichigo, who was made a Soul Reaper by her. This results in the fairly clichéd plot of our hero trying to convince all his allies he’s a trusted friend whilst they go on the offensive. This is actually my biggest criticism of the Reapers across all three films: for an alleged intelligence organization, they don’t seem to have any other strategy than to get mad and launch overkill attacks. (Movie 2 even has Ichigo criticise them over this very fact.) Most of this seems to boil down to their leader, an old man who with each fresh crisis seems to prioritise the most aggressive form of action and shuts up any of his subordinates when they suggest anything more moderate.
One of their number I did enjoy is Kenpachi, who basically becomes a running gag with his enthusiastic engaging of each film’s final big bad in a brawl whilst loving every second of it. It’s hard to not get a laugh from a character like that.
The pair of antagonists for this film almost feel like an addition to the themes of the first one, posing the question of whether it’s better to always have someone in your life or choose to cherish the time you did have if the fates move you on. Unfortunately, the end result feels like the end of a fighting game, as Rukia’s captors force their negative emotions on her and transform her into Dark Rukia, an evil, mindless, screeching version of herself driven by her kidnapper’s desires to kill anyone who would remove her. Rukia’s strong character is one of the positive elements I hold towards Bleach, so making a film around her and then basically treating her as a semi-MacGuffin feels like a waste. There is still an emotional side to her story here, but I can’t help but think they could have made that work better if they had scrapped the concurrent ‘Ichigo on the lam’ plot thread to give her more focus. After already having strong roles in the previous two films, he certainly could have taken more of a backseat, especially as his plot entails helping characters to remember they can do things we’ve already seen from them before.
Movie 1 comes with a small number of extras. These include a collection of Japanese trailers for the film, a gallery of production art, a look at the storyboards (which covers nearly the entire film in chronological order), and short interviews with the key staff. No extras are present on Movies 2 or 3.
The animation holds up well and is all the better for the Blu-ray transfer. Whilst there aren’t any mind-blowing scenes, all three features manage to get good use of their budgets and generally avoid the common Japanese pitfall of ‘Have an awesome scene, followed by a crappy one to balance the budget’. Of particular note: This is the first collection of Japanese animated theatrical works I’ve seen in a while that doesn’t feel the need to obnoxiously throw in cell shading, with the scant admission of a brief scene in the first movie that establishes Ichigo and Rukia discovering the Blank spirits.
I watched the first two films in Japanese and the last in English. Both casts do a good job but I find myself leaning to the Japanese. However, the English cast do make things quite easy to sit back and enjoy, with the only real issue being the usual keeping of straight Japanese names for certain elements. I think in any English dub this admittedly respectful practice stands out as mildly awkward.
Music is generally unobtrusive, evoking the general Japanese tone without slipping into the sometimes aggravating drums, pipes and chants of Studio Pierrot stable-mate Naruto. However, a fairly bizarre trend involves a woman belting out an English soul song whenever Ichigo takes centre stage, which is made even more confusing as said song would seem to end as quickly as it started.
As someone who didn’t expect to get much out of these films, I honestly found them quite enjoyable, and I have to wonder what other layers I might have found were I more of a fan of the larger Bleach series. Even if you’re on the fence I’d certainly recommend giving Memories of Nobody a watch, as it’s a poignant, self-contained story that works better than one would expect from a spin-off of an action show.
Bleach Movie 1, Bleach Movie 2 and Bleach Movie 3 (UK editions) can be purchased through Amazon.co.uk.