Sometimes the best thing you can say about something is that it dodged the right bullets. The live-action adaptation of Tite Kubo's long-running manga Bleach isn't anywhere nearly as lamentable as the rinky-dink live-action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist that previously polluted our screens. Here, things have also been dialed down and constrained to fit into a two-hour timeslot and a modest budget, but that actually helps here — instead of making the film cheap and tedious, it keeps it from being overwhelmed by its baggy source material. Still, the end result is only okay instead of great, and maybe that's only because we have such recent examples of how to do this sort of thing so spectacularly well.
The afterlife has a posse
Kubo's manga revolved around Ichigo Kurosaki (here played by Sōta Fukushi; he was also Anotsu in the live-action Blade Of The Immortal), a teenaged hothead (literally: he sports orange locks) with the ability to see ghosts. He mostly treats it as an annoyance to be swatted away, although we know there's more — as per the opening scene, taken directly from the manga, where he puts a beat-down on a gang of thugs who had the temerity to skateboard through a streetside shrine put up to memorialize a kid killed at the pedestrian crossing. For the most part, Ichigo just bumps through life at school and at home with his gung-ho father (Yōsuke Eguchi; Saito from Kenshin), and his two impossibly precocious younger sisters who steal every scene they're in.
One night Ichigo finds a stranger in his room, a girl about his age wearing a martial outfit. This is Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki, Rin from Immortal), and she is stupefied to discover that there's a human being who can see her. She's not one of the living, but a shinigami — a "reaper", one of the members of the supernatural "Soul Society" who dispel evil spirits and lay the good ones to rest. When one of Ichigo's sisters becomes targeted as prey for an evil spirit, a "Hollow", Rukia loans Ichigo her power and discovers, to both of their surprise, that he's actually pretty good at this ghostbusting gig.
Not that Ichigo wants the job. The problem is, Rukia can't take her powers back from him — he has to give them back, and he's still way too untutored in their use to accomplish that. Worse, what Rukia did is a felony in the first degree in Soul Society and now her own adoptive brother Byakuya (Miyavi) and his sneering right-hand man Renji (Taichi Saotome) are preparing to lay down the law on both Rukia and Ichigo. It falls to Ichigo to raise his powers to the point where he can not only stop a monstrous super-Hollow that may endanger his school friends, but stop the other Soul Society members as well.
Up against the budget barrier
All this ought to sound familiar to anyone even passingly acquainted with the source, and there's enough of the original put on display or at least namechecked to pass muster. Another early-arc addition to the story, Uryu Ishida (Ryō Yoshizawa; he was Okita in the live-action Gintama) — the last surviving member of a clan of human reapers — turns up, as do Ichigo's classmates Chad and Orihime, if only as extended walk-ons, and Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe), a Soul Society exile who provides both Ichigo and Rukia with aid and gear.
The single biggest obstacle facing most any Japanese live-action adaptation of an anime or manga has been the budget. Japanese films, even at the high end, simply don't have nine figures (in dollars) to throw at the screen. That leaves three possibilities open: they end up looking cheap and rickety (FMA, or the horrible live-action Attack On Titan); they make use of existing production techniques for specifically Japanese productions (Rurouni Kenshin, my reigning gold standard for such jobs); or they strategically dial things back to spend the money most where it counts.
Bleach falls mostly into the third bucket. The biggest share of its budget is blown on a truly impressive climactic fight where a city block gets demolished, and on a few earlier slash-'em-up fights between Ichigo and other Hollows. Many things don't make it to the screen at all: the Soul Society itself, for instance, is glimpsed in a single digital shot. But most of what's at the heart of the story, at least across the first arc the movie's clearly patterned after, requires no green screens. It's all character-driven: Ichigo the stubborn kid who wants his life back, and Rukia the stern tutor slowly growing to consider this mortal the closest thing she's had to a friend.
When less really is more
Even Tite Kubo himself didn't believe there was a good live-action version to be made of his manga, and for a long time I myself didn't believe it either. I strongly suspect some of Kubo's hesitancy was of a party with my own — that some things just look literal and foolish when filmed as live action. But director Shinsuke Sato (I Am A Hero, Inuyashiki, the ill-conceived Gantz live-action adaptations) seem to have believed otherwise, and the most part they don't make the whole thing look like a bad idea gone wrong. Even Ichigo's ridiculously outsized sword seems ... well, not realistic, but at the very least credible. Kenshin, again: Sanosuke's giant horse-killing weapon was dialed down just enough to get audiences to buy it, while still being theatrically massive.
Something else that helps here is drawing on both recent and not-so-recent film culture. We now have a decades of live-action film culture specifically designed to push the boundaries of what's plausible — not just computer-assisted superhero spectacles, but wire-fu/wuxia acrobatics. Bleach draws at least as strongly on the latter tradition as it does the former, but it helps that even a modestly budgeted movie today can have digital effects that outshine bigger-budgeted work from a decade ago. The climactic fight here would be a mere Act One setpiece in, say, a Marvel movie, but it's executed with the same level of professionalism.
Part of me is grateful this version of Bleach is as limited as it is. I enjoyed the original material up to a point — in the anime, about the first season and a half or so — but everything after that was a monotonous one-upsmanship grinding wheel that most every A-list shōnen title seems doomed to devolve into after a certain point. The movie takes enough key elements from the original to earn the name, tells a relatively self-contained story with it, and doesn't hang around longer than it must. This time, less really was more.