REVIEW: Bleach: Hell Verse (2010)

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Here we are, once again with yet another Bleach movie on our hands.  This makes movie number four.  For those of you who know nothing of Bleach, I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to explain it HERE.  It started as a popular shonen TV series that ran for 366 episodes!  It’s unclear whether or not there will be more films but the rumor is that Warner Brothers is prepping a live action adaptation for consumption stateside.  The point is that this is a big property, and Hell Verse is a big film.

We begin with an ambiguous (and forgettable) fight, then segue to the modern world.  Yes!  For once, a Bleach feature seems content with setting at least some of the action in modern day Japan.  For you noobs, I should at least explain that the main tenet of the Bleach universe is that there is another, spiritual world that is overlaid on top of the world we occupy.  The Soul Society exists there and it’s occupied by all the souls waiting to be reincarnated.  It’s also occupied by the shinigami, or soul reapers, who work to insure the safety of the souls in both worlds.

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The core problem with some of the series and all of the first three films is their insistence on setting most of the action in the soap opera world of the Soul Society.  While that can be interesting as an aside, it’s overly preoccupied with petty conflicts, boss battles and politics that I, frankly, couldn’t care less about.  Over the years they’ve added so many side stories about the various soul reapers and their conflicts that the show became tedious as best.  The heart of the series is the relationship between Rukia, a soul reaper, and Ichigo, a Japanese teenager who inadvertently becomes a sort of apprentice to Rukia.  It’s the contrast between the real world and the spirit world that’s interesting, as is the interpersonal balancing act that goes on between Rukia and Ichigo.

Thankfully, Hell Verse centers on a conflict that begins in the real world and then descends into Hell.  Literally.  One of Hell’s denizen’s has hatched a plot to destroy the gates of Hell and free all the souls of the evil people who’ve been condemned to eternal torment there.  While a lot of the movie happens in the spirit world, it does so with its eye clearly focused on Ichigo.  Yes, many of the other shinigami are present, but they’re all part of the same mission and working on the same side this time.  That helped the plot remain on the rails and chugging ahead.  At 94 minutes, it’s a brisk ride and exactly what the franchise needed.

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Yes, there are fights–a few too may for my taste, but that IS the price of admission, isn’t it?  Bleach has always had fights, but few as dynamic as these.  I actually found myself rooting for Ichigo, especially when the only way out is for him to… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself just how far he’s willing to go to save the world.

Production design and animation quality are both top notch.  Much better than in the previous features where it seemed that TV quality animation was simply blown up for the big screen.  Here, there are lots more ambient lighting effects and more interesting “camera’ movement than you’d see on TV.  Finally, director Noriyuki Abe transcends his roots and gives us visuals that are worthy of a feature film.

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I particularly enjoyed the non-stereotypical designs used to represent Hell and its guardians.  If you’re familiar with the woodblock prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, you’ll also see an interesting homage to one of his more famous works here.  It’s surely noted by the Japanese since they’re as familiar with Kuniyoshi as we in the west are with Picasso or Michelangelo, but most western audience members will probably miss it.

I watched the subtitled version and found the Japanese performances to be as robust as ever.  I just hope that the actor who reads for Ichigo hasn’t damaged his vocal cords with all the yelling the character has to do!

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Some might find this particular film to be an oversimplified version of Bleach.  I agree that its writers really pared down the character list to tighten up the storytelling, but I think it’s important to remember that this is a feature film and not a TV show or an OAV.  For once, a Bleach movie stands on its own two feet and never falters.  Recommended.

 

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