Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bleach - live action anime done right?

If you read my Top 4 Movies of 2018 list, then you saw how I alluded to the following movie at the very end there. I debated whether or not to include this film in some capacity, as it really did impress me, and I really did want to discuss it. However, it didn't feel quite right fitting it in on that list, and what I had to discuss was probably too much to cover in that post anyhow. So, I'll be discussing it now instead, as we'll take a look at the recent live action anime adaptation to hit Netflix, Bleach.

I actually first noticed this was on Netflix back in November, while I was waiting overnight in the Charlotte airport for my connecting flight to New York. I hadn't even heard that Bleach was getting a live action movie, so it instantly caught my interest. However, as most live action adaptations of animated properties tend to not turn out so well (more on that later), I didn't exactly prioritize it, as I was honestly expecting the worst from it. And I wouldn't finally wind up getting around to it until the tail end of the year, over a month after first discovering it.

And while I was all ready to completely write this thing off, well, once I finally gave it a shot, I have to say, it wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but overall? I really enjoyed it. Based on the manga and anime of the same name, this movie essentially covers the events of the first big introductory arc in the series, the Substitute Soul Reaper arc, just before they go into the Soul Society. Back when I first watched the anime years ago, I actually wondered how they would tackle this arc if they were to do a movie adaptation. Because see, the real good stuff doesn't really get going until the following arc, and this first arc really only exists as a means to introduce us to our lead characters and the very basics on how this world works.

So I always wondered if they would try and condense this section down and get to the Soul Society arc as quickly as possible, seeing as that's when the plot really kicks in. However, that's not the case here, and they honestly do spend the entire movie just focused solely on that opening act arc. And I've gotta say, I can totally appreciate their willingness to take their time with this material and not rush through things, despite there being no guarantee that they'll even get a chance to move on to the better stuff that's to come.

So that was really cool to see. As I said, I often find myself doing that while watching anime, or even while reading books and comics and such, is that I'll be adapting them into movie form in my head, deciding what should be cut for the more limited time constraints of film, and how the story should be presented to where it remains true to the source, but still playing like a naturally flowing narrative that wasn't just a complete butcher job of the original material.

Usually in my mind, a single arc in an anime like this would translate to a single film. But for more longer series like Bleach, you also have to decide which arcs are most pertinent to make the cut, as they've gone on for several, several years, yet you typically wouldn't expect a film series to last for nearly so long. And for me, I always questioned if this opening arc would make that cut, but I think they made the right decision in keeping it fully intact, and really just focusing on our core characters and really getting to know them before expanding into a much larger cast.

And what I can especially appreciate is just how faithful an adaptation this is to the source material as well. We've seen countless adaptations of anime or animated properties that feel like they were made by people who had never even seen an episode of the original series. Whether we're talking about something like The Last Airbender, which while accurate to certain degrees in plot, is completely unfaithful in terms of capturing the tone and the characters from the show. Or Dragonball Evolution, in which literally the only thing it has in common with the series it's based off of is that they got the character names right. And when the live action Ghost in the Shell movie came out a couple of years ago, I actually debated at the time putting together a dissection breaking down all the reasons why that version didn't work, and how it gets the material so wrong, feeling like a dumbed down version of the story, whereas the original anime film of the same name still holds up to this day as a masterful work of sheer brilliance.

And I could keep going, as like I said, there's countless other similar examples like this. But here, for this live action adaptation of Bleach, they managed to not only accurately depict the plot from the anime, but they also accurately captured the tone and the characters at that, really staying true to this series' spirit. And this was just a really pleasant surprise, as I was not expecting this thing to be even remotely faithful, given what I mostly have to use as a basis of comparison.

Another example of a film that got a live action adaptation right would have to be the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 1990. Despite there being the far sillier cartoon around at the time, that movie honestly took most of its inspiration from the original source, which was a much darker black and white comic book. Stylistically, the Ninja Turtles comic does have a bit of a manga feel to it in certain regards, and the accompanying movie definitely stayed true to a lot of those aspects, and sure enough, wound up being not only one of the most faithful, but one of the best overall comic book adaptations that we've gotten even to this day.

And I bring that up, as there were definitely certain aspects of this film that reminded me of that original Ninja Turtles movie while I was watching. For instance, that movie absolutely nailed the look of the characters (to this day, no other live action Ninja Turtles movie comes even close to looking as good as the original from 1990 did), and the Bleach film gets pretty close as well with the actors they got to portray these characters, and the hair and makeup is definitely on point. They even got the look down right in terms of its costume design, though the costumes do admittedly look a bit cheap, and it does feel a bit like seeing people running around in cosplay at times.

But not only that, this movie's main villain, Byakuya Kuchiki, totally had a vibe to him that kept reminding me of the Shredder as well, just in his mannerisms and the real stern yet sinister way he carried himself, which was a comparison I can't say I would've necessarily made with this character in the anime, but I totally dug these shades to the classic Turtles villain with his portrayal here.

The version on Netflix was sadly dubbed, with no options that I saw for a subtitled version. But what I found interesting about this dub was that they actually got a number of voice talent from the English version of the anime to reprise their roles here, which was both really weird, but also kinda cool, and helped it to retain its anime feel a bit. And I also found a number of editing choices to be really interesting as well. You can tell this isn't an American production, and in fact, in many regards, the way this film is edited feels more like something you would've seen decades ago, back when films didn't use to cut to different shots nearly as often as they do nowadays.

It's not even that there's a lot of stylistic long takes, like you'll often see in artsy indie movies these days, it's just that they'll just kind of hang onto certain shots, and in moments where you would feel they should naturally cut to a different angle, they instead just stay on the same shot and let the scene carry on. The first time I watched this, I found this decision kind of curious. But on a rewatch, I gotta say, I really dug this decision, and it helps the movie stand out a bit and feel a little more unique compared to everything else that comes out these days, and even adds to its overall Japanese quirk.

But I also really dug how many shots were totally cut precisely how they would look if you were watching this show in the anime, or even reading it in the manga. For instance, there's a running gag where one of Ichigo's classmates keeps falsely lamenting over Ichigo's death, only for Ichigo to appear behind him and call him out. Every time we see this, they use the exact same angles, and that consistent framing only makes this recurring element even funnier every time it pops up. It's a style of recurring humor seen all the time in anime, and one that I've written into anime-inspired scripts of mine that I've yet to film, so it's really neat to see it actually play out for real, and not only that, but to see that it actually works as well as it does in live action at that!

That all said, the movie wasn't without some shortcomings. I already mentioned the cheapish looking costume design, but you could tell they were working with a really low budget on this film, and that was also evident with the CG work at times, which also has a fairly cheap look to it (though this is far from the worst CG I've seen in a movie, I'll note!). And the movie could've also perhaps done with a little more style to it, something to really make it feel a little more like an actual anime come to life.

I'm thinking kind of how something like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World truly feels like a comic book brought to life in live action. Or how Zack Snyder will incorporate his signature style into his films like 300 or Watchmen that help make them really pop, and really feel like the characters from the comics are truly stepping right off the page and into the real world. Or even how something like Speed Racer just goes all the way and is just straight up a live action cartoon personified. Because this movie does have a bit of a cheap sci-fi movie sorta feel to it, but with a little more flair, whether that be through even more of an emphasis on its editing, or perhaps its music or camera movements, or its use of color or what, that cheapness could've easily been masked.

But while this might not be the most stylistic film, for what it was, I was still impressed with how good it turned out all the same. And really, I'd love for them to make more of these. And if other similar anime series are to be adapted into live action, this movie is a real good template for them to build off of in terms of how to do things right. Because while not everything that's animated needs to be remade in live action, whenever such a transition is done right, man, it can truly be just a thing of beauty, like watching magic on the screen.

It's just a shame that it's so often that this transition into live action just doesn't turn out right at all though. I already mentioned a few examples, but you could also add in literally every single live action Disney remake to come out in the past decade, all of which have been absolutely terrible, and clearly made by people with absolutely zero understanding of what actually made the original animated films so good, and each of which feel like nothing more than soulless cash-grabs that completely fail to capture the heart and magic of the originals in every single regard. These films have been nothing but frustrating and dispiriting experiences, one after the other, year after year, and have left me wishing that these studios would just leave these animated properties alone and stop even trying to adapt animation into live action in the first place if this is really the best they can offer.

But then this movie comes out, and it gave me back a little bit of faith again, showing that a live action transition can turn out well in this day and age, and gives me hope that future adaptations of animated properties can at the very least turn out similarly as well.

For the longest time, I have dreamed of being the one to direct the inevitable live action adaptations of the Naruto series into feature films. And while I've come to accept that this particular dream of mine may very well never come to be, I can at least see that it would be possible now for the series to work in live action in someone else's hands, after seeing how well Bleach was able to make the transition thus far. Besides which, I already have my own anime-inspired fantasy series to fall back on for future live action installments, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

I also feel like the concept of a live action anime is perhaps partially responsible for my recent love of Babymetal (which, if you haven't checked them out yet, here's a good place to start). Unlike any other band that I've gotten into before, this is a band that's just as much visual as it is musical, and their overall presentation feels like a live action performative anime in the form of musical theater. The band members all have their own characters, and even dress like characters out of an anime. There's a vague yet ever present ongoing storyline that carries over from show to show, and they have elaborate set designs that incorporate elements from their lore, with individual stories playing out on each different show, which feels as if they're being told through a series of anime openings come to life on the stage in the form of their individual song performances.

They even have individual story arcs, which are presented as separate episodes in the Babymetal saga. It's so funny, but I've actually found myself wanting to gather some people together to just binge watch their bigger shows in order, same how you might try to introduce someone to a new TV show by starting with the first season and bingeing from there. But the way I've gotten into that band definitely feels more reminiscent to how I've gotten into other series in more visual media than it does to other bands. And its their live action anime presentation that I feel has especially connected with me, and which really reinvigorated my interests in Eastern media in general, and leaves me further interested in seeing more actual anime try their hand at coming to life in live action as well.

I've just always been fascinated by the idea of bringing anime to life in this manner. Sorta like how people always love to see their favorite manga series adapted into anime in the first place, or even novels adapted into film, there's something about that added step of bringing it into the world of live action that has the potential of making a great story feel all the more real, and all the more special for it. So it's always really motivating when I see it work out so well. And that's how I was left feeling upon watching this new Bleach movie on Netflix.

I went into this new live action Bleach movie with very low expectations, but it turned out better than I would've ever dreamed. It has some weird aspects to it, such as its odd editing choices, the dub with the cast from the anime, and its overall cheap feel, but none of this stuff really bothered me much on a rewatch, and a number of these elements actually add to the film's overall charm. So I'd say if you're a fan of the series, it's definitely worth checking out. And if you're interested in actually seeing animation being adapted into live action done right in the modern age, well, this film might just be right up your alley as well. It's sure given me hope for the future of this practice at least.