Bleach is a franchise on the wane. In Japan the anime series ended last November, the manga is partway through what is expected to be its final arc and the (at the time of writing) last Bleach film was released there back in 2010. However, in the UK reports of the franchise's death are very much exaggerated, we're a bit behind Japan and so we have plenty of anime and manga to come including the last film - Bleach The Movie 4: Hell Verse.
Set somewhere between the current Hueco
Mundo arc and the final battle between Soul Society and Aizen's forces, Hell
Verse finds Ichigo back in Karakura Town helping out local lost souls.
However, the peaceful time isn't destined to last long. A group of
mysterious new adversaries is on the move in Karakura, and they have him firmly
in their sights. These enemies are something new, they are denizens of
hell, souls who have committed a grave sin during life and are condemned to
endless torture in death. Even though they have found a way of leaving
hell for short periods they are still bound by its chains, and can be dragged
back at any time by the mighty guardians of hell, the Kushanada. In order
to escape fully they need someone to sever their chains, and after witnessing
Ichigo's hollow powers reach their peak in Hueco Mundo they believe he is the
one who can do it. They know that he won't assist them freely so they
decide to take a more drastic route - kidnapping his sister Yuzu and imprisoning
her in hell! A normal human cannot withstand the poisonous atmosphere of
hell for long, and if they die there they become trapped for all eternity.
Ichigo knows that to save her he must go to hell himself, but even with the
support of Uryu, Rukia and Renji can he hope to rescue her in time or is he just
walking into his enemy's trap?
The Bleach films, like many anime films based on long-running action franchises, have never really lived up to the standards set by the original series. In a way they're constrained by the canon, unable to introduce too many new elements or significantly change the character dynamic lest it contradicts future plans for the main story. Characters can't display powers they have yet to show in the series, even if it has been established that they have certain unseen abilities and it doesn't make sense for them to hold back. The third Bleach film really
suffered from these internal restrictions, but thankfully Hell Verse does not. In fact, of all the films Hell Verse is probably the best one, and this is largely due to two factors. Firstly because it focuses on just Ichigo, Uryu, Rukia and Renji, and secondly because it reintroduces an element from the earliest parts of the original series that was not really focused on. Right back when Ichigo first got his Soul Reaper powers he hunted down a Hollow born from the soul of a murderer, when he won the soul wasn't transferred to Soul Society, instead the Gates of Hell appeared and the soul was dragged inside. There was a brief explanation at the time about souls of people who had committed heinous crimes in life being condemned to Hell but since then there hasn't been another mention of it. Until now.
Focusing on Hell is a masterstroke
for the film, it exploits a concept already established in the series
but severely under-explored, enabling the writers and designers to
really go to town on it. Their concept and design is certainly
interesting, and taking the action into a new realm opens up all kinds
of possibilities for the story. The smaller cast allows a nice
quick pace to the action and ensures everything doesn't get too crowded,
and the storyline has a degree of tension to it that some of the
previous films have lacked. There's plenty of action as Ichigo and
co battle off both their enemies and the huge guardians of Hell, and
whilst the story boils down to pretty much a 'rescue the damsel in
distress' tale it is at least gripping and action packed. The
action scenes in the film are pretty good, and give each character a
chance to show off their skills, whilst the art and animation are
decent, if not a great deal of a leap from what you see in the series.
However, a big plus is that there's no Kon or Dodonchakka and Pesche to
add infuriating comical moments, and with the Soul Reaper captains
taking a back seat and Aizen's forces nowhere to be seen the film is
able to keep Ichigo's search for his sister at its emotional heart.
The film manages to avoid one of the main problems the previous films had, in that it actually has some cinematic scope and doesn't just feel like a story arc out of the series, but it does have a few issues that mar it somewhat. The most glaring of these is the intro, which recreates a battle from the series which the UK release has yet to show, giving away quite a major plot point. With the powers that form an important aspect of the film's storyline not appearing in the series for another two or three volumes the timing of the film's release
seems a bit wrong. There's also the lack of explanation over how the people in Hell can be aware of what's going on outside, or how they are able to enter the real world with relative ease. There's also the fact that some of the new villains are a bit, well, crap. But despite these problems the film remains surprisingly enjoyable.
Bleach The Movie 4: Hell Verse is probably the best movie outing for the franchise to date, and if it is the last film project for the franchise it isn't a bad swansong. The animation is decent and the design of Hell is both imaginative and intriguing, plus there's plenty of action to keep things interesting throughout. The storyline may be a bit standard, some of the new characters may fit into the normal anime archetype moulds, but by keeping things simple the creators have managed to make it very engaging. The exploration of a concept originally depicted in the earliest volumes of the manga has given a lot more scope and freedom than the previous films enjoyed while remaining in canon, and by keeping the Soul Reaper captains out of it the issue of unused powers doesn't come into play. Hell Verse has seemingly learned from the mistakes of the last film and is a more straightforward and enjoyable watch because of it. It's certainly not the best film you'll see this year, but as films based on long-running franchises go, it's certainly one of the better examples.
Another release with no extras beyond a couple of front-loading trailers. Disappointing.