This, really, is how one of the tie-in movies for the big Shounen Jump series should be. After a slew of disappointing efforts, I was pleased to find this feature-length side-story compelling, unorthodox and visually stunning.
The crucial difference is that the mangaka Tite Kubo was involved in the creative process. Normally, these films are overlong filler episodes, in which nothing of any consequence can ever happen in case it ends up getting in the way of something the original creator has planned for a future story arc. It’s only a shame that until now, it doesn’t seem like anyone thought of actually getting them in to discuss possibilities – or perhaps only now has it become practical.
The film starts with a recap of Ichigo’s battle with Ulquiorra, ostensibly to remind the audience of the uncontrollable power of our protagonist’s full-hollow mode, but in truth, probably more so that the animators can have fun with some very flashy animation. The plot that follows is simple and neat, another positive for this sort of tie-in: some powerful enemies have escaped from the Gates of Hell, and kidnap Ichigo’s little sister Yuzu. Ichigo, along with Rukia, Renji and Ishida, must follow them into Hell to rescue her – but the new ally who guides them through the strange world of the dead, where tortured souls die and die again until their spirits are crushed, may not be all that he seems.
Three things make this film work better than most Jump movies: firstly, the impression that Ichigo actually grows and learns something from this experience: he is dealt one of the most heavy emotional blows of any Bleach story, he battles against the berserk, uncontrollable part of himself and he gets a power-up that it makes perfect sense for us never to see again in the main series. Secondly, the fact that we learn more about a facet of the Bleach universe that we glimpsed but was largely mysterious: we see how things work beyond the impressive Gates of Hell. Thirdly, what I always look forward to in movie versions – the same basic composition of the series but with much more impressive visuals – actually exceeded my expectations here. The animators were having a great time playing with scale here, with absurd explosions and lumbering enemies hundreds of feet tall. A lot of the framing techniques here accentuate the sheer size of things when juxtaposed with the characters, and with nice fluid animation it all works extremely well.
There’s some contrivance in the ending – it relies on some sort of unseen conscious power running Hell making the right decisions for good to prevail and evil to be punished – but it works because, after all, it’s a fantasy world. There also aren’t too many of the wider Soul Society cast to see here, with only a handful of captains showing up for a line or two each, so some fans may miss their favourites. But for a satisfying story that actually feels significant and not throwaway, with great eye-candy and a good, solid story, this is probably the best Pierrot can offer. But Bleach always did have superior filler.