Bleach: Hell Verse

Making a good movie based on a long running anime is difficult. Ultimately, it can't be anything more than a filler story, telling a simple condensed story smashed somewhere in between a far bigger arc. Bleach, though, always tried to deal with this problem with plots that expand the lore ...and none of it managed to impress anymore than any other run of the mill shonen action flick. The first two movies are incredibly flawed and dull, while the third movie sacrifices a lot of action for the sake of thematic depth. It works well enough there, but the lack of explosive fights really holds it back, what with Bleach being an action series. So, for the forth movie, the staff decided to do things differently. They decided to go completely insane. What resulted may be one of the best movies based on a long running anime ever. Bleach: Hell Verse does the near impossible and pushes its source material to the limit with a single brilliant twist, turning the side adventure into a full blown, thematically resonate film in its own right, and even outshining most every major arc in the main series proper.

It's pretty good, basically.

The film begins during the arrancar arc, as Ichigo is fighting Ulquiorra while freaking out and letting his inner hollow (a spirit formed from a ghost's guilt, anger, despair, and obsession) overtake him. During this sequence, the movie keeps cutting to a skeleton wrapped in chains, seemingly aware of the fight and screaming as it ends. Things then cut to Ichigo in the human world in a little scene where he helps a ghost deal with punks desecrating an offering, and he soon meets Rukia and Renji. The two are investigating a strange event involving spirits that may have come from Hell, an area not even soul reapers can tread, when a gang of Hell's citizens appear and kidnap one of Ichigo's sisters. With help of another Hell spirit who was fighting the gang, Kokuto, Ichigo and friends travel to Hell to get back said sister.

Hell is easily the most creative and oppressive area in all of Bleach canon. It's divided into different dimensional realms the characters have to travel through, including a lone area with pools of water, housing areas constantly destroyed by behemoths punishing sinners, and even plowed acres of spirit dust that used to be people. Of course, there's also the lair of the villains, with geysers of fire, wasteland plains, and trees that dried up corpses are hung from. Sawako Takagi, long time background artist and art director for the series, really captures an incredible vision that fits the series to a tee (minimalist backgrounds, loud colors with high contrast, ect), yet feels alien and unnerving, especially the fields of the dead sinners.

This movie also houses the best soundtrack in the entire Bleach franchise. It's so good that the final two arcs of the anime constantly reuse tracks from it. Shiro Sagisu takes everything he learned composing for the franchise, creating a sound that fits the style previous and adds on English chanting choirs, blaring trumpets, incredibly emotional string segments, and a truly epic quality that would feel right at home in an opera or Greek tragedy. With a story taking inspiration from Dante's Inferno, that's perfectly fitting.

Animation wise, the film is serviceable but outclassed. This was primarily a Studio Pierrot project, and they have a long history of cutting corners for the sake of efficiency, sometimes to embarrassing levels. Even their feature films are unsafe from these practices, though it's limited here to removing detail for the sake of fluidity, or little dialog scenes that don't require the same quality as the action bits. The final battle is very impressive and well directed, with the best animation in the film after the initial fight in the prologue, but everything else doesn't feel too different from a really well animated episode of the TV series. When staked against other theatrical projects, Hell Verse has a ways to go.

I'm also not wild about some of the character designs here. Kokuto works as a sort of dark Ichigo, but the main antagonists are quite possibly some of the worst designs of all the anime original characters, and that's saying something for this franchise. I especially hate that one fat guy with the effeminate clown motif, whoever thought that was a good idea should have had some sense slapped into them. Making up for it, though, is Shuren, the leader of the sinners. He's drawn out as a sort of slender mage, with wispy hair and a cape with rotten chains. He looks properly villainous while remaining dignified, and it matches well with his fighting style of spamming fire blasts from his hands.

What makes the movie so great, though, is the script and thematic core. Hell Verse is a film about grief and loss, and how people cope with it ...or fail to cope. Without explaining the major revelations, everything occurring in the film is because a sinner was unable to accept the death of their loved one and became a murderous monster that lashed out at the world randomly and wildly, and Ichigo is in constant danger of becoming that as well, not helped by Hell's atmosphere waking his primal inner hollow. It's familiar subject matter for the series, but it's never been so directly addressed before, and it takes advantage of the established rules of hell to create a situation with serious stakes. Despite knowing the good guys will win in the end, the film still got me involved with the stakes, mainly through doing something no other film in the franchise has ever thought of doing, and making Ichigo's karmatic punishment near instantaneous.

Ichigo has a genuine and touching character arc in the film dealing with personal responsibility and living up to the standards of those who love you, and it's beautifully moved and told. Though to fully explain it, I have to go into spoilers, so you have been warned. I'll put in large text where spoilers begin and end.


From the film's start, we're lead to believe that Shuren and his gang are the bad guys. Their end goal is to escape hell, which they can only do with Ichigo's incredible hollow power that can cut their chains, so they try to get him to do so by angering him through his loved ones and forcing him to attack. But they're not actually the people who came up with that plan, and they were only being used by another party.

That other person was Kokuto, who told Ichigo that he ended up in Hell because he killed his sister's killers. Well, the death of his sister caused him to go insane, and he didn't stop with the killers. His entire motivation is to throw his grief around and lash out at the world that took the most important person in his life away from him, and for that end, he's trying to make Ichigo exactly like him and get him to destroy his chains. He felt Ichigo's power in the film's starting fight, and he manipulated everything to make this possible, and goes further by kill all of Ichigo's friends that came with him, chaining their souls to hell. The act finally drives Ichigo over the edge, and he unleashes a strike so powerful that he blows open the doors of hell themselves, spreading its toxic atmosphere to the human world. The soul society quarantine everything, but not without making Ichigo feel like garbage ...rightfully, mind you. He did nearly destroy the world, but beating himself up over what happened to everyone else is all his own guilt trip.

After a touching talk with Orihime, he comes to a realization about his own responsibility to the people that still care about him, and the faith others had in him. He avoids becoming another Kokuto by remembering what his loved ones saw him as, and didn't want to disrespect their memory. From here, Hell returns his sister and Ichigo faces Kokuto in Hell once more, given power from the realm to effectively punish a person who went down the opposite path. Beating Kokuto, who even has similar abilities and powers, is Ichigo defeating the hold his guilt has on him, becoming all the stronger for it.

Also, Rukia gets reborn by exploding out of lava while covered in chains, and that was cool.


The bottom line is that the film has a thematically fitting ending that's built from the very first scenes, as we see how dangerous Ichigo can be without self control, and what he's able to do with it in seeing him assist the spirit of a dead child. The lesson of not losing yourself to your pain is also a strong one people need to hear more, and I adore how it was handled here.

I also have to give a lot of credit to the English cast. All the returning regulars are great, especially Johnny Yong Bosch as Ichigo, but special mention must be given to Travis Willingham as Kokuto. He absolutely steals every scene he's in by the halfway point of the film, exploding with emotion and energy unmatched by any other character. The sound is also properly adjusted, so there's no weird or cheap sounding volume differences common in a lot of dubs released nowadays.

Bleach: Hell Verse is one of the brightest points in the entire franchise's history, and if this is going to end up being the series final film, it's certainly the perfect way to send off the anime and film series. Hell Verse is so good it's difficult to believe, and for its technical shortcomings, it more than makes up for it in sheer heart, style, and explosive spectacle. For such a troubled franchise, to have something like Hell Verse in its canon is quite the accomplishment.


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