Brains versus brawn. Brawn versus brains. Round and around and around they go …
The most puzzling thing about shounen anime and manga is the distinct lack of heroes with both strength and intelligence, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the long running franchises. All too often it’s the villains who possess this combination of traits, while the hero is nothing more than a super powered idiot with a tendency to rely on guts and brute strength. Risk evaluation, cause and effect, strategy, and other concepts that have more than one syllable seem to be beyond the ken of the typical shounen protagonist, and while there are some vague similarities between them and the brutish heroes of yesteryear, at least characters like Conan knew how to plan and make traps.
It seems as though the once great shounen sagas are becoming nothing more than parodies of what might have been, and charging headlong into the fictional wastelands (where all good ideas go to die), is Tite Kubo’s Bleach and its latest feature, Jigokuhen (The Hell Verse).
Now some people may remember a chapter of the manga called Imaginary No.1: The Unforgivens, which introduced the character of Shuren and showed him to be far more powerful than at least two of the Arrancar (who somehow ended up in Hell). This side story forms the prelude to Jigokuhen, which picks up the narrative after the whole business with Aizen has been concluded (that is, if the opening scenes of the fight with Ulquiorra are anything to go by). Karakura town is at peace once more, Ichigo and his friends are back at school, and everything seems right with the world.
Unfortunately, dark forces are stirring once more …
Continuity has always been an issue for the Bleach franchise and this movie is no exception. The story appears to be set at a time after the current arc in the manga (you know, the whole thing with the Fullbringers), and Ichigo seems to have shaken off the effects of the Final Getsuga Tenshou. Then again, this is Bleach we’re talking about, and given the storyline in the other movies it’s more likely that the writers for Jigokuhen were more interested in opening up new ways to continue the franchise than they were in creating a viable narrative. That said, the plot is decent enough, but there’s always the nagging thought that this feature has been made for reasons that have nothing to do with telling a story, especially when the actual content of the movie is little more than the same storyline regurgitated ad nauseum (i.e. Ichigo powers up and saves the day).
Jigokuhen features some rather nice visuals but there’s little in the way of actual innovation because of the inherent franchise limitations on aspects like character design (although one can never rule out genericism caused by a lack of ideas). There are also some glaring irregularities that stand out over the course of the movie, one of which is Rukia’s flash of nakedness and subsequent yet familiar white outfit towards the end of the movie (I’ll pause for a moment while the fanboys squee).
The viewer is supposed to believe that her shinigami outfit “disintegrated” because of her situation at that point in the narrative, which may not seem like much at first, but when you take into account the fact that both Ishida and Renji have already gone through Rukia’s ordeal, one does have to question how they managed to keep their clothes whole and on their bodies while she didn’t.
Fortunately Jigokuhen is no slouch where the animation is concerned, especially during the action sequences, but that’s not enough to balance the flaws where visuals are concerned.
As for the acting, if you’ve seen an episode of Bleach then you’re in for … more of the same. The voice actors may be talented and know the characters inside out, but none of that helps when the plot and the script have been written by people with a mental age of seven. The dialogue is exactly what one expects from an episode of Bleach, with lots of angry and/or frustrated shouting and screaming, and so much ham they could start up a new business selling sandwiches.
The ending theme, Save The One, Save The All by T. M. Revolutions, is a rather generic J-rock song that works well with the movie, but given that the franchise is about as generic as they come, maybe that’s not such a surprising thing. Jigokuhen also features a variety of dramatic classical and operatic tracks that serve as the background music to a number of the action scenes, but while the usage and implementation is decent for the most part, choreography has never really been a strength of the franchise.
With a mixture of wooden deliveries, frustrated screams, people shouting, and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s pretty obvious that Jigokuhen is little more than an attempt to put a set of characters with textbook shounen reactions into a new situation and set them off to spin around before exploding.
And that’s pretty much exactly what happens.
Aspects like character development are virtually non-existent in this movie, while other factors like characterisation are actually dependent on whether one has read or watched the main series (and more importantly, whether you enjoyed it or not). In all honesty there isn’t really much one can say about any of the characters other than that they are who we expect them to be. Ichigo is the knight in pyjamas wielding an oversized kitchen knife whose tendency to charge in where angels fear to tread is getting tedious (seriously, it’s like nobody in shounen entertainment outside of One Piece is able able to learn from their mistakes). Chad is the reliably stoic sidekick, while Renji and Ishida sometimes offer light comic relief. Rukia, Inoue, Karen, Yuzu, and almost every other female Ichigo’s age or younger, are all the princesses waiting for the knight to come and rescue them.
You get the picture.
The thing that is surprising is that Jigokuhen does work as part of the overarching Bleach saga, but only from a very narrow and specific perspective. If one is able to ignore the recent storylines in both the anime and the manga, and overlook many of the flaws, then it may be possible to enjoy this movie as no-brain entertainment. That said avid fans will probably like this more for what it heralds in the future which, given how the story ended, will probably result in Ichigo becoming the head of Soul Society, or even the next Soul King.
Jigokuhen is watchable though, but while doing so I found myself thinking of Diamond Dust Rebellion and Memories Of A Nobody, both of which deviated from the typical method of problem solving synonymous with shounen stories (i.e. hit it in a melodramatic way until it stops moving, then give it a few more whacks just in case). Neither of those movies will stand the test of time, but they’re a damn sight better than Jigokuhen (which in turn is marginally better than Fade To Black). It’s a sad fact that the last two feature length outings have been uninspiring, lacklustre affairs with plot holes so big one could drive a tank through them, and that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg.
If nothing else, Bleach: Jigokuhen proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this franchise lives and dies on the only trick it has.