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Helen McCarthy goes on a teen rampage in the fourth Bleach movie

Bleach: Hell Verse (Bleach Jigoku-hen, also sometimes rendered as Hell Chapter) is the fourth theatrical feature in the franchise. It premiered in Japan in December 2010 in a flurry of media attention, including a prologue slotted into season 14 on the TV anime series and a prequel manga chapter.

Its North American release in December 2012 was attended by much discussion on the Bleach forums as to exactly where and how the film slots into the overarching series continuity. It’s never an easy task to make a feature that fits into the varying timelines of both comic and TV, yet is coherent enough for audiences not steeped in both. The hope is that a movie will draw new fans into its franchise, not send them out of the theatre in gibbering confusion. Yet it must also satisfy – or at least not alienate – the existing fanbase.

Hell Verse attempts resolution through noise and impact. Director Noriyuki Abe packs his movie with explosive action and emotion, carrying the audience through ninety-four minutes without too much time for doubts and quibbles. The basic plot is simple: threat, loss, betrayal, revenge (repeat.) Manga creator Tite Kubo was involved with the project from the planning and scenario stage, but his complex structure of clans, alliances and mystical names is irrelevant to the story’s dynamic.

A condemned sinner wants hero Ichigo to employ the full range of his dark powers to free him from eternal punishment. He engineers the kidnap of Ichigo’s sister and lures our hero and three of his friends into Hell. To escape, it seems Ichigo must unleash his dark side; but if he does that, he will never be able to escape from Hell’s clutches.

The motivations, assumptions and methods of a successful teen action hero match those of his target audience. Ichigo is a perfect fit. His heart is in the right place but he flies off the handle easily, and his usual method is to fight first, ask questions later and think only when absolutely necessary. The textbook cast of wise mentors, powerful allies and even more powerful enemies is there purely to give him walls to bounce off and windows to gaze through as they help him learn the lessons he will need to survive and grow.

Bleach is a morality tale wrapped in an action-adventure, part of a tradition that runs straight from The Odyssey through Dragon Ball and on into the future. The unbreakable rule is that the proportion of action to moral must be weighted on the side of action, and Hell Verse obeys to the letter.

The fight sequences are loud, fast and well choreographed. Design and animation are nothing special and the fan service is especially overt and irrelevant, but neither of these factors is likely to be a problem for the intended viewers. Major characters get cameos, classic fight techniques are namechecked, new powers and armours are introduced.  Continuity? Just another debate to keep die-hard fans involved.

Bleach the Movie 4: Hell Verse is out now in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

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