Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War is now streaming in the U.S. on Hulu and internationally on Disney+.
After a decade away, Bleach has finally returned to adapt the manga series’ final arc. Thousand-Year Blood War is the latest show in a trend of “pipe dream” sequels that have recently cropped up including A Certain Magical Index 3, Tiger & Bunny 2, and Devil is a Part-Timer 2. Despite reasonable concerns that the magic may have dissipated, the true joys of Bleach remain unchanged. Fight sequences are still incredibly stylized. Composer Shirō Sagisu’s tunes still slap. There’s a new filter over the show, providing a movie-esque shading. The Thousand-Year Blood War is Bleach at its best.
Bleach, of course, focuses on a teenager named Ichigo Kurosaki, who has the ability to see spirits. He moonlights as a Soul Reaper, a person designated to assist the flow of spirits from Earth to the afterlife. In addition to their altruistic endeavors, Soul Reapers double as a military force to prevent ostensibly evil groups from controlling the spiritual plane. The Thousand-Year Blood War arc pits the Soul Reapers against another spiritual military group known as the Quincy.
Thousand-Year Blood War’s premiere episode does a great job of establishing the Quincy faction, giving them a bloody debut by eliminating a character that was previously dubbed as “powerful.” The way they perform this execution – with ease and memorable flair – is stylized, immediately associating them with a unique image. This imagery immediately gives us something to latch onto – and understand why the Quincy faction is so scary.
Terrifyingly, the Quincy also have the ability to stop Soul Reapers from achieving their full power. In Bleach, Soul Reapers can access an enhanced form called “Bankai” – Quincies can seemingly nullify this form. It’s a great way to halt the narrative power creep that often plagues late-stage anime arcs such as Thousand-Year Blood War while adding another reason to fear the new antagonist.
No character in the anime puts in more menacing legwork than the Quincy King. He’s only briefly seen at the end of the episode, but he is able to utilize that time well, with a bloody and brutal appearance. Without spoiling exactly what happens, it’s shown to us incredibly clear that this king is ready to do or say anything to achieve his goals.
Among manga readers, the Thousand-Year Blood War arc is often described as rushed and haphazardly executed. Bleach’s new adaptation seems like it aims to fix the series’ flaws.
In the premiere episode, the order of events has been altered. Some moments have been cut and others extended. For example, there’s a new Soul Reaper recruit assigned to reduce Ichigo’s workload. When he arrives, it’s the dead of night and he’s terrified. The anime adds a sequence dwelling on the character’s fear, developing the terror of the night with beautifully composed shots of the individual and a hauntingly empty city. The decision to start this character’s experience with silence highlights the impact Ichigo and his friends have when they inevitably save the new recruit. It’s a thoughtful contrast. Choices like this are throughout the episode, and each one makes the story flow as a more compelling package.
The improved adaptation style can presumably be attributed to the new series director, Tomohisa Taguchi, who also storyboarded the premiere. Taguchi replaces the long-time series director Noriyuki Abe. When Abe adapted the original series he often played it safe by animating the manga at face value. Taguchi’s interpretation of Bleach, meanwhile, takes chances. This version does more than uncritically present cool choreography. For example, Taguchi’s premiere episode added a single frame where the villain of the week contorted his face in a far more extreme manner than in the manga. The single reaction shot elevates the entire scene.
Unfortunately, the Thousand-Year Blood War adaptation does remove a few elements. While Bleach is known for action scenes, the source material often includes slice-of-life moments and slapstick humor intermittently. The premiere removes many of these more comedic interludes, which can make Bleach feel needlessly self-serious.