The Original Video Animation, or OVA (or, alternatively, OAV depending on your tomayto-tomahto standpoint) has gone the way of the Dodo. It’s dead. Defunct. It has rejected cumbersome technologies and eliminated redundant markets and evolved into the Movie; as in Naruto the Movie, or One Piece the Movie, or for the purposes of this review, Bleach the Movie – Hell Verse (also known as Hell Chapter), to be exact.
It used to be that your typical OVA was a straight-to-video deal and that the only people who saw it were existing fans of the series, but what with the dawn of the Digital Age, the Movie is a straight-to-the-theatres deal. This is the main evolutionary point – at the cinema, with its newly minted, glossy, big budget features, it has the potential to attract not just the current fans but those movie goers who like animated features or just think it “looks interesting”. Or at least, that’s the case in its country of origin. For those fans outside Japan’s borders it remains a slightly elusive creature, illegally obtained through underground translators or, for those still-law abiding citizens willing to wait, more legally obtained through domestic DVD acquisitions. In very rare cases, like at the currently underway Gold Coast Film Festival, you might even be lucky enough to view it in its native environment – the big screen.
Is it a better beast, though? Unfortunately, the integration between the Movie and the series has never had a terribly satisfying track record, and the reason for this is the same reason why the Movie gets made in the first place – it’s not about extending or enhancing existing canon, not really. It’s about finding a new audience. Director Noriyuki Abe says as much (during the awesome Q&A and shame on you if you missed it); Hell Verse, the fourth and most recent Bleach movie, was a conscious attempt at revisiting the series’ roots. Funnily enough, however, it’s also the one that seems to most effectively do what I’ve always wished each Bleach movie would – build rather than invent, perhaps because this is the only movie so far the story creator Kubo Tite oversaw production on.
Hell Verse opens with a spoiler, if you haven’t seen the climactic conclusion to the battle with Ulquiorra during the Arrancar arcs. It pretty quickly thereafter gets down to business, with some (once again) new bad guys appearing on the scene to attack Ichigo’s family in order to get to him. This time, however, Ichigo is in a position to do something about it. Unfortunately, it’s not enough, and one of his helpless sisters is whisked off to Hell in the arms of an evil spirit who wants Ichigo to “break down the Gates of Hell” and release the sinners from their prison.
What sets this movie slightly above the others is that it doesn’t just showcase Ichigo’s awesomeness; it actually progresses it. You get a sense that Ichigo has been avoiding facing what he became in the conclusion of the Arrancar battle (which is fair enough), and the events in Hell Verse force him into a confrontation with both the baddie and himself. Nothing new precisely, considering the number of internal barriers Ichigo’s had to break through in the series, but as a feature film it references without regurgitating. For all that the content is familiar to fans, it does more to add something substantial to the Bleach series canon – and it’s main character – than all the other movies put together.
Fade to Black, on the other hand, feels like previously explored ground. Sure, it’s a glimpse into Rukia’s backstory that’s never been seen before, but it also feels like it doesn’t really matter. Rukia gets into trouble, the Soul Society suffers the fallout, and Ichigo swans in to save the day because he believes in truth and unbreakable bonds between people, etcetera, etcetera, blah blah blah. It’s all very cool, and it looks like a million bucks. Everyone gets to parade their powers around a bit in spectacular fashion and show how clever they are (Urahara), how much of a softie they actually are (Byakuya) and how well they work as a team (everyone else). But other than an increase in production values, how is it all that much better than any other story arc in the series? The sad fact is, it’s not.
It’s the one failing of Bleach’s the Movie franchise – each subsequent feature seeks to both cash in on the interest of the existing fans, while avoiding making something that only the fans will get. As a result, no single feature feels truly part of the canon, except for Hell Verse. It’s not that Hell Verse gets this balance right while Fade to Black doesn’t, it’s that Hell Verse draws more obviously on the foundations the series has already set. With the series ended in Japan, perhaps that will change. Perhaps there will be some room for other stand-alone Bleach movies to pick up the manga storyline where the anime series was forced to leave off, making this issue of how effectively the two tie in together no longer relevant. It’s possible, and as voice actor Masakazu Morita said in the same Q&A, if the fans want it badly enough, who knows what can happen?