Ichigo is heading off, but Isshin asks a fair question: how will he get back? That’s answered by Mera, who appears and spirits him back to Hououden. There, Nimaiya allows Ichigo to re-take the Asauchi test, which he passes with flying colors now that he knows himself better.
All the Asauchi who aren’t his Zanpakuto bow before him rather than fight, and he identifies and reaches out to the one that is: Zangetsu. But Nimaiya warns Ichigo that forging a new blade will be the end of the Zangetsu he’s known.
As this is the final episode of the cour, there’s an obligatory check-in with the captains who lost their bankai. Each of them are throwing themselves into training and leveling up, casting aside the things that are currently gone and working with what they have.
In Toushirou’s case, that’s going back to sword school. In Sajin’s, it’s meeting with his clan’s Great Elder, who wants nothing to do with outside affairs. Captain Muguruma didn’t lose his bankai, but still insists that Hisagi gain one by fighting Mashiro, who is the Ninth’s “Super” Lieutenant. I like it.
Now that Ichigo has his zanpakuto back, it’s forgin’ time. Nimaiya summons his three comely bodyguards to prepare everything. The five women are colorful characters with very specific roles, from constructing the forge to conveying water, lighting the fire, creating a hammer from a tooth, and catching and restraining the raw zanpakuto blade.
Once everything is ready, Nimaiya removes his goofy shades and gets hammering. As he does so, Nimaiya asks him what the white blade reminds him of; Ichigo says the Hollow within him. That’s when the Blade King drops this on him: the Hollow within him is his Zanpakuto.
This conflicts with Ichigo’s extant understanding of the manifestation of his blade, who he always thought was Old Man Zangetsu. But now it occurs to him that that old man was really a shadow, or echo, of the Quincy King Yhwach from a thousand years ago. That’s why he was drawn to the king in Soul Society; he recognized the guy.
Faced with this revelation, the building on which he and the old man stand crumbles and they fall into a sea, which is a hauntingly gorgeous setting for what becomes their final talk together. Old Man Zangetsu wasn’t the full source of his strength. On the contrary, he suppressed Ichigo’s full potential.
He did this because he wanted to keep Ichigo from becoming a Soul Reaper, with all the pain, suffering, and likely early death that came with such a role. It was only when Ichigo ovecame adversity, perservered, and got stronger (with help from the Hollow within) that Zangetsu decided that maybe Ichigo being a Soul Reaper wasn’t such a bad thing.
When Old Man Zangetsu vanishes in that dark, monochromatic sea, he leaves a blue sword behind, representing the true Zangetsu. Ichigo takes hold of it, comes out of his mind space, and is grabbing the blade from the forge with his bare hands.
Only it’s not just one blade, it’s two. In his mind, his Quincy Zangetsu was as much his Zanpakuto as his Hollow Zangetsu. Together they grant him a unique combined power no one else has. And now that he has his true Zanpakuto and his true power is unlocked, he can fight the Quincy for keeps.
Oh, and Uryuu is apparently joining Yhwach and the Quincy. Wait…what?! I’m not sure he got enough character development in this cour to justify turning his back on his friends, but then again, he is extremely proud of his heritage. At this point, before there’s a rematch between Ichigo and Yhwach, I have to believe Ichigo and Uryuu will be facing off.
Between Uryuu’s cloak-turn, the captains and lieutenants leveling up, Ichigo at full power for the first time in his life, and maybe(?) Rukia, Renji, Orihime and Chad showing up, the Summer 2023 cour of Thousand Year War should be a good one.