Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 13 (Fin) – The True Zangetsu Was the Friends We Made Along the Way

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.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 12 – Tears of the Sun

After finishing the first of this week’s two-episode finale, I maintain that an entire arc devoted to how Ichigo’s parents met and fell in love would have been just fine with me. And indeed, the two-part flashback feels a bit rushed at times. But I’m still grateful for what we got, which is nothing less than the most beautiful and heartrending story Bleach has ever told.

Due to the fact no one has harmed and minimal damage done, Isshin is not punished by Old Man Yama for his unsanctioned excursion to the World of the Living. However, Isshin lies when he says there was “nothing else of note” to report … like, say, he discovered that some Quincy were still alive.

Both he and Masaki don’t want to be done with one another, but Masaki is feeling the ill effects of being bitten by that weird hollow, and even bumps into none other than Urahara Kisuke when she momentarily faints.

Masaki comes home and is read the riot act by Ryuuken’s mother, who found out from Katagiri that she got in a hollow battle and was injured, all to save a hated soul reaper. Ryuu first rushes to Katagiri to castigate her for snitching, but Katagiri only did what thought she needed to to prevent the tainting of the Ishida bloodline.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for Katagiri informing Mrs. Ishida, Masaki may have well collapsed somewhere other than the entrance to the house, and it would be too late by the time someone found her. Because as a result of being bitten by the hollow, she’s undergoing the process of hollowification.

Ryuuken carries her out and flies through the sky, unsure where to go or what to do. A giant hollow sneaks up from behind, but is bisected by a returning Isshin. Ryuu exchanges some harsh words, but ultimately, the two men want the same thing: to save Masaki. Unfortunately, neither of them know quite how the hell to do that.

But Urahara does, and he introduces himself to both Isshin and Ryuuken as the only person who can save Masaki. He was banned from Soul Society for the very research he’ll draw upon to do so, warning that while he can save Masaki’s life, she’ll never be the same again. Meanwhile, Masaki is lost deep within her mind, descending into the mouth of a giant hollow.

Urahara describes what must be done to save Masaki—bind her now half Quincy, half Hollow soul with that of a half-Soul Reaper, half- human. Isshin is full Soul Reaper, but if he uses a special gigai developed by Urahara, he can become half-human, but will have to say goodbye to his life in Soul Society forever.

Both Urahara and Ryuu are amazed how quickly Isshin says he’ll do it, but I’m not. This is Ichigo’s dad we’re talking about, and even if Masaki isn’t his family yet, he can’t deny the two of them already shared a sense of justice and altruism that transcends their opposing factions.

He also admits that he’s not sure he really wants to throw his current life away, but he also knows that his future self will laugh at him or worse if he refused to save the person who saved him. The procedure commences, visualized by Isshin saving Masaki and getsuga tenshou-ing the giant mind hollow to hell. Masaki comes to giggling, wanting to know Isshin’s name.

Ryuuken heads home in the rain, knowing that while his potential future bride Masaki did not outright reject him, in a way fate and the universe did. He regrets not stepping in sooner before Masaki was injured, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of her being a suitable wife. Now her soul is literally bound to that of his historical mortal enemy of the Quincy.

Back home, Katagiri is waiting for him in the rain, and he tells her to inform his mother that he is no longer worthy or able to protect the Quincy anymore. But Katagiri, who met Ryuu when she was a small girl and has grown not just to dutifully serve him, but love and care for him, tells him that’s not true. She sheds tears that mingle with the rain; I’m sure she’d long hoped to be his wife one day, but probably not like this.

Isshin starts to wrap up the tale of his wife to Ichigo, their son, by saying she left the Ishida family when she graduated high school and would visit him as a college student when he opened up his medical clinic. He told her he’d been banished, but always assumed she immediately saw through the lie. The two soon fell in love, became inseparable, and she had Ichigo.

Again, I wish we could have watched more episodes of Isshin and Masaki getting to know each other both before the attack that would bind their souls and afterwards when he began his human life. The two are such compelling, rootable characters. Isshin is absolutely right that Masaki radiates light and warmth like the sun.

But there’s also a romantic quality to just how goshdarned fast everything happened to these young people, how they rolled with the punches, and came out of it living different but probably better lives than the ones they would have led had they never met. A life neither in the Quincy or Soul Reaper way, but in the middle way.

But that too had its cost, as Isshin wraps up this epic tale to Ichigo. The day Masaki died protecting a 9-year-old Ichigo, she shouldn’t have died. She was still part Quincy, and her Blut Vene should have been able to not only defend against Grand Fisher, but defeat him easily.

But she didn’t, and died instead, because her powers failed her. Rather, they were taken, by the awakening King of the Quincy, Yhwach. Uryuu’s mother Katagiri met the same fate, becoming frail and dying too soon as, like Masaki’s, she was deemed unworthy of keeping her powers by Yhwach.

That Yhwach is the father of all Quincy, and his blood runs through all their veins, means he was Masaki’s progenitor, and thus Ichigo’s as well. There may be no ecaping that. And like her mother, he inherited the part of her soul that had become Hollowified.

As if Ichigo needed any further motivation to defeat the guy, he can add “ultimately responsible for his mom’s death” to the list. When an uncharacteristically docile Ikumi stops by to give him his Soul Reaper talisman, Ichigo takes it, thanks her, then tells his father he’s headed off.

Now that he knows more about who he is and where he came from, there’s much work to be done … I just wish he’d at least said hi to his sisters!

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 11 – Meet the Parents

I gave up on Bleach twelve or thirteen seasons or so into its run because it kept stalling on anime-only filler arcs, most of which were hot garbage and almost never masked the fact that they were meant to stall for time while the source material developed. Now that Bleach is back, it feels fresh, and something new happens in every episode.

Take this episode, one that finally begins to explore Ichigo’s parents’ past in detail. From the moment Isshin showed up at Ichigo’s boss Ikumi’s place in his shinigami garb and told his son the time has finally come to talk about this stuff, I was riveted. my only beef with Ichigo’s return is that we don’t get to see any Karin or Yuzu.

In the not-too-distant past, Shiba Isshin was the captain of the 10th Squad, with a short-haired Matsumoto as his lieutenant and Hitsugaya as his third seat (and heir apparent to the captaincy). Toshio delivers a report on soul eater deaths during patrols in Naruki City in the human world. Those deaths are part of hollowification experiments being run by Aizen, Ichimaru and Kaname, who are in the early stages of planning their takeover.

Kurosaki Masaki is a kind, capable, and somewhat lonely young woman. She’s lonely because she is the last surviving member of her Quincy clan, and has been taken in by the Ishidas. Uryuu’s father Ryuuken’s mom is not that crazy about this, no doubt being obsessed with maintaining a pure a bloodline as possible, while Ryuuken himself is a lot nicer to Masaki (probably because he sees himself one day marrying her).

Tying in Aizen & Co.’s slow-burn scheme with the origin story of how Masaki and Isshin met is a brilliant bit of retroactive continuity. Isshin comes to Naruki to investigate the source of the deaths, and meets Aizen & Co.’s eldritch abomination: a hollow whose hole has been filled, adn who fights like a soul reaper…a powerful one. Aizen even slashes Isshin in the back to give him a handicap.

As a Quincy, Masaki is extremely attuned to spiritual pressure, and knows something is wrong when she senses Isshin and the Hollow fighting. But she’s also an empathetic and caring person with a strong belief in noblesse oblige. When she starts to run towards the trouble, Ryuuken tries to stop her, saying the lower-level Quincy can put themselves in danger.

But Masaki tells Ryuuken something I could easily hear Ichigo saying: it’s one thing to stay safe so one has a future. But if she stands by while someone dies, she won’t be able to forgive her future self. She runs into town under the pelting rain and finds a soul reaper locked in mortal combat with a strange hollow, Isshin’s fire-based zanpakuto lighting up the night.

To his warm flames, Masaki adds her icy Quincy arrows in order to save Isshin’s life. When the hollow charges her, she disarms and allows it to bit her shoulder, which allows her to kill it from point-blank range. So not only is Masaki a Quincy, but comparable in skill and power to a Gotei 13 Captain, and even possesses a sense of style to her fighting.

When the hollow prepares to self destruct, Isshin sees Masaki is in trouble and uses his body and spiritual pressure to shield her. On the ground, battered and bloody, Isshin thanks Masaki for saving her. She in turn thanks him for saving her, and he laughs, saying that must make them even.

When Isshin asks her who she is, Masaki considers how a soul reaper would react to learning that she’s a Quincy. Perhaps since he just saved her, Masaki isn’t in the mood to lie or deflect, and comes right out and tells him she’s a quincy. Isshin’s reaction of casual amusement is definitely not what she expected, and it puts a big Kurosaki smile on her face.

So there you have it: a shinigami captain and the last surviving member of a Quincy clan have a meet cute, all thanks to the series’ big bad’s machinations. Forget flashbacks; I could honestly watch an entire separate season of Bleach centered on these two (and the ensuing love triangle with Ryuuken). You can plainly see how Ichigo became such an honorable and upstanding young scamp from watching these two.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 10 – Pass/Fail

In the depths of Muken, Unohana takes Zaraki to the brink of death over and over and over again. She recalls their first encounter centuries ago, when she found herself beside a mountain of bodies that she didn’t create. A small, malnourished boy crawled atop like some kind of ronin Gollum.

The Unohana Yachiru of that time was bored out of her damn mind, but in this boy she finally found a challenge, a worthy successor to the title of Zenpachi, and dare I say, a bit of fun? Two weary souls at the top of their game found each other, and validated their existence.

While Yachiru lost that first fight, she could tell Zaraki was holding back, which is why she’s continually all-but-killing and reviving him in Muken: to awaken the true power he had repressed for so long he forgot he even possessed it. Suffice it to say, this titular “Battle” will go down as one of the best in Bleach history.

A lot of that comes down to restraint. Sure, Yamamoto’s flame party was gorgeous and terrifying and badass in equal measures, but here in the bowels of Soul Society where there is nothing but darkness, blood, and the spark of clashing blades, there’s a stripped down elegance and gravitas to the proceedings.

Once Zaraki’s power is sufficiently awakened, Unohana ends “playtime” and unleashes her bankai Minazuki, covering her sword in blood and creating a blizzard of deadly strikes through which he must cut through in order to defeat her.

After repeatedly passing out and coming to in the earlier stages of the battle, the imagery in Zaraki’s head becomes more concrete, as he imagines himself and Unohana as undead skeletons fighting in a white void instead of two flesh-and-blood soul reapers in the dark.

Only in this deep, dark place could Unohana draw Zaraki’s true strength from the other deep, dark place he had hidden it hundreds of years ago. Just as she learned how to heal herself so she could keep a battle going for eternity, he weakened himself intentionally for the same purpose.

But as the first and former Kenpachi, once Unohana had found someone with the potential to surpass and succeed her, she decided that her remaining purpose in life was to nurture that successor. It’s why Unohana smiles when Zaraki delivers a killing strike she doesn’t bother to heal. Her purpose is complete, and she couldn’t ask for a more joyful end.

She knows that losing her as an opponent may mean a return to boring, lonely battles, but with the arrival of the Quincy, the new fully awakened Zaraki will have no shortage of new opponents, some even stronger than her. His awakening also means he can finally hear the voice of his zanpakuto, who introduces herself to him (though her name is unfortunately cut off by the commercial bump).

Rest in Peace and Power, Retsu.

There was always going to be a fall-off from such an epic battle between two warrior behemoths to the goofiness of the Royal Palace, but clash makes for a good palate cleanser as Ichigo and Renji land in Hoohden, the entrance hall to which is half concert venue, half game show set.

Their host is the Blade King and inventor of the Zanpakuto, Nimaiya Oh-Etsu, and I gotta tell ya, it’s a weird feeling knowing this puffer-vest-wearing goofball surrounded by lovely honeys could probably defeat Unohana and Zaraki in his sleep.

Ichigo and Renji can’t really get on board with the vibes until they realize they have to if they want to get their swords back. We also meet Mera, Nimaiya’s no-nonsense right-hand woman who leads the two to the real Hoohden: an unassuming, ramshackle shed atop a promontory.

Ichigo and Renji step inside and immediately endure a ten-story drop. Like Zaraki in Muken, they’re surrounded by darkness. Unlike Zaraki, there’s stuff lurking in the shadows. Those things are Asauchi—the same “base” zanpakutos issued to every Soul Reaper student in academy.

As they progress through academy, a piece of the students’ souls pour into the zanpakuto, thus personalizing them into your Zabimarus and Senbonzakuras (btw, all the pretty ladies at the entrance hall were actually all zanpakutos themselves).

The trial before Ichigo and Renji is simple: fight the Asauchi and survive. Three days pass, and they do just that, but at the end of those two days, Oh-Etsu tells Renji that he’s passed, but Ichigo, who is on his back, fails. Ichigo insists he can keep going, but it’s not a matter of physical endurance, but emotional endurance.

Oh-Etsu flat-out tells Ichigo that he’s not a Soul Reaper. He’s a human who has no business in Soul Society. So not only has he failed, and won’t be getting a new Zanpakuto to replace Zangetsu, but Oh-Etsu transports him back home to the Kurosaki Clinic in Karakura Town. Ichigo is “no good” as he is now, having never fought with an Asauchi.

While there’s a finality to Oh-Etsu banishing Ichigo, he also leaves open the slim possibility of Ichigo one day becoming worthy again. To do so, he’ll need to not only go back to his “roots”, but learn what they are. The Blade King backed up his goofiness with some serious authority, and now our boy has some serious work to do.

While the Unohana/Zaraki battle was good for 4.5-5 stars, Ichigo and Renji’s Hoohden trial was only good for 3-3.5; my rating splits the difference.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 09 – The First Kenpachi

Ichigo is healing up nicely in Kirinden, to the point that when Kirinji strikes him and he doesn’t die, he’s deemed healed enough to head to the next palace. Renji, not one to be left behind, also takes Kirinji’s punch and gets to depart with Ichigo. Kirinji tells his brothers that they exceeded expectations, especially Ichigo. He can see why the Soul King has taken an interest in him.

Back down in Soul Society, the Central 46 have appointed Captain Kyouraku the new Head Captain and Captain of 1st Squad. His first official act is to strengthen the Gotei 13 by finally teaching zanjutsu to Zaraki Kenpachi. His teacher is to be the first Kenpachi: Captain Unohana Retsu, AKA Unohana Yachiru. The 46 forbade Zaraki from learning swordsmanship lest he grow strong enough to rebel, but desperate times…

Ichigo and Renji are rocketed from Kirinden to Gatonden, the Food Palace. There, Hikifune Kirio, AKA the Grain King, prepares them a massive feast of colossal food. There’s not trick to it, either: now that they’ve been healed in Kirinji’s baths, they must restore and augment their strength with large quantities of food.

After Ichigo briefly feels guilty, Kirio emerges from the kitchen to support Renji’s encouraging words: they are preparing for battle, just like those in Soul Society. Kirio’s far more slender figure is a result of her pouring her spiritual pressure into the food she’s making, which means Ichigo and Renji are becoming more powerful than they’ve ever been.

Kirio tells them that she invented Gikon, which eventually led to the creation of Kon and Soul Candies—an extremely useful development. The next member of Squad Zero invented the Zanpakuto, and were Ichigo and Renji not itching to hold swords in their hands once more, the next palace might be quite an unpleasant experience.

The comic relief provided by Ichigo, Renji, and the Squad Zero weirdoes is fun, but I appreciate that the balance of the episode adopts a far more serious tone. Unohana and Zaraki descend to Muken, the very lowest level of the Soul Society prison. A vast, virtually limitless empty space, it is the perfect place for to ridiculously powerful shinigami to have at it.

I always assumed that despite her role as Gotei 13’s chief medical officer, Captain Unohana concealed hidden, never-used powers and/or a dark past. Turns out it’s both: she was one of the OG Gotei 13 and former Captain of the 11th Squad. Before she joined the Gotei Unohana was the most notorious criminal in Soul Society

Zaraki is one of my favorite captains due to the fact he cares so little for the pomp and circumstance of his station, and simply wants to fight the strongest opponents possible. In Yachiru he certainly gets his wish. He may have defeated her to gain the 11th Captaincy (and gave her a scar on her chest that itches when he talks) but she makes it clear her hands were largely tied in that battle.

Here in Muken, there are no rules or boundaries. She can summon any and all criminal tactics and dirty tricks of yore in this rematch. As the first person Zaraki ever fought that he actually feared could kill him, he knows he might’ve gotten lucky that last time, and she even seems to use a bit of Aizen-like illusion to make him think she had killed him.

But she didn’t; she only brought him to the verge of death, which as she knows is the only way he gets stronger. It’s basically the opposite of everyone else (except for the Hulk). And since this “training” exercise is almost certain to be fatal to either Zaraki or Unohana, we see their lieutenants grappling with the fact they may never see their beloved captains again.

If Unohana is the one to emerge victorious, she’ll likely return to her 4th Division duties, but consider herself a failure. The job Shunsui gave her to do is to make one of their strongest warriors even stronger. If that means sacrificing herself so Soul Society can survive, so be it. If Zaraki returns from those black depths as the victor, he’ll be a changed—and even more utterly fearsome—shinigami.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 08 – Zero Hour

In the aftermath of the Quincy invasion and subsequent withdrawal, triage operations underway. Lieutenant Kotetsu tearfully asks Captain Unohana if it was really the right call to remain in the Squad 4 barracks for the entirety of the battle. Unohana reminds Kotetsu not to let emotion rule her decision-making.

They made the right choice because it was Head Captain’s final order, and now they’re still alive to take care of the wounded. Ichigo is there, and while he’s received first aid he still needs a lot of work. Less, though, than his pals Rukia and Renji, who are in stable condition. Rukia can tell something’s troubling Ichigo beyond the destruction of his zanpakuto and failure to protect everyone.

At the captain’s meeting, the younger, more hot-headed Captains like Soi Fon and Muguruma get into it and have to be calmed by Iba and Shunsui, who reminds them that if Old Man Yama were there he’d smack them all for whining about this defeat. They do receive some good news: both Byakuya and Kenpachi are still alive. The bad news? They may never wake up.

Captain Kurotsuchi invites Ichigo to his lab to give him the good and bad news: restoring his shikai is possible, but his bankai is gone forever. He then takes Ichigo to where the other captains have gathered near Seireitei’s protective wall…to await the arrival of the Royal Guard, AKA Squad Zero, which consists of five captains, each one stronger than the combined Gotei 13.

Here I was, wondering who the hell was going to fight the Quincy when they’ve taken out Yamamoto and neutralized Ichigo. It’s these guys. And while the Gotei 13 captains find them irritating, the fact is they infuse both optimism and comedy to the proceedings.

As one would expect, the character designs of the five Squad Zero captains are extremely extra, including a dude with a huge, sharp pompadour that’s almost a character in and of itself, a due with a white puffer jacket instead of the standard captain’s obi, and a lady with six golden legs she uses for everything from playing the squad’s arrival fanfare to holding four spheres that contain Ichigo’s broken zanpakuto, Rukia, Renji, and Byakuya.

Squad Zero has come down from the Royal Palace realm to rebuild the ravaged Gotei 13, but first they’re bringing the injured Kuchikis, Renji, and Ichigo back home with them, where they’ll be able to heal properly. After receiving a video call from Kisuke, Inoue and Chad reassuring him they’re all right (and have apparently made a deal with Grimmjow) Ichigo agrees to go with Squad Zero.

They all pile up in the giant pillar-shaped conveyance they used to travel to Seireitei, and with help from Shiba Kuukaku (joined by Ganju and making a reference to her uncle, Ichigo’s dad) it launches back to the realm of the Royal Palace, which is very cool and austere looking. The main palace is surrounded by five city-sized plates where the five Squad Zero captains’ castles are located.

Ichigo and his injured comrades are sent to Kirinden, the castle of Captain Kirinji Tenjirou, who is apparently the healer of the bunch, and someone whose healing powers far surpass Captain Unohana, who was a past student/apprentice of his.

That said, his methods are pretty simplistic on the surface, consisting of soaking the injured in a white-colored hot spring, then tossing them into a red-colored hot spring, then repeating the process. In Ichigo’s case, only one night in the spring will be enough to restore him, while Byakuya will need more intensive treatment.

Once Squad Zero arrived I started to feel a lot better about Ichigo and the good guys’ chances against the Wandenreich. They’re certainly an eccentric bunch, but I’m sure glad Bleach’s cheeky levity is back, anyone who fixes up Rukia is fine by me. They’re also able to re-forge Ichigo’s sword, so even if he can’t restore his old bankai, perhaps he’ll be able gain a new one, or perhaps even something beyond a bankai.

And, oh yeah, the Soul King is awake … so there’s that.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 07 – Night of Fallen Souls

The last battle between the Gotei 13 and the Quincy looked a lot like the current one, only in reverse. Yamamoto’s thirteen captains back then were vicious, savage killers who made quick work of the Quincy … yet Yamamoto wasn’t able to take Yhwach’s life.

That day of slaughter is memorialized in a painting in Yamamoto’s dojo, as seen by a young Shunsui. Yamamoto warned Shunsui that if the subject of the painting ever returned to Soul Society it would be a dark day indeed. And so it is, with Yamamoto being sliced in half by the real Yhwach after expending all his energy fighting a fake one.

With the Head Captain defeated, Yhwach orders the Stern Ritter to summon their foot soldiers to complete the slaughter of shinigami. The soldiers meet little resistance, mowing down their opponents with east and leaving Soul Society dark, burning, and drenched in blood.

It would appear Yhwach and the Quincy have had their revenge, but after being unable to simply stand by and watch countless lights of souls in Soul Society wink out, Ichigo manages to power his way out of Quilge’s prison and completes his journey through the Garganta.

The first Quincy to encounter him falls quickly by his sword, but before engaging Yhwach, Ichigo pays a visit to Kuchiki Byakuya. Before the sixth captain dies, he takes solace in knowing Rukia and Renji are still alive, and asks Ichigo for a final favor: protect Soul Society—what’s left of it, that is.

Yhwach is surprised but not totally shocked to see Ichigo before him, having defeated Quilge’s prison. It only reinforces the fact that Kurosaki is one of the five special threats that stand in the way of total victory over Soul Society. Ichigo, meanwhile, is already bloodied and battered and not in the best shape to face off against the Quincy king.

That said, he still puts up a hell of a fight, even if Yhwach is likely holding back from killing him. Their ensuing battle is nothing like the flame-wreathed inferno of Yamamoto vs. Yhwach. Things get downright 2001 trippy with the colors and patterns created by the sheer force of their attacks upon one another. But in the end, Yhwach puts his blade in Ichigo’s throat.

Confident he’s disabled but not killed Ichigo, Yhwach prepares to take him back to their realm so that he can revive him and turn him to his side, But he encounters another surprise: Ichigo is still conscious, Yhwach’s stunning strike blocked by a Quincy technique: Blut Vene.

Yhwach surmises that Ichigo’s persistent contact with Quilge’s prison when he busted himself out caused the Quincy’s spiritual pressure to mix with Ichigo’s, enabling him to unconsciously use the Blut to save himself. Yhwach takes off the kid gloves and surrounds and restrains Ichigo with rocks.

But then, just like that, he gives the order to withdraw. It isn’t a retreat, merely a break in the invasion that will be resumed again soon. The Quincy have only a limited timespan in which they are able to function outside of their realm, and that time comes sooner than Yhwach expected due to a little illusory fuckery from his brief encounter with Aizen.

Speaking of fuckery, Yhwach gives Ichigo something to chew on while heals up and awaits his return: the fact that he’s … a Quincy? Or, at least, possesses Quincy blood. It’s why Yhwach hesitates to refer to himself as Ichigo’s “enemy”—as far as he’s concerned, Ichigo is family: a prodigal son to be brought back into the fold. But something tells me Ichigo won’t be going quietly.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 06 – Rug Pull

Old Man Yama is always fun to watch, especially when he casually flexes, like when Yhwach thinks he’s slowly walking towards him, then a moment later Yamamoto is twenty feet away, Zaraki in his arms. When three of Yhwach’s subordinates descend on Yamamoto, he ethers them with a column of flame so big it gives his Captains another morale boost.

But Yamamoto isn’t here to play around. In what comes as a shocking escalation so early in the season, he releases his bankai for the first time in a thousand years. And it’s not a one-trick pony, but a four-cardinal-direction Swiss army knife of overpowered goodness. When he pulls all his flames within his sword, just touching the tip to the ground creates a yawning chasm instantaneously.

That first stage temporarily turned Soul Society into a waterless desert, but the second stage of his bankai makes him as hot as the surface of the sun, melting the very stone beneath him and making it impossible for Yhwach to touch him. This is when Old Man Yama starts his withering trash talk.

When the Quincy King summons the ultimate Quincy defense, Yamamoto changes gears once more, summoning not just any old undead army, but an army made up of Yhwach’s fallen subordinates. He can plow through them, but he must look each one in the face as he does it. It’s enough to make the hardened king weep.

That’s when Yamamoto brings the hammer down, as the fourth stage of his bankai is a blast so devastating it slices Yhwach clean in half at the midsection. But at this point I was already convinced that Something Wasn’t Right.

We just saw way too much of Yamamoto’s repertoire in just the sixth episode of the season, and the Quincy boss can’t already be dead. Sure enough, we learn that Yhwach wasn’t Yhwach at all, but another one of his subordinates disguised as him.

While his double fought Yamamoto, Yhwach infiltrated the dungeon below the 1st Squad barracks to have a few words with Aizen Sousuke, who is imprisoned down there. He doesn’t mince words, and asks Aizen to join him. Aizen may hate Soul Society and Yamamoto, but he may just hate the Quincy just a bit more, because he refuses without hesitation.

As for Yamamoto, his big light show didn’t seem like something he could easily repeat after such a brief rest. His intention from the start of the fight was to end Yhwach’s life, but he was deceived, and not being a Spring chicken anymore, dude is clearly winded. Worse, the defense he held against the Quincy—that they didn’t know enough about his bankai to steal it—goes out the window, since he just showed Yhwach virtually everything he had.

That enables Yhwach to steal Yamamoto’s bankai, then draw his glowing blue Qunicy sword and unleash one of his special attacks on his opponent. The episode ends with Yamamoto’s flames being extinguished, and Yhwach’s strike causing a great deal of blood loss and the clipping of one of his trademark long eyebrows.

But just as Yhwach couldn’t be beaten so quickly, it’s hard to believe Old Man Yama will be out for long. If nothing else, that was one of the best-looking battles in Bleach’s long and illustrious history.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 05 – Old Man Yama’s Fire

So sooner does word reach Soul Society that Kurosaki Ichigo is on his way, and everyone starts to celebrate, than Akon learns that Ichigo is currently trapped in Garganta, and the glimmer of hope fades as fast as it arrived Akon tries calling Ichigo, but when Ichigo picks up all he hears are screams.

The 12th division gets torn apart by Jidanbou, one of the gatekeepers a Quincy apparently brainwashed to do his bidding, which is a good trick. Back in Hueco Mundo, Quilge is about to murder Orihime and Chad when a bolt of red light cuts him in two. We’re left to wonder who it could be … an Espada, perhaps?

Back in Soul Society, Byakuya’s Quincy opponent notes that the shaking of the good captain’s hands isn’t due to any kind of poison, but plain old fear, something Byakuya hasn’t experienced in centuries. Specifically, fear without cause, which has no limits and cannot be overcome by experience.

Renji can only stand and watch while Byakuya is torn to ribbons by his own bankai. Renji is about to unleash his when a second, dumber Quincy hits him so hard he flies clean to the other side of the city. Honestly, it’s the best thing that could have happened to Renji.

The Quincy King and Blondie are looking for more serious opposition, and finally appear to find some in 10th Captain Zaraki Kenpachi, one of my favorite captains because he just doesn’t give a shit about anything but fighting the strongest motherfuckers he can. It’s why he and Ichigo are such good buds.

Zaraki arrives with the bodies of three Stern Ritters he defeated in simple yet poetic ways. Heck, the way he describes defeating them kinda sounds like a poem. But when Zaraki rushes the King and swings his chipped zanpakuto, the King manages to block it … with his bare arm. That might be worrying for some other shinigami, but a block like that is what Zaraki lives for.

Ichigo, completely isolated from both Soul Society and Hueco Mundo, can only rage within his cage of lightning. Either he can summon enough power to blast his way out and open the Garganta back up, or he’ll need help from Kisuke, Orihime, and Chad’s mystery savior.

That brings us to the battle where the tide is finally turned in Soul Society. 9th Lieutenant Hisagi Shuuhei is about to be murdered by a Stern Ritter when the latter’s attack is blocked by Head Captain Yamamoto-Genryuusai. When the Quincy unleashes the late 1st Lieutenant Sasakibe’s Bankai, it takes Yamamoto back to the distant past—the last time he saw it.

Then, Yama’s hair and trademark ‘stache were black, and Sasakibe, still wet behind the ears, didn’t have a ‘stache at all. He also went by Ejisai since the scar on his head looked like the character eji. Sasakibe pledged himself to Yamamoto not as a student who would mimic him, but a right-hand man who would complement his captain’s abilities.

Sasakibe used his bankai against Yamamoto, and it gave him a scar that changed the symbol and thus his nickname. Yamamoto ended up altering it to Genryuusai. And now we know why the cat’s name is so damn long and where he got it from: his trusty lieutenant.

The grief he must feel for outliving his young comrade must surely fuel Yamamoto’s rage as he laughs at the pathetic excuse for an imitation of Sasakibe’s bankai the Quincy throws his way. Yamamoto’s robes are tattered by the blast of lightning, but otherwise he’s unharmed. The Quincy isn’t so lucky: Yamamoto’s counter burns his flesh and bone away, leaving nothing but ash.

Yamamoto turns to a flabbergasted Hisagi and tells him there’s no further need for concern, as he will be personally murdering each and every Quincy invader. With that, he launches up into the sky like a rocket and screams across it like a burning mustachioed phoenix. It’s one of the coolest and most badass displays of power I’ve seen in Bleach … and he’s just getting started.

Sensing their head captain is angrier than they’ve ever seen him, the captains (both those with and without their bankai) and their lieutenants suddenly feel their second wind, and a resurgence of confidence after the initial onslaught of despair. Captain Shunsui in particular feels like Old Man Yama is scolding him for feeling so down on himself.

After the credits we see King Quincy, whose name is Yhwach, having no trouble at all with Zaraki. He has him in a chokehold and is ready to wrest the life from him when Yamamoto blazes in to announce that his true opponent has arrived. Very soon, the two will cross swords for the first time in a millennium. Should be fun. Ichiwho?

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 04 – Piling Up the Ls

16 distinct invaders are identified by Squad 12, and within 7 minutes of their arrival, over a thousand shinigami are dead, most of them rank-and-file, but apparently also some as high-ranking as Lieutenant Kira. In order to stem the slaughter, the Captains get involved, meeting the challenge of their Quincy counterparts. Squad 2 Captain Soi Fon, Squad 6 Captain Kuchiki, Squad 7 Captain Komamura, and Squad 10 Captain Hitsugaya all take on the nearest Stern Ritter with their lieutenants standing by.

It quickly becomes clear that their conventional shikai attacks are useless against the Quincy, so one by one they summon their bankais, thereby falling right into the Quincies’ trap. Captain Kurotsuchi discovers too late that they don’t seal bankai, they steal bankai. And so just like that, four of the toughest motherfuckers in the Gotei 13 find themselves toothless against their foes. Hitsugaya even loses his composure in front of Matsumoto!

With Kurotsuchi racing to the front lines with his belated news, his underling Akon unilaterally makes the call to Ichigo via Urahara, who tells him Ichigo is busy with a Quincy opponent of his own. However, once Urahara learns how badly Soul Society is doing, he cuts the battle short by impaling Qulge Opie with a pillar of golden light and putting Ichigo on the phone.

Ichigo is, as expected, Soul Society (and Hueco Mundo’s) last hope against the Wandenreich, because reasons so far unknown even to Squad 12, his bankai alone can’t be stolen by the Quincy. So Urahara sends him off to Soul Society right away to spell the hurting Gotei 13.  Unfortunately, he was too confident his surprise attack killed Quilge, who launches a surprise attack of his own.

Rather than a direct attack, Quilge targets the Garganta in which Ichigo currently resides, using bonds of blue flame to close the opening and imprisoning Ichigo in what amounts to a giant hamster ball (or cat toy). Needless to say, this is not an optimal series of events. It’s now up to Orihime, Chad, and an injured Urahara—along with whoever else in Hueco Mundo can still hold a weapon—to take Quilge out, before the Quincy take out Soul Society.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 03 – Special Threat

After crippling the Tres Bestia with ease, Quilge Opie seems happy to see Ichigo, and unlike Ichigo, he knows all about him. His king has designated him a “special threat” that he’s to neutralize with all due haste. When Ichigo demonstrates he can catch and deflect Quilge’s projectiles, he levels up to a stronger form.

Ichigo hangs in there while Inoue shields Chad, Loly, and Menoly, but Quilge blocks his Getsuga Tenshou. In the midst of gloating, he’s suddenly coldcocked by a giant fist: the Tres Bestia have come to, and each sacrificed their left arms to create Ayon, a massive berserking brute of an Arrancar. It pummels Qulge into the sand, arresting the degregation of Inoue’s shield.

In the living world, Ishida pores through the books in his father Ryuuen’s library, and is scolded for doing so. He then rifles through Ryuuen’s desk, and finds an old black Quincy tome with some manner of secrets that aren’t disclosed to us, but give Ishida great pause.

In Soul Society, the Gotei 13 prepare for war, not waiting the five days indicated by the initial Quincy invaders. The Sixth seat of the 13th Squad tells the two scrubs that while Shinigami are all about balancing souls, Quincy utterly destroy them, resulting in an imbalance that will eventually destroy both worlds.

How exactly this benefits the Quincy is unknown, at least to me. Do they dwell in some realm beyond both worlds, or do they have no intention of surviving those worlds’ annihilation as long as Soul Society pays for their genocide? Revenge at any cost?

Whatever the case, Captain Kurotsuchi blames Head Captain Yamamoto-Genryuusai for this whole mess, for failing to kill the Quincy King when he had the chance centuries ago. Kurotsuchi, by the way, is the one responsible for the deaths of 28,000 denizens of Soul Society, all in order to balance the scales of souls

The Tre Bestia stand over the fallen Quilge, but when a gloating Apacci approaches him, he runs her through with a sword of light, then uses his Quincy powers to absorb and merge with Ayon to become what he deems an unattractive but ultimately necessary monster. He’s ready to kill one and all of the assembled Arrancar and humans, but then Ichigo intervenes in his Bankai form, ready to rumble once more.

But ultimately, Ichigo has already fallen right into the Quincy King’s trap. While he’s busy fighting Quilge in Hueco Mundo, the King and the other Stern Ritter (the equivalent of Captains or Espada) arrive at Soul Society and waste no time slaughtering the hapless lower-level Shinigami.

Pillars of blue flame erupt from all over, resulting in looks of concern from all the Gotei 13 captains and lieutenants you’ll already know if you’ve watched a sufficient amount of Bleach like I have throughout the years. I’m overjoyed to report that among them is our girl Kuchiki Rukia, who finally makes an appearance. I just wish it was under happier circumstances.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 02 – Blue Ruin

Word comes down the ranks to the 12th Squad scrubs crashing at Ichigo’s that Soul Society has been attacked, the 1st Squad’s Lieutenant Sasakibe is dead, and all 116 squad members were killed in just over three minutes of fighting. At the bad guys’ HQ, their leader has no qualms about cutting off arms, legs, and heads of those who displease him.

We also see he has 3rd Espada Tier Harribel in custody, presumably to use her as a soldier in his war. While Ichigo is on a patrol of town to clear his head, Arrancars Nel and Pesche literally drop in on him, in an acute state of panic and distress.

When Lt. Sasakibe’s funeral pyre is lit, the episode does a smash cut to the blue flames of a gas stove as Yuzu cooks dinner while Karin watches TV. The blue flames are a symbol of the power of the Quincy, while one shot of Ichigo’s beloved little sisters are all that’s needed to make the stakes plain.

Pesche and Nel recount the invasion of Hueco Mundo and the capture of both Harribel and their large companion Dondochakka. They’ve come to Ichigo to ask for his help, and predictably, Ichigo agrees, and both Chad and Orihime are with him. Uryuu declares he can’t accompany them, since he’s Quincy sworn to destroy Hollows and Arrancar. Thus the main quartet is already down a member, and Uryuu’s loyalty to his friends will surely tested.

Urahara Kisuke, having noticed the not-so-quiet arrival of Arrancar to the World of the Living, offers to take Ichigo & Co. to Hueco Mundo via Garganta. They arrive to a land even more ruined than usual, with enemy soldiers in white uniforms rounding up the scant Arrancar survivors of the battle.

Little blue fires are omnipresent among the ruins; a dead giveaway that this was the work of the Quincy. And while even though Pesche doesn’t sense Dondochakka among the nearest group of POWs being herded away, Ichigo wants to get a closer look at his enemy, and if possible, give them a bloody nose.

One of the commanders of the Quincy invasion and subjugation forces is the flamboyant Quilge Opie, who is looking for “choice” Arrancar that might possibly be of use to their cause (read: competent cannon fodder). That said, he doesn’t give the lineup of captives an equal chance of survival, but rather stabs a number of them to death simply because he can.

Two of the captives are of a higher level than most: Loly and Menoly, Lord Aizen’s former aides. They ditch their cloaks, brandish their blades, and introduce themselves, but they’re no match for Quilge, who shatters their blades and easily disables them both.

This activity attracts the attention of still stronger Arrancar, namely Harribel’s Fraccion, the Tres Bestia of Mila Rose, Sun-Sun, and Apacci. The three are their usual cocky, argumentative, and highly skilled selves, and they dispatch seemingly all of Quilge’s underlings.

However, by the time Ichigo and Nel arrive, Quilge is looming over their defeated bodies, quite unscathed. One would hope that won’t be the case in a battle against Ichigo, but Ichigo is only one human, and the Quincy know who he is and possibly how best to fight him. I don’t think he can expect any “easy” battles going forward.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 01 (First Impressions) – New Show, New Foe

After a brief scene with 12th Squad Captain Kurotsuchi observing hollow movements from his giant lab, two Shinigami from the 13th Squad, Shino and Yuki, arrive in Karakura City to relieve the substitute operating there. They are quickly in over their heads when the area becomes overrun with giant Hollows.

They’re saved by Kurosaki Ichigo, Inoue Orihime Ishida Uryuu, and Sado Yasutora, for whom the Hollows are only a minor annoyance. Everyone uses their signature move, culminating in Ichigo loosing a Getsuga Tenshou in Bankai mode. So begins the first episode of Bleach in over a decade, and I have to admit I was overcome by a combo of nostalgia and elation.

It’s back! Bleach is back! The first television anime I watched regularly. It was going to be very hard to mess this up (unless they brought the freaking Bount back out) so I’m pleased to report that they haven’t. So far so good. And this episode doesn’t just look good, it looks great, more like the Bleach movies. The original has its charms and looked pretty good in its day, but this is a more visually modern and mature aesthetic, and I dig it.

The episode is also wise to show us not only the badass parts of our Bleach gang, but their down time as well, as Ichigo plays host to the recovering Shino and Yuki while Orihime, Uryuu and Chad drop in with a bounty of baked goods for breakfast. I only wish we’d gotten to see Karin and Yuzu too, but the bedroom was already pretty crowded before a pompous half-Quincy, half-Arrancar-lookin’ jamoke barges in and ignores Ichigo’s demands he get off his bed.

Something is rotten in Soul Society, specifically the Rukon District, where Madarame Ikkaku and Ayasegawa Yumichika are investigating an entire village apparently spirited away … by itself?  Then the office of the head honcho, 1st Squad Captain Yamamoto-Genryuusai, is infiltrated by a group of masked baddies.

Yama’s lieutenant Sasakibe is impaled by a giant blue beam that Yamamoto shatters, but before he can engulf the intruders in his righteous flames, they transport away, seemingly by being engulfed by their own shadows. They call themselves the Wandenreich, and they were there to declare war. The plan is to destroy Soul Society in five days’ time.

Back in Karakura, Ichigo kicks his uninvited guest Asguiaro Ebern out of his window and then leads him to the river where they can fight without too much collateral damage. Ichigo is confused by the fact Ebern uses Quincy weaponry but wears a partial Hollow mask. He also notes that Ebern is going out of his way to taunt and provoke Ichigo, even telling him he won’t be able to beat him without Bankai.

Sasakibe warned Yamamoto that whoever these guys are, they’re somehow able to seal Bankais. That’s not good considering it’s pretty much the ultimate weapon of a Shinigami. It looks like Ichigo takes the bait and is about to lose his, but he powers through Ebern’s ritual and slashes him with another Getsuga Tenshou.

A pissed-off Ebern withdraws through his shadow, and we get a glimpse of the Wandenreich’s headquarters, which looks a lot like Hueco Mundo. As expected, Ebern is a fairly low-level member of the Wandenreich, which means their leader is probably someone it would probably take Ichigo 5-10 episodes to defeat on the old show.

A big reason I stopped watching Bleach around the 160-ish-episode mark was that there was so much low-quality anime-only filler, and I’d kind of outgrown the deliberate, analytical, and often repetitive pace of the multi-episode shounen battles. At least in this episode, the new show’s structure has caught up with the times just as the visuals have.

More importantly, this arc is based on the final manga chapter, so I doubt it will be shuffling its feet. And to this day the first couple seasons of Bleach remain some of my favorite anime, though it’s been over fifteen years since I’ve seen it (aside from re-watching the first episode on the show’s tenth anniversary). Bleach is best when working at the top of its game, and this is a very encouraging start … but I am going to need to see Kuchiki Rukia at some point.

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