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.