Who You Are In Bleach (It’s Always A Sword)

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Okay, so basically there’s a thing in shounen anime how every one of them, more or less, has a thing that means ‘hey, here’s the reason people have a special ability.’ Whether it’s the Devil Fruit from One Piece, the Special Grade Curses from Jujutsu Kaisen, or the special Jutsu from Naruto. Kamen Rider Drivers, X-Men Mutations, Stands, Kwamis, they’re there to explain why Some People have the cool special powers and Some Other People don’t.

In Bleach, the ‘thing’ was a sword. The term for it is your Zanpakuto, but c’mon.

It’s a sword.

These swords aren’t just, you know, a sword, they’re a real sword (hhhnnnnnn I dunno) made out of your soul. It’s not a device with its own personality or traits, it’s something that was Inside Of You All Along (which I guess means Anthy Himemiya was a Soul Reaper?), and the way it works reflects something of who you are. There are three forms this sword can take (basically).

The first is ‘unreleased.’ It’s just a sword. It’s just a normal-ish looking katana, nothing weird or special. It’s worth noting that in Bleach we see a whole society of people with these, and this speaks to the idea that perhaps a kind of cultural conformity is at work, that maybe the entire of the Gotei 13 is a system for discarding people who cannot fit this sort of baseline, but I’m sure that, that a Japanese anime, with a weird and whacky cast of varied appearances, ha ha, wouldn’t, wouldn’t have any cultural grounding in conformity.

Anyway, after your Unreleased form there’s two stages of Released form: Your shikai and the bigger, badder, spookier form, the bankai. Bankais are rare and only characters of captain class are meant to have them, so of course, basically everyone has them by the end, or something. There’s even tension around the Bankai; if Bankai is a sign of being captain rank, what does it mean when you see a character below Captain rank who has a Bankai?

This creates a pressure for characters who are below Captain level to either push for Bankai (to advance their station), or, if they like their position, or are scared of challenging their Captain, hide that they’re attaining Bankai. Bankai is very rarely shown in the early, let’s say, uh ‘decent’ parts of Bleach – it’s something that captains use when they need to deal with what looks like a pretty big threat (ie, Our Heroes). There’s even a conversation about how some lieutenants who are pretty powerful don’t have access to bankai yet, and why.

In Kira’s case, it’s because he’s a wenus, just so you know.

These stages of shapeshift are important, but it’s important to remember that no matter what the power is or how it works, the power is itself still, somehow, a sword, a real sword (gngngngnhghhghghghhghghgnhhhhh weeeeellllllllllllllllllllllllll,,, I meeeeean), and that means that what it represents and what it’s used for is going to be fundamentally sword-y. There are characters whose powers play into using the sword to express a different cultural background, a different martial discipline, a lack of martial discipline, and uh,

You know I don’t know how to summarise what Hitsugaya’s sword is doing except ‘this is some extremely over the top anime bullshit.’ If you’re not already familiar, Hitsugaya’s sword lets him create, then turn into, a dragon, made of ice, and like, that’s cool as hell, but also: What the hell?

The fact that Zanpakuto have names, and even stated to have personalities and identities that let them communicate with their owner means that the anime, in the ongoing trend to make as much content as they could out of nothing, introduced not one but two plot arcs about the Zanpakuto that turned them not just into swords that are totemic items, but that they could be people who got up and walked around and had, crucially, boobs.

The filler arcs in Bleach were, extremely weird. You could reliably point to them as oh here’s where they decided to waste time on merchandisable fanservice nobody liked.

And that could be enough, just every character in this anime is going to be able to express their beefs, their personalities, their ideology through a sword, and like, it’s a real sword (mgnghhhhhhgnnnn I mean) that you use to do sword fighting stuff.

Bleach did kind of twist on the ramp with this idea, though, because in addition to the Sword-Soul people in the Gotei 13, you also wind up involving the Quincies and the Fullbringers and the Vizards and the Arrancar, and some characters really strain ‘sword’ as a metaphor pretty hard.

What kind of things did they do with this?

Oh, they did some nonsense.

And we’ll talk more about it tomorrow.