Song of the Blog: [Detonation] by Trivium
I have not written anything on this site in more than two years. After the end of the manga my interest in Bleach kinda faded, since nothing new was being made to keep the fire lit and personal issues distracted what attention I allocated to the series. But, thankfully, my younger brother just got into Bleach and his interest has reignited that fire. Since I have someone to discuss the series with, I can think about the series analytically once again and thus am returning to my long-ignored analysis pieces. I can't say for sure how often I'll do them but I promise I'll try to be somewhat regular.
That being said, what better way is there to revitalize a series than to just pick up exactly where it left off! My last post was an analysis of the first half of the Soul Society Arc; since that was 25 months ago I do not expect you to remember what I said so I'll link it [here]. When we left off, Yoruichi had saved Ichigo and Aizen was 'dead'. Like before, I will go ahead and briefly summarize the major events of the arc and then delve on the significance of those events.
At the arc begins, Ichigo is in Yoruichi's care and she has offered to train him so he is strong enough to take down Byakuya and save Rukia. To this end, she begins the process of granting him a 'Bankai', the greatest possible release of a Zanpakutō that most Captain class Shinigami can only release after a decade of constant training; Ichigo does not have this kind of time, so Yoruichi unveils a Tenshintai, a special tool invented by Kisuke Urahara to expedite the Bankai training process to a mere three days. Though Ichigo condenses this further into two, this training takes up most of Ichigo's attention until the arc's climax, and the focus turns instead to his allies. Also of note real quick, Renji, Ichigo's former rival, joins him to train with Bankai the normal, long way.
Our look at Ichigo's companions begins with Uryū and Orihime. The pair are confronted by the insane Captain of the 12th Division, Mayuri Kurotsuchi. Kurotsuchi had previously orchestrated the Shinigami assault on Uryū's clan for the purpose of acquiring test subjects for his inhumane experiments. His poison and paralysis techniques, made incredibly potent through out first look at a Bankai, Konjiki Ashisogi Jizō, hold Uryū at bay until the Quincy releases all his power in the form of Quincy: Letz Stil. This power-up allows Uryū to defeat, but not kill, the Captain at the cost of his powers, and though he is saved from the poison by Mayuri's daughter-of-sorts Nemu, he and Orihime are captured by 9th Division Captain Kaname Tōsen.
Once captured, these Ryoka encounter the injured Kenpachi Zaraki, previously defeated by Ichigo. The Captain decides to help them save Rukia because reasons and the group ends up facing off against Tōsen and 7th Division Captain Sajin Komamura, both of whom use their respective Bankai. Kenpachi defeats them but is left out of future events as a result.
Renji manages to perfect his Bankai and seeks to rescue Rukia on his own, but finds his own Captain, Byakuya, in his way. Despite unleashing his powerful Hihiō Zabimaru, Renji is powerless against his Captain's own Bankai, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi, though Byakuya seems moved by his Lieutenant's willingness to die to save his sister.
While all of this is happening, the mysterious murder of Sōsuke Aizen is hanging over the Soul Society. Captains Tōshirō Hitsugaya and Retsu Unohana suspect that the Ryoka are being framed for the killing and break off their pursuit to find out the truth. Hitsugaya's investigation leads him to fellow Captain Gin Ichimaru, and he battles the apparent traitor to a standstill, nearly besting him before Aizen's traumatized Lieutenant Momo Hinamori gets involved. Unohana, Soul Society's best healer, chooses to investigate Aizen's corpse and shockingly finds that the body is not even real.
Everything comes to a head as Rukia's execution finally arrives. Ichigo completes his training and rushes to Sōkyoku Hill, the sight where Rukia is to die, and the location for his final confrontation with Byakuya. At the same time, Yoruichi and sympathetic Captains Shunsui Kyōraku and Jūshirō Ukitake jump into action to run interference. Yoruichi battles her former student and 2nd Division Captain Suì-Fēng, displaying her mastery of the esoteric Shunkō to defeat her in a close battle; Ukitake and Kyōraku similarly distract Captain-Commander Genryūsai Shigekuni Yamamoto, the most powerful Shinigami then alive. All of these are side dishes to Ichigo and Byakuya's brawl, with Ichigo unveiling his new Bankai Tensa Zangetsu and battling Byakuya evenly until the Captain unveiled Senbonzakura Kageyoshi Senkei, a secret technique of his own Bankai. Knocked unconscious, Ichigo is helpless and near death until something unexplainable happens: the mysterious mask he had previously discarded starts to form on his face, and the Substitute Shinigami returns to the battle with boosted power and a berserker fighting style more akin to a Hollow. Ichigo regains control at the last second, and the two combatants decide to settle things in a single, all out clash that Ichigo finally wins. And that's when things get weird.
Aizen is still alive! Hitsugaya and Unohana encounter the Captain deep under Seireitei and he reveals his deception as an illusion created by his ridiculously powerful Zanpakūto, Kyōka Suigetsu. He then travels to Sōkyoku Hill, incapacitates EVERYONE, and steals a mysterious orb called the Hōgyoku, hidden inside Rukia by Kisuke Urahara through the use of a power draining Gigai. Aizen, joined by co-conspirators Gin and Tōsen, then escapes with the aid of a horde of Gillian-class Menos. Basically, all hell breaks loose and it's all according to keikaku. In the aftermath of this whirlwind and with the trickery revealed, Rukia, the Ryoka, and allies are pardoned and everyone goes home, forced to wait until Aizen makes a move.
Okay, so much for a brief summary. Unlike basically every other arc in the series, literally everything that happens in this arc is of huge storyline and thematic importance. We get an introduction to Bankai, Hollowfication, several Captains, Aizen's plot, and a war between Soul Society and the Hollows in the span of 65 chapters. I've discussed many of those things before, and some of them, like the Hōgyoku and Hollowfication are going to get separate discussions in the future, but all of these things are insanely significant and will be up until Aizen's defeat hundreds of chapters later. What we're here to discuss today are the thematic implications of this arc.
Unlike the previous two arcs, this is NOT an exposition arc anymore, and instead builds on previous exposition to establish and further themes. The mystery established in the Infiltration arc are now brought to the fore, with Aizen's deception revealed and betrayal complete. Critically, though, the mystery is NOT solved, but further obscured. We know what Aizen did, but not why, and we don't know what he plans to do next now that he has the Hōgyoku. Mystery and obscured goals are gonna stick around throughout the entire series, so buckle up kids.
In all respects, the themes of deception and betrayal are the KEY to understanding this arc from a literary standpoint. In addition to Aizen's aforementioned keikaku, we see deception and betrayal all the time in this part of the story, both in the form of actual desertion of a cause and in a meta sense through the betrayal of one's ideals. Hitsugaya, Renji, Shunsui, Ukitake, Kenpachi, and Unohana all disobey Soul Society's orders and aid the invaders in some way, either by fighting on the Ryoka's side or abandoning pursuit to conduct independent missions. On a deeper level, Renji and Byakuya are both forced to betray their own goals and worldviews during this arc: Renji abandon's his goals of Captaincy and prominence to save his best friend, while Byakuya is confronted by his both his paradoxical promises to simultaneously serve the law and protect Rukia and his own overwhelming pride, ultimately deciding that his sister is more important to him than even himself. Deception rears its head primarily through Aizen, Tōsen and Gin. Tōsen in particular deceives his best friend Sagin into believing that he was a loyal Captain while he instead sought to bring it down, while Gin fools geniuses like Hitsugaya and Unohana into thinking he was the true mastermind of events, further manipulating Momo Hinamori to further his ruse. However, the ultimate deceiver has got to be Kisuke Urahara. Ostensibly the ally that helped Team Deathberry in their quest to save Rukia, it turns out that the whole execution was framed on trumped up charges kickstarted by Urahara in an attempt to destroy the Hōgyoku. These are not the ONLY betrayals and manipulations in the arc, mind you; the whole arc is a collapse of order and alliances, and it is literally impossible to understand the arc without understanding these concepts.
Ironically juxtaposed with all these doublecrosses are the themes of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. Every protagonist except Kenpachi and his men acts either through an honorable wish to find the truth and save the innocent or an overwhelming loyalty to their allies. Sometimes, this righteous mindset ends up with some pretty massive side effects. The most poignant example is Uryū, who follows their path of revenge right to Mayuri Kurotsuchi. In the end, the young Quincy throws away all of his power in an attempt to both avenge his family and save his friends from the mad Captain, laying his honor on the line and losing everything in the process. Not all displays of loyalty are so noble, though. Momo Hinamori is an example of when loyalty can become tragic; her obsessive attachment to her Captain drove her mad and left her a pawn of his manipulation, all while she thought she was doing the right thing by a man who was only ever nice to her.
Ultimately, these two opposing forces reveal one of the biggest themes in all of Bleach: the duel of ideology. Be it the fight between science and emotion showcased by Uryū and Mayuri, justice and hedonism by Tōsen and Zaraki, or freedom and order by Ichigo and Byakuya, basically every fight is fought on a mental level more than a physical. Notably, the story does not explicitly state any of these worldviews are wrong; every character is able to accomplish great things and do huge amounts of good by following their own personal ideology, including even Mayuri. Ichigo in particular proves remarkable when he focuses on what he views as crucial to his identity, and this will continue throughout the end of the series, riding on the backs of several different ideologies. A major ideological dissonance is key to every major fight from here on out, and expect to never hear the end of this idea until the very final chapter.
Wow. That was a huge doozy. What a return, am I right? In seriousness, this is probably the most thematically and canonically important arc in Bleach, so it kind of required a huge explanation. Now I want to hear from you guys. What did you think of the arc? Do you have any other key themes you took from it? Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments below!