Bleach: Zanpakuto – The main weapons of shinigami
In the Bleach manga Zanpakuto are arguably the most iconic weapon and are instantly recognizable to those who follow the series. We are introduced to the zanpakuto in the very first appearance of the shinigami Rukia Kuchiki and from there it has been heavily associated with the shinigami group as their main weapon and source of power. On its surface the zanpakuto are weapons wielded by the shinigami in their duties as balance keepers for souls to combat threats such as the hollows or the quincies. But in reality the zanpakuto are more than just weapons and are embodiments of the soul of its user, this being especially true for higher level shinigami and act more as partners rather than simple weapons.
All shinigami in Bleach start with a basic zanpakuto called an asauchi which are nameless zanpakuto forged by the god of the sword, Nimaiya Oetsu. These asauchi take on the normal appearance of a zanpakuto and possess no distinct ability but are to some degree sentient. During these times the zanpakuto serves only as a weapon but the shinigami is expected to train with this zanpakuto and slowly imprint their souls onto them, think of the asauchi as blank slates the shinigami can project their personalities and souls onto. Through time and practice the shinigami is able to fully imprint part of their souls onto the asauchi and eventually create a wholly new being born from this amalgamation. This is when the zanpakuto start becoming more as partners rather than crude weapons to the shinigami as they become more active in interacting with their respective shinigami and provide them access to new powers.
The Bleach manga takes inspiration from Japanese culture thus the appearance of a zanpakuto before a soul is imprinted typically takes the form of a normal japanese katana with no discernable features. In cases where the shinigami has high amounts of reiatsu or is unfamiliar with regulating reiatsu like ichigo the zanpakuto may take on a larger form to reflect this. Once the shinigami has imprinted their souls into the asauchi however the sword takes on its own personality and alongside that a new appearance as well. These changes in appearance can be something as minor as the color of the handle or the shape of the guard to more drastic appearance differences such as taking the forms of other japanese swords suchs as Wakizashi’s, Nodachi or dual blades. Some characters choose to also hide their zanpakuto in appearance of other objects such as canes like the case of Yamamoto’s Ryujin Jakka and Urahara’s Benihime.
The appearance the zanpakuto takes in this katana form is referred to its sealed state and can drastically change even more as the shinigami gains access to the 2 main forms of the zanpakuto the Shikai and the Bankai. The Shikai and the Bankai are obtainable only through continued communication between the shinigami and their zanpakuto. Through meditation and training the shinigami is able to slowly hear the voice of their zanpakuto which develops its own tone and personality based on the soul imprinted on it. In order to unlock the shikai, the shinigami must first learn the name of its zanpakuto and this has been shown to be done several different ways.
Once the zanpakuto shares its name with the shinigami, the shinigami is able to call out its name along with an activation phrase to manifest its shikai form. Typically the shikai form can alter the appearance even more depending on its abilities and personality. Zanpakuto such as hyorinmaru and Ryujin Jakka do not change drastically while Gegetsuburi and Suzumibachi become different weapons altogether. The abilities of the shikai are also influenced by the personality of the shinigami as well as the soul being imprinted and is always unique for each person. The abilities therefore can vary largely and can have abilities that manipulate elements like fire and ice or even intangible or abstract effects such as reversing one’s senses or manifesting children’s games into reality.
The Bleach manga and anime uses this ability to manifest and unlock the abilities of the zanpakuto as one of the main requirements for advancement within the shinigami ranks. At the highest rank of captain the final stage of the zanpakuto, the Bankai, is a minimum requirement for nomination. Much like the shikai, the bankai also requires continued communication and training to achieve but is typically much harder than achieving shikai as only a handful within the series is able to achieve this. To achieve shikai the shinigami must communicate and learn the name of its zanpakuto but for bankai the shinigami must achieve two things, the manifestation of the sword spirit and the subjugation of its spirit. This involves materializing the zanpakuto spirit either into the real world or entering the zanpakuto world to meet it.
Following this the shinigami must forcibly subjugate the spirit to gain access to this power. The bankai is the ultimate form of the zanpakuto and gives the shinigami a huge boost in power, as an example the zanpakuto Senbonzakura shikai ability allows it to convert its single blade into thousands of smaller blades but in its bankai state manifests thousands of swords which create a sea of smaller blades. Most zanpakuto follow this formula of the ability being overpowered versions of its shikai.
While the zanpakuto takes the form of a typical sword and is actually a spirit, it can still be damaged. In its sealed state and shikai forms any damage dealt to it such as the blade breaking is not permanent and can be repaired by the shinigami. It requires the shinigami to pour reiatsu and through willpower rebuild the zanpakuto to its former state, we see this happen when abarai renji did this very thing through sheer effort back to its original condition. Some abilities such as the third dance of Sode no Shirayuki even allow it to be repaired temporarily without having to go through this process but after any battle the shinigami would still need to repair its base form. The exception to this rule is if the zanpakuto was damaged in its bankai state whereby it is beyond repair even through willpower and can only be fixed if it was reforged by Nimaiya Oetsu. Abarai Renji’s Zabimaru is a good example of this where he was able to repair his shikai to its former state as mentioned previously but his bankai was left permanently damaged.
Aside from the shikai and bankai offensive abilities, the zanpakuto is also generally used for 2 main things. The first is that the zanpakuto allows the shinigami to carry out the Konso ritual that purifies a Plus in the living world and allows them to move on to the afterlife. The shinigami typically uses the pommel of their sealed state and stamps the forehead of the plus which then purifies them. The second use of the zanpakuto is that any being, especially hollows, sliced with its blade is purified in a similar manner to the Plus. This is an important function as the role of the shinigami is to maintain the balance of souls from the afterlife and the world of the living. This singular function is why the quincies were viewed as dangerous as their bows destroyed any souls rather than purified them like the zanpakuto were able to do.
Ultimately the Bleach manga uses zanpakuto as their main power system and are suitable main weapons for the shinigami and act more as their partner in their battles against the hollows and others who threaten the balance between the real world and the afterlife. It would have been more interesting to see the zanpakuto spirits take more of a front role within the manga as their own entities seeing as they are sentient but this was not explored much outside of fillers.