The new iteration of the "Bleach" anime is diligently addressing the myriad shortcomings and narrative hiccups that plagued the original animated series, although the results have been a mixture of successes and setbacks. While the "Thousand-Year Blood War" arc still grapples with certain shortcomings when compared to fellow action series like "My Hero Academia" and "Jujutsu Kaisen," "Bleach" manages to surge ahead in the crucial moments by introducing meaningful twists to familiar shonen conventions. Notably, this includes the realm of power-ups, an aspect that was previously one of the show's glaring weaknesses.
In the initial "Bleach" anime, the augmentation of characters' abilities often occurred through contrived power-ups and narrations that felt somewhat forced. However, the "Thousand-Year Blood War" arc is diligently rectifying this issue. Within the combat framework of "Bleach," swords possess their own sentience, making them more than mere Quirks or symbols of demon-slaying prowess that awakens during intense battles. In this regard, the soul-cutting swords known as "Zanpakuto" demand the foundation of camaraderie before yielding their potential. A prime illustration of this concept emerges in recent episodes of "Bleach," wherein Lieutenant Renji Abarai from Squad 6 aptly demonstrates the effectiveness of this dynamic.
How Renji Abarai Awakened His True Bankai
In recent Bleach episodes, Lieutenant Renji Abarai arrived to save the day after two Visored Captains, Kensei Muguruma and Rojuro Otoribashi, lost badly to Sternritter S, Mask de Masculine. Like Captain Sajin Komamura before him, Renji arrived with brand-new powers to turn the tide of battle, and Renji's power-up wasn't nearly as contrived or costly as Sajin's was. While Sajin gave up his heart to fight in an unexpected human form against Bambietta Basterbine, Renji acquired a more meaningful new power that should serve him well now and in the future: a new bankai.
Earlier in the TYBW anime, five Soul Reaper Captains had their bankai stolen by Quincy Medallions, forcing them to embrace shonen-style training and hard work to make up for that loss. That shook them out of their complacency, and even though Renji never got his own bankai stolen, he still learned the same lesson, and it paid off. Renji trained alongside Ichigo with squad 0, or the Royal Guard, and learned from Ichibe Hyosube that "Hihio Zabimaru" is just part of his bankai's name. Renji's bankai has been half-cocked this entire time, since Zabimaru only partially acknowledged Renji as its rightful wielder. After learning that, Renji trained and fought so he could prove himself worthy of the true Zabimaru, and he succeeded, unlocking So'o Zabimaru, complete with newer and stronger powers.
This narrative twist serves as an upgraded iteration of Renji's previous encounters during the Soul Society story arc, particularly when he initially wielded his bankai against Captain Byakuya Kuchiki. During that phase, the concept of bankai was intended to be a rare endowment reserved for the exceptionally gifted, rendering Renji's possession of one somewhat implausible. Although the scenario was partially rationalized by Renji engaging in a private dialogue with the baboon-like spirit of his zanpakuto to uncover its true essence, the bestowal of a bankai to Renji still appeared rather convenient. While it's beyond the point of retraction, the new trajectory of "Bleach's" unfolding arc can at least hone in on the most remarkable facet of Renji's bankai — his profound connection of friendship with Zabimaru.
Renji and Zabimaru's dynamic mirrors that of steadfast battle companions who harbor genuine concern for each other, albeit expressed primarily through actions and demonstrations of valor. This portrayal signifies a significant stride in character development for both Renji and his zanpakuto. Moreover, it effectively differentiates Renji from his Quincy adversaries, who resort to pilfering powers or seeking empowerment through Yhwach's blood.
Renji's Bankai Awakening Compares Well to Other Popular Anime
Renji's power-up compares well to the powers of the Sternritters since they are now the complacent ones who rely on the same familiar powers without ever undergoing training. That is why the Sternritter are now falling behind in the blood war. Speaking more broadly, Renji's bankai power-up also compares favorably to other power awakenings found in similar shonen series such as My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer. By now, it has become common for shonen characters to experience awakenings, where their powers suddenly improve and assume a new form. In My Hero Academia, for example, Quirks can be awakened on both sides of the war, with the villain Himiko Toga using Transform in new ways and even Tomura Shigaraki boosting Decay's power during his fight against Re-Destro. Meanwhile, demon slayers can awaken their marks in the heat of battle for survival's sake, which Mitsuri Kanroji and Muichiro Tokito both did in the Swordsmith Village arc.
However, those power awakenings were straightforward and didn't say much about the characters who experienced them. It's a shonen action cliche for characters to conveniently get stronger in the heat of battle, an off-brand Super Saiyan mode that can help a hero survive an otherwise hopeless fight. This can be done well, but it often isn't, with demon slayer marks feeling disappointngly generic and Quirk awakenings usually failing to comment on the characters who experienced them. Himiko Toga didn't change who she was to awaken her Transform Quirk, for example, and while Muichiro Tokito did change in Demon Slayer Season 3, his change had no relation to his demon slayer mark - it was because of Tanjiro's talk jutsu.
Meanwhile, even if Bleach does has a history of cheap and contrived power awakenings, its combat system also allows for more meaningful awakenings, as Renji just demonstrated. Zanpakuto, unlike demon slayer marks or Quirks, are not just supernatural tools to be used. They're conscious partners, like the weapons in Soul Eater, and that means the Soul Reaper must befriend their zanpakuto and become worthy of that weapon's shikai and bankai, necessitating some positive personal changes. Even Kenpachi Zaraki did that, as did protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki, and now it's Renji's turn. Characters like Renji can't just be stronger -- they must be better, and that's what awakens the character in terms of bankai and personality alike.
Other shonen series could stand to follow Bleach's example, and use personal growth as a prerequisite for unlocking new powers. To an extent, recent One Piece episodes did that with Luffy's awakening of Gear 5, a power-up that made the character not just a freedom-loving rogue, but a great hero who will use the Drums of Liberation to free all people from oppression as the sun god Nika. If Luffy leans into that, then he can follow Bleach's example and let a power awakening come packaged with a much-needed personal transformation.