It’s weird that while being arguably the second most important character in all of Bleach, Rukia has had shockingly little to do ever since the Soul Society Arc. Sure, she’s been around and had a couple of fights against minor antagonists, but compared to when she was Ichigo’s mentor, friend, and partner in Hollow-slaying, she’s felt pretty distant and diminished. Despite that, her impact never really left the series – as evidenced by her showing up in AniTrendz’ Top 10 Female Characters for a couple of weeks during the first cour, where she had a combined three minutes of screen time, and most of it was when she was unconscious.
So it’s very nice to see her return for a real fight – and against an already established enemy. As Nodt may want a rubber match with Byakuya, but instead, it’s the younger Kuchiki sibling’s turn to show off the fruits of her training with Zero Squad. On a purely mechanical level, that confrontation is honestly pretty dull. Viewed from a distance, all that happens is As Nodt spends a long time explaining his
Stand Schrift’s power, Rukia explains why she’s immune, and then overpowers him by revealing not one, but two never before seen abilities. It’s slightly more complicated than Renji’s one-shotting MASK DE MASCULINE last week, but not by much.
Thankfully, that shortcoming is more than made up for by the phenomenal presentation. The sheer impact of the imagery and sound in this fight is easily the standout of Thousand-Year Blood War so far. Yoshitsugu Matsuoka delivers an incredible performance as As Nodt, capturing the cold terror, unhinged menace, and final, pitiful terror of the character with every line; complemented by some eerie modulation on his voice that stands out when watched with headphones. The visuals are just as powerful, from As Nodt’s Black Metal-inspired released form, to the visions of gadflies pouring from the corpses of Rukia’s loved ones to swarm and devour her when his power takes hold. The only real misstep is some shoogly-looking CG at the end, but that’s a minor misstep in what is otherwise a fantastically presented setpiece, and a darkly beautiful visual treat.
Outside of that, it’s also pretty damn satisfying to finally see Rukia in full force. The true nature of her Shikai – that it doesn’t generate ice or cold air, but makes Rukia’s entire body so cold that it freezes all its surroundings – is a cool way to differentiate her from Hitsugaya’s more typical ice powers. The image of her slicing through As Nodt’s shoulder, only for the wound to freeze before it can start bleeding, is sick as hell. It does feel weird to also reveal she’s achieved Bankai without any buildup, but seeing her bathed in icy, translucent power is more than worth the narrative shortcut it takes to get there. I’m even kind of touched by her reunion without Byakuya, even if I think their relationship is still a little too neat for everything they’ve been through. In all, it’s a great moment for one of this series’ most important characters to finally shine, and I hope we’ll get to see more of these new abilities as the war goes on.
Though this episode does raise some worries about the larger narrative arc if I’m being honest. It’s great that Ichigo is finally done training, but I hope we don’t have to spend the next few episodes cutting back to him flying down Snake Way in between fights. I understand you always have to wait for the main character to heroically show up, but I’ve seen this dance enough to be very tired of it.
More pressingly, it’s revealed that Ywach’s whole power-granting scheme with his followers is a self-serving one. Any power he grants to the Quincies will return to him upon their death, so even when our heroes pull out a win, they’re just adding more and more to the boss’ skill tree. On the one hand, that certainly makes Ywach more intimidating, and a greater threat as the battle goes on. On the other hand, it severely undercuts any past or future wins from the supporting cast. Instead of holding their own in fights to protect the Soul Society/universe at large, all they’re accomplishing is making Ichigo’s job harder once he finally arrives.
Perhaps that’s an ungenerous way to read that particular narrative mechanic, but I can’t help but be cynical. Years of watching the entire cast dance in Aizen’s palm have left me pretty numb to this whole setup, and having every loss or victory ultimately further the villain’s plan sucks the tension out of these battles. Even as these individual episodes and fights have been entertaining, this season continues to fuel my misgivings about the larger story.