The third season of Bleach sees the conclusion of Ichigo’s efforts to save Rukia. In many ways, The Rescue and The Entry feel like one big season, not two separate arcs. Not only are our main characters still in Soul Society, they’re also still dealing with the same plot threads introduced in The Entry. The Entry introduces us to a lot of conflicts—Rukia’s execution, Ganju’s dislike of Shinigami, Byakuya’s strained relationship with his sister, etc.—and those conflicts don’t get resolved until the conclusion of The Rescue.
Once again, there are spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t watched this.
I didn’t mention this in my previous review, but last season introduced us to a subplot involving the murder of a high-ranking Shinigami, Captain Sousuke Aizen. This murder subplot in many ways was overshadowed by Ichigo’s and his friends’ entry into the Seireitei. The Shinigami didn’t have time to look for Aizen’s killer because they were too busy dealing with Ichigo. The only person who cared more about giving Aizen justice is his lieutenant, Momo Hinamori. Guided by a letter Aizen wrote before his death, she sets out to unravel the mystery of his murder, and along the way, she goes so far as to attack her fellow lieutenants and even attempts to kill a Captain who she thinks is responsible. Hinamori ends up being one of the more prominent female characters both this season and last season because of this arc. Her search is emotional, and it’s easy to see the pain her character is in. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly obvious from the start that she’s being manipulated by someone else. So not only is her story being driven by her feelings for a male character, her manipulation takes away some of her agency.
While this is going on, Ichigo finally finishes the special training he started last season, which is good, because Rukia’s execution is underway. Ichigo, stereotypical hero that he is, shows up just in time to save her. We also learn, however, that not all of the remaining Captains—called the Gotei 13, or 12 now, since Aizen’s dead—agree with the execution, and some of them had their own plans to save Rukia as well. During the rescue, Ichigo faces off against Byakuya, while the other Captains all fight each other.
But something more sinister has been going on. The events surrounding Rukia’s execution have always been odd—most Shinigami who commit her crime are incarcerated, but not executed. It turns out that Aizen is still alive and has been pulling everyone’s strings from the very beginning. He arranged Rukia’s execution, faked his own death, and manipulated Hinamori. A former Shinigami Captain, Kisuke Urahara, who used to be the head of the Seireitei Research Division, invented an item called the Hyougoku. The Hyougoku is capable of dissolving the boundaries between Shinigami and Hollow, allowing for them to take on the attributes and powers of the other. Aizen wants this device, because it will give him godlike power. Unfortunately, Urahara hid the Hyougoku inside Rukia’s body back during The Substitute. Aizen thought Rukia’s execution would be a convenient time to get ahold of it. Now that the execution is canceled, he simply removes it from her body without hurting her, because he apparently has the ability to do that.
This is a minor note, but Aizen is ridiculously powerful already. And his Zanpakutou (Shinigami sword) has the ability to hypnotize people. At any point in time after faking his own death, he could have just gone into Rukia’s cell and taken the Hyougoku from her, and no one would have been the wiser. But thankfully he doesn’t, and everyone learns the truth. Aizen and two other Captains who were in cahoots with him escape from the Seireitei with the Hyougoku, Rukia is pardoned and makes up with her brother, Ichigo’s friends are released from prison, and Ichigo himself is allowed to continue working as a substitute Shinigami back in the human world.
All in all, I still really loved this season, but unfortunately all the female characters are still shoved into the background. Even Hinamori is more of a background character than she should be, and her manipulation only makes it worse. She is nothing more than a prop in Aizen’s plans. And speaking of props, that’s exactly what Rukia is here as well. Literally. During her rescue, Ichigo and another Shinigami, Renji, actually pick her up and carry her around as if she’s incapable of walking or running on her own. Rukia was a lieutenant before all this happened. Her complete and utter helplessness to the point of needing someone to carry her makes no sense. It’s not like there’s anything physically wrong with her, either. Before Aizen removed the Hyougoku from her body, she was perfectly healthy. And after he removes it, she suffers no physical ailments whatsoever. But it’s worse than that. At one point, Ichigo actually throws Rukia at Renji so he can catch her. It’s almost like Ichigo and Renji and using her to play Keep Away with the other Shinigami.
At the very least, we learn why Byakuya was so adamant on allowing her to be executed in the first place. Rukia had an older sister, Hisana, whom Byakuya married. This was a bit controversial, since Byakuya is noble and Hisana was from the Rukongai. Unfortunately, Hisana passed away, but before she died, she made Byakuya promise to find Rukia and keep her safe. The next year, he found her and adopted her into the family. However, Hisana didn’t want Rukia to know about her existence, since Hisana, who had abandoned Rukia as a baby, felt unworthy to be her sister. As such, Byakuya ordered everyone in the household to never speak of his late wife. However, after adopting Rukia, Byakuya, feeling guilty over breaking so many rules by allowing someone of such low birth into the family again, made a promise to his parents’ graves to always uphold the law no matter what. When it came to Rukia’s execution, he was torn between his promise to Hisana and his promise to his parents. In the end, he chose his parents, because as a Captain, if he didn’t uphold the law he couldn’t ask others to do the same.
I really do like his character arc. Byakuya is a rather interesting character, and I really enjoyed learning more about him and Rukia this season. As I said last season, this relationship is the only redeeming and interesting thing going on with Rukia, since she’s been downgraded to damsel in distress. I’m still not happy overall with Rukia’s character arc, but their relationship adds a lot of depth to both their characters.
That said, the relationship I’m most interested in is the one between Yoruichi and Captain Soifon. Yoruichi is also nobility, but for reasons as of yet unexplained, she ran away from the Seireitei. All we really know about her at the point is that she’s best friends with Urahara, has the ability to transform into a cat, wants to help Ichigo, and is an awesome fighter. It turns out that she used to be a Captain and was the commander-in-chief of the Onmitsukidou, a militia-like organization for Shinigami. Soifon was her subordinate, and I’m quite certain she fell in love with Yoruichi. She, as her family requested, dedicated to life to Yoruichi’s cause, and felt betrayed when Yoruichi ran away without a single word.
While I’m under the impression that Yoruichi never saw Soifon in a romantic light, it’s still nice that Soifon herself is potentially a queer character. As of right now, the only other character who’s LGBTQ+ is Orihime’s friend, but her sexuality is made out to be a joke. The narrative takes Soifon’s feelings for Yoruichi quite seriously. Sadly, both Soifon and Yoruichi are minor characters, and their drama is overshadowed by Aizen’s plots, so we don’t learn too much more about them here.
I also suspect that we’re not going to learn more about them next season, because now that The Rescue is over, Bleach has been taken over by filler for the next couple dozen episodes. While I am most assuredly not looking forward to the next season as a result, at the very least, these first three seasons are really good, despite all my issues with them. And now that Aizen’s been revealed, we finally have a main antagonist for the series. I can only hope that from here on out, all of the female characters who I love will finally be able to get some more prominent roles in the story again.
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The thing that really got me about the end of this arc and where the story goes next is that no one institutes any major changes or reforms to a system that was so totally ridiculous that the entire ruling entity could be murdered and no one even notice! It happens all the time in anime, the main characters spend ages uncovering a huge conspiracy, defeat the immediate enemy, then everything just continues as it was before with no one discussing the underlying problems that made the situation possible in the first place (Witch Hunter Robin, for example). Without wanting to go on a long political rant about how this is also exactly the problem with Japan’s real life government, let me just say, it drives me nuts.