Ichigo Kurosaki’s Zanpakutō, Zangetsu, is one of the more curious ones in Tite Kubo’s Bleach. Zangetsu always looks like a normal blade and while it does change shape a little, it never had the flair of some other Zanpakutō introduced in the series. Also, it never had any special abilities save for the Getsuga Tenshō, but the Getsuga Tenshō had several forms. As stated, Zangetsu is one of the more curious Zanpakutō even by Soul Society standards and that is why we are going to talk about it in this article. We decided to focus on its Bankai, as we are going to tell you how and when Ichigo used his Bankai for the first time.
Ichigo uses Bankai for the first time in Chapter 162 of the Bleach manga, during his rematch against Byakuya Kuchiki in Soul Society. The events were depicted in Episode 58 of the anime, titled “Release! The Black Blade, the Miraculous Power”. This happened after Ichigo’s intense training with Yoruichi and Old Man Zangetsu, who actually taught Ichigo how to use the Bankai.
The rest of this article is going to focus on two things: Ichigo’s training with Yoruichi and Old Man Zangetsu to master the Bankai, as well as his rematch against Byakuya Kuchiki, which was the first time that Ichigo Kurosaki used his Bankai in battle. If you’re new to Bleach, this article is going to contain a lot of spoilers, so be careful how you approach it.
How and when did Ichigo learn how to use Bankai?
Before his Bankai training and after his fight against Kenpachi, Ichigo goes to the Senzaikyū to save Ganju and Hanatarō from Byakuya Kuchiki. When he arrives, he confronts Byakuya, although he hasn’t yet regained his full strength. Ichigo’s fight is going better than when they first met, but this time Yoruichi interrupts the fight, implying that she and Byakuya share some past experiences. She then takes Ichigo to Bankai training. Yoruichi tells Ichigo that he can’t save Rukia with his current strength and advises him to practice attaining his Zanpakutō’s Bankai.
The training was scheduled to last for three days since that was the amount of time that Ichigo had before Rukia’s scheduled execution. To help him train, Yoruichi brought in the Tenshintai, an invention of Kisuke Urahara’s that greatly reduces the time it takes to learn Bankai. According to Byakuya Kuchiki and Youruichi, a talented Shinigami needs a lot of combat experience and at least 10 years to materialize and defeat the spirit of their Zanpakutō to learn the Bankai, while a Tenshintai reduced the time needed to just three days.
By stabbing his Zanpakutō into the roughly human-shaped figure of the Tenshintai, the Shinigami forces the spirit of his Zanpakutō to materialize. This lasts for a day, after which the spirit returns to the Zanpakutō, which is still in the Tenshintai. During this time, the Shinigami must defeat their Zanpakutō to master their Bankai. Unlike the usual method, this way of reaching the Bankai also involves certain risks, because by forcibly forcing the Zanpakutō’s spirit to leave the Shinigami’s soul, there is a risk that it will be torn apart. Because of this, this method can be fatal if used more than three times in a row.
After summoning Old Man Zangetsu, the latter chooses his method of battle – he summons numerous fake Zanpakutō to the training area and tells Ichigo that he must find the real one; only one is, of course, real among the numerous Zanpakutō in the arena. At the same time, he must clash with Old Man Zangetsu and avoid being killed by him. At first, this seems like an impossible task. There are too many swords, Ichigo has absolutely no clue which one could be the right one, and Old Man Zangetsu is truly intent on killing him. Yet, he manages to survive the first day of training.
On the second day, after resting, he is joined by Renji, who also wants to achieve Bankai in the Study Chamber. Ichigo is not successful on day two and whereas Renji manages to achieve Bankai before him, Ichigo swears he will protect Rukia and goes on to challenge Zangetsu, who says that he will not hold back despite their time running out. He is seen several times, bloodied and beaten, but he doesn’t give up and as the future will demonstrate, Ichigo will be successful in activating his Bankai, although this won’t be revealed until his upcoming fight with Byakuya.
When does Ichigo use Bankai for the first time?
After the training, Ichigo and Yoruichi, along with like-minded Jūshirō Ukitake and Shunsui Kyōraku, attack the Sōkyoku to prevent Rukia’s execution. At the last second, Ichigo stops the execution and defeats the three attacking lieutenants, Chōjirō Sasakibe, Marechiyo Ōmaeda, and Isane Kotetsu, with his bare hands. By doing this and stopping the Sōkyoku, a blade with the power of 1,000,000 Zanpakutō, he has proven that he has become much stronger in the three days of training.
He is then challenged to a battle by Byakuya, a rematch everyone wanted to see. The two start off rather slowly, as Byakuya thinks he will be able to overpower Ichigo as he did the last time. Sure, Byakuya was aware that Ichigo’s powers had grown, but he was still certain, due to his vanity and the fact that Ichigo was a Ryoka, that he could beat him easily. Only this time, this was not the case, as Ichigo had trained with both Urahara and Yoruichi, both of who are, arguably, stronger than Byakuya.
As the fight progresses, Byakuya used Senbonzakura but Ichigo easily deflected his attack, which surprised the Captain of Division 6. Ichigo then taunted Byakuya to use his Bankai, telling him that he disgusts him and that he will definitely make him pay for not helping Rukia by killing him. When Ichigo’s powerful Getsuga Tenshō slices through Senbonzakura and wounds Byakuya’s hand, making it bleed, the latter realized that he would have to give more in order to defeat Ichigo.
Byakuya then activates his Bankai, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi, whose first form hits Ichigo hard. But, while Byakuya expected that this would be enough to defeat Ichigo, the latter was still standing, although severely injured by Byakuya’s thousand blades. As he stands up, Ichigo declares that he has also mastered Bankai, which Byakuya cannot believe, as he knows how difficult it is to obtain it; Byakuya thought it was impossible to do it in three days’ time and, in addition, that, he did not believe that Ichigo had it in him. This is why he was astonished when Ichigo actually did it and activated his Bankai, something Byakuya thought was impossible.
Byakuya claims that Tensa Zangetsu cannot be a Bankai because of its shape and the powers of his owner, but Ichigo soon demonstrates its powers by almost killing Byakuya; the latter evaded this thanks to the help of his own Bankai, after which he unsuccessfully tried to hit Ichigo with the petals, but failed every time until Ichigo finally slashed his blades with a series of rapid deflections using his Bankai. Realizing that he can’t defeat Ichigo like that, Byakuya decided to use his Bankai’s second form – the Senkei: Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. He claims that Ichigo is only the second person to ever see it, to which Ichigo replies that he is quite proud.
And while Ichigo is initially successful, at one moment, while their swords clash, Byakuya summons an additional sword and stabs Ichigo’s foot, after which he fires a Hadō #4, Byakurai, through Ichigo’s shoulder, rendering him unable to move. Byakuya is prepared to kill Ichigo, who is exhausted and in critical condition. At this point, Ichigo’s Inner Hollow gains the upper hand and injures Byakuya with Getsuga Tenshō in the Bankai to the point that a prolonged fight for either of them seems impossible.
Hollow Ichigo is a maniac and he goes for the kill, but Ichigo – at the same time – keeps fighting him from the inside, and at one point, he manages to regain control over his body; this whole scene surprises Byakuya, who is also quite exhausted. Realizing that neither of them can last much longer, they both decide to give it one last go at each other to determine the victor.
A final clash of swords ensues. Byakuya with his Zanpakutō’s final form, Shūkei: Hakuteiken, and Ichigo with all of his remaining spiritual energy, as he says that he “doesn’t have a cool technique to offer”. After this final attack, they both stand on their feet with the victor unknown, but it is clear that neither of them has the strength to continue fighting. After a moment, we see Byakuya bleed, as he declares his defeat because Ichigo destroyed his sword.
This is how and when Ichigo used his Bankai for the first time. What happened later is a story for itself, as Aizen finally arrived and revealed his true intentions, joined by Gin and Kaname. As the Goteri 13 tried to stop them, Aizen and his allies simply went to Hueco Mundo, declaring war on the Gotei 13, a war that would happen very soon.