Like the last one I did, I will try to get right to the point.
Gratitude to the Monster
Well, to carry off from my last review, I will confess I was wrong about Pernida's defeat. It seems that Pernida was indeed defeated by the accelerated cellular division of growth and cells, as chapter 644 starts with the pieces of Pernida's body exploding, but not before Pernida gets one last hit on Mayuri by attacking his feet with the "Compulsory", rendering him unable to walk.
Yes, I was wrong about Pernida surviving the fight (even if I still have some suspicions), but I do realize that the fight needed to wind down at some point. There are still many questions regarding Pernida and why it joined Yhwach, but I realize that getting those answers to those questions might reveal certain things too soon.
NOTE: No comments about the ever-absent Hanataro, because the omake in Volume 70 revealed his divine luck.
Ikkaku and Yumichika then approach Mayuri, who tells them to open the Body Protection Capsules that Nemu brought along when they entered the Soul King Palace. Inside the capsules are Rangiku and Toshiro, who were previously unaccounted for when the head-count on all the Shinigami was made a while back. As Mayuri stated, their zombification has been reversed, even if it was at the cost of shortening their life-spans. Toshiro then thanks Mayuri for saving his life. Mayuri instructs Ikkaku and Yumichika to place him and Zaraki in the other two Body Protection Capsules. Upon doing so, they then thank Mayuri for saving Zaraki, and run off to accompany Rangiku and Toshiro.
But Mayuri is not concerned about the thanks of the other Shinigami that would muster lovey-dovey fuzzy-wuzzy feelings of friendship if this were any other manga - Mayuri's great joy at the moment is how a soul that he created from nothing, Nemu, had evolved on her own accord, and his elation at having surpassed Urahara in that respect...Though I'm starting to suspect Jinta and Ururu are two such souls.
In case anyone is wondering about my thoughts on that, Rose and Kensei did not get the same treatment. You can see the two capsule behind the ones Toshiro and Rangiku were in were empty, so they are still zombies, confirming that those two, at the very least, did die.
While I still stand by my view of Mayuri being a monster, there is no denying that he has really done a lot to help his fellow Shinigami. He saved Zaraki from being killed by Pernida, and he reversed Toshiro and Rangiku's zombification, all with his standard pragmatic attitude. You will not find many Shounen characters like that on the protagonist's side outside of Dark Shounen, and it does convey Urahara's original intent when he released Mayuri - dangerous elements, if given the proper environment, can become a valuable asset.
But still, Mayuri still has a lot of weight to the sins he committed in the past, and there is the matter of him turning Kensei and Rose into his own brand of revenants (much cooler than zombie, wouldn't you say? ). Byakuya did call Mayuri out on this, but he still remained quiet about it to everyone else. I suppose that Mayuri's benefit to the war cause outweighs past sins.
Then we cut back to Kyoraku and Co, where the comment is made that all of the Vice-Captains have been picked off by Lille Barro aside from Rukia, Renji, Hinamori and Nanao. I do not know if this also refers to the Visoreds, since most of them are technically Vice-Captains as well, but only speaking and mentioned characters show up in this chapter and a later one, so I suppose next week will provide us the answer.
At any rate, Kyoraku knows that there is no other way to deal with Lille than to confront him directly, so he turns to draw attention to himself and assert Lille's position. Kyoraku is completely successful, as he is able to use Daruma San Ga Koronda to make Lille shoot a "Kyoraku" he saw via his "reikaku", and then get behind Lille and engage the battle after banter with the Stern Ritter, ending with the declaration that he is the Captain-Commander of the Gotei 13.
From the very beginning of the fight, Kyoraku goes all-out with the games, and it is fair to say that he held back a lot when he was fighting against Starrk. For starters, Kyoraku never used Daruma-San on Starrk, and we saw Lille was able to dodge Kageoni. Moreover, this is where Kyoraku takes a card out of Aizen's deck with Kageokuri, which he uses to create shadow illusions of himself should Lille Barro look at his shadow with his "reikaku", turning Lille's strength into a weakness to be exploited.
Arrogance of Shinji
Now, just hear me out before anyone starts throwing torches.
When Shinji pretty much vetoed anyone aside from Nanao going to help Kyoraku, he uses the persona of two individuals to get his point across: Ukitake and Yamamoto. Now, that is not to say that Shinji did not have a point, particularly about what the duty of the Captain-Commander of the Gotei 13 is supposed to be (although the Captain-Commander would be better fit to lead the entire group than deal with an enemy on his own), but that highlights a big problem with the character - Shinji has a lot of pride, to the point of arrogance.
We already saw this back in FKT when he thought Sakanade would be enough to get the upper-hand on Aizen, and he even paid for that price big-time when he used it against Bambietta - she took him out immediately when she went Vollstandig. Moreover, if I may remind you, Yamamoto going off on his own against the enemy is precisely what got him killed in the first place.
In certain respects, it is both good and bad that the Shinigami did not go to his aid, but I'll get to that later.
But the biggest evidence of this is when the remainder of the Gotei 13 comes up against Gerard Valkyrie, setting up his fight immediately after the conclusion of Shunsui's fight. Although Renji appeared confident enough to take Gerard on his own, Gerard is having none of that one-on-one duel-of-honour stuff and wants a straight up multi-man melee with him against all the Shinigami.
And Shinji is the one who says that Gerard talks big.
Shinji, you have no right to say someone talks big when you are one of the series' biggest talkers with only a nibble for a bite. You talked big to Aizen, he owned you; you talked big to Bambietta - backwards, even - and she owned you. Now you are claiming Gerard is talking big, and I will not be surprised if you and Love try some Bankai tag-team on Gerard, and he owns the both of you.
The Man Closest to God
Back to Shunsui and Lille Barro.
In the beginning of the fight, Kyoraku's Kageokuri definitely gave him the upper-hand, using it offensively in a way that would make Aizen himself proud, even pulling off multiples at a time to give him the opportunity to run Lille Barro through with Katen.
But because "The X-Axis" also makes Lille himself intangible - his gun can pierce anything, and anything passes through Lille. He can do this any time he opens his eyes and is placed in danger. Kyoraku pushed him enough to make him open his eyes three times, meaning he is allowed to keep that eye open for the duration of the battle.
The fact that Lille Barro has such power with both of his eyes "open" kind of reminds me of Yhwach's "The Almighty", and As Nodt's "The Fear". To be more specific, all three of them have some ability that is related to their eyes in one form or another - Yhwach can "see the future" and "know" all power when he "opens" "The Almighty"; As Nodt "opens" his eyes when he uses Tatar Foras, allowing him to channel "The Fear" through line-of-sight alone and his own eyes; Lille Barro becomes intangible when he "opens" his eyes. If I am to make conjecture, I would say that As Nodt and Lille, by virtue of having powers tied to their eyes, bear the "mark of a true Quincy" as a result. Neither bear the same eyes as Yhwach, but I would expect a Quincy's "opened eyes" to reflect the nature of their own power. Moreover, both of their powers effectively "evolved" from what they were in base, a contrast to what one sees with most Vollstandig.
But what is interesting about Lille Barro is that he calls himself "the final Quincy granted power by his Majesty" and his greatest creation. I do not think that Lille is a "newcomer" among the Stern Ritter, but that he may have been "the final Quincy" granted power by Yhwach over a thousand years ago. Yhwach said "the Gotei 13 died a thousand years ago along with [the Quincy]", so it is possible that the Schutztaffel are all remnants of the Quincy from a thousand years ago, and there is some perception that the Quincy that came after them are not "true Quincy".
But Lille wastes no time in getting down to business now that he's allowed to keep his eyes open, and activates his Vollstandig, Jilliel.
Herein lies another similarity to As Nodt - both of their Vollstandig drastically change their physical appearance more so than any other Stern Ritter. In Lille's case, he becomes an eight-winged angelic being with three holes in each wing that can fire "The X-Axis", which he proceeds to do to Kyoraku by blasting two holes into his body, with the third shot hitting his straw hat (must not have much practice with this form).
Nevertheless, Lille still managed to severely wound Kyoraku with both strikes and push him into retreat, and we see even Kido is ineffective against Lille Barro's intangibility. But something happens that definitely caught my interest when I first saw it:
Lille Barro uses a teleportation technique when in Vollstandig.
The only time I have ever seen that in Bleach was when Aizen used it.
I'll go into more detail later.
With Kido and Katen Kyokotsu proving ineffective against Lille, Kyoraku ran all the way back to the city where the Gotei 13 started off in when they first arrived, and he now figures that this is far enough way for him to use his last resort - Katen Kyokotsu: Karamatsu Shinjuu.
The Theatre Suicide
Even if they did not get caught up in it, the release of Karamatsu Shinjuu was still enough to cause a dark and despair-filled reiatsu to cover the Wahrwelt, as we see Ichigo and Askin (another fight set-up) and the rest of Ichigo's group sensing and commenting on the nature of the reiatsu. We have seen a lot of Bankai in the series, but Karamatsu Shinjuu's initial release alone is enough to set it apart from the rest.
For starters, the Zanpakuto does not change its appearance at all - the main change is the despair-filled reiatsu that permeates the area, and the fact that the spirit of "Katen" manifests by Kyoraku's side throughout the fight. I can only recall one other Shinigami in all of Bleach canon that has their Zanpakuto spirit manifest invisibly to everyone else when in Bankai, and that someone was Azashiro Soya from "Spirits Are Forever With You".
Moreover, as I agreed with Ohana, Kyoraku's Bankai is more ethereal and other-worldly than any other Zanpakuto we have seen in the series up to this date. This is evident by the fact that it was able to affect a being who is completely intangible to any physical strikes. The First Dan - the wounds that have been inflicted upon Kyoraku are inflicted upon the enemy. The Second Dan - the enemy is inflicted with an incurable disease, caused by shame from their injuries. The Third Dan - drops Kyoraku and Lille Barro into an ice-cold abyss of water until both of their reiatsu expires. The Final Dan - a thread of reiatsu which bypasses Lille's intangibility and slits his throat, blowing his head up.
The Bankai is strongly thematic as well - Kyoraku's Zanpakuto develops from "making children's games reality" to "making tragic theatre reality". In both cases, the "ability" is still the same - a form of entertainment is being made a reality. It is the departure from the innocence of childhood games the despair of adult theatre. Frankly, no one could have expected Kyoraku's Bankai being like this, and even Ichigo was just shocked that Kyoraku's reiatsu became such a despairing feeling in Bankai.
This is not the kind of Bankai that we have seen thus far - Other Bankai simply expand upon already-existing techniques, implementing them in a new fashion - Karamatsu Shinjuu feels like a straight-up evolution from the "children's game" by comparison. This Bankai will make you feel despair, and then it will finish you off with a certain-kill technique.
Pity that Lille Barro is no longer Human in Vollstandig.
A Human Made God
Just when it seemed like Kyoraku had won by blowing up Kyoraku's head, Lille blows a hole through Kyoraku's stomach and teleports above him, affirming that a Shinigami's Bankai could not kill him before he undergoes a transformation into the new form his Vollstandig - reforming his head into that of an owl on a serpentine neck.
Now, time to analyze the appearance of Lille's transformation. To start off, Lille's appearance is meant to reflect the appearance of Angels from the Old Testament. For those not in the knows, the original angels were not the winged, beautiful men (or women) that modern angels are depicted as, but straight up eldritch beings. Cherubim, for example, had four heads - a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a Human - four wings with hands under the wings, "straight" legs (kind of like Lille), and they had eyes everywhere on their bodies, even in the spaces between eyes. In the case of Seraphim, their name means "fiery serpent", they had six wings, and seeing one with all its wings unfurled is a one-way trip to heaven via vaporization.
As for why he is an owl, it seems Kubo dug really deep for this one - owls can represent Jesus himself. The idea is that Jesus loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners - represented by the darkness - to not die, but to be converted. This is where the dark twist comes in - Lille does not seek to convert sinners, but wipe them out in Yhwach's name as his invincible and immortal messenger.
He also delivers on that boast in terms of power, as his attacks after this transformation become much more destructive, culminating in the Trompete - God's Trumpet - at the end of the most recent chapter, which essentially erased the entire section of the Squad Zero Palace in the area he pointed it towards .
For further points of symbolism, Trompete could have been drawn from multiple places in the Bible - the trumpet of Joshua which blew down the walls of Jericho, the tradition of Gabriel as the trumpet blower of God, or even the trumpets that blow to signal the coming of the Apocalypse in Revelations.
But even Gods have a means of being defeated, and it comes from one of the most unlikely of places.
Priestess of Shinto
With Kyoraku completely up against the ropes and all but defeated, Nanao finally reaches him and urges him to bring out her Zanpakuto. They hide from Lille in his own shadow, and then Kyoraku proceeds to give us his long-awaited back-story and the history of his kimono.
As it turns out, Kyoraku is Nanao's paternal uncle, because her father was Kyoraku's brother. We learn that the Ise Family was a family of only women throughout its entire recorded history, as those men who married into the family died shortly afterwards, which is the fate that befell Kyoraku's brother. Although Kyoraku and his brother did not have the best of relations, it was Nanao's mother that made things better between the two of them up to the time of his death.
Nanao's mother believed that the curse of the Ise Clan was associated with the Sacred Treasure it safe-guarded - Shinken Hakkyouken, a unique Zanpakuto handed down through the Ise Clan to the head of the Clan, created for the sole purpose of fighting against Gods. It takes in the power of the God, and reflects it in the eight directions. For the sake of sparing Nanao from this curse, her mother entrusted Hakkyouken to Kyoraku, who used Kyokotsu to hide it for him. The price for hiding the Zanpakuto, however, was the death of Nanao's mother, as Central 46 executed her for losing one of Soul Society's "Sacred Treasures".
I have little doubt that this is more of a back-story than what most people expected to see (so many people wanted Lisa or Shutara to be Nanao's mother the week before we actually saw her), and it also goes deeper into the history of Soul Society, along with raising the question as to why a weapon like Hakkyouken even exists, and what God was it originally created to fight against. People complained about Hakkyouken "not fitting" what we knew about Zanpakuto from Nimaiya's words, but I don't think it compromises anything - Nimaiya was likely the one who made Hakkyouken in the first place for its intended purpose, meaning it dates back to Soul Society's foundation.
NOTE: I've heard a lot of people complain about how contrived Hakkyouken's existence seems to be, but the fact that its back-ground expanded on the back-stories of Kyoraku and Nanao, and raised some questions about Soul Society far out-weighs any complaints that might be had, in my opinion.
However, it wasn't exactly an instant-win button for Nanao. Although she could cut off Lille's arm with Hakkyouken, her own inexperience with a sword and fighting almost crippled her with fear when faced with Lille Barro. It is a genuinely human reaction to someone being thrown into battle in such a situation, which may be a product of Kyoraku sheltering her from any genuine battles, as his niece. But there is a strong familial bond between the two of them, and Kyoraku's presence alone is able to comfort her and instill confidence in her.
In Kyoraku's case, the flash-backs also showed how tragic his family life was. Not only did he lose his brother to the Ise Curse when they were starting to become closer, but his sister-in-law also died because she entrusted something of great value to him to safe-guard. You can really tell by his thoughts as he rises out of Nanao's shadow - the shadow of his brother and his brother's wife - and pleads for her to allow him to protect her.
This entire situation is in stark contrast to what happened with Mayuri and Nemu. Throughout the Pernida fight, Nemu was always Mayuri's shadow, and did what he ordered to do. When Mayuri became endangered, Nemu made the conscious choice to intervene and protect Mayuri by fighting Pernida on her own. However, that only led to her own death, as she still remained in Mayuri's shadow.
On the other hand, the "shadow" is the one Kyoraku is in cast in because of his own emotions of sadness over the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law, and he finally emerges from that shadow, symbolically represented by his rising from Nanao's shadow to give her the confidence necessary to stand against Lille Barro. And in doing so, they claimed victory.
The Nature of Gods
Because Lille Barro did become a God when he activated Jilliel. This is affirmed by Hakkyouken cutting his arm off, and reflecting the Trompete's attack back at him in what appears to be the killing blow (I will abstain from making assumptions either way after last time). Hakkyouken reflects the ability of the God it is fighting against, and doing so to Lille's "The X-Axis" is proof that Lille was not simply boasting when calling himself a "messenger of God".
Throughout the fight, I have seen various aspects about Jilliel that reminded me of Aizen in his Hogyoku forms. First and foremost, the ability of teleportation was demonstrated by Aizen in his third transformation, and Lille displayed teleportation in the second act of the fight against Kyoraku. I recall speculating that this "teleportation" might be a Quincy technique of the highest level as a result, and that Aizen's demonstrating that was evidence of the Quincy aspect of his power in his Hogyoku forms.
Second, Lille's regenerative power and transformation. Normally, nothing in Bleach can survive having its head blown off without outside assistance and/or some unique ability (Ichibei's power of "Names" allowed him to restore his entire body by drawing on Ichigo's power), but Lille did just that when his head was blown off by Karamatsu Shinjuu, regenerating it into a new, monstrous form.
People have ridiculed the transformation to no end, but I do believe there is something more symbolic behind the transformation, because Lille's form reminds me of something in particular: the form of a Hollow.
A Hollow's physical appearance, Mask and unique ability are the result of their "lost hearts". In a sense, it is the Human body being subsumed by their inner spirit and being left "heartless" as a result. I believe Lille is the product of something similar being brought about by Yhwach's Schrift - Lille drew on the power of his Schrift to such an extent in Vollstandig that it transformed his body into a form akin to what his own inner spirit would look like.
For the Shinigami, these inner spirits are their Zanpakuto spirit, so what happened to Lille is the same as what happened to Tousen. The name of his Zanpakuto translates into "Cricket", and Tousen's Grillar Grillo turned him into a giant, Cricket-Hollow. It may have been another point that fore-shadowed Zangetsu's true nature, because I am fairly certain that the physical appearance and abilities of Hollows would inherently correlate with what kind of abilities and Zanpakuto spirit said soul would have if they were Shinigami.
As to why Lille became a "God", there is further parallel with Tousen. Tousen became a Hollow-Shinigami hybrid, which gave him the power of a Hollow. Lille Barro was given a Schrift and power by Yhwach, and his Vollstandig turned him into a "God" because of how much he drew upon the Schrift which Yhwach gave him.
In other words, Shinken Hakkyouken would not have worked on Lille Barro if Yhwach, the one who gave Lille that power, was not a God himself, the very thing Aizen sought to become using the Hogyoku.
In Bleach, one way you can define a God is as one who possesses aspects from all four soul types - Quincy and Shinigami, Human and Hollow - in one's own soul. Ever since we saw Auswahlen in action, I have been certain that Yhwach was a Transcendent Being - a God, since Aizen said Hogyoku can 'shatter the boundary between the mortal and divine' - and I do believe Lille is indirect confirmation of that fact, since his Vollstandig is the power of the Schrift which Yhwach gave him. Lille may not be a true "God", but he drew upon enough of the power from his Schrift to make him into one, which means Yhwach himself is a God by proxy.
Which means calling his power "The Almighty" is not an empty boast, and further cements his relationship with the Soul King, whom I believe may have had his limbs cut off by Hakkyouken at some point in the distant past. After all, it is a sword made to fight against Gods, we saw the Soul King de-limbed and two of his missing limbs out and about. No one can not say that Kubo does not play the long-game if this turns out to be the case.