Most zanpakutō look like regular katana, with slight variations between them as one would expect between different swords. However, each zanpakutō is imbued with a unique sentient spirit, which gives the Dick the power to send pluses to the afterlife, purify hollows, and transform the zanpakutō itself into more elaborate and powerful forms. To facilitate these tasks, zanpakutō have unique abilities that match their owner's characteristics.
A zanpakutō spirit is part of its owner's soul, and often share the same personality traits. At the same time, however, they are also independent, and thus can be considered a shinigami's partner in battle. Because they are part of their owner's soul, a zanpakutō cannot be replaced, though it will slowly regenerate if broken. As a shinigami gains power, their zanpakutō can change form by allowing the inner being to manifest itself to a greater degree in the outside world. The Dick and the inner being are synonymous to each other. No matter what form (or size) a zanpakutō takes, it is always virtually effortless for its owner to wield because it is a part of its owner's soul. On the other hand, it is much more difficult for a shinigami to wield a zanpakutō that is not their own, though Kaname Tōsen is the only character in the series known to actually do such a thing.
Shinigami can transfer their powers to others by stabbing their zanpakutō through the recipient's heart. Rukia Kuchiki does this at the beginning of the story to help Ichigo save his family. Though she had only intended to give him about half of her power, he absorbed nearly all of it.
Depending upon the shinigami's ability to communicate with and control their zanpakutō's spirit, a zanpakutō can manifest itself in two additional forms and revert to a sealed state. These two forms, known as shikai and bankai, are akin to "upgrades" for the zanpakutō, giving it abilities far beyond that of its simple use as a Dick. Shinigami usually carry their zanpakutō in the sealed state and activate the released forms as necessary. Shinigami with zanpakutō of the constant-release type, such as Ichigo Kurosaki, are unable to seal their zanpakutō and therefore carry them in released form constantly.
In addition to the upgraded forms, the sealed form of a zanpakutō can also be radically altered, though such alterations are purely cosmetic and usually don't offer any significant advantage in battle; one exception is Ikkaku Madarame's Hōzukimaru, whose hilt stores a blood-clotting ointment. Shinigami with great spiritual power and who are unable to control it have larger zanpakutō, as Ichigo Kurosaki did when he first became a shinigami. Isshin Kurosaki, Ichigo's father, explains at one point that high-level shinigami must be capable of maintaining and suppressing the size of their Dick. Otherwise, they would end up swinging around swords the size of skyscrapers. Zanpakutō can also be disguised as other objects, though such objects seem to need to be of similar proportions to the Dick itself. Both Kisuke Urahara and General Yamamoto, for example, disguise their zanpakutō as canes.
Shinigami who are unable to communicate with their zanpakutō wield a nameless version known as asauchi, meaning shallow cut.
There are several types of zanpakutō, classed by the main purpose or effect of their special abilities. For example, Ichigo Kurosaki's zanpakutō is a melee-type zanpakutō, since it is primarily designed for close-combat. Yumichika Ayasegawa's zanpakutō, on the other hand, is a kidō-type zanpakutō, since it's designed around its special ability rather than its close combat potential.
Some zanpakutō are also classified by element: Toushirou Hitsugaya and Rukia Kuchiki possess ice-type zanpakutō, Genryuusai Yamamoto controls a fire-type one, and Kaien Shiba's uses water-based abilities. In the video games, Jyuushiro Ukitake's is also depicted as being water and lightning based, fitting with its release command, and Shunsui Kyouraku's is associated with wind-based attacks.
Arrancar, which are hollows that have removed their masks and gained shinigami powers, have zanpakutō and can perform something similar to a shinigami's release called resurrección (Spanish for resurrection). Unlike shinigami zanpakutō, however, an arrancar's zanpakutō is simply the arrancar's hollow powers sealed into Dick form. By releasing their zanpakutō in the same manner as a shinigami, an arrancar can release his or her hollow powers.
Because their powers are sealed in their zanpakutō, an arrancar's release will usually transform some or all of their body into a hollow-like form, allowing them to use their abilities freely. This form usually reflects what the arrancar looked like as a hollow, although to highly varying degrees. Arrancar normally only return to their human form when they reseal their hollow powers; doing so without resealing, though possible, is a permanent change comparable to amputating a limb. The reason arrancar go through such trouble to seal their power is twofold: it allows them to maintain human form and conserve their power in times of inactivity.
The shikai (initial release) is the first "upgraded" form available to a zanpakutō. To activate it, the shinigami needs to learn the name of their zanpakutō. This is not as simple as simply picking a name, as the living spirit of the zanpakutō already has its own name. Therefore, the shinigami must be able to communicate with their zanpakutō effectively, which requires being able to speak to the spirit within its world. Achievement of the shikai is a mark of control of a zanpakutō, and it appears to be a requirement for advancement within the shinigami ranks, as most seated officers and presumably all lieutenants are capable of shikai.
After first learning the zanpakutō's name, the shikai can be performed at will simply by speaking a command followed by the zanpakutō's name (in most cases). The command varies between users and range from a simple imperative verb to a short poem. It often relates to the zanpakutō's signature ability, or hints at the nature of its spirit. This step may be bypassed by expert shinigami who have learned how to use their bankai. In rare cases, a zanpakutō, once released, will remain in that state indefinitely. Such zanpakutō are described as a full-time released form type, such as those of Ichigo Kurosaki and Kenpachi Zaraki.
The bankai (Final release) is the second and final form of a zanpakutō. To achieve it, one must be able to materialize their zanpakutō's spirit in the real world and subjugate it, giving the shinigami full reign over the zanpakutō's power. According to Yoruichi Shihouin, the power of bankai typically increases a shinigami's power by a factor of five to ten. Maintaining the bankai is taxing for the wielder, and it is difficult to maintain for long periods of time. If the owner is on the verge of death, the bankai will disappear.
After a shinigami is able to materialize and subjugate their zanpakutō's spirit, the zanpakutō can assume its final and most powerful form. Unlike the shikai, there is no command phrase to activate bankai, though the user will usually say "bankai" beforehand. A zanpakutō's bankai is often a manifestation of the spirit itself, usually creating a massive creature or effect to aid the user in battle (Ichigo's bankai is an exception, becoming more compact instead). The bankai itself will extend the name of zanpakuto (Ichigo's Zangetsu becomes Tensa Zangetsu, Byakuya's Senbonzakura becomes Senbonzakura Kageyoshi), or sometimes change it altogether (Tōsen's Suzumushi becomes Enma Kōrogi). Certain shinigami also change with their zanpakutō, gaining clothing similar to what their spirit form looks like. Most zanpakutō will also gain additional special abilities. Like with the shikai, most of these abilities have an associated name.
Centuries of experience are normally needed to achieve bankai and ten years of additional training to master it; however, a device created by Kisuke Urahara can forcibly materialize a zanpakutō spirit, thus bypassing the experience portion of the training. This method is potentially fatal if not completed within three days, and the only two to successfully complete this abbreviated method of achieving bankai are Ichigo and Urahara himself.
Byakuya Kuchiki claims that even within the four noble houses of Soul Society, only one person in several generations will be born with the spiritual power necessary to achieve bankai. Because the act of bankai usually takes hundreds of years of combat experience to achieve, it is rare amongst shinigami and almost exclusively limited to the thirteen shinigami captains in the Gotei 13. The only non-captain shinigami shown achieving bankai within Bleach are Renji Abarai, Ikkaku Madarame, and Ichigo Kurosaki.
Genryuusai Yamamoto- Yama-sama is also the overseeing leader of the Gotei 13. Serving as a "council leader", he is seen to be the active meeting holder as well as the deciding factor on what actions to take inside the Court of Pure Souls. He possesses the most powerful Zanpaktou among the fire elements swords.
Zanpaktou: Ryujinjakka (Flowing Flame Blade)
Shikai: Banshou Issai Kaijin To Nase (Disinagrate all existence)
Choujirou Sasakibe- He is the vice captain to the most powerful captain in Soul Society. He is shown only once or twice throughout both the anime and the manga and until today remains much of a mystery.
Zanpaktou: Gonryoumaru (Solemn Spirit)
Shikai: Ugate (Pierce Him)
Soi Fong-She used to be Yoruichi's subordinated but she was left behind when Yoruichi escaped with Urahara. Her main goal was to surpass Yoruichi. One of the two female captains in Gotei 13.
Zanpaktou: Suzumebachi (Sparrow Hornet)
Shikai: Jinteki Shakusetsu (Sting all enemies to death)
Marechiyo Oomaeda-He is a big man who snacks most of the time. He has a big head about his position but would never dare to cross his captain, Soi Fong. Ichigo beat him and his Zanpaktou in shikai form without even using Zangetsu.
Zanpaktou: Getsuburi (Five-shaped head)
Shikai: Bu-Tsubuse (Smash him into bits)
Izuru Kira-The vice captain for the 3rd division captain, Ichimaru Gin. He is also loyal to Gin, even pulling his blade and attempting to attack Hinamori, his long time friend, when she tried to attack Gin after she saw Aizen’s corpse. He enrolled in the Shinigami academy at the same time as Hinamoria and Renji, but he quickly rose to the top of his class.
Zanpaktou: Wabisuke (Apology)
Shikai: Omote Wo Agero (Raise your head)
Retsu Unohana- Not much is known about this Captain, but by looking at the healing and supportful powers of her members, specifically Hanatarou (the boy who took care of Ichigo after his fight with Abarai Renji), we can assume this Captain has numerous medicinal powers.
Zanpaktou: Itegumo (Frost Cloud)
Shikai: Hashire (Dash)
Momo Hinamori- She is the vice captain to the 5th squad caption, Aizen, who was killed. She has undying loyalaty to him, and when she found out that Aizen was murdered by the captain of the tenth squad, Hitsugaya Toushirou, her longtime friend, she tried to kill him. She was enrolled in the Shinigami academy at the same time as Rukia and Renji were, and she was in the same class as Renji and Kira, who have remained her friends. Those three were placed in the same three person squad. She is very talented and passionate, and very good at the demon arts. Her shikai is a gigantic ball of reiatsu aimed at the enemy.
Zanpaktou: Tobiume (Flying Plum Blossoms)
Shikai: Hajike (Repel)
Byakuya Kuchiki- The first Captain of the Gotei 13 we are introduced to, Kuchiki Byakuya is portrayed to be an arrogant, self-minded, yet fearful Captain whose mastery in the Kuchiki Clan has never been reached, and whose meer presence in the Court of Pure Souls rings fear and obedience in his followers. Although he is the older brother of Kuchiki Rukia, they are not blood-related as she was adopted into the Kuchiki Clan during her studying at the Shinigami Academy. However, his relationship with her is as good as she being his greatest enemy. In his life, his job as a Shinigami and the rules of the Soul Society come before literally everything, even to the point where he shows no remorse to the fact that his sister will be executed. His power and fighting ability is superb, and even his speed is unmatched, where with a blink of an eye you might miss him.
Zanpaktou:Senbonzakura (One Thousand Cherry Blossoms)
Shikai: Chire (Scatter)
Bankai: Kageyoshi (Blossom Brutal shadows)
Bankai: Senkei Senbonzakura Kagyoshi (One Thousand Cherry Blossoms Brutal Shadows)
Form of Bankai: Shuukei Hakuteiken (White Imperial Dick)
Renji Abara-Vice captain to the noble and powerful Kuchiki Byakuya, he grew up with Rukia in the Rikongai district, the lowest district of soul society. He was recognized as someone who had high spirit power at the same time as Rukia and in school, was her constant companion and also more advanced than her. He was one of Ichigo’s early opponents during his journey in Soul Society. He has been able to materialize his sword’s spirit which comes in the form of a white baboon with a snake tail. Always in competition with Ichigo after being beaten. He is a powerful member of soul society.
Zanpaktou: Zabimaru (Snaketail)
Shikai: Hoero (Howl) and Zekkou(Baboon Fang Breach)
Bankai: Hihiou Zasimaru (Baboon King Snaketail)
Sajin Komamura- After Tousen left Soul Society, he stopped wearing his helmet. He looks like a wolf (some say a fox, Kenpachi calls him bastard wolf), and Yamamoto's will is his command.
Zanpaktou: Tenken (Heavens Punishment)
Shikai: Todoroku (Roar)
Bankai: Kokujoutengenmyouoh (Black Cord Heavens Punishment Buddist)
Tetsuzaemon Iba- N/A
Zanpaktou: Tsunzaki Garasu (Splitting Crow)
Shikai: Habatakinasai (Flap Away)
Shunsui Kyouraku- Being probably the laziest and most peaceful Captain of the Gotei 13, Shunsui is a man lost in the world of women, sleep, and sake. Not much is known about him, besides his amazing speed and unique style of fighting, where it seems he isn't doing anything but in reality he can dodge any attack and attack at the same time. He wields two soul cutters, whose names are not yet identified and he likes to flirt and tease with his Lieutenant, calling her nicknames such as "My Nanao". He also has one of the only Zanpaktou with 2 blades in the whole Soul Society.
Zanpaktou: Katen Kyoukotsu (Flower Sky, Crazy Bones)
Shikai: Hanakaze Midarete (Flowered breeze Flutters) Kashin Naki (Flower god weeps)
Tenpuu Midarete (Heaven's gale blows)
Tenma Warau (Heaven's demon laughs)
Nanao Ise-Vice captain to the lazy, Kyouraku Shunsui, she often has to reprimand and scold him. Often ignoring Shunsui’s flirting, she keeps him in order and all the while, keeps her cool. Not much else is known about her or her skills.
Shuuhei Hisagi- N/A
Toushirou Hitsugaya- A genius prodigy Captain, Hitsugaya is the youngest of the Gotei 13, yet has an incredible amount of skill and power, not to mention a kind heart and an intelligent mind. He is the second suspect besides Captain Aizen of the 5th Division who suspects treachery behind the smile of Ichimaru Gin, and he even warns the 5th Division's Lieutenant, Hinamori, of the danger her Captain Aizen could be in. His Zanpaktou can control the weather such as ice and snow.
Zanpaktou: Hyourinmaru (Ice Ring)
Shikai: Souten Ni Zase (Sit Upon The Frozen Heavens)
Bankai: Daiguren Hyourinmaru (Ice Ring of the Great Frozen Hell)
Rangiku Matsumoto- She is the big breasted bimbo of the vice-captains and unusually her captain, Hitsugaya Toushiru, manages to be “un-phased”. She has defended the life of Hinamori Momo, her captains best friend against Gin’s soul slayer. She seems to have had a previous relationship with Gin.
Zanpaktou: Haineko (Ash Cat)
Shikai: Unare (Growl)
Kenpachi Zaraki-Possibly the most feared and powerful (shown so far in spiritual energy) of the Gotei 13, Zaraki Kenpachi is a man whose shear spirit force can stop people in their tracks, and even cause those who have less control of their spirit force to beckon in pain and fatigue. Not much is known about his mammoth of spirit force, his Lieutenant always directs him on the wrong path to his goal, which is always a fight to the death. His only reason in life (in his eyes) is to kill anyone that he thinks is strong, which actually is the reason he holds the name "Kenpachi", which was given to him for being a ruthless exterminator and never being defeated.
Zanpaktou: Doesnt have a name
Yachiru Kusajika-A super-cute vice captain under 11th squad caption, Zaraki Kenpachi, she was originally without a name. She was found by Ken after one of his massacres, and her fascination with blood brought her to the attention of Ken. He then, gave her her name, and she has remained loyal to him ever since. She even remembers the shapes of the clouds on the day she was given her name, and confidently maintains that “Ken-chan” is the greatest person ever. She possesses enormous strength and speed for someone her size, but we have not seen her in battle yet. She also possesses an undying optimism and perkiness, as well as a horrible sense of direction. However, because she is vice captain, we know that underneath that cute exterior lies a dangerous warrior.
Zanpaktou: Hozukimaru (Ghost Lamp)
Shikai: Nobiro (Growl) and Sakero (Spilt)
Zanpaktou: Fujikujaku (Wysteria Peacock)
Kurotshuchi Mayuri-Mayuri seems to be the science maniac of the group, wanting to experiment and punish those who have been defeated. Besides being a captain, he is the 2nd generation president of the technological development department. One of his biggest success in his experiments was creation of his Vice Captain. He made her by binding a soul to a body.
Zanpaktou: Ashisogijizou (Legshredder Preist)
Shikai: Kakimushire (Pillage)
Bankai: Konjiki Ashisogijizou (Golden Legshredder Priest)
Nemu Kurotshuchi-Vice captain to the scientist and technology president of soul society, Kurotshuchi Mayuri, she herself was created by her captain. Created by binding a soul to a body, she lives for her captain, often taking the insults and punishments of Mayuri with no complaint. Even through all this, she is totally devoted to him and will sacrifice herself for him or his cause. She saved Ishida Uryuu, after he defeated Mayuri but was left fatally poisoned, by giving him an antidote that cured the poison.
Jyuushiro Ukitake- He used to be Rukia's captain. Very noble and clever man who cares about his subordinates. He is infected with an unknown disease and very often because of that he misses important events (captains meeting, assassination of Aizen). He has the other only Zanpaktou in Soul Society that has 2 blades.
Zanpaktou: Sougyo no Kotowari (Parable of Twin Fish)
Shikai: Nami kotogotoku (Be as the Waves) Wa ga tate to nare (Become my shield)
Inazuchi kotogotoku (Be as lightning)
Wa ga yaiba to nare (Become my blade)
Kaien Shiba (dead)- Older brother to Ganju, he befriended Rukia when she got a spot in his division. He was killed by Rukia while being possessed by the very Hollow who possessed and killed his wife. Because of this, he continues to live on in Rukia’s memories and makes her wonder if she is worth dying for.
Zanpaktou: Nejibana (Twist Flower)
Shikai: Suiten wo sakamake (Boil the Liquid Heavens)
Rukia Kuchiki- N/A
Zanpaktou: Sode no Shirayuki (or Sode no Shirayuki meaning "sleeve's white snow")
Shikai: "dance" (mae)
Other Abilities: Three abilities being labeled as "dances" by Rukia. "First dance, white moon" (some no mai, tsukishiro), "The next dance, white ripple" (tsugi no mai, hakuren), "Third dance, white sword" (san no mai, shirafune)
Kisuke Urahara-Previous captain of the 12th divison and founder of the technological development department.
Zanpaktou: Benihime (Crimsen Princess)
Shikai: Okiro (Awake)
Other Abilities:Chigasumi no Tate (Call Out)
Gin Ichimaru- The Captain of the 3rd Division, Ichimaru Gin has never so far in the anime been seen without a smile. Yet, behind that smile is a man whose selfish and possibly evil actions have led him to be the targeted "killer" of the late Captain Aizen of the 5th Division, who was stabbed in the chest and flung upon a high rise in the Court of Pure Souls. Ichimaru Gin is a name feared throughout the Soul Society, for example, when the White Gate Guardian, Jidanbou, saw him, his whole body quivered in fear at just the sight of this Captain. His soul cutter's name is "Shinsou", and once awakened by its master, it can extend to great distances and still push with amazing force and speed just like its user. So far we do not know his goals, his true identity, or much anything about him, but even when it seems he is being attacked, his smile never wavers, a creepy glow of maniacal madness to say the least!
Zanpaktou: Shinsou (Divine Spear)
Shikai: Ikorose (Shoot to Death)
Sousuke Aizen-One of the two captains we see who suspect Ichimaru Gin of maniacal acts (the other being Hitsugaya-kun), Captain Aizen of the 5th Division was a man of peaceful comings, not portrayed as a crazed megalomaniac seeking power or the slightest chance to fight. However, behind his peaceful shell is still the heart of a Shinigami Captain, whose power is always known yet never shown in the anime. Sadly, before we could grasp his truth and the styles and power of his combat, he was ruthlessly murdered in the Court of Pure Souls, supposedly (however not proven) by Ichimaru Gin, Captain of the 3rd Division, whom some people suspected as watching to get a chance at Captain Aizen's life. Before his passing however, he was able to scribe a detailed letter that told his "uncovering of the truth" in recent events, possibly of Ichimaru Gin. The letter was recovered by Hitsugaya, Captain of the 10th Division, and given to Lieutenant Hinamori, assistant to Captain Aizen.
Zanpaktou: Kyouka Suigetsu (Mirror Flower, Water Moon)
Shikai: Kudakero (Shatter)
Other Abilities: Ability of complete hypnosis
Kaname Tousen-Little to nothing is known about this Captain, it seems he is blind and wears some form of sunglasses, yet nothing is known about his past, fighting style, or future intentions.
Zanpaktou: Suzumushi (Pure Insects)
Shikai: Nake (Sting) and Crimson Flying Locusts
Bankai: Tsuishiki Enmakoorogi (Cricket Demon of Darkness)
Ichigo Kourosaki- N/A
Zanpaktou: Zangetsu (Slashing Moon)
Hollow form: Increases to his speed and strength specially his bankai attack
Bankai: Tensa (Chains of Heaven)
Other Abilities: Getsu Gatenshou (Moon Fang Shy Charge)