An Explanation of Terms:
Zanpaku-to, Shikai, Bankai Almost as important to the story of Bleach as Ichigo, Rukia, Aizen and the other characters are the swords that they carry; their zanpaku-to. Unlike other series' super-special attacks and weapons, the blades of Bleach are characters in and of themselves, with quirks and personalities of their own.
A zanpaku-to is the direct reflection of the power of its wielder, a shinigami's spiritual pressure given physical form. While they mostly look like any other katana an old-time samurai might carry around, zanpaku-to are far from normal. The foremost difference is the ability of zanpaku-to to harm shinigami. Since shinigami are really a kind of ghost, normal blades and weapons can't touch them. In fact, "zanpaku-to" literally means "soul cutting sword."
The other major point that separates them from plain ol' swords is a zanpaku-to's ability to transform. Each blade has up to three distinct forms which its wielder can acces according to their strength and skill. The first, and one that doesn't take any effort to attain, is the blade's normal form. With a few exceptions, a zanpaku-to's normal form is indistinguishable from that of a plain katana.
The second form is called "Shikai", or "first release". The key to Shikai is learning the zanpaku-to's name. Discovering it is not the easiest thing in the world; some Shinigami never do manage it. But for those that do, they gain a whole new level of power. Easily triggered by an incantation unique to each sword, a shikai zanpaku-to changes immensely, often becoming a weapon far removed from a sword. Also, shikai zanpaku-to usually have special powers a shinigami can use, such as poisons, illusions or power blasts.
"Bankai", the third form, means "all release". Only shinigami at the Captain's rank, or highly powerful Vice-Captains can acquire bankai. Increasing the zanpaku-to's power by as much as a factor of ten, it takes many decades of intense training to learn bankai (or three days of cheating courtesy of Urahara and Yoruichi. ^^) Triggering a zanpaku-to's bankai needs only a one-word incantation: Bankai.
Bankai zanpaku-to get additions to their names, indicating it is New and Special, and it changes even more drastically, usually (presently with only 1 exception) becoming something far, far larger than the wielder.
As of the present (Chapter 183), 26 zanpaku-to have been introduced, and we've seen 7 Bankai. But there are still several Captains and Vice-Captains who haven't shown us what their zanpaku-to can do, and several of the blades we have seen have only given us teasers. So this list is not nearly finished yet.
Ashisogi Jizou (Legshredder Priest)
Wielder: Kurotsuchi Mayuri, 12th Div. Captain
First Shikai: Chapter 122, vol. 14, Don't Lose Your Grip On
First Bankai: Chapter 125, vol. 15, Insanity and Genius
In it's plain form, Ashisogi Jizou looks mostly like a normal katana. However, in place of the crossguard are some randomly jutting spikes and a haphazardly wrapped cloth. Captain Kurotsuchi keeps it in a loose, blobby-looking light colored sheath hung from the very front of his belt, dangling from his belly button down to between his knees.
Ashisogi Jizou has one of the freakiest Shikai forms. The blade's hilt is normal, but that's about it. In place of the crossguard are the randomly jutting spikes, but they're longer and have gained trailing cloths. Above the crossguard is the weirdest part: a huge, round, bronze face that looks like a bald, bulging-eyed cross between your typical Area 51 alien and a baby. The thing is at least as big as Kurotsuchi-taicho's own head. The blade itself splits into three wavy prongs that come out at angles from the top and sides of the baby/alien's head, like some crazy set of horns, with the middle prong being the longest. As an ability, Ashisogi Jizou paralyzes the motor nerves of whatever living thing it hits. It doesn't matter what part of the body is struck, the paralysis moves through the body like a poison until the victim is completely immobile. Sadistically, the same poison also amplifies things for the victim's pain receptors, so even the slightest cut hurts like all hell. Captain Kurotsuchi brings about the bizzare change to Shikai with the phrase "kakimushire" (pluck and scratch).
BANKAI: KONJIKI ASHISOGI JIZOU
(GOLDEN LEGSHREDDER PRIEST)
In Bankai, the weird face on Ashisogi's Shikai gets a gargantuan body... of a sort. The head now looks way more alien-like than it does baby-ish, and it has a huge golden hoop with dangling bells circling it like an oversized halo. The body itself is shrouded in a ragged, grayish cloak that makes it look like a floating ghost. Underneath the cloak is a fat, pasty-pale caterpillar-like torso. Mist constantly streams from the corners of its little, pursed mouth. The most dangerous part of the Bankai, that mist is a specialized poison Konjiki Ashisogi Jizou makes from Captain Kurotsuchi's blood. One good lungful of the stuff is lethal to any living thing within almost two hundred yards of him. Captain Kurotsuchi himself is unaffected, of course. If that doesn't get you, it can sprout a forest of swordblades from it's "neck" area and rumble right over you.
Benihime (Crimson Princess)
Wielder: Urahara Kisuke, Racketeer [SPOILER] Former 12th Division, Captain [/SPOILER]
First Shikai: Chapter 65, vol. 8, Collisions
First Bankai: None, yet.
Benihime gets kudos for being one of the more unusual normal-form zanpaku-to; Urahara totes her around as a cane-sword. She also has the flaming skull sigil, which means Urahara can use her to separate souls from bodies.
Benihime doesn't look too much different in Shikai form. Her hilt is a little on the longer side, mostly because the last two or three inches are bent at an angle. A cute little tassel dangles off the end. Instead of a crossguard, there is a decorative string wrapped thrice around the hilt, with a three-loop bow on one side and a folded paper decoration on the other. An almost skirt-like decoration covers the first three or four inches of blade, with a flower petal design right as it meets the string-crossguard. Benihime's blade is straight and slim, though somewhat short, with the tip ending in a slanted razor-like edge instead of being tapered to a point. Urahara triggers the change to Shikai with the word "okiro" (awaken). Not much in the way of Benihime's powers have been shown off yet, but Urahara has given us a glance at one; "Chigasumi no Tate" (Blood-mist Shield). Requiring a little of Urahara's blood and the word "nake" (cry), Benihime can make a thick, red block of a shield in front of Urahara strong enough to hold off one of Zangetsu's Getsuga Tenshou strikes.
Fujikujaku (Wysteria Peacock)
Wielder: Ayasegawa Yumichika, 11th div, 5th Seat
First Shikai: Chapter 147, vol. 17, Countdown to the End 3: [Blind Light, Deaf Beat]
First Bankai: Yumichika is only a 5th-seat, so he is incapable of Bankai.
Fujikujaku is one of the few zanpaku-to which has an unusual normal-form; a sicle. Actually, it's a four-bladed sicle, each blade atop the other and pinned the base of the hilt so that they can slide out into a sharp fan with a flick of Yumichika's wrist. Though, somehow Yumichika manages to carry it around in a normal-looking sword sheath. Hmm... ;>.> Anyway, Fujikujaku's crossguard is more of a fat cross than a regular rectangle, and it has some intricate etchings of peacock feathers on it.
We get a very quick glimpse of Fujikujaku's Shikai form, but not a very good one. What it looks like I don't know, but it does have the nasty ability to leech off its opponent's spiritual pressure and feed that to Yumichika. So you end up exhausted and Yumichika ends up hyper in a very short amount of time.
Haineko (Ash Cat)
Wielder: Morimoto Rangiku, 10th Div. Vice-captain
First Shikai: Chapter 169, vol. ? End of Hypnosis
First Bankai: don't think she can do this one yet...
Haineko breaks no molds with it's normal form, looking just like any other katana. The crossguard is a stylized cat's head, with two triangles on the top half curving into ear-points and the bottom half tapering down into a single point. Rangiku carries Haineko just like any other sword, stuck through her obi at her waist.
Haineko is in the same group as Senbon Zakura in that it's Shikai form is pretty much invisible. With the trip-phrase "Unare!" (Growl!) from Morimoto, Haineko's blade puffs into a cloud of smoke. What that smoke does.... we don't know. Yet. Hurry up, Kubotite!
Wielder: Madarame Ikkaku, 11th div, 3rd Seat
First Shikai: Chapter 87, vol. 10, Dancing With Spears
First Bankai: Ikkaku isn't close to that good yet...
Houzukimaru is nothing unusual in it's normal form, looking like any regular katana. Madarame does hide a small vial of healing ointment in the base of the hilt, though. Houzukimaru's crossguard is an oval, with what look like three small teardrops in relief on both the top and bottom end. Those marks are probably meant to represent "oni-bi" (demon fire), little balls of blue flame that have a thin wisp trailing up off the top, usually found floating in graveyards in Japanese ghost stories and myths.
Madarame fights in an unusual style, using both Houzukimaru's blade and sheath, one in each hand. Madarame thunks the base of his sheath into the top of the hilt and clips out the word "nobiro" (extend). The sheath and hilt join together, morphing into a japanese spear, called a naginata. But that's not all Houzukimaru is. Another short command of "sakero" (split), and it splits into three separate pieces joined by short lengths of chain; in other words, a san-setsu-kon (three-section staff). Madarame can manipulate the two joints at will, popping them open or closed as he needs to.
NOTE: You may have noticed that Houzukimaru's name doesn't change much in English. A "houzuki" is a type of flower in japan that looks more like a little red paper lantern than a real flower. The fruit from the houzuki plant, a ground-cherry, grows inside that "lantern". Houzuki bloom in the fall, and it is culturally associated with "Obon", the Festival of the Dead.
Hyourinmaru (Ice Ring)
Wielder: Hitsugaya Toushiro, 10th div, Captain
First Shikai: Chapter 132, vol 17, Creeping Limit
First Bankai: Chapter 170, vol ?, End of Hypnosis 2; The Galvanizer
Hyourinmaru is not too different from a regular katana in its normal-form. The most outstanding feature is its crossguard, which is in the shape of a golden, four-pointed star. Captain Hitsugaya usually carries Hyourinmaru slung over his back, hilt poking over his right shoulder, instead of at his hip.
With a cry of "Souten ni zase!" (Sit upon the frozen heavens), Captain Hitsugaya doesn't so much make Hyourinmaru itself change as he does summon a giant dragon made of water. An eastern dragon, not the western fire-breathing type, it's probably several hundred gallons of near-freezing water that he can point and send anywhere he wants. Hyourinmaru itself stays pretty much the same, but grows a long chain off the butt of the hilt with a crescent-shaped blade attached to the end. Both dragon and chain radiate such a chill that any water, even the moisture in the air, starts to freeze. So even if you don't drown in the deluge that is the dragon, the water still soaking you will freeze you to your core. All that put together is more than enough to start affecting even the local weather patterns!
BANKAI: DAI GUREN HYOURINMARU
(Great Crimson Ice Ring)
The most powerful known water/ice-elemental zanpaku-to, Dai Guren Hyourinmaru includes not only a moving ice-floe, but also independently mobile ice-stars. Captain Hitsugaya still has a metal blade to hold, the ice flaring over his arm and off his right shoulder. Dai Guren's blade stays almost exactly the same, actually losing the chain and crescent from it's shikai, but the crossguard morphs into a huge multi-pointed golden star. What Captain Hitsugaya can do with this is unfortunately not known, due to the untimely interference of one Captain Aizen.
Wielder: Abarai Renji, 6th Div. Vice-Captain
First Shikai: Chapter 56, vol 7, Na mo Kikenu Kodomo (the child who can't hear names)
First Bankai: Chapter 141 vol. 17, Kneel to the Baboon King
Like the vast majority of other zanpaku-to, Zabimaru's normal form looks exactly like any old katana, and Renji carries it stuck through his obi, like any samurai would. The only difference is the crossguard, which has a stylized lighting-bolt pattern carved into it.
With a quick shout of "Hoero!" (Howl!), Renji changes Zabimaru from an unassuming katana to a much larger, heavier weapon looking a lot like a sawblade. Zabimaru is comprised of seven rectangular plates that gradually widen from hilt to tip. Jutting out from the sharpened end of each plate is a flat, tooth-like spike, the last one on the last plate being long enough to qualify as a fang. The real surprise comes when opponents figure out that Zabimaru is not a sword, it's a *whip*. The plates are joined with a flexible material that can extend incredible distances. Renji can mentally control the length of the whip, but it still takes some weapons finesse to control it directionally. Shikai Zabimaru has one other ability, which Renji rarely uses. Called "Higa Zekkou" (Monkey Fang Absolute Bite), it allows him to control almost telekenetically the scattered pieces Zabimaru to "bite" into an opponent in one huge pile.
BANKAI: HIHIOU ZABIMARU (Baboon King Snaketail)
Though he's called the "Baboon King" Hihiou Zabimaru is really a giant snake skeleton. Renji holds onto the tip of the tail, which then coils into multitudes of round ribs all the way up into a huge snake head, complete with white furry ruff at the back of the skull-joint and several rows of fangs. Like Shikai Zabimaru, Hihiou Zabimaru is a whip, it just has a much, much larger range. Instead of having a flexible material joining the rib segments, all of Hihiou Zabimaru is held together by Renji's spiritual pressure, so it's nearly impossible for an opponent to sever it. The head can actually search out and bite opponents of it's own will to some extent, as well. Renji himself also changes appearance to a noticeable extent. He gains a white fur mantle over his black shinigami robes, held in place by an animal-fang chain. Decorating his left shoulder is a long, flat baboon skull.
NOTES: Besides Zangetsu, Zabimaru is the only other Zanpaku-to Avatar we've met. A huge (as in stands almost 5ft. tall at the shoulder huge) dignified-looking baboon with a snake for a tail, Zabimaru is actually two personalities in one. Interestingly, the baboon half of Zabimaru sports the long, slim pointed lines of a tatoo across his back and over his shoulders. One branch even snakes (pardon the pun) it's way down each arm almost to the wrist.Personality-wise, Zabimaru has two different voices, but they share the same outlook. The baboon speaks like an old man and the snake like a teenage punk, but both have a touch of irreverance and bossiness, as well as a distinct fondness for a good fight.
Zangetsu (Cutting Moon)
Wielder: Kurosaki Ichigo
First Shikai: Chapter 67, vol. 8, End of Lessons
First Bankai: Chapter 162, vol. ?, Black Moon Rising
Zangetsu, an unorthodox zanpaku-to for an unorthodox shinigami. ^-^ For the first 6 volumes of the manga, Zangetsu looks exactly like a normal katana, except for his size; frickin' HUGE. He was big enough to make claymores jealous, being as long as Ichigo is tall (5'8" or so), and at least a hand in width. His crossguard was the normal rectangle, with a stylized flame pattern on the long sides, and a simple decorative slit on the short ones. Ichigo carried Zangetsu slung over his back, the heavy sheath held in place with a thick leather belt studded with double-rows of metal-ringed holes.Then came the fights with Captain Kuchiki and Urahara. Zangetsu was badly broken and Ichigo thoroghly schooled, but the end result was Ichigo learned Zangetsu's name, and hence learned his---
Shikai Zangetsu looks more like an elegant cleaver than a formal "katana". He has no crossguard and no proper hilt; what Ichigo holds is the cloth-wrapped tang. Zangetsu is still as long as Ichigo is tall, but the blade is a hand-width only at it's base. From there it tapers in one long arc into a sharp, pointed tip. The cloth wrapping on the tang seems to react to Ichigo's will, changing length at a thought or twining about the blade in an impromptu sheath. Instead of the heavy belt for Zangetsu's sheath, a red chain of interconnecting triangles (one that looks a lot like a spinal column if you look right) runs from Ichigo's right shoulder to left hip. There's no connection or anything, he just puts Zangetsu across his back and the blade sticks. Shikai Zangetsu's power is simple but deadly. He can translate Ichigo's spiritual pressure into tangible energy. The resulting crescent moon of light is called "Getsuga Tenshou" (Moonfang Skyshock) and it can slice cleanly through anything; rock, buildings, people. However, Ichigo is still working on mastering this particular power. Strangely, Zangetsu is constantly in his Shikai form. Ichigo has yet to figure out how to get him to transform into a "normal form".
BANKAI: TENSA ZANGETSU (Heaven's Chain Cutting Moon)
The one exception to the "bankai is big" rule, Tensa Zangetsu is comparatively very small. In fact, this is the only form in which Zangetsu looks anything like a normal sword. He is still as long as he always was, but he now has a formal hilt, crossguard and blade. Instead of the cloth his Shikai form had, a short length of chain dangles from the base of the hilt. He finally gets a crossguard, though it isn't normal. Four prongs bend out to form the kanji for "ban", with the base of the blade at it's center. And every last square inch of him is dead black. Even his Getsuga Tenshou are dark as pitch.As for Tensa Zangetsu's ability, he takes everything that most bankai put into being big and translates it into speed boosts for Ichigo. The boosts are big enough that Ichigo can launch Getsuga Tenshou from two totally opposite sides of a target *almost simultaneously*.Like Renji, Ichigo himself also changes appearance, albeit very slightly. The top half of his shinigami blacks becomes a sort of suit topcoat instead of a kimono, pinned together at one spot, then left to flare out into ragged ends.