See, I'm not so much looking at "what he should be doing" as I am "what he should be thinking about." This is about his motives.
...But first, before reading this essay, please take time to make sure you have caught up with the latest chapter, just released today (the essay focuses heavily on it)! Here, I'll get you some links. =D
What's funny to me is that, even after Aizen's speech on hatred, when we look at Ichigo's reaction...
I just don't see hatred in that. I hardly even see anger. I just see shock, fear even.
Aizen's right. Ichigo has little desire to actually fight Aizen. He's made the same oath like 5 times, to defeat some guy out of a simple sense of responsibility (Aizen even said this, it's simple responsibility/obligation). Aizen hasn't killed a single person that was close to him yet. Sure, he made the Grand Fisher, which killed Masaki, but Ichigo has already resolved that issue when he fought the GF to the death (or at least, he seems to have resolved it by now, since I sure don't see any real hatred in him right now). Yes, Aizen is planning to kill off all of Karakura to make a key, but has he done it yet? You know, when Ichigo was told about Aizen's plans to sacrifice Karakura, he reacted in nothing but confidence that he could stop Aizen. But later, he seems to forget all about it when he goes off to save Orihime. Well, Ichigo is the kind of person who cares more about the people he knows than the people he doesn't know. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm not saying he doesn't care about it. It's just that, from the way Ichigo has reacted to the whole Karakura thing so far, it seems like it's not at the top of his list of priorities. And yeah, that does matter. It makes all the difference in a fight, actually. That is, just how much you care about something.
The reason he's actually fighting Aizen is because of what Unohana told him. Because she dumped the weight of 3 worlds on his shoulders.
But the reason he originally said he would defeat Aizen, when he was yelling at Grimmjow, was because he thought he had to in order to save his friends.
Well, as Aizen said, his friends are safe now.
Ichigo isn't able to understand his own heart yet. He doesn't understand what he really cares about, or why he fights. He fights on impulse, because "this makes me angry" or "I must defend my honor/pride" or whatever. But when you fight just because "I made a promise to someone" you're fighting for something that has little or nothing to do with you (at least not directly). People are inherently selfish, and it's hard to bear real hatred when YOU haven't actually lost anything yet.
This kind of issue takes years of thinking and reflection, not to mention experience, to be able to resolve. He's far too young to have matured enough to fight Aizen.
And what do you know. Aizen speaks some truth to him and, again, he reacts on impulse. He was about to charge him recklessly, just like Hiyori did. Where did that get her?
Not to mention the sheer difference in power. As Aizen said... Distance doesn't even mean anything in a fight between him and Ichigo. At any moment, his hand can reach Ichigo's heart.
Ichigo could have died at any time, in an instant. Aizen chose to spare him. As for why, we can only guess. But it looks to me like this issue of "why you fight" and "the role of friends" is important to Aizen for some reason. He wouldn't just bring it up for nothing. He wouldn't spare Ichigo's life for no reason.
But when Ichigo forgets where he left his head, all of SS (as well as the Vizards) comes to stop him from being so rash, and to protect him. He shouldn't be coddled like that. If he wants to be killed, if his life means so little to him, and if he can't stop and think for even an instant because of his fear (as well as the pain of hurt pride), then why not let him go ahead?
As old and experienced as the shinigami/vizards in question that stopped Ichigo are, especially Unohana who dumped this load on him in the first place, you would think they would understand that Ichigo can't do this (really, why are they putting all this faith in him? or is it a set up?). Because of his hero complex, he'll give his life trying to do something he's still conflicted about doing. He'll give his life because "I made a promise" even though, instinctively, he's conflicted with it, because his instincts will just say "this doesn't apply to me." Also, I suspect that it has a lot to do with the impulse that "it feels good to be able to say you're everyone's hero" even if he's not actually thinking that consciously.
Of course, I've been waiting for this moment for months now. Ichigo so desperately needs character development that I would actually like to see him trashed by Aizen, if that's what it takes to get him to understand. He shouldn't just be able to go around swinging his sword without understanding his own heart and responsibilities. He just thinks "oh, these guys look like enemies, I will take them all out." As if he has some kind of duty to do this. As if he is the judge of all 3 worlds, bearing the right to pass judgment on whoever he deems wrong. How conceited is that?
And yet, because he's gotten so caught up in this, he can't even bear the responsibility of his own life.
When you fight, you should have a clear purpose: "this is what's most important to me." But you shouldn't think "I will give my life for this" because suicidal self-sacrifice will only hurt those you love. To be able to protect what is most precious to you, you must first be able to protect yourself. Sometimes you're truly faced with the choice of either your life, or the lives of those you wish to protect. In that case, it's not so much suicidal as it is "they are more important to me than my life."
You shouldn't think "I will protect everyone, everywhere" or "I will defeat this person" without first looking to see if that's what you truly feel in your heart.
And you most certainly should not go around thinking you have the right to take lives whenever you feel that's the right thing to do. That's the logic of a murderer. Do you fight to protect, or to kill? For what purpose do you hold your sword? Oh, but what's the first thing Ichigo did in this chapter?
That's why hollows are monsters, and why Ichigo is being consumed by his hollow: Hollows have no clear purpose for fighting. They do not understand selfless intentions, they have no heart. All that is important to them are their instincts. If they feel the instinct to kill, they will kill without a second thought.
Do you remember why Ichigo originally fought? At first, it was because of a simple feeling of debt to Rukia, for her sacrifice. Because he had stolen her powers. She could no longer fulfill her responsibility, and this was all in order to save Ichigo's family.
But later, when he fought GF, things became personal. Suddenly he realized that this hollow business really did mean something to him: he was unable to protect his mom from one. The one he wanted to protect the most, "mom, who always protected me." (http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/19/11/) So he decides that he won't be able to face his mom if he doesn't fight to make sure that nobody else has to bear the same grief he felt. As he said to Ishida: "I don't want to make any more of my kind." http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/47/09/
So then we find out that Rukia's problem with SS is his business too, because as he said in Broken Coda: http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/56/19/ The situation is exactly like when Masaki was killed. He was unable to protect those he cared about, and instead he was protected again.
Well, so far so good. He plays the hero in SS and he manages to pull it off, because that is actually what's in his heart. That's what he really cares about. So when he finds out her execution is only a day away, he's able to call out some seriously insane determination.
Do we see Ichigo displaying that kind of determination now? No, we see a kid who's at the end of his rope. Well, what on earth changed?
The first time he really felt down, after the SS arc, he had three fears. Rukia even listed them out for us, without him having to say a word: http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/196/12/
He can't face these fears alone. But he's always trying to do just that. So he just stays all gloomy and depressed for days, and Orihime tries to cheer him up: "Don't worry, I'm fine!" If that was what he was really worried about, it would have cheered him up, you know? Actually, it just made him more depressed, because he wanted to be able to protect her and, instead, when he tells her to run away, she runs right in and jumps in the way. He can't protect her like that, you know?
Orihime made no mention of "I'll help you bear this burden" anywhere in that. And, after all, the ones he cares about the most are the ones who protect him and fight alongside him. Otherwise he wouldn't have made special mention of the fact that the reason he wanted to protect his mom... Was simply that she always protected him.
But Rukia's message was "don't worry, I believe in you, just keep moving forward." And suddenly, he can fight again. He's not alone anymore, you know? So because he can believe in someone else who believes in him (*cough* cookie for whoever gets the reference), he can believe in himself.
You see, nowhere in these spurts of determination is "I must protect everyone in existence" or "I must defeat this guy who has not yet done anything to me." Because that's not what's in his heart. Well, there was the time when he fought Kenpachi. In that fight, he was fighting largely on instinct. So that's an exception. But Kenpachi really didn't give him a choice. If he didn't fight, he would die, and if he died he couldn't save Rukia. I mention Rukia because, if you remember, as he was dying in front of Kenpachi, that's partially what he was thinking about: http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/110/05/
Is it wrong to be selfish? Not all the time. It's human nature. It's quite normal. So you will naturally think to first take care of those from who you receive. You will naturally think to protect those who mean something to you, instead of random people who you don't know.
So when he gets the burden of entire worlds put on his shoulders, he stumbles even more. That's in addition to all the stumbling he had just finished doing.
Because when he fought Grimmjow and Ulquiorra, he fought them mostly out of instinct. Grimmjow pointed out to him that "if you really were here just to save Orihime, you would have taken her and run." And I'm NOT saying that he necessarily could have done that. But what's important is that it wasn't even what was on his mind, he was fighting Grimmjow cause he had a score to settle. And he would even go so far as to get Grimmjow healed in order to satisfy his pride. You don't get the enemy healed if the thing most important to you is saving your friend from said enemy. But he had lost twice to Grimmjow before and his confidence in himself was on the line. He needed to be able to know that "I can protect those I care about." (which is one of the 3 fears Rukia mentioned in chapter 196, by the way) And in focusing on that he lost sight of the fact that... Protecting the damsel in distress is supposed to be first priority in a rescue mission.
When he fought Ulquiorra, it was a lot like his current fight against Aizen. Ulquiorra told him much the same thing Aizen is telling him now: http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/318/05/ "I have no orders to kill her yet." ("this has nothing to do with your friend, she is safe, what reason do you have to hate me, to fight me?") But he kept saying he was fighting to protect her. He HAD to win to protect her. It's the same thing as now, when he's trying to tell himself that "this has everything to do with me" but, instinctively, he does not understand this. This isn't really what's in his heart, because it's not even on the line in this battle. Ulquiorra made it quite clear that if he lost, it would really be HIS life that was forfeit. Not Orihime's. At least not yet. There was still time. But he was rash, and he reacted in anger, flying at Ulquiorra regardless.
Because, DANG, he just can't be wrong. If he's wrong in fighting this fight, if he's fighting it for the wrong reasons, then why is he even here? He has to feel good about what he's doing, so in anger he insists he's right. He simply decides he HAS to win.
For example, remember when Ulquiorra questioned Orihime's motives? http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/342/05/
"Shut up. None of that matters." http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/342/06/
He has to keep his confidence, even when death is staring him in the face and he's completely helpless to defend himself. See, Ulquiorra did much the same stuff Aizen is doing now: Showing just how big the difference in power is, trying to make him see that it's useless. Trying to make him understand why he's even fighting in the first place. But you know, you can't question Ichigo's motives and get away with it. Because he's already having trouble dealing with his own fears as it is, and if you push him too far he'll lose all control over himself and turn into some crazy monster... A monster that has no regard for his friends.
A monster that does not protect. Its purpose is not to protect, it's simply to kill. So it mercilessly slaughters Ulquiorra (not to mention what it did to Ishida, and when it didn't even make the slightest effort to keep from knocking Orihime face-first into the ground), and what do you know... "This isn't the way I wanted to win" says Ichigo! Oh darn, you mean he WAS wrong? It can't be! Not Ichigo!
So he forgets all about his friends when he decides that, for his pride, he's going to have his own arm and leg cut off to even the odds. He just CAN'T be wrong darn it! It just can't possibly be!
Well, he doesn't even get the chance to prove himself. Ulquiorra lost his organs so he can't sustain his own life, and Ichigo notices he's even made Orihime sad by killing Ulquiorra (http://www.onemanga.com/Bleach/379/16/). But you know, he really thought he was there to PROTECT her. He was, right? ...Right? Surely Ulquiorra is the enemy here. Surely Ichigo is the heroic shinigami and Ulquiorra is the evil hollow and he's just fulfilling his duty as a knight in shining armor, by saving the poor damsel in distress from this horrible fiend. But wait. In the end, Ichigo became more hollow-like. Ichigo became a monster. And Ulquiorra found his heart. So who was the monster here? He doesn't even get that satisfaction.
Ichigo, in defeat, finally drops that front of confidence he'd been putting up. Rukia's the first to notice: "Those aren't the eyes of a victor, nor of someone who is ready to win."
...Or so we think. After his weak resolve fails to do more than nick Yammy, he decides he's going to go off without his friends and instead listen to these captains who want to give him more responsibility, in addition to the ones that he already failed to bear. Because it feels good to be able to say you fulfilled your responsibilities, you know. It doesn't even matter if you're up to it or if it's something you really care about, as long as you decide that it's just something you HAVE to do.
Well, now Aizen's telling him the same stupid stuff and he's just tired of hearing it. He's shocked, people are still trying to tell him that he's wrong. And he is NOT going to be wrong! He's here to save everyone! Right?
If so, then where is that determination? Because all I see is fear. He keeps his distance and relies on his hollow, even though he fears his hollow too. There's not even any real hatred, just some impulsive anger.
This Arrancar Arc, which has spanned a little over half of the currently released manga, has been continually reminding me: Ichigo is still a kid. He's only 16. He doesn't understand what it really means to fight yet. And to be honest, I think that Kubo didn't need to take so long giving out this message. I'm so glad that the arc will be over later this year. Well, it might not be the end of the whole 'despair' theme, but at least it'll be the end of Fake Karakura and Hueco Mundo...