Happy Birthday, Uryuu
Haschwalth’s suspicions are wrong. Ishida Uryuu does not seek revenge for his mother’s death. Vengeance, the very concept, is antithetical to what that mother devoted her life.
Katagiri Kanae served Ishida Ryuuken with patience and love, not as a maid, but as someone who listened to all his troubles and held him accountable to his better self. She was a model of compassion, and her son knew her for nine years of his life before losing her to the Auswahlen.
The Ishida family, despite a couple members who give off the strong impression of being the unfriendly, cunningly dangerous type, are an honorable and practical people. Honor is practical; honor constructs a system of values by which one weighs one’s own humanity. Ishida Souken spoke of honoring both sides of a war: "Be it Human or Shinigami, seeing a sad face is unbearable to me." Ishida Ryuuken chose to devote his life to medicine, to saving the lives of the living, rather than to save souls of the Dead by wielding his Quincy powers against Hollow monsters. Ishida Uryuu took bombs and help from Captain Kurotsuchi, the torturer and murderer of so many Quincy and of his own grandfather Souken, in order to rescue a friend, Inoue Orihime. Honor is practical; honor can save a friend’s life but beyond that, it defines one’s own life. Every decision made with honorable intent is another birthday of the soul.
Who is Ishida Uryuu if not an honorable person born of one difficult decision after another? His antagonizing Kurosaki Ichigo to a duel was followed by the decision to save the Shinigami’s life. He stepped out into the night to save Rukia, a Shinigami he didn’t even know, from being arrested, and later, followed Ichigo to Soul Society on the rescue mission that would be arc one in defining himself. Soul Society was the scene of his great victory against a gotei captain and yet he lost all his powers there. Soul Society was where we learned of Ishida Uryuu’s famous compassion, the softness his father despises. Uryuu also made the decision not to aim for Kurotsuchi’s head in some gesture of mercy that seemed like a bizarre weakness at the time, but at the current moment in the Bleach plot, Kurotsuchi Mayuri is proving to be of some use to all the powers of Good still. Mayuri, for all his loathsomeness, is that necessary sort of Evil like that little piece of floating yin in the yang. (Like Uryuu, every decision Mayuri makes along the way is borne of practicality; unlike Uryuu, his decisions are selfish).
Following Soul Society, Uryuu had another important rebirth of the soul with the inevitable reclaiming of his powers—but not until he was done dwelling on an ultimatum made to him by his father. Ryuuken’s offer was simple, but the subtext, essentially, went like this: promise me you’ll never go near another Shinigami again and I may restore your powers…that is, if I don’t kill you first--you don’t know, really—I am scary as fuck … OR just hang there powerless among all the other teenagers in the safety of normal life and friendship. Choose the former and risk death and humiliation; choose the latter and be a weakling of no consequence. Uryuu deliberates at school during a telling scene in which Inoue Orihime is beset by the unwanted affections of Shinji; everyone, even Keigo, leaps to defend her, and Uryuu, who was her champion in Soul Society, sits frowning at his desk, apparently preoccupied with Ryuuken’s proposal, maybe shamed by his impotency among his spiritually-gifted friends—a long strand of Inoue’s hair waving in the foreground of the panel. Ishida Uryuu takes his father up on his offer, regains his powers, and then later leaves training in order to go save a kidnapped Inoue Orihime (who it becomes increasingly clear Uryuu loves in that sweeping-epic-shounen-myth-quest way as he foregoes fights in Hueco Mundo and declares “I’m not here to fight; I’m here to rescue Inoue-san”—all this in sharp contrast to the hero, Ichigo, who declares that he is there to fight as well as to rescue Inoue and take back all his friends). In the very name of friendship, betraying the vow he made to his father to never associate with Shinigami, Uryuu dramatically rescues Renji in Hueco Mundo (and has his life promptly saved by Renji in return), but Uryuu’s honorable nature probably reaches its apex on the Dome.
Ishida Uryuu was nothing if pure honor striving forward for its own sake on the Dome, no selfish regard, making sacrifice after sacrifice. He looks like saint for a while: he gets his hand cut off and injects himself with pain-killer in the presence of a magical healer; hurling mid-air through a volley of flying rocks, he catches a girl with his one good arm; he walks right up to out-of-control friend who is mutilating a corpse, tells him to stop and is stabbed in the gut for his efforts. But if Ishida Uryuu were meant to be only a moral compass, a symbol of goodness and not a fully realized character in this drama, he would’ve passed out, mercifully unconscious for the rest of the show. No, Uryuu, strangely enough, remains awake, an uncomfortable suffering witness to what happens next: Ulquiorra dies and it’s Ichigo who killed him and Orihime who doesn’t reach him in time to heal him. What does Uryuu make of this tragedy? What does this tragedy make of Uryuu?
The Dome drama happens at the very midpoint of Bleach’s story--a hotbed of mixed intentions, crossed purposes, and tragic consequences. Ichigo wanted to protect but his inner self ended up destroying; Inoue swore she wanted to fight at Ichigo’s side but she ended up calling for him to save her; Ulquiorra could not understand what he could not see but he finally grasped the very nature of the heart when he reached, too late, to make a connection with a human girl. Inoue, who had been afraid of the monster in Ichigo, was not afraid of the monster in the Hollow who had killed the man she said she loved. During all this craziness, it was Ishida Uryuu who sat, ignored by the plot, bleeding from a wound inflicted by his best friend and unhealed by the girl he loves—it was the cruelest of fates, a virtual martyrdom. No wonder audiences were squirming, many mocking the boy who pages before had been the epitome of noble sacrifice.
In the few glimpses we see of Ishida Uryuu in what remains of this arc, he seems to be no worse for wear, not bitter, smiling peacefully or gazing with tenderness on his friends. He is happy when Ichigo wakes up from a coma and is a quiet, reverent witness when Ichigo and Rukia say their goodbyes. He doesn’t have a conversation or connection with anyone to reveal what’s he’s learned about himself or human nature.
Is Uryuu really that good? Has the tragedy of the Dome burnished him into that pure of a soul?
When we see him engaging people again, after a significant time skip, he’s squabbling with Ichigo or doing goofy schtick with Orihime. (He seems to have made a deeper connection to friends, although some fans still identify Uryuu as a loner character or one wounded from events of the Dome—there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case at all). The Fullbringer arc may advance Ishida Uryuu forward in literal birthdays, but insofar as character development goes, he spends most of the arc on his back in the hospital refusing to be healed by Orihime. His obstinacy is a hallmark of Ishida pride and also a plot device to keep him out of the fights or from identifying his attacker. When he does get the chance to fight, he doesn’t. What he does do, however, is apologize to Ichigo for not having spoken up earlier about some long-ago suspicions about Ichigo’s Shinigami badge. This sort of humility from Uryuu is unprecedented and is quickly met with a kick in the pants from Ichigo’s foot. This is the Ishida Uryuu the arc ultimately gives us: a thoughtful young man who would do anything to help someone in need, especially if that someone is Kurosaki Ichigo.
There you have it: the Ishida Uryuu who has joined the Quincy army is humble, sacrificing, a true friend, and an honorable soul. There isn’t much in thousands of pages of story to suggest that he would enter the enemy ranks out of self-interest.
Yet so many readers seem to think that Ishida Uryuu’s primary motive for joining the Quincy, though, is to avenge his mother’s death. Think about it—if killing his mother’s murderer would give him some personal satisfaction, it would be motivated by selfishness. Killing his mother’s murderer would not bring her back nor do much to right the countless injustices wrought by Yhwach’s reign of terror.
Obviously, Uryuu has some larger plan. Since when has Ishida Uryuu ever been without a plan? Ok, he’s walked headfirst into certain death before with nothing but Steele Schneider and his Quincy pride, but he’s usually the type to lay a plan, even set a trap with Mayuri’s bombs, and especially when it comes to a matter like joining the most dangerous army of final villains ever (and make no mistake, his joining was a deliberate move—he told Ichigo, Chad, and Inoue “I have something to do”), it only seems to follow he had a plan going in. Whether or not that plan was foiled by drinking royal elixir and becoming Yhwach’s heir is yet to be told.
There has been absolutely no internal monologue from Ishida Uryuu yet in this arc and that is solely for the purpose of building suspense and speculation. Some of the speculation has been a little on the silly side—that Uryuu is a pawn of Yhwach, that he is brain-washed or being held captive by him. So far the story seems to show a young man who, while in dire straits, is acting out of his own agency and in the best interests of his friends as usual. He shoots an arrow the size of a foam dart at Kurosaki and otherwise seems to avoid the mass-murdering of his compatriot Quincy.
The Bleach plot is in its final arc; major players are revealing their ban kai; teenagers we’ve followed for over a decade in real time are on the cusp of adulthood in the storyline and about to have their destinies fulfilled. More than that, heaven and earth themselves in the Bleachverse seem about to be reborn; the boundaries between dimensions are trembling, Soul Society has seen the death of its captain commander and a toppling of its infrastructure; the very Soul King in heaven has been overthrown. What sort of new birthday of the soul awaits Ishida Uryuu in all this? Beyond the obvious transformation he will make when he fights a final battle and shows us what I have no doubt will be a magnificent Vollstandig, there are decisions, as always, to be made—decisions that define a man.
Honor has always been the mother of Uryuu’s decisions.
The one word that Kubo Tite assigned to Ishida Uryuu in the databook Masked was “Dignity.”
Persons who are defined by such noble terms do not seek material reward, nor do they live their lives in pursuit of goals like vengeance. Honorable people live so that the lives of others will be made better. There doesn’t need to be a reward at the end of Ishida Uryuu’s story, but there needs to be a change, a kind of marker to show he’s reached adulthood, passed another test, survived another battle and made yet another right decision. What will that change be? Will be the next Quincy king? Will he somehow serve to bring balance to the universe in another role? Maybe he’ll make a more intimate connection with the girl who in the Soul Society arc reached with her hand for Ichigo Kurosaki in the skies above the Seireitei and missed, who in the Arrancar arc reached for Ulquiorra and lost him even as she found his heart. I’d like to think that Uryuu will make that sort of connection with the girl of his dreams, but I know he’s not pursuing it.
Whatever Ishida Uryuu’s final panel will be, it will not be a sad one. An honorable soul always wins by virtue of being an honorable soul. Happy birthday, Uryuu.