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As far as becoming strong, I would think arrancar can actually train to become stronger. There is little to no reason for us to think that arrancar strength is fixed. We have even seen arrancar's mask and perhaps even resurreccion change over time at large. Just look at tres bestias and nnoitora. The orb would simply be something added upon training. Nnoitora was superior to nel thanks to a combination of training and the orb after all. He also did seem to put quite a bit of effort into beating nel which only makes sense if training makes a difference for arrancar.
I would think the espada did not have anything in particular that made them special. Just like captains are exceptionally strong shinigami the espada were exceptionally strong arrancar. There isn't anything biological in particular that makes captains special when compared to just about any other shinigami as far as we know.
Arrancars can most likely train to become stronger, I agree. If we assume that the one that 'ambushed' Urahara in Hueco Mundo was Grimmjow, then it seems rather pointless of him to show up without a remarkable power boost. He is, after all, supposed to be one of Ichigo's greatest rivals.
Based on the discussion, is it safe to conclude that Aizen had already organized and ranked the Espadas pre-Hogyoku as well? There doesn't seem to be any other reasonable explanation for Nel and Nnoitra to have been numbered otherwise. The interesting thing, though, is that this suggests that the Hogyoku doesn't provide as big of a power boost as it might be assumed. At least not for everybody. Nnoitra was arguably still weaker than Neliel, after all.
Nnoitora was by no means weaker than nel.... He actually made the point that she was no match for the current espada. She only got an advantage when she had resurreccion over nnoitora for that matter. At least IMO nnoitora would have handed her her ass if if had used resurrecion to fight her. In her sealed state even with her double cero she did not actually manage to harm nnoitora if I recall. And ultimately even if nel did have a couple baddass moments in their sealed states it was her who was pushed around. Nel was the once forced to use resurreccion in the end. Nel was pretty strong but it is entirely possible her current strength would have well been well below number 5 by the standard of the espada during that time.
As for the actual boost... the orb seemingly simply improved the quality of hybrid the arrancar were so it would depend on exactly how well made the arrancar were to begin with. Nel and nnoitora did seem to have proper human bodies in their sealed forms and actual human intelligence so it does seem like they were pretty good hybrids to begin with. Perhaps there is a better way to look at it though. Nel was at her time tercera espada and as we saw it does seem like just quinta was well stronger than her. Who knows what level of espada today she would actually match. At least IMO nnoitora was the stronger one and perhaps grimmjow would have been too which would place the former tercera espada at most on par with current 7 which is 4 positions lower. Perhaps on the individual level it is not that noticeable however looking at the espada as a whole I do think the orb made a huge difference.
Espada itself is very tricky group. If you get wounded you might get exchanged. When Grimmjow got wounded numbers didn't just go one down. Someone suddenly appeared, who was as strong as Grimmjow.
About Nel vs Nnoitra. He stood his ground, despite being no match in the past. He'd win that fight. She already released, he did not. If he did, Nel would have had trouble.
Luppi was not necessarily as strong as grimmjow. All we can infer is that he was stronger than zomari.
Was nel expelled from the espada? I would think she just disappeared as far as the others were concerned.
Hallibel was number 3 some time after, so yes, she was expelled, reason is unknown, but what I meant is, she was Espada, got wounded, and disappeared, as a result she wasn't in Espadas anymore. Also, I think that Nel/Harribel situation explains how it all came to be and why we have "Privaron" Espadas. Aizen just found new Espadas, that were stronger. Barragan stopped being the strongest, Hallibel took Nel's place, Ulquiorra and Stark were already present I guess, because Nnoitra's number was still 5th.
There's also the fact that Aizen had his own Hogyoku as early as 110 years ago. I've never really understood what the purpose of that bit of information was, but maybe it was to explain the existence of his Arrancar before he defected. It wasn't truly awakened, but using the method of pouring his reiatsu into it, he might have been able to achieve the same effect as when he made Wonderweiss into an Arrancar. Even Urahara's incomplete one, whilst sealed inside of Rukia, had an effect on Chad and Orihime, so Aizen's dormant one may have also had it's uses.
What doesn't make sense to me is Dordonii's line about how he knew he would be made obsolete when Hogyoku-made Arrancar came into the picture. The panel where he says it shows a sillhouette of Starrk, Nnoitra and Aaroniero. We know Starrk was a natural Arrancar. Nnoitra was an Espada years ago, before Aizen had a complete Hogyoku, and Aaroniero is even more confusingly called "the last of the 1st generation Espada". Didn't Aizen use the Hogyoku on incomplete Arrancar to boost their powers (like Baraggan)? Presumably Dordonii got the same boost. Maybe Hogyoku-born Arrancar are naturally superior to Hogyoku-boosted ones, which makes you wonder how powerful Starrk and Barragan could otherwise have been. If any of that is true...
As for Aaroniero being the last of the 1st, that's odd because I'd have thought subduing Barragan would be Aizen's first step. I guess it's possible that he created 10 test-Arrancar beforehand, who he referred to as his original Espada, one of those being Aaroniero.
Seems like the current flashback and Urahara explaining the Soul Suicide phenomena, also explains the natural Arrancars.
Think about Stark, we know for fact that he is a natural Arrancar who was Arrancarfied already by the time Aizen found him.
Apparently Soul Suiciide occures when the same soul unlocks the soul two aspects of powers, Shinigami and Hollow.
Then we got Stark, who didn't have a normal Arrancar underling, in fact, it was his own Soul merged into two pieces upon becoming an Arrancar.
This could conclude that Stark only survived Soul Suicide by doing exactly what he did, splitting his own soul up into two pieces.
That could also further lead on that none of the other known Arrancars were Arrancars before meeting Aizen, that a natural Arrancar is truly rare, because of Soul Suicide, where you either need to split your own soul up (Possibly only hollows can do that since they're a compile of souls to begin with?) or the cure made by Urahara.
Splitting his soul does not explain everything though. If a hollow splits his soul the logical alternative would be for two hollows to appear, not an entirely different soul. You also have to consider that lilinet ultimately behaved just like a regular zampakuto would which means starrk was not necessarily that different from other arrancar.
About arrancar though, what I was thinking is that the reason for them to be able to naturally appear would be the fact that they eat souls. Perhaps proper timing is the key for arrancar to appear. Or perhaps eating a soul of each kind is a requirement for them to be turned into arrancar. At least starrk and barragan would have seem to be exceptionally old considering they were very powerful so it would make sense that they actually got a chance at devouring shinigami, quincy and human souls. Perhaps now that quincy are almost extinct natural arrancar will become even more rare over time.
The reason the Soul gets destroyed as for what Urahara recently explained is the gain of additional powers which causes an inbalance in the soul, and in a way "shakes" the soul into a bad balance, which eventually destorys it.
Llinet and Stark became two Souls, heck they could be soul linked as well similar to Masaki and Isshin were.
I agree there are some loose ends here, but I think we're getting closer to an actual understanding as for natural Arrancars after Urahara's explanation.