What's a good Shonen anime without a gang of villains to defeat? Sometimes, the bad guys unite because they want to destroy the world, or they team up for survival at the expense of others. Often, they have a charismatic leader who promises them glory and power, or at least an escape from their desperate lives.
The popular anime/manga franchise Bleach has two major sets of villains for Ichigo and his friends to defeat: the Espadas, and the Sternritter. The Espadas are the ten most powerful hollows-turned-Soul Reapers, or arrancars, and the Sternritter are the pinnacle of the Quincy empire. But which set of bad guys is the coolest and toughest in Bleach, and why?
10 Espadas: oddly tragic
An arrancar, as mentioned above, is a hollow that removed its mask and became a humanoid figure. But hollows have no true redemption, aside from being purified by Soul Reapers or vaporized by the Quincy.
Nnoitora, in a flashback, commented that there is no salvation for arrancars, and not even Sosuke Aizen can change that fact. An arrancar was once a hollow that was once a human being, and the arrancars are very humanlike in their desperate quest for acceptance and validation. They're monsters that can't stand the sight of themselves, and that is fascinating.
9 Sternritter: for the king!
Yhwach, the father of all Quincies, is "his Majesty" to all other Quincies, from the lowly soldiers to the mightest Sternritter. He commands perfect obedience and loyalty among his subjects, and it makes the Sternritter a cohesive fighting force (with a few exceptions).
Everything is for the king. Even the terrifying As Nodt is scared of being rejected by his Majesty, and such a loyal fighting force is only stronger through that unity. Every Sternritter would give their lives for him.
8 Espadas: like the Captains
As of the arrancar arc, there are 10 Soul Reaper Captains still in operation, after Aizen, Gin, and Kaname defected to the hollows. Right away, Aizen assembled the 10 most powerful arrancars as a cohesive body, and gave them a uniform of sorts. They even hold meetings together.
What is more, an Espada may have one or more followers, much like a Captain's Lieutenant. Grimmjow has five, such as Shawlong and Edorad, and Stark is never seen without Lilynette by his side. Halibel has three minions, and she's like a protective big sister to them.
7 Sternritters: The Whole Alphabet
The ten Espadas are numbered 1-10 (0-9 when Yammy releases), in order of strength. Meanwhile, the Sternritters each have their own letter of the Roman Alphabet, meaning there are quite a few of them! Each one has a different title, starting with Yhwach, the "Almighty".
A group this large is tough to handle, and the Sternritters outnumber the Captains two to one when they arrive. Some of them are weaker than Captains, though, such as the three whom Kenpachi easily defeated off-screen (Sternritters O, Q, and Y). But others are much tougher, like Bazz-B or Gerard!
6 Espadas: their bizarre nature
It is no ordinary feat to forcibly remove a hollow's mask and retore its human form. For a long time, everyone assumed that this was impossible, and natural arrancars were few in number and poorly developed. They only really existed in theory.
Cue Sosuke Aizen! This traitor Captain stole Kisuke Urarhara's Hogyoku to create many powerful arrancars, and they're the perfect hollow/Soul Reaper hybrid. That, and their spiritual pressure is very strange, and Ichigo's own powers, when he dons his mask, are similar. It's remarkable that Aizen practically created a new race just to defeat the Soul Society.
5 Sternritters: their medallions
A Captain's bankai is something that shouldn't be taken lightly, and even Espadas and Sternritters must take them seriously. A number of Sternritters fell to bankai during Bleach, but the Quincies were ready.
Many Sternritter carry a medallion, and it can not only seal away an activated bankai, but allow the Sternritter to use it themselves! Yhwach stole Yamamoto's fire-based bankai, and Sternritter Cang Du, pictured, obtained Captain Hitsugaya's Daiguren Hyorinmaru. Without bankai, what is a Captain to do?
4 Espadas: special powers
The ten Espadas are the height of arrancar evolution, far outstripping any hollow you might find in Hueco Mundo or in the world of the living. A Captain or Lieutenant can easily vanquish and purify the likes of Fishbone D or Acidwire, but not an arrancar!
The Espadas, in particular, have some incredible finishing moves. Not only can they fire standard cero blasts, but also the Gran Rey Cero, which Grimmjow used against Ichigo. It was a massive cone of incredible destructive power. Finally, Ulquiorra demonstrated the incredible Cero Oscuras, which has apocalyptic firepower. Even a fully masked Ichigo didn't stand a chance against it.
3 Sternritters: a variety of powers
The Espadas have a number of special abilities to offer, but the Sternritters have even more! Some of them embody different aspects of battle, and others have truly one-of-a-kind abilities we've never seen before in Bleach.
Pictured is Sternritter "F" As Nodt, who can fling darts that induce paralyzing fear in his opponents. In his Voll Stern Dich form, he can spread fear with utter ease, and even terrify Rukia when she froze herself into near-death. Don't forget Sternritter "D" Askin Nak Le Varr, who can alter a person's tolerance for substances and poison them with just about anything. And Sternritter "J" Quilge Opie can make energy jail cells to isolate an enemy.
2 Espadas: sympathetic figures
Okay, not all of the Espadas are sympathetic. Some, such as Aaroniero or Nnoitora, are total creeps. But others are really just hollows trying to make the most of a cursed existence, and some of them are even kind.
Nelliel was once an Espada, and probably the nicest one to ever exist. Pictured is the 3rd Espada Tier Halibel, a motherly figure who closely protects her three followers. And Grimmjow, while a total maniac, does believe in honor and fairness, and he greatly respects Ichigo's powers. Enough, in fact, to attack his fellow arrancars to help set up a clean final fight with his rival!
1 Sternritters: the Shutzstaffel
There is a second layer of organization within the Sternritters: the Shutzstaffel! Who are they? These four Sternritters are Yhwach's personal elite bodyguards, and they are the four most powerful Quincies who serve their king.
One of them is Gerard Valkyrie, Sternritter "M" (pictured). He is a tireless warrior of God, according to him, and will never falter in the face of evil. And don't forget Lille Barro, Sternritter "X", the ultimate sniper! Finally, the bizarre Sternritter "C" is the actual right hand of the Soul King.