I’m fascinated by this continual talk about Madhouse being in desperate trouble, given that they continue to produce not just great anime, but anime with phenomenal production quality. Maybe it’s sour grapes about NTV taking a large financial stake after founder Maruyama Masao left to form MAPPA; maybe it’s just hurt feelings that Maruyama (a truly great man and friend to great anime) left. But what I never see is convincing evidence that the company is actually in trouble. One writer who obviously considers himself a prominent voice in anime criticism cited as evidence – and I quote – that Hunter X Hunter is “terribly directed, with clearly not a lot of money involved” and that “Chihayafuru is a painfully mediocre show”. That sounds about right for a world where a studio that produces a jaw-dropping episode like this one is on death’s door.
One of the hardest things about blogging H x H, to be honest, is that after 49 episodes it’s hard to come up with nice things to say about it that I haven’t already said. Fortunately the plot, world building and character arcs are incredibly dynamic and detailed and never get stagnant – but how many times can I gush over the facial animations, the battle choreography, the timing of the dialogue and the atmosphere? This ep had pretty much all of it on display in spades, and I think for the first time I’m truly getting a sense of why many consider this the best arc in the series. For my money Heaven’s Arena is still tops because it best combines not just the dichotomy of darkness and light at the heart of the series, but also the psychological intrigue, mythology and brilliant humor with the mass of GAR. So far York Shin has been more focused on the blood and guts side, and shrouded in darkness – but the last couple of episodes have really brought home the sense of immovable objects getting ready to collide with irresistible forces. It’s plain to see – it’s going down, and it’s going to be big.
One of the many elements I love about Gon and Killua’s arcs is that while we’re constantly shown how ridiculously overpowered they are (“One in ten million” as Wing called them) Togashi doesn’t hesitate to show us that there are plenty of people out there for whom they’re still no match. And Killua is smart enough to realize it when he’s staring it down. Killua really shines in this entire episode – he’s such a pimp, coolly sipping his parfait as he explains to Gon and Leorio why taking Nobunaga and Machi head-on would be a very bad idea (two Hisokas, indeed). Kil completely takes command of the operation, dishing out orders and instructions, and makes it absolutely clear that it’s life and death the boys are playing with here. He also relates a story about the ultimate compliment the target of a hit can receive – when an elite assassin says they aren’t being paid enough to take them out. Given that the assassin in question is his father and the target a member of the Phantom Troupe, this is quite a germane example – the extent of which will only be revealed later in the ep.
The scenes that follow are really stellar, some of the best in the entire series (and that’s saying something). I even love the conversation between Nobunaga and Machi in the courtyard as they sip Heinekens (Spiders really dig Heineken), aware that they’re being watched but not sure by who. The Spiders are presented in an incredibly low-key manner generally, and this just makes their ruthlessness and violence that much more jarring. These are all very, very smart people – in this instance Nobunaga (like Killua) extremely analytical and Machi (like Gon) with instincts as sharp as a tack. The tension between them is palpable, reflecting the uneasy balance that always exists inside the Troupe among these elite killers – indeed, even Leorio is aware of it despite his relative lack of Nen training. There’s also a keen respect and even loyalty among the Spiders, seemingly (with one obvious exception) and we can see it in the way Nobunaga talks about Uvogin not being “just a dumb wall of muscle.”
The game is on when the pair of them leave the plaza, and it’s time for the boys to follow. Killua, realizing he’s in way over his head, sends Leorio off to keep an eye on Zepile. Seemingly this is an attempt to tell Leorio to go down to the shallow end of the pool where it’s safe without completely crushing his feelings – but my favorite part of this sequence is Killua’s reaction when Gon tells him of his remarkable act of tailing Hisoka unseen for a day during the Hunter exam (an act completed before Gon had any Nen training, it must be said – wow) – he bops him on the head and says “It seemed appropriate.” Then begins an incredibly tense sequence as the boys tail the two spiders through York Shin using Zetsu to hide their presence. Killua is a live wire through all of this, constantly trying to decipher what’s in the mind of the Spiders, and whether or not he and Gon are being led into a trap, and the stress really shows on his face. This comes to a nerve-wracking crescendo when the Spiders lead the boys to a deserted industrial plot, and Killua must decide once and for all – is this their hideout, or a trap? Success – or near-certain death?
As great as the buildup was, the highlight comes here. Gon forgot the lesson he learned in watching the fish and birds during the exam – a hunter is at their most vulnerable when they’re on the hunt. What he did to Hisoka and Gerata did to him, Pakunoda and Phinks do to he and Killua – as the boys focused on hiding their presence with Zetsu, the other two Spiders tracked them, and not even Nobunaga and Machi knew. We then get a truly spectacular short fight scene between Kil and Phinks, for my money the best since the Gon X Hisoka epic in Heaven’s Arena – and it even uses the wonderful creepy string BGM. Killua throws everything he has at Phinks, but to no avail – at one point it even looked as if he was going to be snapped in half like a wishbone – and when Nobunaga joins his comrade the jig is up and the questions start. Gon never gets to the fighting stage with Pakunoda, waiting in vain for a chance to escape which never comes, and both boys receive the same questions – the Spiders are really interested in only one thing, and that’s the chain user. Of course, both can answer truthfully – they have no idea who that person is.
It’s a measure of how overmatched the boys are that Killua surrenders. His answer to the “Do you want to die now or later?” question is obvious, but smart – more time equals a chance to try and survive somehow. Now the epic scale of things really kicks in. Gon and Killua are paraded into the Spiders’ hideout – and of course, Hisoka is one of the Spiders present. What the heck is going to happen there? Meanwhile Chrollo has taken an interest in Neon, and is on his way to retrieve her even as her father instructs Melody and Bassho to get her out of town. As if all that weren’t enough, Nostrade reveals that the mob has called in “professionals” to deal with the Phantom Troupe – none other than Killua’s father and Grandfather – and instructed Kurapika to work with them. And just for a little extra spice, Chrollo has also expressed an interest in recruiting Kurapika to join the Spiders, taking the place of the one he’s presumed to have killed.
This is a serious convergence of destinies we’re looking at here – numerous plot threads each of which, on their own, could be the headline of a pretty epic mini-arc. What’s especially interesting is that even as their fates force all of the major players onto a collision course, they’re all but ignorant of the roles the others are playing. Neither the boys or Kurpika has any idea that the other is involved with the Troupe, the Spiders are forced to conclude the boys don’t know Kuapika, and Killua has no idea that his father is headed towards York Shin – just as Kurapika has no idea that the feared assassin he’s been assigned to work with is Killua’s Dad. And of course, the Spiders have no idea that Hisoka has a history with Gon and Killua – and they just found out that he was posing as a member of the Troupe. What delicious intrigue and suspense – bring it on, I say. If this is a studio in trouble, I hope it never gets fixed.
Gon & Killua’s Hunterpedia: “Machi”