Welcome to the dark side of Togashi Yoshihiro’s mind. And since we’ve already seen some dark places in Hunter X Hunter, the fact that this arc seems such a dramatic tonal shift should give a clue as to just how creepy and unsettling it is. Veterans of the manga and Nippon series have certainly indicated that the series was going to go much darker than it did even in “York Shin”, but it really feels as if I’m watching a different series.
The remarkable thing is, apart from perhaps the two episode interlude set on Whale Island, the first two eps of “Chimera Ant” may just be the quietest in Hunter X Hunter so far. They consist mostly of Gon and Killua getting to know Kite (and eventually his team, including Togashi-dog) and the slow build of information about the chimera ant phenomenon. Their disturbing nature comes almost completely from atmosphere – the new BGM pieces help, and the design for the Ant Queen has a distinctly Alien feel to it. But for most of their length it’s mostly just a sense – something that’s very hard for to me to put into words. Togashi and Koujina-sensei have managed to infuse the events of these episodes with creeping unease, the notion that as Gon and Kite sit quietly talking, they’re about to get swept up in something truly terrifying.
On one level, theses episodes are clearly tasked with stamping Kite’s nature on our consciousness and building his relationship with Gon, and thanks in good measure to the sterling work of Ikeda Shuuichi they succeed on that front. I noted in last week’s comments that Togashi has made a practice of always pairing Gon and Killua off with an adult to look after them, even when it was more of a de facto scenario with Leorio in the first two arcs. Wing, Bisky, Kite, even Zepile. I think one of the reasons H x H is so consistently relatable is that Togashi never lets us forget that Gon and Killua are, for all their freakish talent and power, still very much 12 year-old boys – with all that implies about their common sense (or lack of it). Kite has made a strong impression more quickly than any of the other mentors, I think – a sense of strength coupled with idealism and a core of kindness. And a keen intelligence that’s allowed he (along with Killua, probably) to grasp the true nature of the potential threat facing humanity faster than the rest of the group.
That group is an odd one – a team of amateur hunters who work with Kite on his biological survey missions, discovering rare species (tigers cooking over a fire? Sugoi…) along the way. They also offer Togashi to riff with his bizarre naming conventions. We have gum-popping Spinner Clow (Matsumoto Megumi), and bear-like Monta Yuras (Kanemitsu Nobuaki). There’s Banana Kavaro (Yasuno Kiyono) and the cheerful Stick Dinner (Yamanaka Masahiro), whose goofball sense of humor immediately sparks a strong bond with Gon. Later we meet tiny Lin Koshi (Hamazoe Shinya) and Lapoy Podungo (Uki Satake) who’ve been off researching the finding of a large leg that looks suspiciously like a chimera ant’s – except far, far larger than it should be – in a seaside town. Given that most of Team Kite is played by seiyuu multitasked from other roles in the series, I do rather worry for their long-term well-being.
And there’s plenty of reason to worry, that’s for certain. As Kite and later his team tell the boys of the chimera ants and why they’ve been granted the highest quarantine level possible, a disturbing picture emerges. They reproduce via phagogenesis (a method thankfully restricted to science-fiction and horror as far as we know), whereby the Queen devours other species and is able to pass on their genetic traits to her offspring. She lays eggs in cycles, with the first (infertile) group becoming her soldiers and workers, which eventually leads to her giving birth to the next King. The implications of this are obvious, though less so is just what caused what was seemingly a, well- ant-sized creature to grow so large, so quickly. All we have for clues are an unusually dry year and a few bits and pieces in glass specimen jars and on tables in the back rooms of museums.
The most shocking and terrible moments of the episode surround two other new cast members we’re all-too-briefly introduced to. Nine year-old Kurt (Anzai Chika) lives in a forest cabin with his mother and little sister Reina (Murakawa Rie). Kurt is a dutiful and protective big brother, vowing always to protect Reina from any harm, much to their mother’s pride. One day, after a successful fishing trip, they encounter one of the giant Ant Queen’s first wave of shock troops – sent forth to gather the large prey she desperately seeks to build her strength of genetic stockpile. It’s all over in a flash, but the implications are pretty grisly – and Togashi and Madhouse don’t spare us the aftermath of what happens in the forest. You can’t call a development like this truly surprising given the fact that Togashi has already shown he’s a pretty ruthless writer, but it’s heartbreaking (the close-ups of Jizo, the guardian Buddha revered as protector of children, don’t help) and it still makes a big impact.
The stage, then, is set. And it seems that Gon and Killua – really for the first time – are to be introduced to the harsh world that pro Hunters deal with. Not surprisingly Gon has asked to join Kite’s team and not surprisingly Kite has agreed – and they set off for York Shin to continue their investigations. Meanwhile the true horror of what’s happening with the Ant Queen is revealed as the first of her human-infused offspring is born – Colt (Nojima Hirofumi), his name and face a twisted mutation of what he was as a human. Given how dark things are already, it’s hardly a surprise that we have no equivalent of the “Hunterpedia” or “Greed Island Tutorial” segments yet – it might seem too irreverent – though losing out on both those and the “This Week’s Space Photo” at once is rather cruel. By way of small consolation we have Gon and Killua speaking English in the preview – and a glimpse of a face we haven’t seen since way back in the Hunter Exam…