There was really no way the “Chimera Ant” arc could remain as relentlessly dark and morose as it was for it’s first ten episodes or so. Those episodes took Hunter X Hunter to places it’s never been before, not even during the very seinen-like and existentially depressing “York Shin” arc. Those ten eps were creepy, scary, tragic, suspenseful – you name it – and I have no doubt that H x H is going to top itself in those areas many times before this long storyline is said and done.
What I always figured was that “Chimera Ant” – like “York Shin” – couldn’t be an unbroken chain of horror and sadness. There’s simply too much positive energy stored up in Gon, and positive emotion in his relationship with Killua, for some of it not to come out. They didn’t 180 the atmosphere here just by appearing as they did in YS – for one thing, they’ve been a part of this arc since the beginning, and for another their roles in this arc have been much more subdued as they’ve displayed a sense of maturity that was absent in York Shin. But you knew, sooner or later, there had to be something more than death and tragedy in “Chimera Ant” and Hunter X Hunter’s credentials as a forward-thinking adventure story would assert themselves at least for brief stretches.
The irony isn’t lost on me that this change has come about on the heels and as a direct result of the most personally-felt tragedy of this arc, the death of Kaitou – nor that even as the tone with Gon and Kil has brightened events with Pitou are taking the story into potentially its darkest territory yet. But change the tone undeniably has. Part of that is the arrival of Bisky, who immediately instills the story with a jolt of comedy and whose stern maternal concern frees up the boys to act like kids again. But Knuckle Bine is a big part of it too. He’s a classic Togashi character in that his appearance belies his nature, and he too is someone whose presence is a catalyst for Killua and especially Gon to show off the more noble and idealistic sides of their nature.
It’s been clear since the first meeting with the dog in the park that Knuckle was a brash talker with a heart of gold. One of the fundamental tenets of the H x H universe is that animals and their instincts are to be trusted more than people, and like Gon Knuckle is beloved by beasts. But he’s also sentimental to the point of public displays of tears which clearly embarrass him, and takes his role as a Beast Hunter seriously enough that he dislikes the idea of a mission to eliminate the Chimera Ants until more is known about them. It’s clear Knuckle’s reputation as a “softy” both precedes him (it’s likely the reason he was left behind) and is obvious to keen observers – Killua has already pegged him as one.
It’s easy to mock Knuckle’s view about the ants as naive and it’s likely to be proved wrong, but as with Morel’s lecture to Killua I don’t believe this is something Togashi intends to be viewed as a black and white, right or wrong issue. As I’ve said before the Chimera Ants are fundamentally different from the likes of the Phantom Troupe or Genthru in that their basic motivation is simply to survive and expand their species. Their goals put them fundamentally at odds with humans, we find their actions horrifying (from our perspective they certainly are), and there are those among them who behave cruelly for the pleasure of it – a trait they mostly inherited, it must be said, from their human genes. But for the most part they’re more than anything else a rival – a rival for humanity’s place at the top of the evolutionary totem pole, and one who uses humanity’s best and worst traits as part of their arsenal. Togashi has created an utterly fascinating conflict here, even by his lofty standards.
In purely practical terms, Knuckle represents an obstacle for Gon and Killua, plain and simple – each has something the other needs to proceed – and sentiment (Gon clearly comes to like him quickly and vice-versa) can’t change that fact. Knuckle makes the same mistake most make – he takes a look at the boys and radically underestimates their strength, to the point where he offers to let Gon punch him as many times as he wants to try and make him move a single step, after which he’ll surrender his token. In this case it isn’t simply a matter of size but the fact that the kids are clearly exhausted – Biscuit has sent them to him immediately after they’ve utterly drained themselves finally mastering their three-hour Ren exercise, with instructions on how to effectively cheat and rig the contest in their favor. But will power is Gon’s strength even more than Nen, which Knuckle finds out to his great discomfort. Fortunately Gon is as sporting as he is strong and not only declines to take a token he hasn’t won in a fair fight, but drags Knuckle back to the hotel to sleep it off and eat a hearty breakfast (I suspect Kil would have gladly taken the token if it’d been up to him, but Gon and Knuckle appear to be soul-mates).
Gon’s decision proves to be as fortuitous for us as it does for Knuckle, because it gives Madhouse a chance to show off still more of the astonishing “Sakuga” animation that’s marked every fight in this series. If this one isn’t as tense as some of the others because we know neither Gon nor Knuckle would go so far as to kill the other, the action itself is still spectacular – and it proves that even two-on-one, Knuckle is more than a match for the boy prodigies. What we know of course is that the both of them are relentless and learn with astonishing speed (and as Knuckle observes, they take huge leaps of confidence with every threshold achieved) but the wild card is (presumably) Shoot McMahon, the other assassin Netero referenced. He seems to be cut from quite a different cloth from Knuckle, and has correctly guessed that Knuckle has taken a shine to the kids – and it’s clear he intends to act on his own as soon as Knuckle sends them on their way, beaten, to keep training for another day. We know almost nothing about Shoot but given that both he and Knuckle are disciples of Morel it would hardly be surprising to learn an intense rivalry existed between them – at the very least he seems unburdened by any sentiment that would give him pause in doing whatever was necessary to take the boys’ tokens and get into the game as quickly as possible.