It really is magic that Togashi can make a board game ep as tense as any anime episode in a very long time. There’s really no fancy explanations for it – it’s just talent and inspiration, plain and simple. Some professional story writers can do this sort of thing, and most can’t. The guy is clearly obsessed with the human psyche, and seems to have an infinite capacity (though the many manga hiatuses are a counterpoint) for finding new ways to seriously mess with his characters’ heads. And thank goodness for that.
I found many pieces of dialogue especially fascinating in this episode, many of them coming from the King – who certainly isn’t making me like him, but is growing increasingly compelling as a character. Perhaps most fascinating of all was when he said “That I do not understand my own mind upsets me more than words can describe.” I don’t want to overstate the case, but that’s pretty fucking deep – Togashi has pretty much crystalized the dilemma of the Chimera Ants’ existence and one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity in one damn sentence. Self-awareness is a blessing and a curse – it is for humans, and it for Chimera Ants. It gives is the desire to understand what makes us happy and unhappy, rather than simply accepting those states of being as they are.
Look at it this way – given their (un)natural advantages, if the Chimera were simply driven by the fundamental need to feed, reproduce and colonize (like ants) I think they would have been unstoppable. The rise of individualism in their ranks sowed the seeds of their downfall – I’ve been saying it since dear old Peggy (I think – or was it Colt?) asked the Queen if they might give themselves names. Add to this the fact that the King is basically a brilliant child – only recently brought into the world, born with more power than any other creature in creation and immediately anointed as the supreme ruler of his species. It’s only now, during the Gungi matches with Komugi, that we’re seeing just to what extent that’s true.
What an amazing, surprising and gripping turn of events this latest chapter in their strange relationship was. Mereum is so frustrated by his failures that he resorts to a cheap tactic to try and throw Komugi off her game – a wager where if she wins, he’ll grant any wish and if she loses, he’ll take her left arm. “Fear and desire hold the power to disrupt one’s rhythm. Desire clouds one’s vision, while fear stills one’s step.” Again, so damn good, Togashi-sensei – and as for Meruem, he understands so much and yet so little about humans (and himself). What’s next is utterly remarkable. Komugi recounts her heartbreaking life story – a tale about the harshness of her life and the contempt her parents hold for her (and she holds for herself), and of the pressures she plays under every time she sits at the board, all spun to a gorgeous piece of BGM that seems well-suited to Shaipouf’s eerie presence. She finishes by telling Meruem simply that while she has no idea what she’d want if she wins, she’ll offer her life if she loses – because she’s promised herself as an utterly worthless person apart from Gungi, she’ll take her own life if she ever loses a match.
The King’s reaction is equally remarkable. All at once he realizes many things: that Komugi has neither desire nor fear. That his gambit was a cheap stunt, and would have rendered any victory a hollow one. And that Komugi is a braver person that he is. In a show of self-contempt, he tears off his own left arm as a token of apology – to the utter horror of Shaiapouf. It’s an amazing display of what I can only call integrity by Merum, albeit a twisted and bizarre kind of integrity. All at once the fault lines are revealed – there have been growing signs that Shaiapouf has been uncomfortable with the King’s strange new obsession, and he offers his own life when Meruem refuses to have the arm treated until he finishes the match. It’s only Komugi’s reaction which – at least in theory – saves Shaia’s life. She refuses to play until the King has his arm treated, and a frustrated Mereum allows Shaia to call Neferpitou back to the palace to reattach the arm.
This is an important development above and beyond the events in the throne room, as it’s what pulls Pitou off the front lines and forces him to use all his Nen to re-attach the arm using his “Doctor Blythe” ability (strange-looking even by Togashi standards). This gives Morel and Knov the opening they’ve been waiting for – which means Knov is finally forced to try and infiltrate the palace to place portals for the future attack on the King. It’s rare to see a Hunter of Knov’s stature portrayed as being openly fearful, but he’s clearly on-edge to say the least as he creeps towards the palace – wary of Pitou’s En returning at any moment (it will actually be Shaiapouf’s, it seems, as he’s appointed himself to fill in as sentry in Pitou’s absence). He even talks to himself to stay calm – though he might feel better if he knew there were only three humans (non-food humans, anyway) and eleven ants inside. Though considering who four of those ants are, he shouldn’t be feeling much better.
One of those humans is yet another surprise turn from Togashi – a bureaucrat named Bizeff (Gotou Tetsuo, last heard in an excellent turn as Ivica in Eureka Seven AO). Bizeff’s mere existence is out of left field – he’s been kept alive as he was the true center of power under the old supreme ruler and thus deemed indispensable – but he’s a wild character. In his current circumstances he manages to find time to worry about the secretaries he’s begging from his new masters being sexy girls – choosing them from a list of “available bodies” as if it were a depraved kind of dating service.
The last choice Bizeff makes is an especially interesting one – it’s none other than an old f(r)iend in disguise, as Palm finally makes her return to the scene. She’s working with the defector we met several episodes back, planning her own infiltration – though to what extent this is in coordination with Knov it’s too early to say. As for Gon and Killua still not a peep, and no sign of them in the preview apart from Gon’s conversation with Knov. This is also the first episode of the arc where the role of the Narrator becomes a major factor in the exposition – I knew it was coming thanks to comments from manga readers, but so far I don’t find it to be a distraction.