I don’t want to say that episode was tense, but if the phone had rang while I was watching it I suspect I’d have bitten my hand off.
Hunter X Hunter continues it’s longest stretch without Gon and Killua since the “York Shin” arc, but at least we had that gripping battle between Meruem and Komugi to – oh, wait…
That’s right – we didn’t have that either. No, Togashi reaches deep into the well and devotes an entire episode to Knov, Morel, Palm and… Bizeff. It almost doesn’t seem to matter who the characters are because good guys or bad, main characters or supporting players, everyone in this cast commands attention whenever they’re on-screen. This anime is a great marriage between Togashi’s creative genius and Madhouse’s almost preposterously consistent brilliance in execution, and the result is episodes like this one – where you don’t have time to think about who’s missing because what’s happening on-screen is utterly gripping.
I confess I was a little worried to see a recap at the start of the episode, because I’ve been on alert for indications that cost-cutting has begun. But it was a short one, and so far at least there really hasn’t been much of a drop in production values (and this is about the time we would have expected to start seeing one). I was also a little worried that Gon and Killua being absent for so long would take a toll, especially given that the last and only time it happened the series still had someone who was then a main character to focus on – but incredibly, I actually miss the boys less now than when Kurapika carried the show in their absence for a long stretch, despite how deep into the cast we’ve gone. Kurapika’s solo eps felt tonally off to me, just a bit, but these last three have been spot-on – perhaps because this arc has been so dark and creepy right from the beginning. But few eps have been on a par with this one for sheer tension.
I’m eternally grateful to whoever set up the conference call where the anime industry production committees figured out that Miki Shinichirou was one of the best seiyuu ever, and that they should actually use him. Oddly Miki-san was nearly absent for a ridiculously long time, with only the odd supporting role here and there, but lately his career has seen a huge resurgence – and thank goodness, because he’s just a beast of an actor, with an almost Kazuhiko Inoue-caliber range. He was asked to do a lot with Knov this episode – to give us the complete and utter mental breakdown of a powerful and icy-cool badass – and he hit it out of the park. Miki (and the staff and Togashi of course) set the stage last week – I noted how I’d never seen a Hunter as strong as Knov so obviously wigged out before. But this episode took things to a completely new level.
The entire sequence featuring Knov’s infiltration of the palace was a triumph of writing and direction – just unbelievably tense, leaving every nerve a live-wire. There were so many great little details like the wisp of Knov’s hair falling over his eyes in an especially raw moment, and the way you could read every new stage of panic on his face as if it were a book. Knov was completely off his game, even before Shaiapouf’s aura (and we already know Pitou’s is even worse) reached him, as if his keen senses were rebelling against every step that brought him closer to it. The realization of what the trees were for, the encounter with the lone guard, the constant battle going on inside him – it was amazing stuff. It’s clear just how freaked out Knov was because he didn’t even bother to disappear his shoes after he stepped in the Chimera’s blood – he just wanted to lay his last exit and bug out as quickly as possible.
There are several ways you can take Knov’s breakdown, starting with the fact that he does deserve some credit for actually managing to fulfill his mission in spite of his crippling terror. It wasn’t pretty, no question about it, and I wonder what state it leaves him in for the rest of the fight. My takeaway is this: even great Hunters are human beings too, not machines, and all humans are susceptible to fear. And what does it say about Gon and Killua that they were able to get even closer to Neferpitou’s aura and stand their ground – well, Gon anyway, as Killua had the good sense to run even if he didn’t break down like Knov did. Kaitou stood his ground too, of course, and paid a terrible price for it. It brings Morel’s lecture to Killua to mind, and it’s impossible not to wonder (though we may not have to for long) how he’d react facing this aura. Did this reveal a fault-line in Knov’s makeup, something that made him especially vulnerable to fear in this situation? Or would almost any Hunter react the same way, and Gon really is that much of a beast?
Meanwhile, there’s Palm. If the eyes truly are the window to the soul, there’s no better case-in-point than our favorite psychotic Huntress. No matter what disguises she wears – and Palm is brilliant at changing the face she presents to the world – her eyes always reveal the barely-contained chaos roiling inside her. Her plan was indeed coordinated with the others, but Knov is obviously now having second thoughts, knowing what she’s facing – and knowing the cost if she’s captured. Yes, there’s a practical component in his worry – but I think a very human one too, and Knov can’t bear the thought of having sent his disciple to face the same terror that broke him.
Palm really has inherited a terrible job here. The King and the Royal Guard aren’t the only horrors inside the palace – Bizeff is rapidly establishing himself as a dirtbag of the highest order. Yes, this is a government minister in a parody of North Korea using women as sex slaves in your Weekly Shounen Jump series. Palm’s mission is clear – she needs to get a look at Mereum and the Royal Guard so she can use her Nen ability to keep tabs on them. But along with the rest of Bizeff’s “meat” she’s locked in “Area D”, Bizeff’s sick and twisted underground recreation of some kind of suburban “It puts the lotion in the basket” paradise, and seemingly the only way she’ll ever get a look at the King is by becoming Bizeff’s favorite. I don’t really see any way she can do that without submitting to whatever disgusting commands he gives her, given that there are four other women in the same Hell Palm is who don’t seem likely to resist. Palm may be a nutjob but saving the world or no, no one should be asked to make that kind of sacrifice. Yet knowing Palm, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t do it, and do it with the though that she’s doing it for Knov. Togashi pushes the envelope like few others, but this is one of the most creepy and disturbing scenarios he’s ever created – and there’s no Nen or monsters involved, just one disgusting and despicable human.
After all that, Morel’s much-teased duel with Leol feels like a light-hearted romp on the beach. These two are well-matched – a couple of tough dudes who relish the manly art of combat and share a taste for (I assume) Death Metal. Buying time for Knov, Morel lures Leol to an underground church for the showdown – “You’ll have to pray for both of us, I’m an atheist.” Leol quips. Leol seems to have the advantage at the moment, as Morel doesn’t know the nature of his ability but Morel has increasingly struck me as not just extremely powerful but unbelievably clever, and one way or the other the likes of Leol aren’t going to be the ones to take him down. Meanwhile it seems as if we’re going to get back in touch with the heroes at long last next week – Killua, at least is in the preview, though Gon is present only in throwing the fujoshi a cookie by plaintively crying (“It has to be you, Killua!”) for the return of his best pal to the recording studio.