I don’t want to say that episode was tense, but if my phone had rang my upstairs neighbor would have seen something like this…
As arcs go, “Chimera Ant” pretty much redefines epic. It’s epic in terms of length, it’s epic in terms of scale, and it’s epic in terms of quality. In many cases the danger with a storyline that powerful is that the event itself doesn’t live up to the buildup, but this is Togashi and Koujina we’re talking about so I’m not really concerned about that. In fact, this arc is so epic that it really needed a buildup to the buildup, and that’s what we’ve seen – we’re truly in the on-deck circle now, and getting what amounts to a dramatic payoff before the real battle even starts. Leave it to Hunter X Hunter to deliver a “night before” episode that’s a more gripping payoff than most series could dream of pulling off with the big game itself.
I think it would be fair to say that the situation on both sides of this conflict is equally riveting. The psychology of The King himself is obviously center-stage, but not to be ignored is the dynamics of the Royal Guard. Of Menthuthuyoupi we’ve seen nothing to indicate that he’s more than what he seems – a straight-up muscle guy who doesn’t overthink what he’s ordered to do. Shaiapouf is the strategist of the bunch, though so emotionally volatile that it makes him unpredictable. It’s obviously Neferpitou that’s the most dangerous, we can all see that – but it strikes me that what makes him dangerous to the Hunters can also make him dangerous to The King.
I think it’s very interesting to watch Pouf and Pitou in their responses to the King’s very odd (so it certainly must seem to them) obsession with Komugi. Pouf is overdramatic by nature, so he isn’t hard to read – and however much he disapproves, his ultimate loyalty to The King (I would unhesitatingly call it love) is so strong that he would never intentionally be a threat to him. Pitou, by contrast, is the most willful of the trio. He bends a knee to The King, but he never submits – you can see it in his eyes. Watch his face after The King commands him to use his En to protect Komugi. Both Pouf and Pitou have second thoughts, but only Pitou represents a danger to The King, I think. Youpi just needs orders to follow; Pouf just wants to adore his master. But Pitou is the one who’s shown motivations unrelated to The King – the thrill of the fight, the desire to test his strength, abject sadism. Pitou is a wildcard in every sense of the word.
Meanwhile, the good guys are coming to terms with the reality they now face. I don’t think I need to do a sales job for why this setup was as great as it was – it speaks for itself. But what really makes it work is the fact that these characters – even the ones who’ve only been on-screen for a short time like Meleoron and Ikalgo – are so richly developed and so different from each other. They all come from different backgrounds and bring different perspectives to the moment, with only one thing in common – the task at hand. And seeing the way each of them deals with the stress of the moment is highly illuminating about their natures.
I love the way Koujina chose to frame the scene where we were given insight into each character’s inner thoughts, panning from one to the next. Knuckle reveals his undying belief in the goodness of everyone, and hopes it can survive even what he knows will be a horrifying test. Shoot reveals himself – not for the first time – to be a deceptively interesting character, one of the more thoughtful and introspective (too much so for his own good) in the cast. He notes that the boys seem composed, though he senses something about Killua – that he could “fade away” at any moment, despite the fact that he seems free of the hesitation he showed during their fight (though Shoot doesn’t know the reason). Ikalgo sees this as his opportunity to be born anew and redeem Killua’s trust in him; Meleoron focuses on the practicalities of the task at hand and his role in it. Morel – now the undisputed leader of this group – reveals a little vulnerability (he assesses his strength at “35%”) beneath his rock-hard exterior, and an expectation this his role as the strongest and most visible is going to be to sacrifice himself. And Knov – his hair turned white by the ordeal he’s endured – is tortured by self-loathing over being unable to do more to help the others because his fear is even stronger than his disgust with himself.
And then we have the boys, superficially the calmest of the bunch. They, too, reveal their essential character in their inner thoughts at this moment. Gon, as always pure and utterly at peace with who he is, isn’t thinking of himself or of how terrifying this foe is – his focus is on his fear for Palm’s safety, and his desire to avenge Kaitou and bring him back to himself. And Killua thinks first of Gon – defining his role as providing his friend the support he needs to do what he has to do. But what is it that the razor-sharp Shoot (who’s most like Killua among any of the Hunter team, I suspect, and thus most attuned to what he’s truly feeling) saw in Killua that made him think the boy might “fade away”? It’s Killua who’s taken on the role of strategist, using his experience as an assassin and the insider info from Ikalgo and Colt (who appears to be watching over The King’s diminutive twin) to try and plan for the unexpected scenarios he knows are coming.
Here’s how I see what Shoot sees – Killua is someone who always wants to feel in control. He wants to plan, to be prepared for anything – but by his nature, that makes him less adept at reacting than the instinctual Gon. And no matter how much he desires it, he can’t plan for every scenario and ultimately, can’t be prepared for the caliber of the opponent he’s about to face. And even with Illumi’s needle removed from his head, Killua isn’t fully confident in his ability to come through this ordeal intact. He doesn’t know how he’ll react when the shit hits the fan, and this unnerves him deep inside. This is a great difference between the boys: Gon, even after his defeat to Knuckle and subsequent breakdown, is always sure of himself. He expressed his agony in spectacular fashion, got over it and moved on. Killua internalizes everything – he seems incapable of “getting it out of his system”. He carries all his fears and worries with him all the time, and his greatest fear is – “What will I do when things really go wrong? Am I strong enough to be the partner Gon needs at that moment? When Gon most needs me to have his back – will I have his back?”
Finally there’s The King, who’s never seemed more isolated even from his Royal Guard than he does right now. Even as they scheme to protect him they must do so in deceptive fashion, so as not to anger him. Knuckle’s idealism is such that he knows even The King has a heart, and hopes it has good in it – and indeed, we’re seeing The King as a much more complex and conflicted figure than he appeared at first. Identity, as always, is the crucial philosophical question the Chimera Ants pose with their existence. The King is no longer satisfied knowing what he is – he longs to know who he is, and why he’s been brought into the world. We’re seeing The King going through a classic adolescent search for identity – it just so happens that he’s the most powerful creature on the planet. Even as 5 million hapless East Gorteau march (“like lemmings” in Knov’s words) towards doom and the greatest clash of titanic power in a series full of such clashes approaches, the fate of the story may in fact hinge on how The King answers those questions.