I suppose if Togashi-sensei can turn one minute into an entire episode, I can get a few paragraphs out of it – but boy, he sure doesn’t make it easy to describe what he – and Madhouse – are accomplishing here.
Where does one even begin to try and break down what we just saw? As I said last week, Togashi is such a GPS-confounding mass of surprising twists and turns that there’s just no way to know where Hunter X Hunter is going unless you’ve read the manga. But what he’s doing in this part of “Chimera Ant” is so abjectly strange and singular that it’s not easy to try and put it into any context. It has been tried on a couple of occasions, but unless you possess God’s right hand like Togashi does (or perhaps he’s left-handed, I don’t know) it’s really way too deep in this end of the pool for most writers to swim.
And then there’s Koujina-sensei and Madhouse, who’ve been tasked with the unenviable job of trying to make what shouldn’t have worked in manga yet did work on-screen (where it’s even more unlikely to work). Togashi did the hardest part of the job in writing all this, undeniably, but the anime staff has had it tough these last few episodes. This one, if anything, depicted an even shorter timeframe than #111 did – and it was blessed with no dramatic flashback to break up the flow of narration and offer the viewer a bit of conventional narrative.
Really, when you break all this down, this episode especially – and also the last to a lesser extent – are an exercise in perception, as if Rashomon depicted a few seconds of time instead of a couple of days. As I think back on this episode, I don’t think an on-screen character spoke until Shaiapouf shouted out the King’s name (well, his title) in the final several minutes. All we had were glimpses into their inner thoughts, the unfolding of events as seen through their eyes, and the words of the narrator – a narrator who was our constant companion throughout the episode. I knew this was coming – it’s a legendary part of this arc – but it seems as if Madhouse’s call was to trust the audience and leave that part of the story intact. I’m not sure how they could have avoided it, to be honest.
Rather even than a minute or so, the vast majority of the ep is concerned with what I would guess is no more than 10-15 seconds. And of course in a situation like this, a second is crucial – the difference between life and death. There are bookends on either side of this episode that connect it emotionally to the audience, and both come from unlikely sources – the first being Shoot. As I’ve said before, I think Shoot understands Killua so well because he and Killua are more alike than any two people in the attack force. They’re both massively powerful fighters who’ve tended to shy away from life-threatening situations, and carry a great burden of guilt because of it. They’re both plagued by uncertainty at crucial moments. And they’re both possessed of great reserves of character that everyone around them sees, but which they cannot see in themselves.
It’s Gon who provides the inspiration to Shoot here in those crucial one or two seconds (and really, that’s all we’re talking about). Again, at the risk of repeating myself, we see that Gon is the most reliable of anyone in the main cast at the moment of crisis, because he reacts without fear of being wrong and trusts his instincts (which he damn well should – they’re usually spot-on). When Dragon Dive hits, Kil and Shoot both freeze for a moment – Killua because he recognizes that it’s the work of his grandfather (though how exactly is an interesting matter to consider). But while Kil is frozen in the act of analysis, even just for a crucial moment, Gon is already acting. Before anyone else – Killua, Shoot, even Morel – Gon has realized that if the invisible Knuckle and Meleoron are taken out by one of the lightning bolts, the others would never know. And as it was their job to take out Youpi, Gon realizes that his personal grudge with Pitou doesn’t matter – it’s Youpi that’s the priority, and he has to attack. It’s only in seeing Gon’s actions that the others come to the same realization, and Shoot to a second one – that it’s the inspiration Gon has provided him that’s broken the cage he’s built around himself, and given him both the courage to face death and the urge to escape it, so that he can express his gratitude.
This is the moment we see play out through many sets of eyes – Killua’s Shoot’s, Knuckle’s, and perhaps most extensively Youpi’s. The narrator informs us that Youpi is unlike the other Royal Guards in that he’s created from “magical beasts”, and not humans, and that this gives him a single-mindedness and lack of self-preservation instinct that makes him stronger in some sense than the others. Knuckle and Meleoron have in fact survived, and Knuckle has managed to strike Youpi and use his Hakoware attack. But when he sees the full measure of Youpi’s power, Knuckle feels something of what Knov felt – and wonders if Youpi has so much aura that Potclean is effectively useless, because it would take so long to bankrupt the enemy that the fight would already be over. And we see the true measure of just what a hideous beast Youpi is as he undergoes a transformation that’s the stuff of nightmares.
Simultaneously, another drama is playing out, and it will lead us to the other emotional bookend of the episode, from an even more unlikely source. Pitou is still in free fall but has assessed the situation, and momentarily frozen the enemy with a blast of En. As we know, cats always land on their feet – and Pitou coils those feline legs to launch a desperate jump towards the second story of the palace, where the King and his attackers have been spotted. But a blast of pure negative aura from the King paralyzes Pitou just for a moment (naked, but androgynously so – disappointing anyone who hoped Madhouse would vindicate their opinions about his gender). No one could be prepared for the strange scene that’s playing out inside the palace – not Pitou, not Netero and Zeno, and certainly not the audience.
What has happened to Komugi, I’m not certain – damage from the falling masonry, one of Zeno’s dragons – but she’s either dead of very gravely wounded. What’s unmistakable is that the King is consumed by grief much more than anger – even Pitou is brought to tears by the sheer power of that grief – and much of this scene is brilliantly depicted in complete silence, with Komugi’s blood the only dash of color. What’s also clear is that Zeno is taken aback by how different this is than what he expected to find, and that Netero has chosen to allow the scene to play out rather than strike while the King is grieving over a fallen human girl and ordering (though it comes off as pleading) with Pitou to heal her. I can only imagine this is a matter of much controversy – it appears Netero has chosen to act on a principle rather than seize the moment to try and complete his mission. With so much on the line, was this a defensible decision, an act of mercy – or a terrible mistake?
In the moment, it feels very much like the latter – indeed, the Narrator tells us that both Zeno and Netero feel they’ve committed a fatal error by surrendering the initiative. The King is eerily calm, showing no signs of rage – he merely suggests that the fight be taken somewhere else, away from Komugi and Pitou, with the quite reasonable supposition that this is certainly to Netero’s advantage. The King has certainly learned to love – I don’t think anyone can deny that now – yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s responsible for countless atrocities already, and is about to initiate the murder of five million people as part of a plan for global conquest. Even if Pitou is momentarily sidelined we’ve seen the extent of Youpi’s power, and Shaiapouf is about to enter the fray – the notion that Netero and Zeno should have acted without hesitation and seized the advantage is a hard one to argue against, based on the facts at hand.
This episode and the last are, again, all about perception. And we see over and over again that Killua was right about one very important point – one should never be too confident that things are going to go according to plan. Over and over again we see the cast being surprised by what they’ve seen (indeed, it seems as if no one in Morel’s party knew what Netero’s attack was going to be, which was surely an intentional act on the old man’s part) – and the acid test is, how do they react in that moment of surprise? Do they hesitate or do they act? With so much at stake the situation still so desperate, it’s Netero’s decisions this week that seem destined to prove the crucial ones – will he be vindicated, or will his allies – and indeed the world at-large – pay a great price for them?