So – there goes another 10 seconds. 10 seconds that seemed to encompass a lifetime and 22 minutes that seemed to last 10 seconds. I like this ED theme a lot, but the first strains of it are one of the cruelest sounds in the world, because it means the wait begins again. As writer it’s hard to build up anticipation, but exponentially harder to deliver on it. That Togashi continues to do so time after time while simultaneously moving the goalposts back and extending the torture is truly remarkable. How can he – and Koujina-sensei – keep delivering such incredible payoffs when they’re not even giving us the actual payoffs?
It’s not a shock that this run of episodes has split the Hunter X Hunter fanbase to some extent, because it’s hard to come up with a literary rule that isn’t being broken by it. But the more I watch it unfold the less I can envision it playing out any other way. I’m sold – this is sheer brilliance, unorthodox as it is, and I wouldn’t lose a second of the Narrator’s role if you gave me the chance. What Togashi-sensei is doing shouldn’t work, for so many reasons – and Madhouse should certainly have never adapted it as it was written. But for me it comes down to the fact that you just can’t look at work on this level and apply conventional standards to it. What would be disastrous in lesser hands is transcendent drama here – and Togashi and the anime team have both proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they know exactly what they’re doing.
More than anything else, I found this episode to be indescribably tense. In many ways Knuckle truly was the audience insert character this week, in a more profound and personal way than any anime character I can recall. He was in the same shoes we were – forced to watch helplessly as Shoot was committing a kind of slow-motion (except that in reality it was all happening in a blink) suicide. Because Knuckle is such a relatable character to begin with – such a good guy that it’s acknowledged in the series itself that being too nice is his greatest flaw – one can effortlessly relate to his agony. And of course, share in it.
Once again, the young stars of the series have a very small role to play in the episode, but it’s a memorable one. After Killua has caught up to Gon (in-time after all) and verified his Grandfather’s presence with his own eyes, Zeno summons “Dragon’s Head“. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to take Netero and the King (though not Zeno himself, interestingly) away from the palace so they can fight without collateral damage. In effect there still seems to be a truce between these titans. The King offers no resistance to the change-of-venue – perhaps as an acknowledgement of Netero’s allowing Komugi to be cared for – and Zeno makes it clear his Nen is not being used to attack. Once they’re gone, the boys are left on the rooftop and Gon turns his attention to his own task.
The crucial line of the entire episode, surely, is Gon’s “Iko! (Let’s go!”) to Killua, and Killua’s response (a silent “In what sense did you mean that? If I ask that question, I won’t be able to stop anymore… I won’t be able to go back.”) is fascinating. It’s amazing that in the heart of all this chaos Togashi can deliver such an emotionally devastating moment, but so he does. The depth of Killua’s love for Gon is heartbreakingly apparent here – it’s not so limited as to be defined by doujin-bait innuendo or GAR bromance. This is simple, filial love in the Platonic sense – affection, dedication, friendship, and willingness to sacrifice. It’s what changed Killua’s life, and it’s the backbone of the entire series.
So why is Killua so crestfallen at this moment, when Gon utters those words? Is he aching because Gon seems to have transcended himself in the moments since this final battle began, leaving Killua behind in his world of self-doubt and hesitation? Is it because Killua fears that Gon has accepted the notion that he might die in support of this cause, and while Killua could accept his own death – if his life was given to help his friend – the one thing he could never live with is Gon’s? I suspect it’s some of both, and more – and it’s truly astounding that just as Togashi can pack endless drama into a few seconds of elapsed time, he can instill so much depth of emotion and so much hidden meaning in a short, simple phrase. I’ve spent three paragraphs on two words (one in the original Japanese) and barely scratched the surface.
If you can look at Killua’s face as he watches Gon’s back in the distance (Killua is always fated to follow Gon and never catch him, it seems – in his own mind at least) and feel no pain, you’ve a stern heart, indeed. Killua and Gon each have moments where they reveal themselves to be not monsters but the emotionally fragile children they are, and this is one such moment. And it must be said, if this one small passage illustrates Togashi’s genius as well as any can, it also shows us just how superlative this adaptation has been. The way Gon and then Killua are framed, Killua’s face, the pitch-perfect music (“To Give a Marionette Life”) and the Narrator’s voice with the emotion of the moment just creeping in at the edges – I’m astonished that anyone would want the tiniest element of it changed. It’s perfect – profound and powerful and simple and elegant. This is what anime should strive to be.
And it’s just a sliver of everything that’s happening in this episode, all over the palace. I felt every blow Shoot was taking from Youpi, and agonized with Knuckle as he watched his friend slowly dying. When Knuckle reacted with shock at the realization that only ten seconds had passed, I did too. Knuckle is someone who would agonize if he had to watch his worst enemy suffer and could do nothing to help – imagine how it feels to watch his closest friend. Meanwhile Meleoron is quite fittingly holding his breath, because it feels as if we are too. The sheer monstrosity of Youpi is so tangible here, even if he isn’s “evil” in the conventional sense. He absorbs the attacks of Shoot and Knuckle and relentlessly attacks, displaying still more deadly abilities. His only weakness, it seems, is that uncertainty unsettles him – and he doesn’t understand the nature of his enemy here. In the end, it’s a relief when Knuckle finally reveals himself, even if it seems to be an unwise decision – how could this good man possibly stand by and do nothing while Shoot died right in front of him (and he still might, after all that)?
As all this is happening – literally, as these 10 seconds are repeated from different perspectives – Cheethu and Brovada catch up with Ikalgo-Flutter. Cheethu is easily distracted like the attention-deficit child he is, and chases off after Zeno’s Dragon’s Head like a cat chasing a ball of yarn. But Brovada catches a slip-up by Ikalgo – he refers to “Hagya-sama”, when in fact that Ant now calls himself Leol. And so does Welfin, who as I predicted is watching secretly rather than interfering, no doubt trying to ascertain how to play this for his own advantage.
Meanwhile Morel and Shaiapouf continue their staredown, Morel carefully not breathing in any of Pouf’s scales and refusing to utter a word, and Pouf using his “Spiritual Message” ability to measure his enemy’s state of mind. We have a fascinating scenario where both Shoot/Knuckle and Youpi have the same goal – keeping each other away from the King – but Pouf simply wants to rid himself of this enemy and return to his beloved master’s side ASAP. To do so he reveals his own previously unknown ability, some sort of pupa or chrysalis that will no doubt open to reveal an even more powerful and dangerous foe – but Morel has ice in his veins if anyone does, and is happy enough to be stalemated for the moment if it means keeping Shaiapouf out of the game.
So many fronts, so much tension. I would equate Togashi’s style in these big moments (and this, surely, is the biggest) with earthquakes. Each of these fronts is like a seismic hot spot, the tension building as the plates creep past each other, destructive energy building up that will surely be released in a spectacular and harrowing display of geothermal power. Things don’t move quickly at these fault lines but the buildup of energy is huge, and it has to be released sooner or later. Yes, Togashi is taking entire chapters to lay out a few seconds of time – but he’s in no hurry because he knows the moment all stored tension is released will be truly awe-inspiring.
I must close this week with some very sad news. Nagai Ichirou, the 82 year-old actor who plays Netero in this version of H x H, passed away on Monday. He died in his hotel room in Hiroshima, where he was recording narration for a local TV production. In purely practical terms it seems likely that most of Netero’s dialogue for the rest of this arc has already been recorded – what Madhouse will do if that’s not the case remains to be seen. But the main point is that this is a great loss for anime – Nagai-san was one of the greats, with memorable turns in Ranma 1/2 and the eponymous TV hit Sazae-san among his hundreds of roles. His Netero, of course, has been utterly brilliant and will stay with us forever – but I’ll also remember Nagai for one of his final roles, as the alien ramen oji-san in Space Dandy. It seems a fitting sort of epilogue for the great man’s career. Nagai-san will be missed, but his amazing body of work will provide a legacy that will last as long as anime.