This is a landmark episode of Hunter X Hunter, though only for personal reasons. It’s the first time in at least a year (to be honest I can’t remember the last time) that I delayed viewing an episode by a day. I’ve been traveling all week and by the time I got home last night I was simply too exhausted to give the show its due. The worst part of being an anime blogger for me is that when I go on trips or have friends in town, I always feel guilty about ignoring the blog or falling behind and either shortchange whatever I’m doing or feel bad about not doing so, and end up hugely backlogged (which I am now).
I’m still exhausted and the backlog doesn’t even enter the conversation until after H x H, but I can only hold off for so long. It’s a measure of my great regard for this series that it’s always leapfrogged to the top of my list no matter what else is released at the moment, and what else is happening in my life. It’s just that good. But not everybody feels that way, and they aren’t shy about saying so. For the first half of this show’s run, it was the constant drumbeat of abuse from fans of the 1999 series by Nippon Animation. Once the Madhouse version lapped that one that chorus of caterwauling died off, and things were pretty quiet during “Greed Island” and the first part of the “Chimera Ant” arc. But we have a new symphony of complaint (how much of it from the same viewers, I wonder?) in recent months, and it regards the unorthodox pacing and narrative style of the recent stages of “Chimera Ant”. I guess it just wouldn’t be Hunter X Hunter if no one bitched for too long.
What to make of the drumbeat of criticism for an arc I consider to be among the finest in anime history? The temptation here is to simply say “pearls before swine” and dismiss it – the disconnect between my view of an anime and the contrary position has probably never been more complete. But that’s too easy, and while there are limits to how much I can empathize with a view I so strongly disagree with (there are times when the criticism genuinely, utterly baffles me) I can at least say that Togashi-sensei seems to be almost gleefully challenging his fans. Make no mistake, this is a Togashi issue and not an adaptation one – usually we hear carping about anime which take liberties with source material, but now people are complaining because Madhouse is being too faithful.
Episodes like this one are certainly a case in point. While there’s relatively little from the Narrator, Togashi takes his usual approach (seriously, aren’t you used to it by now?) of turning the camera away from the glamor shot just as it’s about to peak. He once again turns to the C-List, Ikalgo, and Koujina devotes the entire episode to one scene – the faceoff between Octobro and Welfin in the guards control room. It’s an utterly gripping scene, reveals much about the deeper meanings of this conflict, human and chimera nature and the specifics of the plot – but it’s one scene, basically an Off-Off-Broadway one act play while the choruses and dancers are going crazy a few blocks away. It takes real balls to move the story here, and real balls to adapt it as is rather than choose an either path, and I fully understand why some people are disgruntled by that.
But I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t love Togashi because he skilfully does what everyone else does – I love him because he does what no one else does, because they can’t. In for a penny in for a pound, and it’s the obsessive fixation on every detail, on major and minor characters alike and the subtlest wrinkles of the brain that makes this arc so spectacular. For me it’s the fact that Togashi and Koujina not just give us so much depth with characters like Ikalgo and Welfin but make me care about those details that makes Hunter X Hunter an all-time classic. The King and The Chairman will still be there when we get back – and by the way, how much of that main character have we seen for the last two months?
At heart, “Chimera Ant” is really a study of identity and the nature of humanity. I’ve commented on that extensively, but I think this ep is really there to color in between those lines. Ikaklgo shows his weakness by being so distraught over showing mercy that he misses the crucial moment when Welfin sneaks Bizeff and Hina past him. But he then shows his strength when Welfin then surprises him, ordering him to offer no resistance and answer questions or be killed. Octobro immediately offers resistance, fully expecting to die – for as unwilling as he is to take anyone else’s life, he’s readily willing to offer his own rather than endanger his buddies by living. Ikalgo excoriates himself as a coward, but he’s not – he’s simply (like Knuckle, if perhaps even more so) too compassionate for his own good. Welfin launches his “Missile Man” attack, but by not responding to Welfin’s challenges Octobro has unwittingly neutered it to some extent. Not so much, however, as to avoid getting black centipedes under his skin – centipedes which respond to his resistance by inflicting severe pain. Definitely one of the grossest Nen abilities we’ve seen so far.
It’s not just Ikalgo about whom we learn much here, but Welfin too – and in doing so, about the nature of the conflict itself and those engaged in it. What I love about Welfin and his story is how internally consistent it is – he’s like a Shakespearean character in a way, one that’s always hoist by his own petard. Over and over again Welfin’s (it even sounds Shakespearean) tale hinges on his paranoia and self-glorification, and it’s had a major impact on the story. Here we see that his Nen ability reflects him perfectly – it reflects his anger, his inability to trust, and his Achilles heel. And when Octobro defies Welfin’s worldview by his selflessness – his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends – Welfin basically suffers a spiritual collapse and goes on TILT. As Ikalgo endures the agony of the centipedes he inflicts non-fatal wounds on Welfin, over and over, and Welfin increasingly panics. It’s a surprisingly gut-wrenching scene to watch.
Not content merely with stripping these two of all their artifices, Togashi also uses them to shine a light on the entire “Chimera” story. What’s the one question Ikalgo chooses to ask Welfin once he’s fully mastered him? “Do you remember anything from before you died?” Ultimately, humans are so different than any other creature the Chimera Ants have assimilated that the fateful moment when their shock troops encountered those villagers was the key to forever altering their very nature (and possibly their downfall, though it’s too soon to say). There’s a durability to the human condition that exceeds the Chimera ability to assimilate it – it’s not just a shrike’s instinct to impale its prey or cheetah’s need for speed that survives, but the existential essence of humanity itself. The curiosity, the empathy, the petty cruelty, the need to be loved – it’s exceeds the ability of Phagogenesis to suppress. In a sense it’s like the classic sci-fi plotline of a virus being uploaded that exceeds the ability of an evil computer to process – though the ultimate result here is still very much to be determined.
What we’re left with is that instead of a group with an unbreakable hive mind, the Chimera Ants are now even more individualistic than humans, because their human individualism is combined with the other part of them that comes from a huge range of species. For Welfin, finally being forced to reflect on his personal situation reveals a surprising amount of introspection – he sees the essential truth of the way Nen abilities reflect the nature of their wielders. His memories are revealing, and not just of himself – he remembers his hardscrabble childhood in the NGL, and the “non-biological” brother who was his only salvation. That was Gyro, one of the great unknowns of this arc, and Welfin expresses a desire to see Gyro one more time. Where does that mysterious figure – who had an entire episode dedicated to his past – fit into this fabulously elaborate puzzle?
There’s one more important result of this facedown – Welfin finally reveals to Ikalgo what’s happened to Palm. She is indeed the one in the cocoon – and Welfin says that the Royal Guard referred to her as “Number 1”. That’s ominous to say the least (one might theorize she was intended to become the King’s mate), and so is Palm’s new appearance when we finally see her. It’s yet another wrinkle in this massively complicated story, and one whose ramifications are impossible to ascertain yet – the union of human and ant produces complicated results, and Palm is complicated even by human standards. That human element seems to come increasingly over time, and time is the one thing the good guys (though that term is becoming increasingly elastic) don’t have. We know know where all the major pieces are at last, and that feels like a watershed moment in the story – and I’m glad Togashi and Madhouse had the conviction to bring us to this point with such a challenging and unconventional episode.