I’m not patient or fastidious enough to regularly track who the animation directors for specific episodes of Hunter X Hunter are, but I’m assuming they brought out one of the big guns – Mori Tomoko or Abiru Takahiro, maybe – for this one, and likely next week’s episode as well. Since it moved from Sunday mornings to late-nights roughly 28 episodes ago (my God, how time flies) there has (inevitably) been a bit of a drop-off in the overall visual presentation, but Madhouse has managed to avoid making it particularly noticeable. And without relying on bad CGI too – they’ve been a bit more judicious with the Sasuga animation and substituted creativity where they had to, and saved the ammo for when they really needed it. Like now.
14 weeks may seem like a long time for a callback, but in Hunter X Hunter terms it’s the blink of an eye. That’s how long ago we were witness to Netero’s “Path of Gratitude” (one of the final glorious showcases for Nagai Ichirou), and that path was leading directly to the final scene of this episode. In real-time only mere minutes have passed in those 14 weeks, but such is the alchemy of “Chimera Ant” that time seems a trivial concept – 14 weeks, 10 minutes, 60 years – all that matters is what’s happening on our screens, and the people it’s happening to.
There’s a strong sense of finality now, of impending events of an irrevocable certainty, that earlier episodes in the arc have lacked. In part it’s what we know from common sense and Abiru-san’s tweets that the end really is coming soon (he’s now hinting that the “Chairman Selection” arc may be animated after “Chimera Ant” finishes). For all the twists and turns this arc has taken, all the seemingly minor characters that have made indelible impressions, the circle is palpably narrowing now. Killua (and Palm), Gon (and Pitou – and Pouf), Netero and the King – their time to command the central position in the narrative is clearly upon us. My sense is that the other characters will continue to be important, but more and more in how they directly impact the two main nexus points of the drama – that wrecked hall where Gon continues his staredown with Pitou, and the underground “tomb” where Netero and the King’s destinies are finally being decided.
These two nexus points command the entire episode this week, each for roughly half its length. The first belongs to Gon – and quite measurably, too, since its his will that utterly dominates events in the A-part (in another jaw-dropping performance by Han Megumi). Neferpitou, Shaiapouf and Knuckle are all present (and Meleoron too, for that matter) but it’s Gon that dictates everything. Both Pouf and Pitou reach the same conclusion independently – that Gon is the most dangerous enemy they face. “This boy is becoming quite troublesome.” Pouf grumbles inwardly. “He has the strongest will of all of them.” Pitou (who’s in a way being revealed as a bit of a paper tiger here – a much better bully when the enemy is weak that combatant when they’re strong) is quite unsettled by Gon’s calm and unflinching focus on what he wants, despite Pouf’s taunts. “I must kill him,” Pitou frets, “Or his fangs may reach the King’s throat. I must risk my life… And kill him at any cost.”
What’s striking here is how different things look than they did back when Gon and Knuckle fought, before the return to the NGL. Then Knuckle was the hard but compassionate veteran teaching Gon a harsh but necessary lesson. The sense here, though, is that it’s Knuckle who’s the child and Gon the hardened warrior. Anyone who’s watched or read Hunter X Hunter with any serious interest knows of course that Killua’s “idiot” label never fit Gon in the first place, that in moments of crisis it was usually he who saw the farthest and most clearly. But even as titanic forces like Pouf and Pitou mentally spar with him and try to manipulate him, Gon’s strength here is striking – by his sheer will and cunning he dictates everything that happens, his influence forcing the hand of everyone including Knuckle. He’s not someone to be trifled with, and if Pitou is going to succeed in his betrayal it’s going to be because he’s the stronger fighter, not because Gon is taken by surprise.
Pouf’s efforts are directed at trying to goad Gon into acting unwisely – which fails utterly – and in trying to get Knuckle to give him a clue as to why Youpi has allowed him to live. Pouf is now clearly on the verge of abandoning Youpi as an ally altogether, depending on what he finds out from Knuckle. Gon has seen through Pouf’s subterfuge and knows which direction the King and Netero have gone, and he clues Knuckle into this, clearly suggesting that Knuckle not waste himself in a meaningless fight with a Shaiapouf he’s almost certain is telling the truth about being a clone. But Knuckle will, as always, “do things my way” – though he does deserve credit for not burdening Gon with the unnecessary information that Youpi has revealed a surprising side to himself. In any event Gon seems almost unconcerned about what Knuckle does – his focus is on the moment at-hand, and he won’t be distracted.
Meanwhile, Netero and the King pick up where we left them (actually a few lines of dialogue before we left them). This fight has been building for a long, long time – and while we see only the opening salvo on Netero’s part, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s beautifully drawn, beautifully choreographed and beautifully animated and set to a beautiful soundtrack. The thing about this series is that even if it rarely chooses the path of the epic fight (lord knows we hear enough complaints about that) when it does so, it executes them stupendously. And the fact that they’re so rare makes them all the more impactful when they happen. Neither Netero or the King has yet shown us their strength, because they haven’t needed to. But that’s all changing now.
Netero, to say the least, is a complicated man. His “Path of Gratitude” leads to him expressing his thanks for being allowed to have this fight with the King – a struggle that has already seen the loss of countless lives, including Hunters. It’s very hard to get an exact grasp on Netero here. “When was it that I started waiting for opponents to attack?” he muses to himself. “When was it that I stopped hesitating to be gracious – to take my vanquished opponents’ hands when they bowed their heads in defeat? This cannot be the ultimate power I sought!” That this is what enters the old man’s mind in the middle of the fight of his life says something of the man of whom no less than Zeno Zoldyck said “He has the mind of a plant.” This power he obtained through years of meditation and self-depravation, grounded in the ways of Buddhism, wielded with a serene expression and minimal movement on Netero’s part even as his power devastates the opponent – what does it really mean to him? Is he not, in fact, glad to have the opportunity to fight someone he feels he has no choice but to kill? Has he not most likely spent most of the last 60 years with boredom as his greatest enemy?
Fascinating, fascinating stuff this is. An ageless and inscrutable Netero against a being who’s been alive for a mere matter of weeks, someone who arrogantly believed their own power gave them all the answers and, with astonishing speed, has learned a certain humility. Togashi has clouded the issue as only he can here, made our thoughts and feelings double-back on themselves as they reflexively try and cast this conflict in black-and-white when it clearly refuses to be anything less than shades of grey. For all his strength, Netero’s “99th Hand” seems to have done little more than change the venue of the fight and cause the King to take it seriously – surely a terrifying display of the King’s superiority. Yet Netero seems not at all alarmed that his opponent has suffered barely a scratch. Is it possible that this attack was only designed to accomplish what it did – to take the fight to the “tomb” Netero has prepared, and to get his opponent’s attention?
In a sense, this episode was a microcosm of everything that makes “Chimera Ant” great, and that makes Hunter X Hunter the finest shounen anime of all-time. It showed us both faces of the brilliant coin that this series is – the taut and incredibly tense battle of words and wits that makes you hold your breath, with the child hero proving himself to be terrifyingly “other” as only he can. And the awesome physical struggle between two powerful combatants, immovable objects and irresistible forces, brought to life with such skill as to practically take your breath away. We’ve waited a long time for these two stages and these characters to receive the spotlight, and they’ve met the expectations in every way.