I’m pretty much incoherent after that whopper of an episode, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t make a lot of sense. It was a broadside of incredible power – a story full of imagery that’s totally apropos to the matter of the people who created it. The work Madhouse did here is self-apparent – but I’m equally in awe of the mind that envisioned the scenario behind it. The way all the pieces fit together, the way nothing and no one is forgotten and unimportant… As I said, I’m just about incoherent. I do know this much – if you see this only as a great action episode and a “payoff” without the understanding that everything that led up to it was absolutely essential to making it the powerhouse it was, you’re seeing only the thinnest outer layer of what makes Hunter X Hunter great. The muscle, sinew and bone of this series is the development that brought us to this point.
If you’ve been in a cave for the last couple of days, you may not have heard the announcement that the Hunter X Hunter manga is returning (with the June 2 issue of Weekly Shounen Jump). Yes, it’s official this time and no, I won’t stop you from making the inevitable snarky complaints about how Togashi will probably just go on hiatus again in July (though rest assured, you may think you’re amusing but no one else does). The implications for the anime are very interesting indeed, but that’s probably a matter for a dedicated post – for now it’s really about enjoying the moment and focusing on the incredible episode we’ve just received.
The timing does force the issue on a couple of points, though, at least for me. First off, I do worry about how Togashi could possibly top this arc. And second, what we’re seeing play out is a further reminder than complaints about his output are utterly misguided. However long it took him to create “Chimera Ant”, rest assured – there’s not another mangaka who could have done it. Togashi has left shounen convention in the rearview mirror a long time ago (and clearly, some have never forgiven him for it) and what he’s doing with this arc is too soaring and ambitious to be constrained by the simple notion of subverting genre conventions. This is a great drama, transcendent of any genre or demographic classification whatsoever. Any label you stick on it is irrelevant – it’s singular. It’s not shounen, it’s not seinen, it’s not post-shounen, it’s Hunter X Hunter. It’s Togashi. And Madhouse.
I’m very, very reluctant to try and dig into the deeper meaning of what we saw – or to try and reconcile it with a certain theatrical film whose timeline was never 100% verified (if it exists in the manga canon at all). It will simply invite a flood of spoilers, some tagged, some disguised as jokes or hints, some just laid out for all to see. I have my own notions about all that, but I’m going to stick mostly to what we saw on screen and the symbolism of it. First, there’s the fight itself, which faced the unenviable task of having to live up to the better part of 40 episodes of build-up. Maybe there will be someone out there who feels dissatisfied with the art and animation here, but it’s hard to see why. Madhouse has nailed all the big fights – Gon vs. Hisoka at Heaven’s Arena, Gon and Killua vs. the Phantom Troupe in their hideout, the Dodgeball game. Maybe there was a tiny doubt on the grounds that this was the most important action scene since the shift to late-night, but there was clearly no need for it. This was jaw-droppingly epic.
As always with Hunter X Hunter, though, the one constant is the psychological subtlety and complex character dynamics. They’re what makes up most of the series and they don’t take five when the fights start – rather, Togashi weaves them into every blow parried and landed. Always, our opinion of the King is changing and evolving. As Netero unleashes his power against him, the King feels only admiration – this is truly a human who exceeded anything he thought was possible. It’s not simply his assessment of humans that Meruem (and we can safely call him that now) must reassess – it’s the limitations of individuality itself. As always, identity is at the core of “Chimera Ant” right down to the cellular level.
In effect, both Meruem and the audience are being set up for a sucker punch here. We see Netero clearly exceeding anything we’ve seen from a human in this series. Yet Meruem has an answer for him at every turn. That his initial barrage of attacks leave “barely a scratch” is unsurprising, even to Netero. He has other weapons up his sleeve, but Meruem is unshakeable. Here Togashi brilliantly ties in the Gungi matches with Komugi, with Meruem using the insight that experience gave him to deduce the seemingly indecipherable pattern in Netero’s unrelenting attacks (thousands of them), the unconscious bias revealing itself – ingeniously illustrated to his metaphor of “finding one needle among millions, and threading it”. It should be noted that if Meruem was able to do so in fighting against Netero, but was never able to do so well enough to defeat Komugi at Gungi – what the hell does that say about her skill and intelligence, at least where that game is concerned?
For every move Netero makes, Meruem has an answer – and he has nothing but praise and admiration for his opponent. His only wish? That the “old soldier” won’t die before he’s able to finish the battle. It’s a brutal thing to see – as usual Togashi spares nothing for the squeamish. First Meruem takes Netero’s right leg, but the old man is unbowed. He uses his Nen to stop the bleeding and steps up the pace of his attacks. “Next I will take your left arm” (nice callback to Gungi there) he promises – and after weathering another dizzying array of attacks he keeps his word. He then sits down in his Gungi position and praises Netero still further, assuming the fight is over. As Netero’s blood noisily spatters to the stone with every heartbeat Meruem demands to be told his name, but Netero only smiles – again – and asks “Do you think it takes two hands to pray? Prayer comes from the heart.”
Here is another awe-inspiring display of the exquisite and intricate structure of this story – the message in the Kanji on Netero’s shirt, and that previously unexplained (surely you didn’t forget about it, did you?) moment when Killua saw and felt something, and promptly turned his heel and ran in the other direction. This is Netero’s “Zero Hand”, surely the last full measure of his devotion – an attack that creates a Buddha which encompasses the enemy in “indiscriminate love” but requires all of Netero’s life force to execute. It leaves him a frail, wasted shell, as if all of his years were called due in an instant, on the verge of death. And still, it isn’t enough. A few scratches this time, yes – but Meruem is barely bloodied and wholly unbowed, having absorbed a blow far greater than any he thought humans capable of inflicting and still walked away from it.
Here, though, Netero – and Togashi – spring the last trap. First we have Meruem proving that for all that he’s seemingly evolved, Netero was absolutely right in his belief that the King’s worldview was incompatible with any acceptable future. He bemoans that humans weaken the “bonds” between ants and thus are not a good food source, and that they will be allowed to live on in a “restricted zone” – the number to be used for food to be “reevaluated”. He speaks to the his superiority over Netero as a function of evolution – he’s the living embodiment of everything that his species has built towards, and of all their hopes – and Netero is only one man. Individuality is, in Meruem’s eyes, a weakness – and indeed, we’ve seen the impact it’s had on his species both positively and negatively. But Netero proves the resiliency, desperation and ruthlessness of the human animal in the end – the act of an individual acting as a member of his species. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to win this without sacrificing someone.”
The “Miniature Rose” seems a prosaic way to bring an end to this positively Shakespearean struggle between these two titans – a bomb, a crude and indiscriminate weapon of destruction beloved by despots and terrorists. Again, I’m reluctant to dig too deep here with much still to be revealed – but at the very least, it’s a lesson to Meruem that human individuality breeds seemingly endless resourcefulness, that in the end the human race is nothing if not unpredictable. There was no beauty in what Netero did, no delicacy, not even Nen – a man who spent a decade in prayer and deprivation honing the most enlightened weapon in human history using the most brutal and ugly weapon imaginable to win the day. But he did what he had to do – which is what he’d been planning from the beginning, and in that there is a kind of cruel beauty, and nobility. Meruem’s last thought before the explosion – along with experiencing fear for the the first time – was a simple one: “He had me in checkmate all along.”
“If there’s a Hell, I’ll see you there.” is how Netero leaves the scene – a frank self-assessment of the life he’s led and the choices he’s made. I recall Knov saying a little while back that “it doesn’t matter what the Royal Guard does – they’ll be too late” or words to that effect – clear evidence that he and Morel (and likely only he and Morel, I’m thinking, apart from Zeno) knew of this plan all along. There are other shoes hanging by a thread, and I’m not making any assumptions about what doors have been closed by what’s happened here – but I am, simply, in awe of the way it was brought to life. It was brilliant, a marriage of shock and awe with poetry, brutality with nobility. Of course I regret deeply that we’ll never get to hear how Nagai Ichirou would have seen Netero to this point – that, surely, is how it should have been. But Banjou Ginga truly proved himself a worthy successor here, under the most demanding of circumstances. As with so much else with Hunter X Hunter, I can offer only my admiration and respect for the talent and dedication to craft on display here.