Normally the longer the buildup, the more likely the payoff is to be a letdown. It’s an inevitable part of fiction of every stripe, anime not least. But when you’re talking about Hunter X Hunter the normal rules just don’t seem to apply. They don’t apply to Togashi’s writing choices, and they don’t apply to the execution of the series itself. There really aren’t any standards to apply to H x H as far as shounen manga adaptations go anymore – none, that is, except for the ones it sets itself every week.
Every year since I started blogging I’ve given out a “Best Lead Actor” award for both genders, and although the year isn’t even half-over yet I can you it’s going to be hard for anyone to beat out Megumi Han in 2014. It’s ironic in that Gon has actually been less involved than ever in terms of screen time, but Han (who’s been an honorable mention already) has taken her game to a new level. This is career-making stuff – possibly yet another standard set by this adaptation, for female actors playing male roles in anime. Between Episode 116 and this one, Han-san has shown incredible range, intensity and emotional honesty. Not for the first or last time with this show, I’m sincerely in awe.
That episode – which would be on a very short list of best episodes in this series – is very much a bookend with this one, a spiritual twin. That it’s taken 14 weeks to reach this point from that beginning (which was itself almost 40 episodes into “Chimera Ant”) is a sheer testament to how broad and deep this arc is, both in terms of story and character. In effect Hunter X Hunter has taken the main character after his most intentional emotional moment in the series and left him for more than three months, with only very short and intermittent look-ins. It’s ridiculously audacious and it creates an enormous amount of anticipation for the moment when he – and this plotline – finally re-take control of the narrative.
There is a bit more to the episode than that, although it’s the spectre of events in Peijing that dominates even the events hundreds of miles away. Knuckle and Meleoron have lost themselves in the crowd outside the palace, watching Meruem’s return. Ikalgo has gone back underground, looking for a recently deceased chimera ant to use as part of a plan whose details haven’t been revealed. Killua and Palm (I’ve since read the chapter in question and indeed, the manga makes it pretty clear that he – wisely – knocked out Komugi himself) have turned back towards the palace with the intention of joining the crowd themselves, even as Pouf’s clones desperately search for the Gungi board and pieces in an attempt to hide them before The King sees them.
It should be noted that the background music for the return of The King is a new piece, and a great one – a really ominous mood-setter. But what stands out here are the quiet moments between Killua and Palm. Killua, it seems, has reached a better place of sorts – he’s found a sort of peace with himself, and it allows him to (albeit in a coltishly tsundere way) thank Palm and officially acknowledge her as a friend. Palm, really, has seen more of Killua’s true self – the kindness, and the child’s vulnerability – than anyone else in the cast, even Gon (though he really doesn’t need to see it to know it’s there). Palm seems so caught up in the moment that she momentarily loses focus on watching Gon and Pitou (who she’s following as part of her maximum three targets, as well as Killua and Pouf – and those accompanying them, including herself). There’s also an interesting strategic debate here over whether Pouf’s unique nature makes him a good target for her to spy on, or a bad one.
Shaiapouf remains very much in his role of master manipulator, always hovering on the verge of panic but limitless in his ambition to control events and bend them to his will. Having managed to secure and remove the evidence of Komugi’s presence he turns part of his attention to another matter – freeing Pitou from the “curse” of Komugi’s status as a hostage. Using Welfin to make the call, he contacts Pitou (I confess a certain surprise that Gon didn’t detect the vibration of Pitou’s phone) pretending to be Komugi – a Komugi that’s been rescued by Welfin and Brovada and is now safe and sound. This, in theory, frees up Neferpitou to betray Gon and kill him without fear of what might happen to the girl.
Much of what happens when Gon and Pitou reach the Peijing mansion where Kaitou is hidden is subject to a sizeable degree of interpretation, I think. I think most of us suspected that whether Pitou desired to or not, there was probably nothing he could do for Kaitou – dead is dead. Gon doesn’t know everything that we know (the head being removed, and such) but I suspect on some level he even knew this himself. Is it respect that Pitou shows Gon in the way he asks the boy’s name, and breaks the news to him? Is it pity, or gratitude for having allowed Pitou to heal Komugi and honored his vow? Or is it merely a mocking kindness behind those words: “You listened to my request, so I will be honest with you. He is… already dead. His soul is no longer here – I am sorry.”
Again, this is a very strange place to take the main character at the moment of his greatest confrontation. The Gon we see here is vulnerable in every sense of the word, truly devastated by what Pitou tells him. Not only is this man he came to love dead, but Gon (at least a very large part of Gon) blames himself. When the moment of his greatest conflict is seemingly upon us, Togashi chooses to remind us that Gon (like Killua) is still, for all his accomplishments, a child. And what does Gon do when he learns of Kaitou’s true fate? He pleads for help – from someone, anyone. There are limits to what a child can endure without breaking down, and only a writer of Togashi’s fearless nature would highlight them in moments such as these. He did it with Killua in his confrontation with Palm, and even more heartbreakingly with Gon here.
The execution of this scene is once again stunning, largely but not only thanks to Han Megumi’s performance (Fujimura Ayumi is also great here). There’s minimal decoration in terms of music or effects – mostly we’re left to agonize as Gon does, and to witness the internal war raging between his two great impulses of the moment – despair and anger. Despair is certainly the dominant emotion, and it brings with it a gut-wrenchingly innocent hope that somehow, some way, Kaitou could still be saved. When Pitou brings out Doctor Blythe Gon desperately wants to believe that Kaitou is going to be healed after all, although he surely understands that Pitou has no such intention even before he starts healing his own arm instead.
This is a fascinating moment, among the most fascinating in a series full of them. Wounded arm or not, it seems to me that Pitou – had he so chosen – could have ended Gon the moment he broke the truth to him. Gon seemed utterly helpless in every sense, and while his instincts would surely have kicked in had Pitou attacked we’ve seen just what Neferpitou is capable of in combat mode. That’s purely my opinion, of course, but Pitou has already surprised us in his response to Meruem’s plea to heal Komugi. The endgame isn’t in doubt – Gon is a threat to The King and must be eliminated. But as with everything in “Chimera Ant” nothing is simple or straightforward, including both what’s just occurred and what will happen next. Just as the confrontation between Netero and Meruem was, that this strange dance between Gon and Pitou would lead us here has been inevitable – and utterly compelling. And in the process, it’s taken the story and the hero to places no shounen has ever gone.