Before I begin, a confession: I was partially spoiled as to what was going to happen in today’s episode. First by an intentional troll comment on RC two weeks ago, and then by images on my Twitter. I managed to delete the former without reading the entire thing and avoid long-term exposure to the latter, but it’s one of those “cannot unsee” moments that is what it is – I didn’t know details but I knew what the shock moment of the episode was going to be. It’s one of the hazards of being a blogger and being instantly connected to the rest of the world in the information age. C’est la vie.
Now, on to the moment itself…
As you can imagine, I’ve spent some time processing what happened, which packed a good deal of shock value even with some idea of what was coming. It’s a lot to take in. When you taste a single malt scotch or a wine, you break down the experience – you have the nose, the arrival, the mouth feel, the finish. And these things can often give very different impressions. That’s what this episode has been like for me – it’s felt different at every stage of the experience. The challenge now is to try to make sense of all those conflicting reactions and come up with some sort of cohesive whole, and it’s a difficult one.
I think it’s not a simple matter even to know what criteria to judge this by. There’s the issue of the execution (double entendre intended) itself, firstly. In purely dramatic terms this is a ridiculously huge moment for the entire arc. What kind of satisfaction did it offer as a crescendo for Gon’s role in “Chimera Ant”, and where does it leave him for the rest of it? Then there’s the question of the development itself – does it hold up to Hunter X Hunter’s internal logic (hint: yes)? Does it feel right – does it offer the sense of epic poetry we’ve come to expect? And of course, the matter of how Madhouse and Koujina-sensei fared in adapting it from the page to the screen.
I fully expect this chapter was polarizing when it was published, and I expect it to be polarizing now. Hell, I’m only one person and I’m polarized. I loved it and I hated it, sometimes in the same instant. What I can say with certainty is that as I’ve had time to process what I’ve seen, my feelings have grown more favorable. Why? Because in thinking back on it, seeing what Gon did makes perfect sense both in terms of H x H mythology and in terms of his character. In the moment, that isn’t so immediately obvious – and it doesn’t offer a whole lot of satisfaction for Gon’s arc. It’s a tragic development in every sense, but that fits the Togashi model too – he’s not going to give you what you think you want and what you expect.
Basically, everything Togashi does turns out to be a deconstruction of the shounen genre, and Gon’s power-up is no exception. I think what he’s done here is take the coming-of-age story and savagely, tragically reimagined it in literal terms. What if “coming of age” literally meant fast-forwarding your body in order to win a fight – to throw away your future in order to become a grotesque, horrifying vision of what that future could be? That’s exactly what Gon has done here – he’s sacrificed everything (I won’t say “gambled everything” because from Gon’s perspective, there’s no uncertainty involved) in order to “become strong”. And it’s perfectly in character for him to do so. Gon is reckless, daring and resolutely straightforward in his world-view, and if this is what he thought was necessary, I don’t think he’d hesitate to do it. Especially when he’s in a mind to punish himself for what he sees as his failing Kaitou repeatedly.
In the world of Hunter X Hunter, there are no free rides. Just as surely as in Fullmetal Alchemist, power always comes with a cost – but in H x H, the exchange isn’t always equivalent. There’s the matter of the existential cost, surely, the toll the cultivating and exercising of power takes on the soul. We’ve seen this theme play out over and over in the lives of people like Netero and Killua (and indeed, one of the things that makes Hisoka so terrifying is that he seems immune to this effect). But there’s also the material sacrifices that must be made – be it life energy, Nen, or even a part of the body itself. We’ve seen the sacrifice of the right arm over and over – Gon himself in Greed Island, Hisoka in his fight with Kastro, Meruem, Pitou, Netero, Kurapika, Kaitou – this is no coincidence, surely, but a conscious decision by Togashi to try and hammer the image into our minds (thought just why is open to debate).
The arc that “Chimera Ant” harkens back to here is “York Shin”, the one with which it shares the most thematically and stylistically. There are strong echoes of Kurapika’s arc in Gon’s (despite the warnings of his master, Wing), starting with the fact that we saw the spiritual toll the life of revenge was taking on Kurapika. But we also saw the nature of Nen and the imposition of conditions – how these can increase the Nen user’s power dramatically. The stronger the condition – be it a limitation on when and how a power can be used or a punishment that will be accepted if a vow is broken – the more the power can increase. Kurapika was so desperate to wreak his vengeance on the Phantom Troupe that he imposed a series of conditions strictly for the purpose of doing so, and in the process gave himself the ability to come very close to achieving his goal. In Gon’s case, it appears his vows and conditions were even more specific and his sacrifices even greater – and he’s certainly the more powerful Nen user to begin with. And the result is a terrible, awesome thing.
So in the end, I think we have a development that’s the culmination of all that’s come before it, and a thoroughly in-character decision by Gon. This is Togashi’s world, and in that world when the main character achieves the ultimate power-up it’s not a moment of triumph but of tragedy. This episode is not about what Gon has gained, but about what he’s lost. In Hunter X Hunter, there are – to repeat – no free rides. When a young child enters the ruthless and terrible world that Gon has entered, it breaks him. The Gon we saw at the end of “Greed Island” was at a personal apex – resolutely loyal to his friends, triumphant over a field of skilled and experienced adults, progressing on his personal journey. This is Gon at his nadir – his innocence shattered, his unique and alien worldview having led him to a point of personal desolation and ruin. He simply lacks the experience and perspective to survive this ordeal intact, and what we see here is the result.
Given all that, as inevitable as all this seems and as much pathos is involved, it’s hard to feel a sense of satisfaction. Pitou is dead (even that inspires somewhat conflicted emotions) but so is the Gon we knew. Togashi hasn’t given us a triumph of good over evil or a noble sacrifice, but what at best feels like a necessary tragedy. Hunter X Hunter’s world has always been this harsh and cruel, but never has it felt so hopeless. Neferpitou was, in the end, acting in a way that was true to himself – and when he said “I’m sorry to say I have to kill you now” I actually believed him – like Youpi, I think Pitou has shown itself to be capable of spiritual growth. And his loyalty to The King is so great that even after death, Pitou’s Terpsichora ability animates his own corpse, using it to try and kill the Gon Pitou has recognized as equal or greater to Meruem in strength. This costs Gon his arm, and would have cost him his life if Killua hadn’t intervened.
The matter of Killua’s role in this episode is not to be overlooked. Poor, sweet Killua – he has experience and perspective that offers him a small measure of protection that Gon lacks, but the irony is that he’s emotionally even more innocent than Gon in spite of it – and it’s his love for Gon that’s his greatest vulnerability (and strength). When Palm takes custody of Komugi (Killua now trusts her implicitly) he’s free to race to Gon’s side – but he arrives only in time to see the shocking image of the adult Gon landing blow after blow on the already-dead Neferpitou. Killua will never, ever give up on Gon under any circumstances – but this Gon has already given up on himself. He’s paid the terrible price necessary to achieve his transformation, and he’s deemed himself unworthy to live on as he was. He’s relieved, in fact, to have suffered the same injury that Kaitou did – and he mistakenly believes that it would give Kaitou satisfaction to see what Gon has done both to himself and to Pitou.
So let’s deal with the last of those two major questions – where this leaves Gon in terms of the story, and the quality of the adaptation. The latter is easy – stupendous. The new music pieces and the way they and the familiar ones were used, the vocal performances (I’m out of superlatives for Han Megumi), the choreography and animation – it’s unassailable. This is not an episode centered around an epic fight like #35-36 or #126 – there really isn’t much of a fight here at all. The result is clear from the moment Gon undergoes his transformation, and he and Neferpitou both know it. The mastery is not in massive combat sequences, but in portraying the terrible and tragic nature of what’s happening. Ironically in the end it’s only Pitou who can feel any sense of satisfaction – because he knows what Gon has sacrificed in order to kill him, and he can be glad to trade his own life for what he sees as the safety of The King.
I don’t know just where this leaves Gon (and Killua, for that matter). I don’t know exactly what happens at the end when we see a huge explosion – some kind of Nen feedback loop perhaps, a system overload caused by the titanic nature of Gon’s inherent Nen power and the magnitude of his conditions, or simply his enhanced Janken. Gon surely isn’t dead but it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be in any condition to impact events back at the palace – and I can say with 100% confidence that if Killua is faced with the choice of staying with Gon or contributing to a fight that could save the world, he’ll stay with Gon. That struggle – be it physical or otherwise – will surely take place, and I suspect it will be that rather than Gon’s plight which is the next focus for the series. But the question of Gon and Killua’s role in the conclusion of “Chimera Ant” – and whether Gon’s personal arc will be given any kind of benedictory moment – remains a complete mystery. And that alone is proof that Togashi remains a writer of singular talent and complete fearlessness.