Hunter X Hunter 2011 – 134

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An episode like this one has to be pretty depressing for aspiring shounen mangaka…

Author’s Note: Please be very careful to avoid divulging any information about upcoming events from the manga. When in doubt, don’t post it, even if it’s remotely possible to view it as a minor spoiler. Thanks for your cooperation.

You would think that after 134 episodes, at some point I would have lost my ability to be surprised and floored by what Togashi and Madhouse are doing with this series and this arc.  But Hunter X Hunter can still do those things to me every bit as powerfully as it did two years ago.  Even partially spoiled I’m still surprised by where Togashi chooses to take the story, and the execution continues to be virtually peerless.  There’s never been any danger of my taking H x H for granted, but the enormity of what it’s managed to accomplish will probably only hit me when the anime is gone.

It only makes sense to start with the beginning, because without a doubt it was the most subversive and vicious sequence I’ve ever seen in a shounen anime.  If there were any doubt as the core message driving “Chimera Ant” Togashi and Koujina eviscerated it.  It wasn’t just the horror of the imagery chosen, but the types of images Togashi (or Koujina – I’m assuming these were all manga-original) chose.  It was, in 2 minutes and 33 seconds, a complete and self-contained narrative of its own – a merciless condemnation of stupidity and cruelty and a mirror held up to the world we live in.

It’s the fact that the mind of the writer who created that vision also created this arc that makes it such a dark and enigmatic piece of work.  You could call all of “Chimera Ant” and by extension all of Hunter X Hunter a kind of bait and switch – nothing here is what it first appeared to be.  The reality of this story is not bedrock but a desert of shifting sands and mirages, calm and pleasant oases that don’t really exist and a place where we cannot trust what our eyes and senses tell us.  You can practically hear Togashi growling “Think for yourself!” as you watch those first two-plus minutes play out, and you realize just what you’ve been watching for the last 60 weeks, give or take.

It’s testament to this that as the final act of this massive story plays out, Gon and Killua are nowhere to be seen.  The players here – the only players this week – are Meruem, Shaiapouf and Welfin.  In truth “Chimera Ant” turns out to be Meruem’s story more than Gon’s or anyone else’s – it’s his journey we’ve been following all this time, from conception to (presumably) death.  To the extent that Gon and Killua are main characters in this arc, it’s in the way “Chimera Ant” plays as a metaphor for what happens when children are exposed to the sort of world that we see in the pre-open of the episode.  They’re exceptional children by any standard but children nonetheless, and in his usual contrarian fashion Togashi has chosen to focus not on what makes them strong, but on what makes them weak – and human.  However their part of this story concludes – Gon especially – has to be viewed in that context.

As to what actually happens in the episode itself, it’s elegantly simple and straightforward.  All we have is dialogue but once again the atmosphere is incredibly tense, especially when Meruem activates his En and confronts Welfin.  Meruem has taken Pouf’s “Spiritual Message” and elevated it to a God-like power – the world holds few secrets from him.  With his En he can see anything that has changed since he last used it, and read the emotions of those in his presence.  Pouf continues to play out the last act of his charade, one which it seems even he has just about given up hope on. Of course he sees Welfin as a threat to his secret, but the Pouf of this episode is increasingly helpless and defeated – between the knowledge that he can hide nothing from the King and the growing sense that his own body is failing him, it feels as if Pouf is only continuing to struggle because he’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web, and that’s what butterflies do until the poison finally puts an end to their struggles.

Welfin and Meruem are, if anything, even more fascinating.  Meruem has become so omnipotent that more than anything what seems to motivate him is curiosity – he can see so much that anything that defies easy understanding is a secret which must be unraveled.  And Welfin is a riddle – why does this squadron leader emanate such hatred for him?  Why did he kill Youpi (in fact, he didn’t)?  Welfin is, as always, a compelling mass of neurotic overthinking.  His instinct for self-preservation is at war with his hatred of the Chimera Ants and his loyalty to Gyro.  Welfin struggles, too, but it seems more pointed – an urgent need to live on because there are things he still needs to do.

This scene is very reminiscent of the one which saw Knov ruined by the sheer terror of facing Neferpitou’s Shaiapouf’s terrible aura, but Welfin is facing a being far more powerful.  As Pouf and Welfin each cling to a thread of life there’s never any question that Meruem could snip either strand in less than the blink of an eye.  When Pouf commits the affront of ordering Meruem to stop questioning Welfin because doing so would likely reveal Pouf’s secret and void their game, there seems to be a flash of anger on the King’s part – but he stays his hand.  Why?  I believe it’s pity – Meruem sees the sheer depth of Pouf’s love for him and that it’s this obsessive loyalty that’s caused him to become the broken, mad thing that he is.

At this moment Meruem turns his attention to Welfin, and – as we did with Knov – we feel the sheer visceral fear that grips him.  He knows he’s about to be killed and eaten, and he undergoes an even more grisly physical transformation than Knov did.  Yet Welfin has always been compelled by a powerful instinct for self-preservation, and even in this horrifying instant his mind still searches for the angle, the path that will lead to his survival.  We get something of the sense of Welfin the human here – and we already have a sense of the man he swore his loyalty to – and if this drive to survive isn’t in itself exactly admirable, it is at least relatable.  And it drives Welfin to say the one word that will extend his life – “Komugi”.

Once again Hunter X Hunter surprises us with this moment, because when the scales are lifted from his eyes Meruem reacts without a hint of anger.  He tells Pouf there will be no punishment – it’s “not needed” – and then orders Pouf to question Knuckle and Meleoron, then release them.  He asks Welfin to give him the message he was engaged to deliver, and tells him that he’s free to go once that has been done.  Welfin, withered and aged, delivers Ikalgo’s message and then, even as the opportunity to flee is open to him, casts aside his crutches, shouts out his defiance of Meruem and what he represents, and swears that he will never call Meruem “King” – he’ll always be their enemy.  This is again a sort of redemptive moment for Welfin – even if his loyalty to Gyro is misdirected, in the end he’s acted in a way that’s true to himself and again and again taken actions that placed his life at risk.

One irony here is that as Meruem extends his mercy to Pouf, he’s damning him, because doing so is a rejection of everything in Meruem that Pouf loved and revered.  Seeing Meruem’s reaction (through his aura) on hearing Komugi’s name is the proof that all is lost for Pouf.  His race is run and he’s broken, both physically and emotionally.  “All I could do is nod” he thinks, and of course it’s true – the will to fight may live on in Welfin, but in Pouf it’s dead.  “I hope you find him,” Meruem says to Welfin after his outburst, “And if possible, that you can continue to live as a human.”  And with those words, destroys Pouf’s very reason to exist.

We’ve seen a lot of Buddha imagery attached to the King ever since Netero enacted his final solution, and I don’t believe it’s accidental.  I think Togashi is presenting what’s happening to Meruem as nothing less than Buddhist enlightenment.  As his eyes have taken in more of the world around him. Meruem has changed at a truly dizzying rate.  He’s the same being who cruelly killed for pleasure and delighted in the thought of reducing the human race to feed stock, but he’s profoundly grown.  Nothing changes us like perspective, and this change in perspective began in the form of Komugi.  She was like a virus that wormed its way inside Meruem’s consciousness, and the part of him that was human responded to it, leaving him forever changed.  In that light the current situation and indeed all of “Chimera Ant” are groaning under the weight of irony – the sands have constantly shifted under our feet, and finally parted to reveal a truth we could never have imagined.

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  1. R

    Again, I have to quote that opening line: "We are no different from the Ants. No, we are far worse."

    That's honestly been the story of Chimera Ant through and through, embodied in just a few words. The opening sequence itself was a spectacle of cruelty and truth. Truly a great episode, and a great review.

    Thank you for always ending my Tuesday nights with your thoughts on a great series Enzo-san.

  2. Eeeeh? It's Wednesday afternoon!

  3. R

    Exactly 2 in the morning for me. I still consider that Tuesday night. :p

  4. S

    Gon in the preview: Eeeeh? Ore ga!?

  5. M

    I've been really shocked to find out that the opening scenes, have, in fact, been based on real life material.

  6. S

    If you actually dig deeper on the pic there's even more story behind it that belies what you see on the surface. It's VERY like Togashi to chose this image if he actually knew the background.

  7. N

    The only question is which is the ant and which is the human

  8. T

    The answer is subjective; if you ask me, the answer is: both.

  9. R

    I remember learning about that picture back in high school, during one of our theory and ethics classes, because it was presented so far out of context in class that day that I went back the next day and tried to correct the teacher (we were in the "discuss war" section of the class but it was pretty much the "what is your anti-war reasoning" section for all intents and purposes :T).

    God, that may have been the worst decision of my life, but that's another story entirely. I think this image works on the surface level because, at it's surface, it looks just like a civilian being executed. And your gut reaction is "oh war is bad and look what it does" but if you know what's actually happening, it adds a whole different dimension that's perfectly in line with the whole Chimera Ant arc.

  10. N

    Oh, Rita… how naive of you to assume that people care about anything but the mere surface presentation of things, and their own sense of moral superiority stemming from classroom discussions on matters that they never had to face themselves.

  11. w

    I could listen to Welfin's soliloquies all day. It's fascinating watching someone who is by nature a coward entangle himself with such powerful forces as Mereuem. I think Ikalgo's rubbed off on him in another way, he way have learned just a shred of courage from him.

    I'm not sure what to make of the opening. I don't think we actually needed tha message spelled out for us, I preferred it when it was an unspoken undercurrent. It's shocking and powerful, no doubt, but it felt a little like they were dropping the anvil here.

  12. A

    Well, I think the entire point is to drop the anvil, to rip away any shreds of the idea that humanity is any better or worse than what the Chimera Ants had the potential to be. Humanity has committed more and crueler acts then the Chimera Ants and also more and kinder acts, this is more of a function of the breadth of human existence than how cruel or kind it can be. In the end we are no better, worse or meaningfully different than they are.

    I think Togashi wants to hammer that into us, so there can be no argument.

  13. S

    "We've seen a lot of Buddha imagery attached to the King ever since Netero enacted his final solution, and I don't believe it's accidental. I think Togashi is presenting what's happening to Meruem as nothing less than Buddhist enlightenment."

    In fact, now that I think about it… wasn't the original Buddha, Siddharta, a prince who grew up sheltered and pampered in his palace until he had the chance to go outside and witness poverty and suffering first hand? Meruem's arc is somewhat similar – he starts as a cruel ruler, but he changes upon learning to appreciate the weak and the meek, as well as witnessing the might and malice of humanity. The level of devotion to his mission and sacrifice that Netero displayed must have shaken him as well. Ants may not be better than humans as a whole, but Meruem definitely is closer to wisdom than many of those who ordered his extermination.

  14. Indeed, Siddharta was just as you describe him.

  15. S

    Aside from the Buddha imagery, the "shell" on Meruem's head has always reminded me of a war helmet. I wonder what that could also tie into?

    Of the designs of the Chimera Ants, I've always found Pitou's, Welfin's, and Meruem's to be the most striking, for some reason.

  16. S

    It's an interesting analogy but remember Meruem still intended to rule, segregate, and eat (though selectively) humans. The biggest take away from enlightenment is breaking the karmic cycle of rebirth through universal understanding and divesting material/earthly desires.

    Of course views on buddhism are really varied and I have little idea how japanese buddhist see things.

    It would have been very interesting to see if Meruem kept down this path of enlightenment and ultimately renounce his role as King.

  17. Z

    Personally I found Pitou's design underwhelming. A cat man/woman wow! Pouf's was okay and I didn't like Youpi's much at first but eventually he evolved into more interesting forms.

  18. S

    @SquareSphere: that was before being blown to bits by the Miniature Rose and then being reborn (note: the Buddha, after being born, would walk and leave lotus flowers, symbol of enlightenment and inner peace, behind his feet; Meruem gets to be born again and walk away from a rose, symbol of earthly passion. Though maybe I am reading too much into this). This Meruem seems even more calm and empathic – partly because of Pouf's Spiritual Message, I guess. So you couldn't say whether his full awakening wouldn't lead to him simply not worrying any more about world domination at all.

  19. S

    @Zeta Zero I was mainly referring to his/her ever-changing manga design-scheme, but I can't really disagree in that regard.

  20. n

    Just. Propose. To. HERRRRR. Do it like a King, Meruem. And you two shall have an happy ever-lasting gungi life together.

    Compelling analysis on the Buddha imagery by the way. The idea did not occur to me but now that you mentioned, Togashi has been quite religious in choosing his symbolism in the manga as well.

  21. r

    I see posts on various sites with people calling for Pouf's head to get knocked off, but Meruem's line to Welfin about "living as a human" is more damaging to Pouf than anything anyone could have done. Meruem with that line pretty much tossed aside any "Ant pride" he had, humbling himself by openly admitting that living as a human would be a positive thing that an ant could hope to do.

    The opening scene does show that while humans are unchallenged when it comes to finding new and horrible ways to kill, the rest of the episode with Welfin and Merum shows the other side of humans; Forgiveness, hope, loyalty, love and the strength to keep living. 5 things shown to us by a wolfman in a thong and a green bugman with a needle-tail and a hat-head. GG Togashi.

  22. m

    I love the way Togashi uses dialogue and imagery to create a scene so much more emotionally griping and tense than any battle could be. The battles here have been more of the tension relief than the moments in between. Even during the fights, it's the moments where you get into each character's mind that are truly nerve-wracking. Instead of having the MC of the manga level up to a point that he is the one to defeat the big bad, they have the big bad killed off well before the end. Sure Mereum hasn't died yet, but even before that was revealed he was living on borrowed time. Defeated not by justice, feelings, or any typical battle shounen trope; but by a mix of cruelty from the "good" guys and by becoming a good person. Not one won over by the fighting spirit of the MC, but in a entirely realistic way of connecting to another person. It's so common in real life that the reason for people to make significant change (well positive change anyway) is because of connecting to someone else. To find that part of yourself that cares for, sympathizes, empathizes, and loves someone else is most often what drives people to discover the kinder sides of themselves. Not only has Chimera Ant flipped every single battle shoune trope on it's head, but it did it in a way that shows like Evangelion could never dream to. He didn't have to use the most horrible of situations to show human weakness, kindness, and growth. There were undeniably some atrocities going on, but nothing in that whole "mind-rape" way that NGE did. He didn't put realistic people in absurdly over the top situations, or point out flaws in the stereotypical characters of his genre by breaking them down. He broke down the tropes and shamed the typical style of battle shounen by simply creating something that blows them out of the water. He put these typically over-the-top characters and put them in more realistic situations and had them become more realistic characters because of that. I really can't think of another example of anyone doing something in that manner, and it has been executed to perfection. Thanks for all your in depth posts on Chimera arc over the past year or so! Having read the manga long before the show aired will often take a lot away from the impact of certain moments, but reading your insights and seeing the show through the eyes of someone who doesn't know what's coming next (or didn't for the most part) made watching something, that I knew the outcome of, retain the impact and enjoyment that I had in my first reading of the manga. Great work!

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