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.