“Rock-Paper-Scissors × And × Weakness”
Madhouse continues to illustrate what happens when brilliantly written shounen is elevated to high art.
Of late, Hunter X Hunter has taken on that peculiar quality that great anime sometimes does, where a 22-minute episode seems to last about five minutes. It’s a product of not-wasted time, I suspect – when H x H is on a roll it pulls off the rare feat of being both incredibly entertaining to watch in the moment and making you incredibly anxious to see what happens next. I never find myself saying "get on with it!" because every scene is both spot-on in delivery and relevant to the story, but the level of anticipation never goes down because Togashi always keeps the story moving forwards.
I think of late the "Chimera Ant" arc has come into its own as the true culmination of Hunter X Hunter in that it both combines elements from the disparate main arcs that came before it and transcends them. As great as the first 10 eps of "CA" were they were fairly monotonal – creepy, scary and despairing. But since the death of Kaitou the arc has become much more diverse, something of a unifying thread tying the others together. Sometimes quite literally – we have Netero from "Hunter Exam" and Bisky from "Greed Island". There are strong elements of "Heaven’s Arena" in Gon and Killua’s relationship with Knuckle and their quest to find the missing pieces in their development, and the obvious link to "York Shin" is the dark tone and shocking violence.
Ever more, "Chimera Ant" increasingly shares the quality that "York Shin" took on where one could palpably feel a gathering of great forces on the horizon – great both in power and in narrative weight. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been in H x H, and the big dogs are on the hunt. The King is about to be born, and the last of the King’s Guard just has – Menthuthuyoupi (the great Tachiki Fumihiko, no less than Ikari Gendou himself). Pitou continues his ghastly experiments with Kaitou’s body, and Netero begins to feel his oats at last. Gon and Killua creep every closer to Knuckle in strength as Bisky worries over them like the loving but stern mother she’s become, and Palm grows increasingly desperate as the clock ticks down. And of course the King continues to stir, coming ever closer to emerging from the Queen’s womb and truly ratcheting things up to another level. Knov’s offer to overbet Morel by a factor of ten and wager a million Jenny on Gon and Killua (or whoever he bet on) was symbolic, I think, of where we are in the story – the stakes are being raised in a big way.
There are several moments in this episode that really stand out as spectacular and show off what an incredible sense of style Madhouse is bringing to this adaptation, and some surprises as well. In the latter category we definitely have Shoot McMahon, who – seemingly at least – turns out to be a paper tiger in a big way. Togashi did his usual ace job of trolling me on that with all Shoot’s build-up, because I definitely did not see him ending up as a coward afraid to attack two exhausted little boys. I’m convinced there’s more to this that we haven’t seen yet, but at the least Shoot is a very different opponent than we were led to believe. Meanwhile Gon and Killua do what they usually do – improve at a ridiculous pace – but Bisky knows them well enough by now that her timetable proves to be quite realistic. She tells us each of them are "missing something", and defeating Knuckle will only get them "halfway there" – a truly classic shounen presentation, that – but doesn’t share with is just what the boys lack.
Biscuit is also worried about making her own eventual escape from the hilariously demented Palm, of course, assuming things don’t go as planned – and Palm continues to vent her frustration by unleashing her Godly kitchen skills. My hunch is that she’s actually too kind at heart to do any of the things she keeps warning Bisky and the boys about, but at the very least she continues to fall for Gon and his mercilessly innocent boyish charms. Of course I think the real question here is this: is Gon really as innocent as he lets on? Gon is far cleverer than the role he chooses to play, that we know – and to some extent I suspect he’s intentionally manipulating Palm with smiles, compliments and puckish charisma. This is the first of the really great moments in the episode, as Gon performs a pinky swear with Palm and promises to get her to Knov for certain – and in true Whale Island fashion, seals it with a cute song and a "thumb kiss" (indeed, he does everything but head-bob, giggle and kiss her on the cheek). "Chimera Ant" was missing hilarious moments like this, and they do wonders to provide some relief from the unrelenting darkness hovering over the story.
Meanwhile, more brilliance is playing out in the NGL on both sides of the struggle. Madhouse effectively show us just how much of a badass Netero is when he sets his mind to it, as with Morel and Knov’s help he relentlessly, pitilessly and methodically eliminates one Chimera Ant squadron after the next. As Knov himself lets on, Netero was being modest with his earlier self-deprecating comment that he was "only" at their level – he’s "still much stronger", says Knov (and damn, Miki Shinichirou is a fine seiyuu). On the defensive for the first time, the ants hole themselves up inside their nest to preserve their remaining strength – and it’s there that the next superlative scene transpires. As Shiapou plays a beautiful piece of BGM on the violin, we witness the birth of the aforementioned Menthuthuyoupi and the continuation of Pitou’s attempts to re-animate Kaitou – about which we know little, though presumably it’s with his Nen that Pitou is causing Kaitou to react. This is a gorgeous scene – beautifully shot and drawn and choreographed to the soundtrack, with Kaitou doing a grisly ballet. It’s both beautiful and horrifying, a credit to the way Madhouse brought the scene to life.
Finally, we have the moment where it all comes together, the last of the spectacularly executed sequences in the ep – not so much a single scene as a collage of those moments. Bisky finally allows Gon and Killua to rest before taking on Knuckle, as they’ve achieved three hours of Ren without concentration, and only a day remains before Netero’s deadline. We’re treated to a brief but bombastic battle between Gon and Knuckle, where the latter still dominates even without using his full strength, though he says he’s finally going to relent and do so – and he promises to tell Gon the two "huge weaknesses" in his Janken special attack. The King stirs, and Netero tells Knov and Morel that they’ll wait out the ants until the results of the struggle among the disciples are revealed. And all the major players become pieces on the chessboard, a brilliant visual as Netero declares that he’s not sure if he’ll be able to bring this one off without "sacrificing someone". Let that death flag wave proudly and ominously, though for who remains a mystery.
There have been flashier episodes of Hunter X Hunter certainly, and in this arc too. But this was one of the best, I think. In terms of style and visual flair it’s some of the best work Madhouse has done yet – a beautiful example of a studio and director using the possibilities of anime as a medium to make something already great even better. It also brought a variety of moods and tones out better than any episode in the "Chimera Ant" arc so far, and represents one of the most emotionally complex episodes in the entire series. There was really only one flaw with it – we have to wait an entire week for the next episode.