“The Strong x And x The Weak”
It says something about the best anime on television that even after 91 episodes, it can still break new ground.
My faith in Togashi-sensei as a writer is pretty much limitless at this stage, so it’s not as if I can say I’m completely surprised by this episode. In fact, there are parts of it that I expected to see happen, mainly surrounding the birth of the Chimera Ant King. Nevertheless there were some genuinely unexpected turns for me, both in turns of the narrative focus and the events on-screen. And even after all the greatness we’ve seen come before, this may very well be the darkest episode of the series in terms of the existential side of things. It’s really bleak stuff.
In the first place, I didn’t expect the camera to leave the fight between the boys and their kind-hearted opponents not just for the start of the episode, but altogether. In hindsight we learned everything we needed to know about that struggle in the prior two episodes, and Togashi himself chose not to show us any more of it (I checked), but still – that’s an extremely unorthodox choice. After a space of episodes where the focus was elsewhere, this one returned squarely to the menace of the Chimera Ants – the dominant theme of the first ten eps or so of the arc, where we saw relatively little of Gon and Killua. If there was any chance of forgetting just how dark H x H went during those episodes, this one provided a firm reminder like a slap in the face.
Remind yourself, too, as you watch the Chimera Ant Queen, screaming in agony, give birth to the King in a splatter of amniotic goo, that this series airs just before 11:00 AM on Sunday morning in Japan. It’s a shockingly brutal and gross moment, almost enough to make one feel sorry for the Queen (not quite). The King (Uchiyama Kouki, in what can safely be described as a change-of-pace role for him) makes it quite clear right off the bat that he’s taking the nastiness up to a new level, even for the Chimera Ants. He shows no concern whatever for his Mother, as she writhes in agony after he prematurely rips his way out of her belly. He promptly kills poor, dear old Peggy for showing concern for the Queen. He kills (and eats) Turtle for daring to offer Colt a handkerchief to clean the ichor off his tail (I thought maybe he wanted Colt to lick it off, but not even Togashi went that far). In short, he’s a delinquent.
This is the part of the episode that I was least surprised by, because ever since the life cycle of the chimera ant was described the impending problem has been obvious. Once the King is born, the Queen is useless to him. The Royal Guard answers to him, and all the lowly Captains are in effect, the enemy – because their loyalty is to the Queen. In the chimera ants’ "natural" cycle this might not be such a problem because the King and Queen aren’t intended to share the same nest, but these are sentient, thinking individuals – and things aren’t so simple. The fracture of this colony has been telegraphed for a long time, and it figured to be an ugly one – though even here, Togashi took events in a direction that I thought unlikely, though not impossible.
Things really become fascinating when both Colt and the royal party leave the nest. I think the scene where the King and his Royal Guard go "hunting" (he has a taste only for rare humans now) stands on its own – it was beautifully horrifying. The way Madhouse chose to film it, alternating between the child’d perspective and her horrified face, was stunning – especially in seeing her lips move but hearing no sound. Pitou’s calm and cheerful instructions to the King only make things even worse. We know by now that nothing is off-limits in Hunter X Hunter, but there are still times when I’m shocked by the sheer ruthlessness of Togashi (and by the timeslot and supposed target demographic). The dynamic between the King and Pitou is also fascinating to watch – even with the King, Pitou is clearly neither intimidated or especially subservient. He goes on bended knee and pledges fealty, but shows no signs of fear even when the King tries to kill him for overstepping his place. The act of surviving earns the King’s respect, and seemingly puts Pitou is a "most favored" state among the Royal Guard – I wonder if that might tense things up a bit.
Meanwhile Colt is on an altogether different sort of mission. After Pitou refuses to offer assistance to the Queen (I can’t help but note that Colt used the word "healed" to describe what Pitou did to Kaitou), Colt makes an executive decision to seek out the help of the Hunters who’ve been picking off his captains one by one. It was quite a sight, Colt bearing the white flag – he was always the most human of all the Chimera Ants, but this is still a huge sea-change in the story. It’s actually quite in character – Colt’s primary motivation has always been loyalty to the Queen, and the King effectively means nothing to him. I won’t romanticize Colt – he’s done terrible things from the humans perspective out of loyalty to that Queen, though it’s simply a natural behavior for him. What he describes to Morel and Knov – the nest descending into chaos, with individual Captains in the Queen’s service talking about leaving and trying to become Kings themselves – is already happening, and Morel and Knov can see the potential for disaster in that. It should be a fascinating conversation between Colt and Netero, to say the least.
And then, finally, there’s the battle between Gon and Killua and Knuckle and Shoot. Or rather, the aftermath of that, as by the time we join them they’re already on the truck headed back to the NGL border. Morel spills the beans on the bet – it was in fact on "all five of them returning" that Knov placed his million Jenny – and there’s a fake-out moment where it appears as if somehow everyone has in fact returned to the fight. But the truth is (we get a tiny flashback of Gon’s fight, at least) that Togashi has confounded my prediction and that the boys have lost. It’s a huge setback for them both – for different reasons – but it feels like the right thing for the story. Knuckle and Shoot were clearly stronger, and one of the charms of H x H is that as strong as the boy heroes are, there are plenty that are stronger, and the series doesn’t hesitate to show us that fact.
My thoughts on this turn in the story are a bit of a jumble, still, but for starters I can say this: Gon especially is very lucky that on those occasions he’s run up against someone stronger than himself, that person has had enough restraint to let him walk away from the battle. Hisoka and Knuckle obviously have quite different reasons for this, but in Knuckle’s case (and Shoot’s, too) it’s simple human decency. Knuckle is the best opponent Gon could have faced here (perhaps this was in Netero’s mind all along), not only too kind to seriously harm Gon but willing to give him an education as he bests him in combat. We’ve seen Gon and Killua go up against stronger opponents before, but never when the personal stakes were quite like this. Each of them stood to lost something very important in losing these fights, and lose it they did.
It’s a new experience to see Gon like this – tears flowing, overcome by grief at his own powerlessness. It’s new for him as well – "I never knew how frustrating weakness could be" – and Koujina-sensei wisely chooses not to drown the moment in heavy BGM. Rather, he lets the sound of Gon’s crying and the scream of birds overhead tell the story, and pans quietly to Killua’s tear-stained face as he watches his friend experience this kind of grief for the first time (a grief he knows all too well). It’s a dark, somber moment, full of despair – all the more so because Killua hasn’t forgotten Bisky’s admonition that if he couldn’t defeat Shoot, he would have to leave Gon’s side. As I mentioned last week Knuckle’s punishment – leaving a Nen user in Zetsu state for 30 days – could be a death sentence, so Killua wisely (and silently) pledges to defer his promise to Bisky until those days have passed.
What will happen then? I’m not going to predict at this point, because this is Togashi. It seems self-evident that this story is not over, and that it cannot possibly conclude in the absence of Gon and Killua. Gon surely has a role to play, and Killua surely can’t leave his side forever. Perhaps Bisky will pardon his sentence, under the circumstances. Perhaps things will get so bad that Netero will issue an unconditional SOS to all Hunters for assistance. Perhaps Colt will enter into a formal alliance with Netero, taking with him whatever remains of the Queen’s loyal subjects – or perhaps Netero will simply take the information in stride and kill him. Anything seems possible in that grand Togashi way, as it only can when a story is intricately woven together the way this one is. The only thing that will surprise me at this point is if he doesn’t surprise me again, over and over.