Friday, 4 July 2014

ハンター×ハンター / HunterxHunter: Chimera Ant Arc

Though I normally only review full series and this arc will actually have a few aftermath episodes, I feel that after the latest episode, the time is right for a second post about the 2011 HunterxHunter. The arcs are so long that it doesn’t feel so different from a post about one of the other big shounen series up to a timeskip. That said, I probably won’t do the next post until both the election and the new world exploration arcs are over...unless the anime stops again.

I had problems with this arc as a manga devotee. Not just because Togashi had his breakdown during it and we had to deal with chapters that were embarrassing scribbles. Not just because HiatusxHiatus meant that the arc stretched out over, what? Four years? Let me check. Hmm. It was more like nine. Nine years to finish an arc. Mostly, I simply had problems with the fact that in aiming for his usual starting-with-something-silly-and-then-transcending-it way of working, Togashi ended up making the arc look pretty goddamn goofy.

Yet seeing it all together as the arc finally, finally had its last chapters, I realised Togashi had planned it brilliantly all along, and did a lot of things no other shounen writer does. He broke the conventions and defied the cliches, and he made the dubious-looking characters the ones we truly cared for. If the York Shin arc is a masterclass in clever shounen writing with remarkably sympathetic antagonists and enemies that the good guys genuinely couldn’t hope to overcome through lame random power-ups, the Chimera Ant arc is a tortured, uneven yet brilliant experiment.

The anime had none of the big superficial problems of the manga. It did not have scribbled first-draft artwork, and it did not have enormous and frustrating breaks. It had Madhouse’s above-par animation, some superb voice work and some very clever stylistic decisions, and true to its source, it did things that no other series in its position does. What other big shounen has a whole episode based a single scene in which on a minor antagonist is confronted by his vastly superior leader and has to contemplate his mortality, divided loyalty and subservience? What other anime has the young protagonist set out with a clear goal, only to find that goal was never possible and that the one he wanted to save is beyond help already, only to sacrifice everything he has for a order to kill a second-in-command figure? 

And what anime leads its antagonist not to a big showdown, but beyond that, to contemplation of the nature of humanity, mortality and inner peace not in using his ultimate power but sharing a game with the only person he ever cared for, a weak, blind, feeble-minded and yet hugely gifted player of a board game? Giving the ostensible bad guy a dignified, peaceful, bittersweet exit while a previously unseen character in exile muses on the unpleasantness of human nature in creating weapons of mass destruction is not what one expects from a Jump show. My only disappointment was that the brutality of Pokkle’s death was sanitised.

But defying expectations is what I keep coming back for. Superficially this arc is a hard sell: it’s about scary bugs who absorb the characteristics of any creature they consume. When they eat humans, they become a truly formidable threat to the rest of mankind and must be dealt with. The newborn bugs start looking like various animals – bulls, bugs, cheetahs, penguins – and it’s all very much like furry fanart. Then the three royal guards are born, a big meathead, a ridiculous fey poet type prone to histrionics, and a cheeky androgynous catgirl. The king himself, once born, is a clear tribute to Cell from Dragonball Z. None of these elements seem very mature, and a cutesy octopus joining the rebels doesn’t help. Once a big fight scene became about fish men throwing teleporting fish-darts, I thought the series was in big trouble.

And then somehow, Togashi brings it all together and exceeds all expectations. His human characters make big sacrifices and have to face the possibility of their own deaths and the deaths of their friends. The little octopus becomes heroic and bizarrely manly. Old favourites reappear – and the side-story with the Ryodan remains one of my favourite parts of the series, planet summonings and silly clothing removal scenes included. But the real winner of the idea is the anticlimax, the ultimate warrior who transcends the desire to fight and subjugate, and becomes wise as humans seek to kill him.

This arc is what HunterxHunter is all about: surprising even its core audience. Togashi seems to make mistake after mistake...yet unlike Naruto or Bleach, it turns out that’s all building up to something deep and challenging. What more can you ask for in a shounen? Bring on the election arc – and Beyond! 

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