Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This post comments on the events of Hunter x Hunter’s (2011) Chimera Ant Arc.
Meaning in language, connotative meaning especially, is not fixed. Folks possessing historical perspective are probably aware of at least a few words that, at one time, were once universally regarded with positive or neutral connotations and, at another, ended up being seen by many as negative or controversial. “Progress” is one of those words, associated as it was during the periods of Enlightenment and Modernity with those once unequivocally righteous virtues of industry and science. Industry and science have since been problematized by discoveries such as carbon footprints and nuclear energy — the stuff that could end worlds. “Evolution,” a concept related to “progress,” is another.
Hunter x Hunter (2011)’s Chimera Ant Arc frames the concept of evolution in both its more strictly physiological and more expansively utility-driven understandings. The show then ties evolution to the traditional shounen battler theme of self-improvement. Out of this relational framework, a powerful statement about evolution is made that ends up reflecting the general ambivalence the Japanese psyche has with such a concept, much like its mixed-feelings with the word “progress.” Like the word “progress,” evolution is not a concept that should be understood as an uncritical good. For evolution — like progress, industry, and science — has the power to create and inspire… and destroy and harm.
There are arguably two climactic peaks making up the climactic mountain of Hunter x Hunter’s Chimera Ant Arc: the fights between (1) Mereum, King of the Chimera Ants, and Issac Netero, the Chairman of the Hunters Association, and (2) Gon Freecss and Neferpitou. The first fight grounds evolution as as a concept that should be understood in the show in an ultimately utility-driven framework. The second fight connects the aforementioned framework to the shounen themed means by which Gon gains the strength to defeat Pitou.
Mereum and Netero clash. The two end up having the most challenging physical fight of their lives, but despite its length and awesomeness, both parties realized well before the fight’s end of who would ultimately prevail in this pure brawl. Netero was Mereum’s strongest and most determined foe yet. Mereum, however, continued to demonstrate matchless strength. Mereum desists in landing any fatal blows, detaching two of Netero’s limbs instead, all the while trying to convince Netero of the merits of surrendering — one merit presumably including him keeping his last attached arm and leg. Netero continues to fight on, closing the wounds of his arm-and-leg-stubs and using his ultimate and seemingly last move to kill Meruem. The move roughs up Meruem’s appearance, but otherwise does little to him. Netero is reduced to a terribly emaciated and sunken-eyed state, the wounds he previously closed now gushing out blood.
Mereum offers Netero one last chance to submit to him. He cites the physiological factors that he embodies, the animal kingdom amalgamated genetics made manifest in his superior strength, as the core reason for why continued resistance was pointless. Chimera Ants are the genetic products of all creatures consumed by the queen chimera ant in the animal kingdom, the end state of an evolutionary cycle that surpasses even mankind as the objective lords and stewards of the earth. From a physiological standpoint, as the King of the Chimera Ants, Mereum is the most evolutionarily advanced of an already evolutionarily superior race.
In light of this seemingly objective facts, Netero chuckles and smiles at what he calls Mereum’s naivety. His pride undiminished even whilst his once healthy and burly physique has decayed into the aesthetic stereotype of an old man — frail, toothless — he grins sinisterly, ominously. Corrupted backgrounds and bleached skulls infect Mereum’s senses, making him, reflexively… afraid. Netero proclaims that humanity should not be underestimated, that it has limitless potential to evolve. And then he plunges the fingers from his attached arm into his heart, killing himself.
His death triggers the analogous explosive device sown into his body, incinerating his corpse and charring Mereum’s body into a black and limbless carapace. Mereum survives the blast, but later succumbs to the poison released by the bomb. The bomb, relatively cheap to manufacture and favored by small-time dictators in the show’s universe, creates a plume of irradiated smoke that looks like a certain type of flower. Its shape and origins has led it to being popularly referred to as the “Poor Man’s Rose.”
Gon and Pitou clash. Pitou had previously beaten Gon’s mentor and father figure, Kite, with relative ease. Pitou claimed Kite’s corpse as her victory’s spoil, and as to her nascent wont, she toyed with his corpse until it resembled something of a torn-up puppet. Gon is broken, and then enraged by Pitou’s work and lies, violations of the person he loved through murder and mutilation, betrayals of fanatically optimistic expectations wrought by hollow promises to make things better. Upon having nearly jumped at Pitou when he encounters her at the expense of another innocent life, upon finding out that the animated Kite that he later discovered was not alive, but animated through Pitou’s powers, and upon fully realizing that it was beyond Pitou’s powers to bring back the dead… Gon does something drastic. Lacking the physiological capability to obtain superior strength, in order to obtain the power to beat Pitou, he sacrifices his potential to ever use nen again and his very life force to surpass to hasten his development for the one opportunity to coats his fists with her insides.
And when Pitou’s face was truly smashed, her chest visibly cratered, her body thoroughly broken, Gon’s physical health diminished to something resembling a nuclear bomb victim.
A common thread to a lot of shounen battlers are protagonists engaging in fair play. The heroes that audiences of shounen root for are those that overcome the odds of their opponents through legitimate means, namely their naturally born and honed strength and skill. Even when their opponents play cheap and dirty, it behooves heroic protagonists to refuse to fight in the mud with them. Even if also fighting cheap and dirty would make it easier on them, heroic protagonists need to set a righteous and honorable example as moral paragons for others. They must must further develop their own strength and skill naturally and legitimately, or they must otherwise wait for their opponents to weaken, paying the costs of their forbidden powers. Whenever protagonists do resort to playing and engaging with unseemly and taboo powers, the shounen battler makes it a point to frame their decision to tap into them as ominous, corrupting, or ultimately self-destructive and self-debilitating.
Unseemly and taboo powers are characterized by aberrations against the divine, the transgressive exploitations of others, or the undue sacrifice of the self. Witchcraft, blood rituals, black magic, and supernatural contracts with malign forces are some of the most traditional examples of unholy forbidden powers. A more contemporary and arguably more relatable example are nuclear weapons. The scale of destruction and debilitation that nuclear weapons can wreck is so catastrophically massive that they’ve developed a reputation of a power most unseemly, most taboo. The very association of nuclear weapons with nuclear energy — “nuclear” — has made the option of using relatively unenriched nuclear fuel as a viable civilian energy alternative to greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels controversial with even diehard environmental activists.
With the use of his Zero Hand, Netero exhausted all his natural and legitimate strength and skill to defeat Mereum. Victory against Mereum was so important to Netero that he resorted to one unseemly and taboo power: a suicide tactic using a weapon of mass destruction. With the besting of Kite, Gon understood that all the natural and legitimate strength that he could bring to bear wouldn’t be enough to defeat Pitou. Victory against Pitou was so important to Gon he resorted to another unseemly and taboo power: a contract whereby he would trade part of his lifeforce for a brief period of ultimate might.
The show does not celebrate either character’s unnatural power grabs. It might invite awe-struckness among audiences due to the sheer destructiveness of these powers or the sheer nerve exercised in deciding to use them, but the disturbing imagery of the direction and the price paid for these powers doesn’t support a narrative that glamorizes these two characters’ actions. They are framed as regrettable. At the end of the day, the goals that were important enough to Netero and Gon that they tapped into these unseemly and taboo powers are ones that people wouldn’t find conventionally noble. Netero fights Mereum, despite Mereum promising Netero that he would spare humanity from extinction in his race’s quest for world domination. He fights him not only to ensure humanity’s outright survival, but to ensure humanity’s continued global hegemony. Gon fights Pitou, despite Pitou losing her previous desire for diversion and sadism and learning to be empathetic through her own fear of losing someone she finds precious. He fights her ultimately in order to exact vengeance.
True, the Chimera Ants turn humans into food. But the humans leaders of the North Korean analogue of the show exploit the labor of other human peons to live it up in their fancy manors. Yes, the Chimera Ants seek to dictate the terms of the world in their favor via their physiological might. Yet the human peoples of wealthy nations harness their studied knowledge of nuclear science to develop those nuclear bomb analogues that they then use to dictate the terms of the world in their favor at the expense of other human peoples from poorer countries.
The Chimera Ants are new to the violent and imperial scene. They didn’t know better when they were born, and they began learning better rather quickly compared to humanity. Tens of thousands of years of lessons humans learned through bloody trial and error were grasped by the Chimera Ants within a span of months. The Chimera Ants have a well of human wisdom to draw from, after all. In fact, the Chimera Ants that the show’s protagonists confront are descended from, have the capacity for, and end up developing and experiencing very human emotions and motivations.
Chimera Ants and human beings are no different in how awful both races can be against each other and even towards themselves. This fact in the show adds complexity to a genre with a tendency to frame the characters in conflicts as organized according to two camps of moral duality and absolutism: good and evil. That Netero, one of Hunter x Hunter’s protagonists, utilized a suicide tactic and a nuclear-like bomb to stop Mereum, casts a dark shadow over the moral uprightness that shounen-loving audiences traditionally assume about their shounen heroes. That Gon, one of Hunter x Hunter’s main protagonists, sacrificed the closest thing to his soul to so that he could beat Pitou to death out of revenge, casts a deep umbral within already dark shadow over another thread that pervades shounen battlers: self-improvement. And Hunter x Hunter recontexualizes this theme with another concept. Distanced of its connotations of liberally progressive and social darwinist moralisms, evolution observes an amoral principle of nature and power: “survival of the fittest.”
Evolution as a principle of nature is inevitably a principle of power, because power is ultimately the capacity of an entity, an animal, to do something and prevent something from getting done to it. To resist dying, getting dominated, to survive and thrive requires power. In a previous post on Psycho-Pass, I discussed how one character in that show described cyborgs. He described cyborgs as those not only dependent on cybernetic limbs. He characterized cyborgs generally as people who, throughout the ages, relied on any technology — from sharpened sticks to smart phones — to live. Similarly, Hunter x Hunter doesn’t just treat evolution as a concept exclusive to the power innate in physiology. The show also treats evolution as the power that is possible through any utility. Through Mereum and Netero respectively, evolution both what exists and what can be brought into existence.
That is what made humanity weather the onslaughts of our animal peers, dominate our animal brethren that could tear asunder our naked flesh if we were our flesh and our flesh alone. Humanity resolved to evolve beyond our relatively weak bodies. With our resolve to evolve, humanity became hegemonic, dominant, and ascendant.
There was no reason, in retrospect, to believe that humanity could not best the Chimera Ants. After all, they embodied a type of evolution that was already bested by the kind of evolution that humanity has long been capable of.
And in humanity’s hegemony, dominance, and ascendance, humans turned on each other, time and time and time again.
Humans have committed atrocities to subjugate each other.
Humans have created nuclear bombs to destroy each other.
Shounen battlers tend to be centered around the theme of self-improvement, in both dimensions of strength and morality. The strength that heroic protagonists develop overtime parallel either the promotion a good cause or the improvement of their characters. Hunter x Hunter deviates from this tendency by connecting the theme to a concept as creative/inspiring, destructive/harmful, and — viewed without moralistic filters — as amoral as evolution. The imagery of a rose is fitting: an lovely flower grown from a thorn-choked bush. The Christian parable of seeds sown among thorns comes to mind. Hunter x Hunter doesn’t break from the theme of self-improvement though. It re-frames the theme through the lens of evolution at its most expansively utility-driven understanding. Innovation — whether internal or external of our bodies — can beget power, and how we use that power is up to us.
Among other things, the Chimera Ant Arc is a cautionary tale about humanity’s limitless capacity to hurt each other out of self-interest, and our limitations in stopping ourselves from turning capacity into reality. This lesson hails from a culture that, previously, has victimized other peoples with past claims of racial superiority, affirmed seemingly by the record of quick scientific progress borrowed from the records of the slow scientific progress of others. This conclusion, from a Japan that has been victimized by nuclear weapons, and whose psyche has been scarred ever since.
Management: For more on Hunter x Hunter (2011)’s Chimera Ant Arc, check out Bobduh’s post here.
For related post about stretching meaning language, here is a link to a previous Psycho-Pass post.