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Jul 12, 2015 2:07 PM
Anime Relations: Hunter x Hunter (2011)
This blog post is just going to consist of some musings of mine on the show I can’t help but keep returning to, over and over. As such, it probably isn’t going to be very organized since it’ll basically be a disharmonious collection of the various thoughts and ideas I have regarding the titular subject. Not that I’m claiming that my usual posts are very organized (I like to pretend they are, though). With that disclaimer out of the way…

“I’ll protect my nakama!”

“Don’t you dare hurt my nakama!”

“Raaaarrggghhhh!”

All of the above phrases can probably be found in the average battle shounen. The power of friendship has become an infamous trope thanks to its almost universal pervasion of action-adventure series targeted at this particular demographic. It’s often mocked and derided by the English-speaking anime community, with most of the criticisms centering on the tendency for such works to use the supposed intimate bonds present between its protagonists as an easy way to resolve conflicts. When all seems lost, and the big bad villain is about to emerge victorious, it is almost guaranteed that the main character will suddenly be motivated by his or her friends and proceed to defeat the antagonist, using strength that had previously not existed but that was now possible thanks to the support of the main’s comrades and the closeness of their relationship. In other words, the well-known “shounen power-up.”

It is such a tired and hackneyed trope that is used so frequently across a significant number of works (and really it goes far beyond battle shounen to be widespread in fiction in general) that it is no surprise that it has acquired such a bad reputation. More often than not the friendship between the protagonists is reduced to a dues ex machina plot device that solves whatever conflict happens to be at the center of the narrative at that moment. The result of the usage of this cliché is a pronounced lack of suspense (since the audience knows the inevitable conclusion, regardless of how bleak the situation may seem) and a rather predictable plot. The trope is also problematic in other ways, namely that it sometimes fails to communicate the message it purports to be espousing. “The power of friendship” usually manifests itself in an overpowered main character who defeats the Big Bad all on his own, without the help or assistance of his friends. Such an occurrence has the effect of undermining the theme, since the friends here don’t actually do anything of note; it’s not the “power of friendship” as much as it is “the power of that one guy because people like him.” Obviously this isn’t the intention of the works that utilize this trope, but it is sometimes the unfortunate implication.

It’s a shame that friendship as a theme should be mocked by so many, because really, all issues aside, it’s a pleasant moral and a good message to send the target audience of shounen series. It is good to have friends, to have comrades, to have people who’ve got your back. It’s good and healthy to build strong social relationships, for a whole host of reasons. More so, it’s important to learn to trust others, and developing intimate bonds with people helps you to grow more compassionate and caring for others. Having it as a theme provides endless opportunities for truly heartwarming, moving, and very powerful scenes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pushing the idea that friendship matters.

Perhaps the ‘problem’ that people have with it is that, all aforementioned writing issues aside, it is rarely explored in a compelling manner…which is true, to an extent. Most shounen don’t ever go beyond the simplistic and straightforward idea that “friendship is good, and lack of it is bad.” I mean, yes, I just spent an entire paragraph detailing exactly why it’s good, but most shounen don’t even explain the theme that far, let alone approach it in a more nuanced manner. Almost everyone can relate to having friends, and making that the focus of your story actually opens it to an infinite amount of storytelling potential. It is not restrictive in the least, as long as the writer is willing to explore interesting territory with it. And really, that’s exactly what I think HxH did.

Before we go any further, I’d just like to focus briefly on the typical structure a shounen series might adapt to make and emphasize its thematic point on the importance and beauty of friendship. More often than not, a sharp dichotomy is established between the protagonists and the antagonists. In these type of stories, the lonely, self-serving, and selfish aspects of the villains are usually highlighted, to emphasize the contrast between the compassionate and connected lifestyle of those on the side of good and the cold and callous attitude of those on the side of evil. The audience sees the intimacy and comradery that exists between the beloved main characters and just how pointedly it differs from the detachment and casual cruelty that seems to exist between the members of the villainous team, despite being ostensibly on the same side. When the opposing side inevitably loses, the audience is to understand that they fell because they lacked the wonderful qualities that that their opponents possessed. It’s an effective means of driving the message home, given the execution is at least competent.

Togashi took this idea in the Yorkshin arc and spun it on its head. While most people would probably not immediately associate the very dark, grim, violent, and seinen-ish Yorkshin narrative with ‘nakama,’ that is exactly what lies at the heart of it (along with vengeance). What differentiates Yorkshin from most of its ilk is that, in utter opposition to the typical dichotomy, it is its villains who share intense and close friendships with one another. The Phantom Troupe is very, very far from the disjointed and back-stabbing villain groups that often dominate shounen. They are extremely loyal to each other and to their leader, sharing a love so deep that each and every one of them is more than willing to die for his or her teammates. This does a lot to humanize them, of course, but it goes beyond that. Togashi does indeed love to create antagonists whom can be seen in a sympathetic light, but he always does it in the service of greater themes or ideas (as can be seen in this arc as well as Chimera Ant).

The Phantom Troupe display actions and emotions that in the majority of shounen would belong squarely in the heroes’ camp. Consider: Uvogin chooses death over selling out his teammates to his killer, an expression of the utmost loyalty. Both Chrollo and Nobunaga shed tears over their teammate’s death. The Phantom Troupe unleashes their grief on the entire city in a spectacular demonstration of unbridled carnage and mourning. In the very end, Pakunoda sacrifices herself voluntarily for the sake of her friends. There is a consistent theme here: all of these things are found all the time in not just typical shounen stories, but fiction in general. The catch is that it is usually the heroes who do all of this. It is they who go down in heroic fashion after refusing to surrender their teammates to the bad guys. It is they who cry and mourn over the loss of one of their own. It is they who vow to retaliate against the villains and avenge their lost comrade. It is they who selflessly sacrifice themselves so that their fellow friends can live.

All Togashi has done here is switch what should have been a group of good guys to a group of bad guys, a simple inversion that produced spectacular results. Really, broadly speaking, Yorkshin is a common narrative told from the perspective of the antagonists. It’s not a coincidence that in this particular story, it is Kurapika who seems to function as the villain. And really, to the Phantom Troupe, that’s precisely what he is: a cold-blooded killer intent on taking them out one by one. It is he who kills one of them, who strikes fear into their hearts, who kidnaps their leader, and who forces yet another one of them to die in the end via self-sacrifice. The chilling thing is that the Troupe is not at all far off in their assessment of Kurapika, a man who becomes so consumed by his quest for revenge that he gains a disturbing willingness to kill whoever stands in his way, even if they have nothing to do with his goals. For example, it is heavily implied that he would have murdered Melody for discovering his intent had it not been for her agreement to keep silence. His killing of Uvogin was chilling and systematic in the extreme, a scene where he truly transformed into the type of monster he was meant to be hunting down. Really, Uvogin seems almost heroic for protecting his teammates to the end, whereas Kurapika comes across as a ruthless villain who seems to feel nothing inside as he buries Uvogin.

In contrast to the intense comradery of the Troupe, Kurapika isolates himself from his own friends, keeping them out of the loop and embarking on his quest without even attempting to ask for their guidance or assistance. Kurapika’s detached behavior actually ended up putting his friends in danger, as their ignorance of his involvement with the Troupe nearly cost them their lives. Even after he agreed to let them help him, he continued to act recklessly, putting Gon and Killua’s life in very real danger. By the end of the arc Kurapika had learned from the error of his ways and, in a milestone development for his character, prioritized his friends above his mission.

Before we continue down that train of thought, it’s important to make it clear that while Togashi adds a sympathetic angle to the portrayal of the Phantom Troupe, he never allows the audience to forget their cruelty. The scene where they unleash hell upon the city as a ‘mourning’ of sorts for Uvogin is chilling in its barbarity and casual disregard for human life. In a similar vein, the scene where Pakunoda interrogates Squala and Nobunaga kills him is also heartbreaking in its mercilessness. That latter scene very specifically echoes Kurapika’s interrogation of Uvogin before he killed him as well. Likewise, Togashi does not shy away from showcasing just how ugly the path that Kurapika has taken is, most notably through his aforementioned destruction of the eleventh Troupe member.

The result is a conflict that is not black and white but instead dominated by shades of gray and a marked moral complexity. When it comes down to it, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Kurapika and the people he is fighting (not to suggest a moral equivalency, since the Troupe are obviously far crueler than Kurapika; just the observation that most of their motivations are virtually identical to Kurapika’s). Their annihilation of his people set off a chain of hatred and revenge that led him to murder one of them, which in turn pushed them to embark on a quest for vengeance of their own that simply continued the vicious cycle. The two sides trapped themselves in a never-ending, self-perpetuating phase drenched in blood and violence. By drawing such direct parallels between the two sides of the conflict and equating them so thoroughly, Togashi tore apart the dichotomy that so often characterizes fights in battle shounen. There is no contrast to be found here; just people stuck on the path of blood-soaked revenge as a result of the love they hold for their people.

So yes, friendship, comradery, nakama, whatever you call it, that was the catalyst for the chaotic events of the Yorkshin arc. When it came down to it, both had the same goals and fought for the majority of the arc for the same reasons. Ironically, each side initially perceived the other as monstrous and callous creatures, incapable of love and wholly evil. This is a running theme throughout Yorkshin, as the false preconceived notions that all involved held about each other are slowly broken down and proven false. The amusing thing is that this perception is often the reality in some battle shounen, where the villains really are monstrous and callous creatures. Togashi muddles the waters with the immensely human yet still evil Phantom Troupe.

Gon is surprised to discover that the Phantom Troupe, especially Nobunaga, genuinely mourned the passing of Uvo, to the point of shedding tears. Such a display of vulnerability is what prompted Gon to declare, in anger, that he had initially thought that the members of the Troupe were “heartless monsters” and that if they weren’t, why they couldn’t spare a “fraction of that grief” for all the innocents they murdered. Chrollo is shocked and taken off guard by his discovery that the “chain user” actually cared about and valued his friends; understandable, considering the Phantom Troupe’s perception of him as an inhuman killer. Kurapika himself receives a similar shock upon his realization that the Troupe valued their boss as much as he valued his own comrades; the revelation is so upsetting that it shakes Kurapika to his core and noticeably increases his anxiety and fear in his final dealing with the group. The visceral reaction is understandable; after all, Kurapika had realized that the supposed monsters he was fighting weren’t all that different from him.

It is this fundamental similarity that allows the Yorkshin arc to end the way it did; not with an epic climactic confrontation, but with a simple hostage exchange. Had even just one of the two parties involved not valued their captured partners, the trade could never have occurred as quietly and smoothly as it did, and both sides knew it. Melody reflects on it as Kurapika prepares to give over Chrollo; the fact that if the Phantom Troupe had been truly as merciless as they had appeared, the present arrangement could never have happened.

The ironic thing is that Chrollo tried very hard to make his fellow Spiders that way, by emphasizing over and over that the survival of the group was for more important than the survival of its leader. Were he to die, the Troupe could simply continue to survive under a different boss. Chrollo was so confident that his followers would prioritize the Troupe over himself that he accepted death even as Kurapika held him hostage. When he tells Kurapika with a smug smile that he holds “no value as a hostage,” he does so with utter conviction. Later on, he orders Pakunoda mentally to bring the whole group over without any hesitation.

When it came down to it, though, most of the Phantom Troupe members simply couldn’t abandon their leader, despite his confidence that they would. It’s interesting to look at the heated exchange between the Troupe members when it came to decide whether or not to let Pakunoda go to fetch the boss alone. Pakunoda’s fortune had told her that she would need to choose between pride and betrayal, without ever defining exactly what constituted what. Chrollo himself seemed to imply that betraying the Spider would be placing greater importance on his life than on that of the gang, and indeed that is what Nobunaga and his supporters do, much to the chagrin of the likes of Phinks and Feitan, who believe, correctly, that their boss would want them to accompany Pakunoda to the meeting place, regardless of the risk that posed to his own existence. In the end, though, the Troupe’s hand is forced when Killua rats them out, and they reluctantly gather back at their HQ, as per Kurapika’s demands.

Kurapika’s weakness, the one that Chrollo was so sure that he and his companions could exploit, ended up binding the Troupe as well. Chrollo followed his own rules, but the remainder of the Phantom Troupe didn’t. Pakunoda never had any intention of doing anything that could endanger her boss’s life, and her fear that he wouldn’t make it through the encounter showed itself best in her outraged reaction upon seeing Hisoka at Lingon airport; after all, his presence there meant that not all of the Troupe members were at the hideout, which in turn meant that they had disobeyed Kurapika’s orders and so doomed their boss to certain death. Fortunately for her, Hisoka blackmailed Kurapika using the same tactic he was using against the Phantom Troupe: the threat of the death of his companions. Pakunoda proceeded with the hostage exchange, alone, the remainder of the Phantom Troupe deciding willingly to stay behind at the HQ. Despite Chrollo’s wishes, his comrades had deliberately ignored his orders, for his sake. It seems, then, that the “betrayal” the fortune spoke of did indeed refer to ignoring Chrollo’s orders.

The crux of Yorkshin’s finale, the moment that Togashi had been very carefully building up to, was Pakunoda’s final living act. Kurapika had done something that threatened to turn the entire Troupe on her: condemned Chrollo to a life of solitude, with no means of defending himself. He had deprived the boss of his nen and forbidden him from contacting any Troupe members, lest he die. Of course, this meant that he wouldn’t be able to return to the Troupe, which was the sort of result that the group had been trying to avoid by complying with Kurapika’s demands. To top it off, Pakunoda was forbidden from explaining anything that had to do with Kurapika, including defending herself from her teammate’s accusations. Despite that, though, Pakunoda intentionally flouts the rules and passes all her memories, including the ones relating to Kurapika, to her teammates, at the cost of her own life. Her final words tip us off as to her motive in doing so: “Please…let this…end with me.”

Pakunoda’s sacrifice was for her partners, for her companions. She knew what would have happened had she remained silent: the Phantom Troupe members would have torn each other apart through internal fighting and disagreements, more likely than not leading to the destruction of the Spider, the ultimate betrayal any of them could possibly make to the boss, as Franklin so succinctly put it prior to the hostage exchange. More so, some of the members would likely chase the ‘chain user’ in order to avenge their doomed boss, which would in turn lead to retaliation by his friends, and so on and so forth, an unending cycle of violence and revenge that would slowly but surely kill everyone involved. By passing on her memories, Pkaunoda hoped that her friends would understand exactly what had occurred and why she did what she did, and so back down from any further confrontations that could deal lethal damage. In short, she wanted all the bloodshed that had occurred up to that point to end with her. The Troupe had begun the repeating pattern of hatred through their murder of the Kurta tribe, and Kurapika had only continued it through his killing of Uvogin, which had led to the Troupe’s slaughter in the city, and so on and so forth, both sides involved trapped in a doomed repetition of their own making.

But it’s the final scene of the Yorkshin arc, where the audience is privy to one of Pakunoda’s last memories, one that provides the final bit of context needed to make full sense of her actions. As she was walking Gon and Killua to the airport, she asked them why they didn’t take advantage of her current state of weakness to attempt an escape; by doing so, the Phantom Troupe would lose their leverage, and Kurapika would be free to kill Chrollo. Their response is fascinating: they don’t want Kurapika to kill anymore. They were his friends, after all; why would they willingly do something that would drive Kurapika further along the path of darkness? Gon and Killua intentionally restrained themselves for no other than Kurapika’s sake. Their loyalty is what inspired Pakunoda to do the same for her own friends: to stop them from destroying the bonds between them by useless fighting and killing. Just like Gon and Killua saved Kurapika, Pakunoda saved the Phantom Troupe, parallel expressions of love and care.

Really, that’s what the Yorkshin arc came down to: the power of friendship. What makes it so great, so touching, and so profound, is its dignified and sophisticated execution. This was a story of the self-destructive reality of revenge, of the hollowness and emptiness it brings, and of the duty of companions to stand by their comrade and save them from themselves. It was the story of the savage unending cycle of vengeance, of the basic humanity that exists at the heart of even the most seemingly inhuman killers, of the inhumanity that exists within the most human people, and again, of the internal healing and support that intimate social relationships can bring. All of this does indeed boil down to the power of friendship, just done in a manner so skilled that the majority of battle shounen can only dream of it.

So, all of that was fascinating and great stuff. Even better, though, is what Togashi did with the central friendship of the whole series: the one between Gon and Killua. On the surface, their friendship is rather straightforward, warm and sweet but hardly something special. Gon made Killua a better person, Killua made Gon happy, yada yada. But, like so many other things with Hunter X Hunter, there’s a lot more to it than just that. Togashi took Gon and Killua’s friendship to very dark places, challenging and bending it until it threatened to break, through an intricate and complicated relationship dynamic.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gon and Killua’s friendship lies at the heart of the whole series, in more ways than one. The entire structure of the show’s narrative, for example, echoes the relationship between the two. Killua repeatedly compares Gon to light; to the formerly lonely assassin, that is exactly what Gon is: a beacon of guidance and hope, of love and strength, of fun and adventure. He is everything that Killua ever wanted in life, a supportive light that shines so bright in optimism and faith that he can’t help but sometimes look away. Gon is the light that represents the opposite of all the darkness and cruelty that Killua only knew as a child. Naturally, in this case Killua would be the darkness, the complement to Gon’s light.

This union of light and dark is echoed in the very structure of the show. Many have noted that Togashi’s arcs seem to follow a set pattern: light, followed by dark, followed by light, followed by dark, and so on, in a continuously repeating cycle. A ‘light’ arc with more somber undertones is always followed by a much, much darker arc, before the audience is given a relief with the following brighter arc. Even a casual survey of the show reveals this: the energetic and bouncy Hunter exam arc is followed by the darker, slower, and more reflective Zoldyk family arc, followed by the cheerier Heaven’s Arena, and so on and so forth. Of course, what is especially noticeable about this format is that the designated dark arcs of the show get bleaker, grimmer, and heavier as the show progresses, whereas the supposed ‘lighter’ arcs get more dire as well. The result is a story that gets more serious on all fronts as it moves along, a reflection of the mental state and relationship of the two primary protagonists.

Just like Killua, Gon values their friendship very much, and it’s clear that he considers Killua the closest person to him in his life. He trusts Killua with his life and is always reliant on him to get them out of tough spots. He takes Killua’s words at face value and depends on him to clarify a situation or just provide a support he can lean against. Considering all of that, it seems the relationship between the two pretty much means the same thing to each of them. They both complement each other, Gon’s boundless energy and iron resolve coupled with Killua’s understated maturity and thoughtful demeanor, and keep each other going. Most importantly, they have a blast with each other and craft incredible memories, hand-in-hand, that they’ll never forget. What could possibly be wrong with what seems to be one of the greatest friendships a person could possibly ask for?

As it turns out, a lot. There is no doubting the positive and heartwarming aspects of the two’s companionship. But like the show they feature in, it belies darker, troubling issues with the very foundation of their relationship, problems lurking just beneath the surface but buried and ignored by the two involved. As the later events of the series show, all that was needed was a little shake to unearth the host of problems lying at the center of their friendship. Togashi is able to conduct a bold exploration of the relationship between the two leads that results in one of the most brilliant deconstructions of the friendship trope in battle shounen.

The heart-to-heart talk that Killlua and Gon had on Whale Island was an early but subtle indication of the potential problematic relationship between the two. Gon tells Killua that his goal in life moving forward would be to have find his dad while having fun on the way. Killua, though, has no such purpose. He informs Gon that he’ll be staying with him until he figures out what he wants to do…but really, all he wants is to stay with Gon. Killua at this point has no ambitions, no desires, no greater goals, beyond staying with his friend. He is driven not by what he wants, but by what he doesn’t (avoiding his family, for example); driven by fears, not hopes. His life literally revolves around Gon, so great is his attachment to him. It was due to that that as much as the two loved each other, Gon ultimately mattered more to Killua than the other way around, because he literally had nothing else.

More so, Killua’s perception of Gon as a beacon of light and innocence convinced him that he would have to bear the burden of whatever evil they came across. Gon’s essential purity is what had attracted Killua to him in the first place; he believed, then, that as his friend it was his responsibility to preserve Gon’s innocence. As a person who had already killed countless times, he thought it acceptable that he continue to walk the path of darkness so that Gon would never have to. While this is indeed a testament to the deep love that Killua felt for his friend, it is also troubling in its naiveté and in the inherently destructive path that it laid out for Killua. Here was a boy who was more than willing to ruin himself further for Gon’s sake. That selflessness would be fine in moderation; however, Killua takes it to an unhealthy extreme, and Gon does nothing to temper it. In fact, it is Gon’s attitude towards Killua that also plays a crucial role in the fragmentation of their friendship in the later stages of the series.

Gon is selfish. That is one of the defining aspects of his character. His way of thinking doesn’t differ very much from that of a child. He’s self-centered, he sees the world from a very narrow perspective, and he’s more amoral than anything. While he isn’t a bad person by any means, his straightforward attitude can be disturbing dependent on the situation. His tendency to bring harm both to himself and to others out of his stubborn selfishness affected Killua more often than not. There is a scene in the Greed Island arc that best encapsulates this aspect of their relationship, specifically the one where Gon insists that Killua be the one to hold the ball for him as he powered up to hit it, just because Killua is his friend and he trusts him above all else. Gon paid no heed to Killua’s severely burnt hands, which became worse every time Gon punched the ball. Killua, in his characteristic fashion, had been trying to hide the pain that Gon’s actions were causing him. Despite the protest of the others present, both Gon and Killua continued using their strategy.

It’s easy to read this scene as marker of the two’s powerful bond, and in many ways it is. However, it is also a microcosm of harmful behaviors of the two. Gon was awfully selfish in this situation, as he usually was, and Killua allowed him to be by not complaining about the incredible pain he was suffering from, all for his sake. This touches on what Gon told Killua all the way back in the Yorknew arc: that it was his job to be the idiot, and Killua’s to clean up after him. It was a playful, innocent statement, but its darker implications become clear in both Greed Island (where Gon’s self-centered nature is emphasized repeatedly, especially in the arc’s climax) and Chimera Ant. No matter how much he had to endure for Gon’s sake, Killua willingly carried the burden, all in the belief that he was both protecting Gon and saving his soul from being tainted from the cruel world around them. Gon, more often than not, either didn’t notice or purposely ignored it. Killua’s fight against the Chimera Ant in episode 94 is an acute example of this: Gon on a date with Palm, blissfully ignorant of the beating that his friend was receiving nearby for his sake alone.

The result of this unbalanced dynamic, of excessive selflessness paired with excessive selfishness, was an abusive relationship. The tragedy of Gon and Killua’s friendship is that neither realized it until it was too late, and more so, neither was willing to acknowledge it. Killua gave everything for Gon, and was satisfied with receiving nothing in turn, as long as Gon remained his friend. That was what mattered most to him in life after all. This is part of what caused him to take so much without a single complaint; his fear of losing Gon as a friend. Every time Killua questioned him but never voiced his thoughts, every time he was hurt and swallowed it without a word, he was doing it out of a desire of not endangering their bond in any way, and of course, in the belief that it was his job to bear the burden without complaint. The inevitable consequence was Gon getting away with a lot while Killua let him. To him, it was alright as long as they remained close, intimate friends. So, naturally, when that stopped being the case, Killua broke. The most ironic aspect of this relationship is that what Killua valued the most in his friend and what he sacrificed so much to desperately protect, Gon’s purity of heart and innocence of mind, is what ultimately drove the biggest wedge between the two, the one that they couldn’t, in the end, overcome.

The Greed Island arc was positioned very deliberately between Yorkshin and Chimera Ant. Aside from continuing the pattern of light and darkness discussed earlier, it brought the close friendship between Gon and Killua to the forefront of the story, displaying it in all of its good and bad qualities. We see how Gon and Killua support each other, how happy they make each other, and how much they truly and deeply love one another, friends so close as to resemble brothers. On the other hand, we also see the more unsettling and borderline terrifying aspects of Gon’s personality (see his fight with Genthru, especially the part where he sacrifices his hand) and Killua’s troubling silence (the Dodgeball game mentioned above). Despite that, however, the arc’s portrayal of Gona and Killua’s intimate bond was overwhelmingly positive. That is exactly why Greed Island acquires an undertone of profound sadness only in hindsight, when the audience sees what comes next. Here, we see Gon and Killua at their absolute happiest and at their absolute best, playing a fun game passionately with all their hearts, tasting the innocent joy of childhood. It was Killua’s chance to be a kid again, and Gon’s last to remain one. The fact that the Greed Island arc was one long game was not a coincidence; after all, what symbol better represents childhood (and there’s actually a lot more to the arc’s themes and motifs, but I’ll save that for another post)? Unbeknownst to the viewers at the time, however, was just how effectively Greed Island served as a prequel for what was to follow. It showed us Gon and Killua at their best in a very conscious contrast to what would soon be them as their worst. Greed Island was about Gon and Killua through and through, a last hurrah of sorts before it all went down the drain. And when it did, a repeated watch of Greed Island would reveal that beneath all of its positivism lay a poignant warning of what was to come.

The Chimera Ant arc is arguably the most important segment of the story that Hunter X Hunter told over the course of its 148 episodes. It represented the climax of the series on nearly every front, and Gon and Killua’s friendship was included in that. The trouble began from the very beginning, as Gon was exposed to the darkness and evil that Killua had sought to shield him from for so long. He witnessed death and depravity first hand, and was forced to grow up with it. Things became worse when Kite was viciously attacked by Neferpitou before the two boys. Even at this time, though, despite all the terrible things he had seen, Gon remained the picture of optimism. As he smiled at Killua after thanking him for saving him and told him confidently that Kite definitely survived, Killua reflected, for the last time, on the fact that Gon was indeed the light…his light. Tragically for the two boys, that was about to change.

The buildup to Gon’s descent into darkness was gradual, but really its foundation had been laid for a long time, at subtle points throughout the show up to that point. I won’t really elaborate on it too much here, since I want to get into it in detail in a separate post, but the essentials of it is that Gon learned the reality of his own weakness as well as the raw pain of losing someone dear to him, an altogether new experience that had him dead-set on revenge. The turning point for his character came very clearly in episode 95, when he met Kite post-death, reanimated at Pitou’s hands to become a mindless robot, the once dignified and wise Hunter reduced to an automated puppet. The shock of the experience and the profound effect it had on Gon’s psyche marked the beginning of his increasing isolation, as he masked his murderous intent with his typical childish-looking exterior.

Gon’s pure, straightforward worldview was in many ways directly responsible for the severity of the change that he went through in the subsequent episodes. His intense want for revenge, his simplistic perspective that assigned sworn enemy status to whoever hurt people he liked, his lack of experience with these new agonizing emotions of simultaneous guilt and hatred, all combined to create a volatile bundle of explosive rage. Everything was exacerbated by it, and this only continued after his initial confrontation with Pitou, which only shook him further in the way it challenged his preconceived notions of the enemy as well as to the nature of the conflict against the Chimera Ants. Taken all together, it was too much for Gon, as his utter breakdown in episode 116 demonstrated quite well. Killua, the whole time, could do absolutely nothing to stop it, and his attempts to calm Gon down only widened the gap between them.

Gon hurt Killua. He hurt him badly. Truth be told, he had been hurting him since the beginning of the invasion, through his distant behavior and cold attitude. He treated Killua not as a close friend who had been through so much with him, but as a professional partner, hardly worth talking to or confiding in. Killua felt that Gon was quietly pushing him away even before the Invasion began; note Shoot’s assessment of Killua in episode 109, where he felt that Killua seemed to be on the verge of “fading.” In hinsight, it is clear what he was referring to. The worst thing Gon ever told Killua was what he said at that moment, after Killua stopped him from attacking Komugi: “You can remain calm…since it has nothing to do with you.” It’s a childish statement, born out of Gon’s need to lash out, like the kid he is. But it was also one that pushed Killua far, far away from his best friend, by framing the situation as if Killua were a stranger. The thing is, it had everything to do with Killua. His calm and collected demeanor was simply him looking out for his friend, doing what he always did: cleaning up after his mess. But this time, Gon didn’t like it, and his words were ultimate way of building up a wall around himself, cutting him off from everyone and everything. And Killua, as he always did, took Gon’s hurtful statement quietly and swallowed it down, never betraying the extent to which it had torn at his heart. The way Madhouse shot this scene was extremely effective at conveying the gaping chasm developing between the two: Gon growing further and further away physically from Killua’s perspective, and the quiet, understated shot of his silhouette walking away from Killua’s still one, leaving him behind.

It was Gon’s change that really altered the dynamic between the two in the Chimera Ant arc. The dichotomy of light and darkness remained, but the roles were reversed. Killua became the light, while Gon became the darkness. While Gon sank further and further into the depths of depression and vengeance, Killua became a source of inspiration for many, just as Gon had been to him. The greatest difference that arised between the two was their treatment of the people around them. While Gon blocked himself off from the rest of the world, retreating to the deepest confines of his mind, Killua was out making friends. He made a companion out of Ikalgo by saving his life and serving as a figure of motivation for him, and even went on to befriend Palm, a woman had once despised him. Killua did what Gon had once done with ease: build strong and lasting social relationships. He had finally reached Gon’s level only to find himself standing there alone, his friend regressing to become more and more like his former self. It was yet another tragic irony of their companionship.

By Chimera Ant, Killua, based on his experience with Gon, had developed a sort of personal philosophy in regards to the meaning of friendship and to the role that comrades play in each other’s lives. He reveals this to Ikalgo quite directly in episode 107, when he made it clear that in his view, friends are supposed to help one another in any situation at any time. Since it’s a given that any person will support his friend, gestures of thanks and gratefulness are unnecessary. Killua’s words leave a strong impact on Ikalgo, moving him to tears, and he is inspired to take Killua’s words as gospel moving forward. The pay-off for this moment actually comes shortly after, in the first episodes of the invasion, specifically 113. Killua, ironically, is the first to deviate from the plan he had insisted everyone stick to prior to the invasion, all for Ikalgo’s sake. When Ikalgo passes by Killua after the deed is done, he doesn’t thank Killua, rather telling him that he “owes him one.” This scene is a thematic continuation of the one in episode 107, and serves as an important indicator of the intimacy of the bond shared by Killua and Ikalgo. They are portrayed by the narrative as an example of strong friendship, in deliberate contrast to the state of the relationship between Gon and Killua. The firm trust present in Killua and Ikago’s companionship is conspicuously absent from the relationship between our two leads at this point in time…and that, of course, doesn’t escape the notice of Killua, as Gon’s behavior repeatedly contradicts everything that Killua had come to believe about the nature of nakama, beliefs that had ironically come about as a result of Gon’s influence.

Gon’s arc during Chimera Ant very deliberately echoed that of another character’s we had seen before: Kurapika. In hindsight, the Yorkshin arc gains a greater deal of significance as an elaborate piece of foreshadowing for Gon’s future fall. What had seemed at the time to be a great but tangential detour is revealed to be very specifically tied to Gon’s character arc. Many of the things that Gon said or did during Yorkshin become exceedingly relevant during Chimera Ant, even becoming more meaningful. It was in Yorkshin that Gon told Killua that it was his job to clean after his mess, a statement that alluded to one of the most problematic aspect of their friendship. It was in Yorkshin that Gon asked Chrollo how the Phantom Troupe could bear to kill innocents who have “nothing to do with [them],” a question that becomes eerily ironic in Chimera Ant, when Gon threatens to kill Komugi, a person totally unrelated to him and his issues in any way, if Pitou stalls him again. It was in Yorkshin that Kurapika cut himself off from his friends and sentenced himself to a lonely existence within walls of darkness, an exact mirror of what Gon does in Chimera Ant. It was in Yorkshin that Kurapika utilized the Nen vow to gain power and impose conditions on himself for the sake of crushing the Troupe, just as Gon does in order to defeat Pitou. The parallels are numerous and direct, leaving no doubt that Gon, in Chimera Ant, walked the same path that Kurapika had trodden not too long ago. Unlike Kurapika, however, who realized before it was too late the importance of living for those who are alive (his nakama) rather than those who are dead (his tribe), Gon allowed himself to be consumed by his quest for revenge at the cost of his best friend.

That best friend reached the end of his rope during Chimera Ant, when his tolerance for Gon’s behavior finally failed. He took out his anger in the aftermath of the Pitou confrontation on Youpi, even warning the Chimera Ant that he just needed to “let off some steam.” That was the angry side of his reaction to Gon’s actions and words. His heartbroken and pained reaction came later, when he broke down in tears before Palm, as the full force of his realization of his own helplessness and lack of control of the situation came crashing down upon him. It was in episode 136, when we see Killua speaking to the comatose Gon, that he finally breaks and lets his frustration, his hurt, and his feelings leak out. The metaphorical dam had finally broken, allowing all the pent-up feelings of agony come bursting out all at once. Killua had finally crossed the breaking point, and it was what gave him the final push he needed to, at long last, resolve to hold Gon accountable for his misdeeds. Ironically and sadly, that resolve wouldn’t hold.

Gon and Killua’s final departure from each other appears happy and optimistic on the surface, but is ripe with tragic undertones. Its most problematic aspect (quite intentionally) is the utter lack of closure it provides, both for the characters in-story and for the audience. Togashi very deliberately denied us, the viewers, the emotional catharsis that a truly heartfelt reunion and making of amends between Gon and Killua would have brought us. Despite building anticipation for it, in the end Togashi made the odd (typical for him) decision of completely skipping over the moment when Gon and Killua came together once again, despite their relationship being the crux of the entire show. The narrative fast-forwards to when it’s time for the both of them to go their separate ways.

The entire departure feels false in a deeply unsettling manner. Gon and Killua are excessively silly and exaggerated, the color palette used in the episode itself is bright and vibrant in a manner that hearkens to the early days of the show, and overall a strong impression is given that something is amiss. That after all the hell they had been through Gon and Killua are so relaxed with each other is strange. Gon’s apology to Killua is terribly inadequate, and Killua’s lax response is equally insufficient. More to the point, Killua repeatedly brings up just how harshly Gon hurt him by his actions during the Invasion, seeming to allude to it in some shape or form every few minutes, all while shrouding it in the guise of light-hearted banter and teasing. It almost feels like he’s criticizing Gon while pretending he’s fine, feigning forgiveness when the reality is very different. It’s when the boys say their final goodbyes and turn away from each other that they finally betray their true feelings, through the truly melancholy expressions on their faces, expressions which hint at deeper issues than simply sadness at their separation.

Ultimately, Killua couldn’t go on befriending Gon. The relationship, in its final stages, simply became too damaging, too toxic. Gon, even though he hadn’t really mean to, had abused Killua time and time again and then coldly pushed him away when he needed him most. Killua, for all the claims he had made about really making Gon apologize and repent for his insensitive actions, in the end let him off with a lame and lazy apology, an indication both of his unwillingness to seriously confront Gon on his shortcomings as well as Gon’s inability to compensate for the severity of his reckless actions. In the end, neither of the two could change, precisely because of how much they loved each other. For each other’s sakes they do their best to make their departure seems as joyous and wonderful as possible, but they could not maintain the façade all the way through. So much was left unspoken between them, so much unresolved, issues that needed to be confronted head-on and dealt with unambiguously in order for their friendship to have any chance of surviving and thriving. At this point in the lives of the two, it is sadly clear that they simply aren’t at that stage yet; for all of their incredible experiences, they’re still very young. As such, it was almost imperative that they part ways for a while, until the time came that they were ready to address the more troubling aspects of their relationship and agree to move past them by actually resolving them.

Ironically, it was the two’s support of and influence upon one another that even allowed them to reach this point in their lives at all. After all, it was Gon who had inspired Killua to crawl out of his shell, to leave his old, meaningless, and miserable existence behind. It was Gon that had taught Killua how to build invaluable friendships and showed him the beauty of compassion and care for others. It was out of his love for Gon that Killua was able to overcome Illumi’s mental conditioning and truly break away from his family. In short, the character development that Killua went through came about as a result of his relationship with Gon, and that development is what led Killua to assuming responsibility for his sister Alluka and resolving to devote his life to her, to save her from leading the same sort of secluded and joyless existence that he himself had been condemned to by his family. It was Gon who helped Killua find the purpose that he lacked back during their stay on Whale Island. Similarly, it was Killua’s undying support and sacrifice that allowed Gon to finally be reunited with his father. Every step of the way, Killua looked after his best friend, propping him up when the going became tough and literally saving his life multiple times. Gon wouldn’t have made it two steps past Heaven’s Arena without Killua at his back, functioning as a guardian angel. The two supported each other emotionally, mentally, and physical all the way through, which makes their separation and its factors all the more tragic.

It is a bit of a melancholy realization that in the end, Killua and Gon chose family over their friendship; Gon his father, Killua his sister. I don’t believe that the message is one is more important than the other; rather, it seems to be a confirmation of the fact that Gon and Killua can’t continue together for the time being. They need to spend some time away from each other but still with people dear to them, an experience that is likely to make them better and wiser.

Gon and Killua’s friendship distinguishes itself from the endless multitudes of shounen friendships with its complexity and tragic trajectory. Most works that attempt the theme of friendship never really go beyond the surface level, endlessly pounding in the message “these people are friends” without really making use of it in any compelling manner. Rarely are these companionships explored in any great depth, and even rarer are they challenged by genuine conflict that originate from the differing beliefs, viewpoints, philosophies, or even flaws of the people involved. One Piece (minor spoilers here) is one of the scarce gems that actually puts the friendships of its characters to the test (in the brilliant Water 7 arc), but other such examples are more difficult to come by.

More so, it’s not simply a matter of Gon and Killua’s bond being better developed or actually challenged; what occurred between the two is an excellent deconstruction of traditional shounen friendships. Even a casual anime viewer will readily recognize the oft-repeated mantra of “I will protect my friends” that permeates a great number of battle shounen. It’s present in Hunter X Hunter as well, but taken to its logical conclusion. After all, that was the central problem with Killua when it came to Gon: his dogged determination to burden himself unnecessarily, both emotionally and physically, for the sake of protecting his friend from both external and internal damage. That’s what tore Killua apart slowly as the series progressed, and is what played a big role in the collapse of their companionship towards the end. Gon’s selfishness and naiveté, while often played for laughs, is an equally destructive force, as its natural consequences undermined the healthiness of the relationship. In most battle shounen, Gon’s behavior and attitude would most likely not be subjected to such intense scrutiny, nor would its logical effects be addressed. Here, though, they are critical to the unraveling of his friendship with Killua, and critical to understanding what went wrong. It’s a brilliant and fascinating take on the friendship cliché present in these sorts of works, and demonstrates some of the darker implications of such a friendship that are usually skipped over in other battle shounen.

Yorkshin and Chimera Ant, and really the whole series, make great use of the theme of nakama. Yorkshin applies it in an unusual context to generate interesting, multi-faceted conflicts that also reveal a good deal about the characters involved, while Chimera Ant actually examined the potential flaws and problems inherent in a type of friendship similar to the one between Gon and Killua, and forced it through the emotional wringer to create a powerful trial for the two leads. It’s all stuff that enriches the narrative and really goes beyond the typical and routine, and just one of the many reasons that Hunter X Hunter is a truly special piece of work.
Posted by MrAM | Jul 12, 2015 2:07 PM | 4 comments
angeal18 | Aug 2, 2015 10:30 AM
Understandable lol. Gintama has a lot of content to get through so it's probably better off waiting to marathon when you eventually get around to it. Rainbow is a short show that still has plenty of quality despite its limited quantity so it should be much easier to get into.
 
MrAM | Jul 31, 2015 6:55 AM
Thank you!

Please do PM me, that sounds really interesting. I always love hearing well-supported theories that shed light on what may come in the future, regardless of their accuracy.

Thanks for the recommendation! A cursory view of it seems to confirm that it's exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. The fact that it's a Madhouse production is just a great bonus. Its short length means its not too much of a commitment, so I'll probably start and finish it soon (the duration of a series really affects how quickly I complete it; even if it has a really good start I'll still be slow to really commit to it, which explains the reason behind my pace of watching Gintama at the moment).
 
angeal18 | Jul 27, 2015 3:30 PM
Also, if you really want to see a mature anime that takes a gritty philosophical approach in accessing concepts such as friendship and human companionship in general, then Rainbow: Nisha Rokubou no Shichinin is one of, if not the best in that genre, maybe even more so than Hunter x Hunter.

I've recommended it to you once before but now after reading this specific piece you've written I can only imagine that you would appreciate it a lot, as it is studio Madhouse at their best. Its only 26 episodes and is all cylinders go from the beginning so it shouldn't be a huge undertaking if you do decide to give it a try.
 
angeal18 | Jul 27, 2015 2:13 PM
Yet another great analysis of why Hunter x Hunter is so exceptionally well written. I actually have a couple loose fan theories pertaining to future plot points in the coming arcs that would add even more to this, they are mostly just keen observations on my part from reading between the lines a bit and uncovering some of the cryptic foreshadowing Togashi has hidden within in the story, so while they aren't much to read into, they do add some really interesting ideas to possibly look forward to. (Identity of Gon's mother, final arc location and villain, etc.)

I can PM them to you if your interested. I would just post them here but even though they may only be speculation, someone might stumble upon this and technically consider them spoilers if they do indeed turn out to be accurate by some chance.