The question here was always whether Hunter X Hunter could possibly follow up the tour de force display of episode 35. The answer, unequivocally, is yes. A resounding yes.
“44” tag was everything I imagined it to be – full of subtext and complex implication. It was a perfect way to start the episode, and things just got better from there.
Subtext and subtlety is such a huge part of why this is great, transcendent shounen – some of the best I’ve seen. The straightforward stuff – the friendships, the training, the action – is fantastic. But the stuff that’s happening just under the surface is almost shockingly dark and disturbing, not least for a show that’s nominally aimed at kids. I had someone tell me this week that they didn’t want to watch H x H because “looks so kiddie”. Well, what can you do – but don’t think Togashi isn’t fully aware of that disconnect, and using it very artfully to mess with our heads at every turn. Taking Gon and Killua on their own terms, the gulf between their appearance and their true nature is pretty shocking as I’ve pointed out before.
But when you get to Hisoka, that element of the series is off the charts. He’s a fascinating, incredibly complex character to start with – and clearly the strongest person we’ve met in this fighting series, to boot. His feelings as regards Gon are complex too – there’s definitely an element of respect there. But he’s also a flat-out pedophile, a shotacon – a guy who’s physically turned on (and visibly so), by looking at Gon , and who gets off on the act of punishing and being punished by Gon and the thought of eventually “breaking him”. “You’re so adorable. You’re so good! That face… Those eyes! Not yet. More… More!” This is seriously creepy and disturbing stuff, and it’s right there in plain sight. And it doesn’t detract one bit from the fight being immensely entertaining (the Godly animation doesn’t hurt in that regard).
You can set the creeper stuff aside and the dynamic here is still a fascinating one. Gon himself is a fear addict – he loves the thrill he gets from facing Hisoka, because only Hisoka can terrify him enough to make him feel truly alive. And make no mistake, there’s an element of respect here on both sides. It’s obvious in this fight that Hisoka is teaching Gon (and Gon is learning, though he'll decline to share just what with Killua later) more than anything else. Enjoying himself immensely, yes – both the punishment he’s dishing out and what he’s taking – but using the opportunity to show Gon his own shortcomings and the tricks he can only learn from Hisoka, without damaging him enough to break his spirit, even encouraging him. Could he defeat Gon at any moment? Of course he could – he could kill him at any moment, easily. But he’s not lying when he says Gon has made incredible progress, and he makes sure Gon understands there’s no point in wasting any more time in Heaven’s Tower. In his own words, Hisoka wants Gon to “reach soaring new heights… Until I can no longer bear to ruin you.” My God – is there any other anime where that line could possibly appear?
Of course Hisoka does win the fight – he was always going to win the fight. We see very telling reactions when the fight is over – Wing, Zushi and even Killua are happy Gon has lost, because they’re glad he’s still alive. Even the referee admits that he scored the fight tightly because he didn’t want it to become dangerous. Indeed, the one most disappointed that the fight was over was Gon himself, for all the damage he’d taken – because he knew he’d never feel the same thrill until he got to fight Hisoka again. He knew it was hopeless, yet wanted to keep going, while the others – his friends, the ref, even Hisoka himself – were happy to see it over with Gon still alive. Gon truly is a beast when his blood is up, but he’s nowhere near ready to fight Hisoka in a true life or death battle.
There was plenty of other great stuff in the ep, too. For example, Hisoka’s little lesson about his personality method for determining Nen class (“Like the blood type personality test, and just as reliable”). He nails it with Gon – “Enhancers are simple and earnest” – and for himself and Killua – “Transmuters are fickle and dishonest”. He declares that he and Gon are attracting opposites, and that “We could become very intimate” (Hisoka, you creeper…) but also warns him that things could turn at any moment (a lesson he also shares in his match-clinching deception later on). I also loved Gon’s defiant “Shut up, I’m brainstorming!” during the match – have I mentioned that Han Megumi is doing an amazing job? It was also interesting that the BGM for the fight switched to a rock track, completely opposite from last week’s creepy strings. And then there’s the weird dude (Togashi himself? Prince Baka?) who popped up out of nowhere next to Coco in the booth to explain about different types of scoring. I’d call it random, but there doesn’t seem to be any random in H x H.
What’s really remarkable is that we haven’t even reached the arcs that most fans of the manga and the 1999 series consider their favorites. As is, this one is drawing to a close, and at the perfect moment as well – ending on an extreme high note, with its story having been told in a completely satisfying way. I’m definitely going to miss Wing and Zushi (Osu!), who were excellent characters and added a lot to the emotional appeal of the arc in addition to fulfilling their roles in the plot. The next ep is a return home to Whale Island so that Gon can proudly show off his license to Mito (played of course by Megumi’s RL mother, seiyuu legend Han Keiko) and again, it comes at a perfect time – after the intensity of these last episodes, a brief respite in the warmth of family couldn’t be more welcome. Of course Ging’s name – remember him? - will come up (it already has, in the episode title) but I hope the main course will be on Gon and Mito, with Killua’s first exposure to a loving family not made up of assassins an appetizing side dish.
Gon & Killia’s Hunterpedia: “Gon!”