Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Hunter x Hunter.
There’s no question that the Chimera Ant arc deserves a lot of the praise it gets. I’ve spent parts 1 and 2 analyzing just a few of it’s major characters and themes, and there’s still so much more that I didn’t have time to touch on. On the thematic side, the arc is untouchable. It’s themes are thought provoking and conveyed almost perfectly. It’s character writing is also superb, managing to develop both it’s heroes and it’s villains to a degree rarely seen in this kind of shounen. That said, there’s a reason I’m calling the arc a brilliant mess. It’s an extremely ambitions and largely accomplishes it’s goals, but this comes at a cost. The story itself is excellent, but the way it’s told and structured is less than elegant.
In terms of basic structure, the Chimera Ant arc is less of a single unified arc and more of four arcs with noticeably different genres. It starts out as an action-horror arc with Gon, Killua, and Kite’s initial expedition to NGL, becomes a training arc during Gon and Killua’s battles with Knuckle and Shoot, turns into a war drama when the Hunters enter East Gorteau to try and reach the king, and then ends as a character study of Meruem with ruminations on the meaning of humanity. I’m obviously generalizing a lot, but the four sections are all distinctly different and seem to have different priorities. Every part is good individually, but having so many different parts means the story sometimes comes off as unfocused, especially during the training section. I have no way to confirm this, but my theory is that Togashi’s plans for the arc changed as it went on, which would explain the shifts in genre. It’s not just the genre shifts that make me think that; the arc’s focus also changes as it goes on.
The first half of the arc gives Colt, the first human-based Chimera Ant to be born, a lot of attention. It clearly prioritizes his growing humanity, with scenes of him showing real affection towards the queen and even sparing some humans. It reaches the point where Colt has as much screen time as Gon and is almost a co-lead. Everything seems to be leading to him changing sides and helping the Hunters, but things don’t go exactly that way. Colt is the first Chimera Ant to reach out to the Hunters for help when the queen is dying, but his role after the queen’s death is almost nonexistent. He helps the Hunters by giving them information, but spends the rest of the arc taking care of the queen’s last child and doesn’t have any direct involvement in the story after that. He just occasionally shows up to give information without doing much else. It’s almost like Togashi initially planned on Colt playing a major role in the arc, but changed his mind part of the way through.
There’s a similar case with Gyro, the founder and leader of NGL. Nearly half an episode is devoted to narrating Gyro’s backstory, but nothing ever comes of it. Gyro himself never even appears in the arc or has any direct involvement. Several of the Chimera Ants are motivated to switch sides out of loyalty to Gyro from when they were human, but a detailed backstory isn’t necessary for that. I kept waiting for him to play a role of some sort, but he had almost nothing to do with the arc. The narration in the manga implied that he would play a part later in the story, but he never showed up again in the anime and hasn’t even appeared in the manga yet, even though the chapter with his backstory came out back in 2004. It’s not unusual for long-running shounen to introduce characters years before they become relevant, but devoting almost half an episode to developing a character we never see comes off as a waste of time. Once again, it seems like Togashi had plans for him but changed his mind part of the way through.
Some of these issues come from the sheer scale of the arc. Telling a cohesive story for 60 straight episodes is almost impossible to do while still staying focused. With such a large cast (there are at least ten significant characters among the protagonists alone) it’s virtually inevitable that some would get left by the wayside. Colt, Gyro, Kite’s team from the beginning of the arc, all of them don’t get the focus the story leads you to believe they’ll get. It’s an regrettable casualty of telling a story this large in scale. Unfortunately, this also happens to the main characters in the later parts.
Gon and Killua both play a relatively small, if important, part in the palace raid section of the arc. Gon is focused on getting revenge on Neferpitou for what she did to Kite, and spends a large chunk of the climax just sitting there while Pitou heals Komugi. His big moment in the arc is discovering Kite’s death and killing Pitou, which is important, but not a central part of the story. Don’t get me wrong, Gon losing his humanity while Meruem grows more human is crucial to the arc’s themes, but having the main character sidelined for the climax of an arc is also somewhat frustrating. The palace raid ends up giving the other Hunters and Meruem more attention than Gon and Killua (Killua is mostly involved in Gon’s story and doesn’t play a big part in the battle with the Ants after he saves Palm). Gon and Killua never even interact with Meruem; they only see him from a distance at one point. It’s almost like Gon and Killua’s stories were only tangential to the arc as a whole. Hunter x Hunter has never gone for traditional climaxes (Greed Island is currently the only arc that didn’t end with an anti-climax) but not even having the leads interact with the main villain is an odd choice by any standard of storytelling. It almost seems like Togashi is more interested in his villains than the leads.
I’ve already covered a lot of the arc’s flaws, but there’s one more that I would be remiss in ignoring: the narration. Having some amount of narration in long-running shounen is common and even helpful at reminding the audience what’s going on, but the later episodes of the Chimera Ant arc take this to a whole new level. Characters’ backstories and inner thoughts are conveyed entirely through narration that stretches on for several minutes at a time. It reaches the point where some episodes have more narration than dialogue. This is both good and bad. On one hand, this gives the audience a lot of insight into characters’ inner thoughts, but it’s also an extremely awkward way of telling a story. This method would work better in a novel or a manga because a lot of information can fit into a single page, but this much narration is far less effective in a visual medium like anime, where the general rule is “show, don’t tell”. Having a narrator explain what characters are thinking takes the viewer out of the story and gets tiresome after a while since it kills any sense of pacing. The problem isn’t even what was being narrated; learning what characters like Killua and Shoot are thinking in the middle of their battles does a lot to further their development without requiring them to randomly pause and explain it, and every character involved is interesting in some way. The problem here isn’t the actual story, just the way it’s told. I don’t know if there’s a better way to convey this much development in so short a time, but narration is still a clumsy way to do so. The excessive narration is, in its own way, necessary to the arc. There might have been no other way to fit so much in. Even so, the excessive narration is easily the arc’s biggest flaw.
For all the flaws I’ve been discussing, I still think the Chimera Ant arc is an great story and easily the best arc in Hunter x Hunter. While I have some issues with the way the story is told, the characters and themes are more than enough to carry the arc, especially when the story itself is so good. On the whole, most of the arc’s flaws come from trying to fit so much in one arc, and I can always admire that kind of ambition in a story. If I had so succinctly sum up my thoughts on the arc, I’d have to say that it’s a brilliant mess.