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Explaining Hunter x Hunter’s wildest arc is a rite of passage

The Chimera Ant storyline is exactly as WTF as the fans have always said — and it’s also so much more 

Here are some very out-of-context things that happen in the Chimera Ant arc of the 2011 anime Hunter x Hunter, which is now streaming on Netflix. An octopus named Ikalgo decides he’s the BFF of one of the main characters. A woman whose power involves wrapping her very long hair around herself fights a kid in a dictator’s mansion. A nuclear blast culminates in a resurrection scene that doesn’t feel like someone coming back from the dead, so much as it resembles a cannibalistic orgy. (You really have to see it to believe it.) The protagonists meet a leader who apparently spent, like, two years standing in one place and punching the air ten thousand times a day. A mutant ant harnesses the power to whisk his opponents to a pocket dimension, and he uses it to force them to play tag with him. There’s this absolute brick house of a man, whose power is basically vaping. And that’s just scratching the barest surface.

Hunter x Hunter’s Chimera Ant arc is the most infamous storyline in all six seasons of the show, to the point where even anime fans who’ve never watched the series may have heard of it, because it’s so divisive. Some people love it and say it’s the greatest thing to happen to anime. Others despise it with a burning passion. It makes up almost half the series, clocking in at 61 episodes. And it’s exactly as batshit as promised — perhaps even more, if that’s possible.

Twice now, I’ve watched people try to explain this arc to someone who barely watches anime, and both times, I wanted to evaporate on the spot out of embarrassment for how completely unhinged the story sounded. Making it that far into Hunter x Hunter requires a high tolerance for totally out-there plot elements, but Chimera Ant really tests that limit. I am saying this as someone who adores Hunter x Hunter, who wrote a 35,000-word fanfic for it, who cosplayed her favorite character, who bought a clock with the main characters on it.

When most Hunter x Hunter fans reach the midpoint of the Chimera Ant story, they’re hit with a burning desire to explain the sheer what-the-fuckery to someone, to explain how this gory, absolutely wacky plot works cohesively, even though some of the individual pieces are so wild that they are embarrassing to discuss out loud. It’s basically a rite of passage to explain this emotionally taxing arc to people who’ve never seen the show. Unfortunately, since I watched the series in quarantine, I never actually got a chance to undergo this sacred rite. But with the Chimera Ant arc finally added to Netflix, it is now my time.

[Ed. note: This post contains a lot of spoilers for Hunter x Hunter, particularly season 5.]

kite, a tall man with long white hair, running with killua and gon trailing
Kite, my beloved
Image: Madhouse

Hunter x Hunter takes place in a world where Hunters, licensed individuals with superior fighting skills and the ability to wield the in-universe magic system (“Nen”), trek across the world seeking treasure, glory, and other dangerous things. The main character, Gon, is a typical wide-eyed, big-hearted anime protagonist, whose one goal in life is to be a strong Hunter just like his father. His best buddy, Killua, is the middle son of a family of famous assassins, but he just wants to chill with Gon, and doesn’t care about joining the family legacy. (There are other characters, but this arc is mostly about these two, so I won’t wax poetic about my absolute fave, Kurapika.)

The arc kicks off when Gon and Killua encounter Kite, a Hunter who specializes in handling dangerous wildlife. He was also Gon’s father’s protégé, and once, when Gon was very little, Kite saved him from being attacked by a wild animal. Kite’s latest mission involves investigating a possible infestation of Chimera Ants, and because Gon just helps out everyone, he volunteers to join Kite’s quest.

The series uses “ant” in the loosest sense of the word here. Sure, the Queen Chimera Ant looks pretty much like a giant ant, and her first sets of offspring are bug-like. But these creatures are called Chimera Ants because they take on the hybrid appearance of whatever the Queen last ate. At first, she just devours regular animals, but then she discovers that humans make tasty treats — and after eating them, she produces powerful offspring that definitely look like DeviantArt fursonas. Pretty soon, her children start becoming stronger and more powerful, and then also start hungering for human flesh. So they start hunting more and more people, destroying entire villages and killing humans in increasingly horrific ways, like gunning them dead with powerful streams of water, or probing their brains for information.

a pink woman wearing a bikini with a scorpion’s tail Image: Madhouse
a humanoid spider shooting web out of its bottom Image: Madhouse
a humanoid cheetah running through smoke Image: Madhouse
a blonde man with wings, a muscular red man, and a smaller catlike person bow Image: Madhouse

This sounds like a recipe for riot, except that this particular arc takes place in a country ruled by an eco-terrorist group that has forbidden any contact with or technology imported from the rest of the world, so no one knows what the hell is going on. The corruption of this government and how it suppresses its citizens is, like, a D-plot at best.

Eventually, the ants realize if they eat Hunters, they can wield Nen, making them even more powerful. The Queen keeps eating humans and giving birth to new rounds of soldier ants, each successive generation increasing in status, until she finally births the Royal Guard — three elite, powerful ants — and then ultimately, the King, the most powerful ant of them all.

While this is all going on, Gon, Killua, and Kite make it deeper and deeper into ant territory, with the intention of taking out the ants before the King is born. But they are attacked by Neferpitou, one of the King’s incredibly powerful Royal Guard. Kite tells Gon and Killua to run, because they aren’t strong enough to fight Neferpitou. They make it to safety, but that particular episode ends with Neferpitou happily sitting under a tree with Kite’s severed head — which eventually gets stitched back onto his body.

Gon and Killua meet up with the leader of the Hunter Association, Netero, and two top hunters, Morel and Knov. The three adults are planning to take down the ants — and forbid Gon and Killua from coming until they’ve properly trained and can best Knov and Morel’s apprentices in battle. While the ant plot goes on, Gon and Killua essentially have a long training arc, getting to know the apprentices — Knuckle, who hides his soft side under his tough exterior; Shoot, a coward; and Palm, who has an obsessive crush on her mentor, Knov. The training tests Gon and Killua’s relationship. Gon has the personal desire to retrieve Kite, and wants to become as strong as he can in order to do so. Killua, meanwhile, just wants to be by Gon’s side — but he’s realizing that isn’t as easy as he thought it might be, considering Gon’s martyrlike tendencies.

solid color blocks of determined faces Image: Madhouse

While that’s going on, the Ants move to another country — this one also ruled by a dictator, though the new place is less ecoterrorist and anti-tech, and more stereotypically ruled by a despotic, wealthy tyrant suppressing the lower class. The Royal Guard and King ants take over the palace, keeping the human ruler alive so they can use him as a puppet, and hatch a plan to invite all the unsuspecting citizens to the palace on a national holiday, so they can sort out which ones they want to eat, and which ones they want to transform into Ant soldiers (which they figure out they can do).

They have to wait a little, in order to mobilize their forces and corral the entire population, so the Ant King decides to bide his time by mastering every board game in existence, because why not? He challenges the top players of each game in the world, growing bored and restless —- until he meets a frail, blind woman who plays the fictional military strategy game Gungi better than anyone. The King can’t beat her, and he starts to realize that there is more than one way to be strong, and that humanity has value beyond being a tasty treat.

a pale, blind woman faces a green, reptilian man, who holds a heavy tail up to her throat, between them is a board game Image: Madhouse

Gon, Killua, Netero, Morel, Knov, Knuckle, Shoot, and Palm hatch a plan to infiltrate the palace and take down the Ants. The arc basically culminates in this epic showdown, which not only tests our heroes, but the villains as well. This represents a turning point for Gon and Killua’s relationship, as Gon throws himself into getting Kite back, no matter what the cost — even if that means pushing Killua away. Meanwhile, the Ant King begins to question his purpose, which ruffles his Royal Guard, who split over whether they should honor his new goals, or remind him about what matters. Oh, and also, there are some pretty damn epic fights, though the last chunk of episodes does that anime thing where one 20-minute episode spans about two minutes within the show.

The Chimera Ant arc is A Lot. It is So Much. It is Many Things, All Taken to the Most Extreme. Hunter x Hunter doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty: One arc sees the gang rescuing Killua from his abusive assassin family, while another has Kurapika infiltrating the mafia to avenge his fallen clan. But the dark plot elements of the Chimera Ant arc sink a lot deeper than the previous storylines. Most of the previous arcs have enough balance between drama and lighthearted moments to keep the characters going. This arc, however, represents a point of no return for some of the characters — it is the end of Gon and Killua’s story, essentially.

But the Chimera Ant arc isn’t a drag because of its length and content. It’s incredibly well-crafted, really tapping into the series’ deepest emotions. It is the darkest arc of the anime, and it’s certainly the goriest. It deals with themes of what it means to be human, of finding strength in unexpected places, of the limits of friendship and loyalty, and the possibility of getting lost in the need for vengeance. It has gorgeous and intriguing fight scenes, and compelling characters. And it really tests the bond between Gon and Killua. Somewhere along the line, it evolves into a poignant, tender love story. And even though it’s set in a fantasy world, it integrates real-life political issues like totalitarian governments and Japan’s lingering nuclear trauma.

gon and killua looking determined, with neferpitou looming behind them Image: Madhouse

Even a few months after watching this arc, and even after (finally!) explaining all of this, I still have mixed feelings about it — I don’t love it, but I can’t deny how evocative it is. The final scenes of Chimera Ant are gut-punching, and absolutely worth the 61-episode build up. They could not exist without that many dedicated episodes, or with the amount of blood, despair, and brutal murder, which definitely threw me off intially. It ricocheted me to epic highs and deep lows. I did, indeed, blast through it at lightning speed — not just because I was warned to, but because I had to know what happened next.

It is the culmination of Gon and Killua’s story, and it really pushes the limits of the Hunter x Hunter universe, even though none of the other major characters appear in it. And it sets up the series’ final episodes, which are a bittersweet denouement, a marked change from the gung-ho excitement the series begins with. Hunter x Hunter is a journey, and not all of it is happy. But Gon and Killua end up in places that make sense — even if that can only happen after 61 episodes of fighting murderous, mutated ant-people.

The last two seasons of Hunter x Hunter — which include the Chimera Ant arc — are now available on Netflix. The full series is also available on Crunchyroll and Funimation.