Humanity is an imperfect species. Actually, that’s putting it very generously – humanity is a deeply flawed species. We’re selfish and self-destructive, ignorant to the point of blindness, arrogant to the point of madness. It’s almost a wonder we’ve come so far, or at least that we haven’t destroyed ourselves along the way. For all our triumphs, every advantage of our intelligence and self-awareness is also reflected countless times in insane invention, in total megalomania. We are our own worst enemy.
In light of this, it seems somewhat reasonable to consider the possibility of a do-over. Perhaps another species could do better than us – perhaps a species more interested in its own collective survival, and more able to coherently absorb the lessons of its forebearers. Perhaps a species somewhat more animal, more willing to be part of a grand organism than a wild, unpredictable individual. Perhaps such a species deserves that chance. Or perhaps such a species doesn’t even need to be offered a chance – if we were ever put against a creation that combined humanity’s intelligence and strength with an animalistic unity of purpose, would we even stand a chance?
Chimera Ant is a story about that question – or at least, about that question and a number of others. It catalogs the rise of the (surprise) Chimera Ants, a species that continuously evolves, absorbing the quirks and powers of any species it consumes. The queen of the Ants wishes to build a Perfect Being – the ultimate animal, destined to rule over all others. In order to do that, she constructs her child out of the best pieces available – and in the first of Chimera Ant’s many strange reflections, the construction of a Perfect Being end up requiring a great deal of flawed, self-involved, self-destructive human beings. As her army of Ants grows, their human DNA becomes more and more prominent, and the “imperfections” of human nature become more and more apparent in their behavior. “Fortunately,” this intermingling of human and ant instincts isn’t restricted solely to one side – as Chimera Ant unfolds, even the humans begin to demonstrate that ant nature isn’t perhaps quite so inhuman as it seems. And by the end…
Well, I’ll get to that. For now, let’s start by setting the stage.
Chimera Ant plays out against a backdrop of continuous war. Its two primary settings both already sit on the brink of it – one the “NGL,” a closed state sheltering a drug-running network, the other a regime mirroring North Korea in all but name. The nations of Chimera Ant are simply waiting for a spark to light the tinder, and the Ants provide that spark – by the time our human “heroes” arrive in the NGL, the Ants are already deep in a guerilla war. The first act takes a narrative form suitable to its content – its episodes are a parade of murky combat in jungles and endless villages of civilian casualties. The deaths shift from horrifying to numbing, and by the time the later parts of Chimera Ant unfold, the backdrop of potential genocide is somehow far less chilling than the possible deaths of one or two people we know.
Hunter x Hunter is a shounen, and thus conflict is almost inevitable, but most shounens do not show the human cost of conflict. In Chimera Ant, it’s impossible to avoid it – each new soldier comes at the cost of a past life, and reflections of those lives crop up more and more as the ants evolve. The tragedy of its context is constantly foregrounded, but the conclusion isn’t “war is bad, don’t do war.” Chimera Ant is too smart for that, too intent on paralleling human nature against itself – war isn’t a foreign agent, it’s a symptom. It’s an evolution of our fundamental conflicts, and in Chimera Ant, evolution is key. The process of change and the shifting characters of Chimera Ant constantly reflect our darkest instincts on our lightest ones, and so it’s not surprising that against this backdrop of terrible, inevitable war, the arc somehow tells a story predicated on loyalty and love.
The alien structure of ant society is initially cast as one of the most “inhuman” elements of their nature. They do not have individual goals – they work in service of the colony. Their loyalty is absolute. This is part of what makes them strong – their initial power of unity is great, and the introduction of human individuality ends up creating cracks in their united front. But loyalty takes many forms, and even from the beginning, the Ant Queen exists as a counterpoint to the ant loyalty being a wholly alien emotion. Her loyalty is to her children, a very human emotion, and that “unconditional familial love” is echoed later on through Youpi and Pouf’s efforts to save their King. It is conditioned loyalty that keeps the ants from second-guessing their actions in service of the colony – but their own actions complicate the distance between ant loyalty and human love, and this distance is questioned in the other direction as well.
Killua is a central figure in this arc – though Gon’s journey represents the narrative at its darkest, Killua has a much broader purpose within the story. While Gon is losing his humanity in service of a single goal, Killua is broadening the arc’s expression of humanity altogether, and brings it closest to ant nature with his declaration that “I never say thanks to my friends.” This is critical for Killua – for him, the one who has grown up in a family where even familial loyalty is always based on an exchange of terms, unconditional loyalty is a kind of magic. When he helps a friend, he doesn’t have to think about what he’ll get in return – an expression of love and support for that friend is its own reward, the knowledge that they would do the same forming an iron bond.
Though the definition of humanity is often tied to expressions of individuality, Killua demonstrates that unconditional loyalty is not something inherently reflective of an inhuman nature. And it’s through this shared belief in unconditional expressions of loyalty and love that the ants and humans find common ground – it is this absolute dedication to the cause of their friends that causes Youpi to leave his opponents alive. “Unconditional love” is a loyalty born of something inherently human, a bridge that unites these two species and fosters a common respect. They see something of themselves in another, and you can’t reflect on yourself without somehow changing in the process.
Change is another key variable in Chimera Ant - I can’t think of another work where so much diverse character growth is so integral to the narrative itself. Which makes sense, as the arc’s “antagonists” are a species in a continuous state of evolution. Pitou shifts from a character whose only joy is diversion to one who cares deeply about their leader’s growing empathy. Youpi develops an entire personality and value system over the course of his sparring with Knuckle and the other Hunters. Shoot finds self-confidence, a reason to live, and a reason to die. Killua ends up with his role in his most important friendship reversed, and has to become far stronger and more empathetic than he thought possible. One of the great solaces of Chimera Ant is the truth that people change – they can grow, evolve, become more than themselves through circumstance. We cause each other tremendous pain, but our friction makes us better than we were. We all change each other.
Unfortunately, like all good things in Chimera Ant, this happy fact has its negative counterpart. The ways we affect each other can be a force for terrible change as well, and the consequences of this are centrally expressed through the mirrored character arcs of Meruem and Gon.
Gon is Hunter x Hunter’s Shounen Hero. Upbeat, headstrong, immensely loyal to his friends. For most of the series’ length, his passion lends strength to those around him – even as far as halfway through Chimera Ant, Killua remarks that “Gon is the light” raising him up. But by the end of Chimera Ant, all the variables that defined him have turned against him – fundamentally shaken by the loss of his mentor Kite, he ends up revealing how even the best intentions can sour if taken to their extremes. His optimism becomes an inability to accept death. His confidence ends up narrowing possible futures to the only thing he cares about, the only reality he can accept. And his loyalty becomes obsession – an overpowering need to save Kite that drives him away from everyone else who cares about him. By the time he realizes Kite is never coming back, he has become an instrument with a single purpose, and even the visual aesthetic of his final episode reflects this – as a former array of possibilities narrows to one, the color is bled from his world, till all that remains is black, white, and the red of anger, of blood. Our ability to instill value in others and our capacity for change can make monsters of even the best of us.
But just as Gon’s obsession makes him lose his “humanity,” the changes taking place in the Chimera Ant King form the greatest human triumph of the arc. The King begins his life as just that – The King, a being designed to rule over all others. His actual name is not important – all that is truly necessary is his title, because his identity is a reflection of his ability to exert power on others. He has trouble remembering any names, because they are clearly an unimportant form of identification. People have uses, people have differing degrees of strength, but individual identities? To a true ant, born to either serve the greater good or act as its arbiter, such things are meaningless. Fortunately, the strongest of ants are born of the strongest of human beings. And people change.
The King’s relationship with Komugi represents the central optimism of Chimera Ant – it is its saving grace. Dozens of named characters die in the arc, along with tens of thousands of nameless innocents. But at the center of all that senseless bloodshed, the one creature dictating the future of the ants ends up becoming too human to survive. His games with Komugi dismantle his strength-focused philosophy piece by piece. How can he say he is the “strongest” if a physically helpless girl can always defeat him? What does it mean that he enjoys being defeated, enjoys the challenge even if it doesn’t result in him impressing his will on the world? If that’s the only thing he enjoys, then what is the good of power after all? How can you measure “strength” if his attempts to impress fear on the girl backfire immediately, because her mental resolve is stronger than his own? And how can someone who possesses such strength still be so weak, so “inferior,” so willing to be obsequious and never exert her own will on the world?
Komugi “defeats” the King – what an army of Hunters could not do by expressing their will through strength, she does by expressing her identity through fragility. She demonstrates to him that people are not so simple as that – that you cannot measure them on one axis, and that they can provide value to each other in countless meaningful ways. Through Komugi’s actions, the King learns he is not happy to simply be The King – he does not want his identity to be solely an expression of his strength, because the person he cherishes is more than that, and he wants to be so too. It is through Komugi’s presence that The King becomes Meruem, a living representation of humanity’s power to change, evolve, and become more than itself.
Human nature kind of takes a beating in Chimera Ant. The ants are initially posited as something “other” than humanity, but in the end, all their instincts end up being reflective of our own – and the lengths each side goes to to destroy the other demonstrate both the power and tragedy of what defines us as a species. Our loyalty is commendable, but it can justify any scale of tragedy. Our capacity for change lets us rise above ourselves, but also fall into the worst excesses of our fundamental natures. And finally, it is our individuality that both makes us indomitably strong and unconscionably heartless.
The loyalty of the ants is fundamental to their nature, but as they evolve, they continue to absorb human qualities. Foremost among those is individuality – the ability to find your own goals, to make independent choices, to innovate and grow in your own way. This instinct is given beautiful expression through the character journeys of the various ants – from Meruem to Welfin to Youpi to Ikalgo, our ability to make individual, sometimes selfish choices is regularly represented as one of the greatest triumphs of human nature. Youpi and Pouf even end up deceiving their king due to their greater belief in his potential, and this combined expression of greater faith exercised through individual choice leads him to ultimately remark he was “undeserving of their loyalty.” And both Killua and Palm’s arcs hinge on their ability to make individual choices – even when each of them is directly programmed to obey orders, they rebel, and choose to honor their chosen, individual loyalties over any programmed direction. But as with our capacity for love and change, our individuality has a dark side as well, and it’s unsurprising that Chimera Ant chooses to express this darkness through the grim irony of humanity’s final weapon.
There is a madness in humanity – unlike the purposeful order of the initial ants, our passions and individuality both make us strong and set us against each other. The Hunter Chairman Netero embodies this madness – as Meruem remarks during their battle, it is only through pushing his body through individual struggle far past the point of sense that he could have achieved his tremendous physical enlightenment. The potential single-mindedness and self-focused determination of humanity are expressed both in his physical strength and in the secret weapon he conceals – the Poor Man’s Rose. It is the Rose that finally defeats Meruem – a nuclear weapon, a pure expression of humanity’s individualist need to make war on itself, a weapon that the narrator grimly explains shouldn’t exist, wouldn’t exist, if humanity were able to make choices in its own communal best interest. Netero sacrifices himself to destroy Meruem using an expression of humanity’s ultimately self-destructive individuality – but both his choice and Meruem’s final actions demonstrate that cynicism is not the final word of Chimera Ant. Human and ant nature each reflect the other, and each show themselves as brighter for it.
Though the Poor Man’s Rose is undoubtedly reflective of humanity’s worst instincts, Netero’s use of it is not. It’s not an expression of individuality at all, really – Netero activates the weapon by killing himself, and thus his use of it is an almost ant-like expression of loyalty, or love. His life is unimportant – his people must live. And in the aftermath of the Rose, as Meruem slowly succumbs to radiation sickness, his own actions are pointedly, individualistically human – he chooses to cede the battle of his race, and instead spend his last living hours with the human he loves. One nature reflects another, and each is enriched by the exchange. The conflict of human and ant may end in great tragedy and destruction, but through countless actions throughout the arc, the value and integrity of each philosophy is demonstrated, reflected, and shown to be part of a continuous nature. Life ends, but life goes on.
Chimera Ant is not a happy story, but humanity is not really a happy species, so I suppose that’s appropriate. It is a beautiful story, though, and seems intent on displaying the beauty of humanity just as vibrantly as the tragedy – ultimately they are linked, and Chimera Ant’s symmetries show them to be one and the same. Our beauty is shown in our growth, and growth always implies a shedding of the old – every lesson we learn is hard-fought, every change we undergo incurs tragic cost. Our beauty is shown in our flaws, and our flaws lead to tragic consequence - our imperfection is what makes us generous and empathetic and unique, but it also makes us violent and selfish and obsessive. Our beauty is shown in our passion, and the double-edged sword of passion is evident both in Gon’s madness and Meruem’s love.
In the end, Chimera Ant’s tragedy may present its last and most poignant symmetry – Chimera Ant’s ending is tragic because no matter who “wins,” we as the audience are losing touch with characters we’ve come to love and understand. It doesn’t matter who wins – as Chimera Ant shows, the beauty of our nature is reflected in all of us. It’s not an easy truth to admit – it would certainly be easier to see one side as “villains,” and their defeat as a thrilling victory over the tyranny of a terrifying “Perfect Being.” But thankfully, none of us are perfect creations – we are all fractured, flawed human beings. And we are stronger for it.