Every so often an episode comes along that stands out above the rest and highlights all the thematic elements a show has been trying to achieve. From the very beginning, Hunter x Hunter tries to turn normal Shonen conventions on their heads. There is also a slow build-up when it comes to characterization, something that takes over one hundred episodes to be fully realized. Hunter x Hunter takes an in-depth look at its protagonist, Gon, throughout the various arcs. It plays around with the idea that a protagonist can make decisions that are not morally sound. When all of the thematic elements come together in this episode, it packs an emotional punch that keeps the audience invested in the immediate and future aftermath.
The relationship between Gon and Killua is the crux of Hunter x Hunter. Though various characters come and go throughout the different arcs, the two constants that remain are Gon and Killua. When we are first introduced to Killua, it is made abundantly clear he is plagued by a dark past that involved murder and torture as he carried out his duties as an assassin. Initially, he thinks in very black and white terms. However, as his friendship with Gon continues to grow, Killua slowly begins to change. He isn’t quite as quick to jump to the most drastic conclusion and he is able to keep his emotions in check more and more. The beauty of his development is that it is not something that Hunter x Hunter beats you over the head with episode to episode. It is something that happens gradually, and when events reach a boiling point in episode 116, I couldn’t help but think back to all the small moments that showcased this without even realizing it at the time.
Standing as a stark contrast to Killua is Gon, the protagonist of Hunter x Hunter. Gon’s cheerful nature and carefree attitude have a positive effect on Killua. Seeing Gon handle specific situations from a natural curiosity and stubbornness allow Killua to question the ideology that has been instilled in him by his family. The most interesting aspect of the Hunter x Hunter universe is the fact there are no true good or bad guys. The Hunter Association is an organization where its members simply serve their own best interests. Gon certainly represents, or comes closest, to what we as viewers would normally associate with a morally fair hero. It is all too common in anime to see characters that refuse to kill, akin to Batman’s beliefs. You will find no such idea in Hunter x Hunter. Gon’s driving motivation is shared by no one else. He simply wants to become stronger. He thirsts for battle, and often times makes reckless decisions in chasing the thrill. It is this desire to battle other individuals that creates sticky situations. In a show like Bleach, the main character actively fights in order to protect others. Gon never quite understands this motivation. Gon can be considered selfish, and there is nothing wrong with that in of itself. However, when it stays unchecked for as long as it does, it can fuel more troublesome ideas, such as revenge.
During the beginning of the Chimera Ant Arc, we are introduced to a character by the name of Kite, someone the 2011 adaptation intentionally omits up until this point. Gon is constantly seeking his father, and Kite is the most direct connection he finds up until that point in time. In fact, Kite informs Gon that he did in fact meet his father and when told he can provide information as to his father’s whereabouts, Gon declines the offer. To Gon, goals should be obtained through one’s own strength whereas Killua longs to tackle obstacles as a team. As a result of their initial meeting, Gon and Kite form a strong connection with one another, and Gon considers him to be a friend. When Kite, Gon, and Killua are confronted with an enemy far above their strength, Kite pleads with the boys to run away as fast as possible. Gon’s stubbornness prevents him from leaving and is ready to try and fight the enemy before him. Killua, sensing the impending conflict, knocks him unconscious and they flee together. This event plays a large role in the events that unfold through the remainder of the arc. This results in Kite’s death and mistreatment of his corpse and acts as Gon’s motivation for the rest of the arc, revenge masked by a thinly veiled desire to save Kite. Perhaps he is unable to admit it to himself, but Gon cannot bring himself to believe that Kite is actually dead.
In episode 116, Gon confronts the Chimera Ant responsible for Kite’s demise, Pitou. The confrontation is building up over the entire arc, and a fierce battle is expected between the two. However, Gon and Killua meet an unlikely scenario where Pitou is healing and protecting another individual. This is a direct contrast to Pitou’s earlier behavior, and Gon is unable to understand the situation. As he meets the person responsible, Gon is consumed with rage and anger. He wants nothing more to hurt this creature. Behind him, Killua is analyzing the situation and feels some sympathy for not only Pitou, but the girl it is protecting as well. As he finally confronts Pitou, Gon has no person towards whom he can finally unleash his anger. There is ultimately no bad guy that exists simply to be bad. Unable to simply free himself from his revenge, Gon becomes more and more unstable. Killua always framed the confrontation as one they would tackle together. Killua thinks in terms of “we.” Gon thinks in terms of himself and in doing so, he accuses Killua of not caring about Kite when Killua tries to convince him to not act rashly. This confrontation is the final splinter in their once seemingly unbreakable friendship. On some level, Killua realizes that both of them cannot act as they once did. They are different people. Episode 116 works so well because it is filled with so much tension and yet not a single punch is thrown. As Gon sits down at the end and camera pans away behind him, we see that Killua is gone and his absence signals the end of the relationship as they once knew it. They must know both act differently and treat their friendship differently moving forward. Gon has turned into a different person, and it is one of the biggest question marks surrounding Hunter x Hunter.
Episode 116 is master class in how it explores conflict resolution between two separate pairs of individuals. Gon and Killua fail to realize that in confronting Pitou over Kite’s demise, they are actually confronting one another. Their changed viewpoints are in contrast with one another. They can no longer approach situations as a pair, and Gon is becoming more and more of a solo act. Shonen manga and anime are defined by their clear emphasis on friendship and overcoming hurdles with the help of others. In the later parts of the 2011 adaptation, this is disregarded. When Gon first departs from his home, he tackles the Hunter Exam with the friends he made along the way, but as they all seek their own fulfillment, that quickly fades away. This is just one of the ways Hunter x Hunter turns the tropes in a different direction. Hunter x Hunter is one of the best, and so is episode 116. It feels like an inevitable culmination of all the thematic elements up until that point, and being able to create such interesting conflict and exploring several themes at the same time is the true sign of excellence.