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Yoshihiro Togashi is one of the most celebrated manga authors of the last thirty years or so, and there are a lot of reasons that justify that perception. I have covered his entire Yu Yu Hakusho series, one of my absolute favorite pieces of storytelling in any medium, and while it has a lot going on for it to be highly regarded, his other noticeable work, Hunter X Hunter, is widely regarded as his magnum opus.
One of Togashi’s biggest strengths as a storyteller, especially as he gained more experience throughout the years, is the fact that he understands how characters work and think, thus giving some really fascinating explorations in Hunter X Hunter. Whether its Gon’s descent into darkness, Killua’s discovery of his own self-worth, Kurapika’s struggle with vengeance and many more, Hunter X Hunter is filled with complex and tridimensional characters that make the story they are in very rich and vast.
Out of all those wonderful characters, the main antagonist of the legendary Chimera Ants arc, the King of Ants, Meruem, is one of Togashi’s greatest triumphs as a creator and one of the greatest characters in all of fiction.
“Who am I? Why am I here? A king with no name. A borrowed castle. My subjects are mindless drones.”
There are a lot of interesting traits and elements that make Meruem such a fascinating character, but I personally think that one of the core themes that surround him is humanity. Meruem is a profoundly human character and, yet, he is not human, so that makes the dichotomy all the more poignant and powerful as his journey progresses.
In a way, Meruem is the center of the Chimera Ant storyline: the plot begins with the Chimera Queen eating countless beings to birth him, aiming for Meruem to become the most powerful specimen in history. As the plot progresses, we see the other Chimera Ants becoming much more intelligent and powerful, which only serves as a prelude of how powerful the King is going to be.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the real suspense didn’t come from a bomb blowing up, but the prelude to blowing up. In the context of this Hunter X Hunter arc, the birth of Meruem was the bomb and there was a sense of trepidation leading up to him arriving to the plot. From that perspective alone, Meruem was already set up as a very big deal even before he showed up for a scene.
“The time will come for him
To lay claim his crown
And then the foe
Yes, they’ll be cut down
You’ll see, he’ll be
The best that there’s been
True leader of men.”Iron Maiden – To Tame a Land.
When we are first introduced to Meruem, he seems to fit the criteria of a classic shonen villain. He is self-centered, he is arrogant, he is an elitist and his power gives him the belief that he is absolute. He was born to be the definitive king and during the first episodes in both the manga and the anime, he is filling the role of a villain rather than the morally ambiguous antagonist he would end up being.
This is where Togashi steps in with his writing, themes and symbolism. The author of Yu Yu Hakusho always seemed to be influenced in some of his shonen tropes by Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball series (this is particularly shown in Yu Yu Hakusho) and you can see physical and psychological elements of villains from that series, such as Frieza and Cell, in Meruem. In fact, Meruem starts with the tyrannical views of Frieza, by looking down on other species, and Cell’s perception that he is the ultimate being.
The initial depiction of Meruem, upped by the fact that he doesn’t even have a name (until the final moment of his battle with Netero, he is referred to as “The King”), is to highlight who he was and who he was meant to be by others–his mother, the other Ants and the Royal Guard. You can even see a bit of that in Netero, who refuses to view him as nothing more than a monster that has to be destroyed.
Sure, there is a debate on whether a being such as Meruem, extremely powerful due to almost biological experimentation, should be allowed to exist. That was probably the reasoning of Netero and the other Hunters, plus the motivation of saving humanity from possible extinction. But there is also the possibility of growth and understanding, which is when Meruem and his Royal Guard become much more interesting characters.
These four characters (and the same can be said about the rest of the Chimera Ants that had human genes) grew and evolved as individuals due to their personal experiences. Watching the growth of the Royal Guard is fascinating because it is a direct reflection of their King’s development.
As Meruem starts to play with Komugi, the blind girl that could die by the mere touch of the King’s finger and who happens to beat him constantly on a table game, we can see glimpses of his pride and dignity as both a king and as a man. He could kill Komugi and he could torture her to get a pyrrhic victory, but it would be that: a pyrrhic victory. This is when we start seeing who he is really is and how he wants to prove his worth through honest victories, giving him more depth in the process.
All of this reflects with his Royal Guard in terms of how they react to the presence of Komugi and her impact on the King:
Youpi doesn’t care that much about Komugi and prioritizes the King’s physical wellbeing.
Pouf is bothered and wants Komugi eliminated as soon as possible because he believes that the King is not behaving as the ruthless ruler that he should be.
Pitou is happy that the King is enjoying himself while playing with Komugi and will protect her if he makes her King happy.
These are all different types of parenting: the parent that is not very emotional but cares deeply about the kid’s wellbeing (Youpi), the overprotective parent that cares about who the kid should be according to him and not who he is (Pouf), and the caring mother that only wants the kid to be happy (Pitou). They show a lot more humanity once their own ruler becomes human.
In fact, there is an argument to be made that those three characters find development through Meruem’s own growth. Pouf’s frustration about the King being more human is, ironically, a very human way of viewing things. The moment Komugi is hurt during the assault, her malice and hedonistic ways of living are foregone for a much more empathic and caring perspective (she even feels sorry for Gon when Kite dies). And Youpi learns to comprehend humans as more than just enemies when facing the likes of Knuckle, Shoot, Killua and Morel.
All of this begins with Meruem’s interactions with Komugi and how he views her.
For a moment you see this inner debate between Meruem’s more animalistic and human sides, with one particular scene where he is doubting who he is and if he has earned what he has, arguing that he ended a kid’s potential earlier in the arc by taking his life. Then, he tries to act like a villain, showing off his power like a classic Dragon Ball Z antagonist, almost as if he were overcompensating… only for him to care deeply about Komugi when she gets hurt by a bird in the following scene (a bird that ended up there due to Meruem showing off his power, by the way). Netero even highlights this inner turmoil that Meruem goes through during their encounter.
This, and where Komugi gets hurt during the invasion, is when we start seeing the King for who he really is. This is where his development gets really interesting as pride and dignity starts to give way to genuine empathy and understanding of the value of human beings. There are a lot of fascinating plots and developments of the characters that are part of the Chimera Ants arc, but Meruem’s growth is certainly one of Togashi’s biggest triumphs as a mangaka.
“You believe I cannot pray with a single arm? A prayer comes from the heart. If the heart achieves the correct form, it becomes emotions and emotions can be manifested.”Isaac Netero
There have been a lot of interpretations regarding the battle between Meruem and Netero. A lot of religious and spiritual symbolisms, plus philosophical perspectives on life. There have been people arguing that Netero in this battle represents the worse of humanity due to how he ends up “killing” Meruem, but I would go one step further: Netero represents the entirety of human existence.
The battle feels like a master teaching his student a final lesson, but, by the same token, Netero is a prideful man that views himself as the ultimate hunter, which is why he resists the notion of humanizing Meruem and views him as nothing more than an “ant”. So there is the greatness and brilliance of Netero training himself for decades for this big, definitive moment, which is something that Meruem marvels at.
I consider this battle the pinnacle of Hunter X Hunter and one of anime’s definitive moments. It’s heartfelt, it’s inspiring and the sequence is extremely beautiful at times. It serves to cement the direct contrast and rivalry between humanity and the ants, which, at this point of the plot, are perceived as the next evolutionary step in society.
This fight can also be viewed as the moment of illumination for Meruem, if we follow some Buddhist beliefs, due to the fact that he gains a whole new perspective of humanity and because of that he earns to discover his name. So the King dies and Meruem is born, thus paving the way for a new, illuminated version of himself.
After his “rebirth”, Meruem is a lot less willing to take lives and much more eager for introspection, which serves as a metaphor for his illuminated state. It’s fascinating to see how different he is from the arrogant, aimless being he started out as by the end of the story, and it’s very tempting to contrast and compare to how Gon fared in this arc: one gaining a lot of humanity (Meruem) and one losing it for a moment of power and vengeance (Gon).
One of the interesting traits about the character of Meruem is how he represents the “clean” interpretation of what a king should be. He doesn’t want to beat Komugi in their table game through cheating or through death threats; he wants to beat her fair and square, showcasing his profound honor at defeating his enemy through honest ways. He doesn’t enjoy borrowing a castle from someone else or having mind-controlled crowds as his followers. There is an element of dignity in him and, as he progresses, he learns to consider the value of other lives.
Meruem goes from killing a child for the mere heck of it to be willing to kneel before Palm Siberia, now a human-Chimera Ant hybrid, just so he can see Komugi. The final moments he shares with Komugi is some of the most poignant and powerful scenes in entertainment history, and every second feels like a reward after everything you have witnessed.
It shows how much you have grown to care about this character.
Another interesting aspect about Meruem is that we witnessed his entire life. We witnessed it since he was conceived to his death holding Komugi’s death. It is fascinating because we cannot say that about a lot of characters, and, yet, it adds an element of tragedy to Meruem. Like it couldn’t end any other way. He was an anomaly of evolution and quite likely he was meant to have an early death.
However, Togashi really nailed it here, writing a character that, by the end of the arc, doesn’t feel like a villain or even an antagonist, but rather someone trying to find his purpose and meaning in this crazy world. It is something so profoundly real that it hurts.
It is something so profoundly human that it hurts.
“Komugi… are you still there?”