This post contains massive spoilers for both Hunter x Hunter and Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you have not seen the respective episodes of both shows, you may want to avoid this post.
As embarrassingly deep as my adoration of Avatar: The Last Airbender may run, its ending left a few bad tastes in my mouth alongside the multitude of delicious flavors. One of the issues that has always bugged me the most was the show’s presentation of the ultimate fate of Fire Lord Ozai.
Unlike many people, I’m glad Aang didn’t have to kill him. To leave Ozai alive fit thematically with the rest of the series, its positive antiviolent message, and Aang’s background as a monk and a pacifist much more than a lethal blow would have done. What’s more, despite being nonlethal, stripping Ozai of his bending is still a brutal punishment, and a fitting one for the crime – what better way to tear down a power-hungry warlord than by taking from him not only the title whose power he so desperately sought to expand, but also his innate physical power as a bender.
As the Fire Lord, firebending was both his greatest tool and his greatest source of identity. With his identity and ability as a firebender taken from him, not only have all his life’s works and his ability to further them been brought to a halt, but he has lost his connection to the firebenders over whom he once ruled. It is a harsh, effective, and poetic punishment that leaves him with less than a shell of his own life. Such a fate is arguably more cruel than the release of death, because these are consequences he actually has to live with.
The problem is that, even though there’s all this poetic justice going on, the show doesn’t do anything with it. We see Ozai stumble around a bit, drained of strength, while the heroes all make lame jokes at his expense, and later, we see him in jail. That’s it. That’s all we get. We see him mocked and powerless, but we never get the true payoff: the satisfaction of seeing the toll the punishment has taken on him. Without this, it feels like a mere slap on the wrist, like a mother punishing her child by sternly saying “Go to your room! And no more firebending for you, young man!” It doesn’t feel like there’s any punch to it, even though it is possibly the biggest kick in the balls Ozai could have received, and I’d be willing to guess that that’s the reason so many people wished Aang had killed him.
Enter this week’s episode of Hunter x Hunter.
Like episode 61 of Avatar ended the series, episode 58 of Hunters brought the fantastic Yorkshin arc to a close with the brutal yet nonlethal punishment of the leader of the opposing forces. In this episode, Kurapika takes from Chrollo both his Nen and his ability to contact his fellow Spiders, drawing a number of parallels to Ozai losing his firebending. As the leader of the Spiders, Nen was both Chrollo’s greatest tool, and the Troupe his greatest source of identity. With his identity as a Spider and ability as a Nen user taken from him, not only have all his life’s works and his ability to further them been brought to a halt, but he has lost his connection to the Spiders about whom he so cares. It is, as with Ozai, a harsh, effective, and poetic punishment that leaves him with less than a shell of his own life.
There are a lot of similarities here, as evidenced by my shoddy copy-paste job above. The difference, and the reason why Hunters’ conclusion was more effective, is that it takes the extra step and shows us just how severe Chrollo’s punishment really is. Where Avatar makes light of Ozai’s predicament, Hunters treats Chrollo’s with a tasteful subtlety that shows us his detachment from the life he once lived.
It is a sick irony that the only Troupe member Chrollo can talk to is Hisoka, who was never truly a Spider. In fact, Hisoka tricked the rest of them with his fortune, and assumed the role of a Spider solely to fight Chrollo. This irony drives home that Chrollo really is cut off from those whom he cared about and who truly cared about him – the real Spiders – by presenting him with a fake.
Later, as we see Chrollo heading off to try and find someone who can remove this literal chain from his heart, the shot we get is of him by himself in a vast canyon – completely cut off, so alone, and so small. He speaks in a tone so dejected and defeated that his resolution to go East seems to question not only the direction of his travel, but the direction of his life.
While Hunters did not have the jaw-to-the floor fight sequences of Avatar’s finale, the way it dealt with the consequences of Chrollo’s punishment brought the arc to a more satisfying close, and in doing so brought closure to my own misgivings for Avatar’s treatment of its equivalent scene. Ever since I’ve started watching Hunter x Hunter, I’ve noticed a lot of similar characters and plot threads like this between it and Avatar, and have had the suspicion that perhaps Hunter x Hunter (either the manga or the 1999 anime) was one of the many Japanese series that had influenced Avatar in someway – that maybe one of the writers was a Hunter fan. Whether this truly is the case or not I don’t know, but finding these connections between the two series has only helped me realize things about them I otherwise would not have realized, and enjoy them both that much more.(Avatar screencaps from dongbufeng.net’s amazing screenshot archive.)