Dance, puppet, dance!
I watched the Hunter x Hunter movie recently. A quick review: It’s OK. There are some neat details about Kurapika’s village, some nice battles, and the movie looks good. But it doesn’t have quite the same soul as the series proper — the movie’s short running time ensures the plot doesn’t have the same intricacy of Hunter x Hunter‘s best arcs (which is to be expected), but also, the way things play out feels more typical than is usually the case for this series. The final battle is rather straightforward, both in what happens and how it’s depicted. One of the things I really like about Madhouse’s take on Hunter x Hunter is that the creative team is excellent at visually communicating the layered elements of the biggest battles in the series. The fights in Phantom Rouge are competently made, for sure, but that’s about all. It’s a fine enough side-story, but it’s pretty clear why it’s not part of the main series.
That said, there’s a thread running through the movie that I like a lot that both stands on its own in the movie and relates to the show’s current storyline, the Chimera Ant Arc. It’s interesting enough to discuss here, so I’ll do just that! P.S. SPOILERS AHOY. I also spoil a bit of Yu Yu Hakusho along the way.
Puppets! Seeing as the ex-Phantom Troupe member Omokage’s power deals in the creation of puppets to attack our heroes, this is of course one of the movie’s dominant themes. Where it mainly rears its head is with Retz, who turns out to be Omokage’s younger sister — and the first test of his Nen ability. Her story is interesting in that she is essentially Pinocchio in reverse. Instead of wanting to become a real human, she, um, kind of wants to die! Or at least wants to stop the despair of her brother seeking victims to find the perfect pair of eyes for her. The idea of sacrifice is pretty interesting regarding Retz’s creation. Omokage says that human eyes are required to make a puppet come alive — they are the sacrifice his Nen power requires to fully work. Is it not said that eyes are the window to the soul? So in this case, it could be said that a person’s eyes are the stand-in for the soul needed for the copy to become truly human. When Gon and Kurapika’s eyes are robbed, it’s not simply their sight that they lose — it’s part of their humanity, as well. The fact that Kurapika’s eyes are what identify him as a member of his clan pushes that idea in a strong way.
The perfect puppet to Omokage is one that emulates its twin in every facet: looks, memories, and emotions. To him it doesn’t matter that this Retz is a copy of his sister; she has the same mannerisms, the same voice, and the same thoughts and feelings, so she may as well be the real thing, except eternally youthful because she is a puppet rather than a human. Who cares if another person must be robbed of their humanity to give life to the lifeless? The delightful little tinge of horror in the flashback scene of Omokage creating his first puppet is perhaps the most Hunter x Hunter scene in this whole movie. It’s so dark and twisted precisely because Omokage’s desires are dark and twisted. He acts out of love for his sister, but the entire purpose of a puppet is having a puppeteer to control it. In this case, Omokage’s control is having Retz in an eternal image — she will never grow old or change in any way. She will always be the same.
(Side note: Perhaps it is my recent viewing of the Dark Tournament arc of Yu Yu Hakusho that influences my thinking on this. Near the end of that, it’s revealed that the arc’s main villain, Toguro, knew main character Yusuke’s mentor, Genkai, when they were both youths. However, the idea of growing old tormented Toguro so much that he agreed to forsake his humanity and become a demon in exchange for a body that aged slowly, whereas Genkai accepts her mortality and ages gracefully (if also grumpily). Omokage never suggests that anything similar drives him from what I recall, but the image of Retz he chooses to preserve is telling.)
In the end, of course, Omokage learns that humans aren’t puppets, because his sister straight up stabs him for being an asshole who makes killer puppets. A harsh lesson, to be sure.
Puppetry is key not only to Retz’s story, however! It is also a key metaphor in Killua’s story, which I think is the most interesting part of the movie. It deals heavily in a conflict that is also playing out in the Chimera Ant Arc: the psychological hold Killua’s brother, Illumi, has over him. The exact same fear is touched upon in Phantom Rouge — Killua is afraid his instinct for self-preservation will cause him to one day abandon Gon. It is no coincidence that Illumi is the puppet who dogs Killua throughout the movie, though it is interesting that Illumi faces Killua as a puppet, because he is in reality more the puppet master, and his practiced hands make Killua dance. Thinking about Omokage’s puppets as stealing humanity to become alive themselves puts Killua’s conflict in an interesting context, as well. What Illumi wants Killua to do is abandon any pretense of humanity; it’s not needed to become a professional killer. The human heart must be sealed off. Any friendship must be severed. Illumi steals Gon’s eyes, but he is truly after Killua’s eyes — and his humanity.
This makes me think it’s purposeful that Illumi’s puppet becomes human only for a temporary time after stealing Gon’s eyes. The puppet delivers them to Omokage, and that’s that. In every other instance, puppet!Illumi faces Killua and Gon as a soulless, empty-eyed husk. Even Illumi as puppet shuns humanity in favor of getting the job done.
The idea of puppets and humanity is always pretty interesting to me, and the existentially horrific idea of it fits right in with this universe. If there’s one thing Phantom Rouge does quite well, it’s tap into that terror.