Shonen anime has had some of the most memorable villains of all time. Dragon Ball fans will clearly remember cheering for Goku when he threw his spirit bomb at Frieza, while Naruto enthusiasts will recall when Orochimaru first removed his disguise and chillingly revealed himself. Like all action heroes, however, they’d be nothing without a great villain to battle against, and one specific villain stands out as an oddity among manga and anime’s best: Hunter x Hunter‘s Meruem.
Meruem is unique in that he neither turned out to be a foil for Gon and his friends to defeat nor was his death anything like the traditional death of a shonen villain. Unlike Hunter x Hunter‘s other villains– who all posed clear enmity toward individual protagonists — Meruem seemed more to be a protagonist in his own story rather than a villain that Gon had to defeat. Hisoka was the Hunter Exam arc’s antagonist, and Gon and he finally fought in the Heaven’s Arena arc. The Phantom Troupe is unambiguously Kurapika’s main enemy while Illumi is clearly the biggest hurdle Killua has to overcome. Meruem, on the other hand, has no protagonist rival, in fact by the end of his fight with Netero, Meruem seemed more like the hero than Netero — who villainously set of a suicide bomb to kill Meruem with him. This curious case can be explained away if Meruem is considered to be the protagonist of the Chimera Ant arc and not the antagonist. Of course, he is still the villain, but a tragic one by the end of the arc.
It is not a new idea to have a villain develop into an antihero or hero as the story progresses. Perhaps the most famous example in manga and anime is Dragon Ball‘s Vegeta. However, while most villains-turned-heroes change after being beaten by the main heroes, Meruem’s change came all on his own, independent of the main characters of Gon and Killua, leading to one of the greatest character developments in shonen history.
Meruem was, at first, a cold-hearted Chimera ant, devoid of sympathy or empathy. Upon birth, he immediately accepted his role as the Chimera ant’s king and proceeds on planning his world domination. He ordered his royal guards to collect the strongest humans for his personal pleasure and diet and to kill all the rest. During this time he also brought in the strongest human players in the world — such as the smartest chess grandmaster — and after beating them he would consume them for his self-growth. This was when he met the world’s best Gungi player, Komugi, a seemingly dumb, sickly girl who is also blind.
In the following days, Meruem, to his surprise, constantly lost to Komugi. However, through his exposure to Komugi he began to see the concept of power differently. Initially, Meruem believed power to be the rightful property of the strongest, while power in the hands of the weak would only read to ruin. Through his matches with Komugi, he slowly started to realize humans were more than just livestock; impressed by her, a mere sickly girl with no knowledge of Nen — someone who he can kill with only a flick of his tail. As Meruem lost more and more Gungi board games, he slowly started to realize not just his enjoyment of playing with Komugi, but also his concerns for her. Bothered by these unexplained feelings that were getting in the way of his destiny as king, Meruem set out to kill Komugi in her room, only to instead save her from an attacking eagle. Afterward, he ordered Pitou to guard Komugi with their life, while being confused as to why he didn’t kill her.
Eventually, before his battle with Netero, Meruem came to the realization that power is not for ruling with but, instead, for protecting the weak. With this change in perception, he proposed to remove all inequality if he were to become king, which Netero rejected by attacking a reluctant Meruem. After the battle, Netero, in his dying breath, sacrificed himself to set off a bomb implanted in his heart, killing himself and poisoning Meruem. That was the moment when Meruem experienced fear for the first time, as well as a respect for mankind.
Immediately after the battle, Meruem returned to Komugi and told her he wanted to spend the last of his moments playing Gungi with her. He also told her that she’ll die of poisoning if she stayed near him, which Komugi, without hesitation, agreed to. The two finally died near the Gungi board with their hands held together. Throughout all of this, Meruem never faced the hero of Hunter x Hunter, Gon, who — in a reverse mirroring of Meruem — lost himself to his darker instincts in his quest for revenge. Meruem, like Dragon Ball‘s Cell, who inspired his design, started out as a heartless creature that derived pleasure from killing humans. But what set Meruem apart from such villains was how he discovered love and humanity by the end, and despite that, died due to mankind’s rejection of his existence.
Mangaka Yoshihiro Togashi tackled multiple themes at the same time with this character, while simultaneously giving us an almost Shakespearean tragedy instead of having the villain get heroically killed by the main characters — a rarity in the shonen genre. In the end, Meruem’s humanity prevailed within him over his inhuman side, while the human characters that were initially the heroes opposing Meruem ended up succumbing to their worst sides during this arc.
In other shonen manga and anime, humanity proves itself special by overcoming the inhuman threat. But in Hunter x Hunter, humanity wins by convincing the inhuman of a different path. Meruem’s character arc was not just a commentary on how power works in the hands of different people, but also on how humanity is both loving and destructive at the same time.
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There are plenty of villains-turned-heroes in shonen manga and anime. But Hunter x Hunter's Meruem's unique arc makes him a stand-out.