Meruem: a Hegelian Odyssey

Meruem is one of my favorite characters from Hunter x Hunter. He was powerful, cunning, brutal, sympathetic, and all so human as Nietzsche once exclaimed. I would love to write at length about how great of a character he is, but this is not what I will be doing in this essay. Instead, I will be writing an analysis of the Hegelian aspects of Meruem. Why Hegel one might ask? I chose to do a Hegelian analysis of Meruem, because I found an unmistakable parallel between the character development of Meruem and Hegel’s thoughts on self-consciousness.

Let’s begin with Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. For Hegel, the most primitive form of consciousness is certainty at the level of sense experience. It is the experience of “this” or “here” rather than classifications like red or round. Such sense-certainty’s utterance, Hegel argues, is incoherent. For example, suppose I uttered the sentence “here is nighttime,” wrote it down, woke up the next day, and read it aloud. How is here nighttime? This is indeed very peculiar. Why does the truth of sense-certainty disappear when written down? Hegel explains that sense-certainty cannot be expressed because it is knowledge of the particular, and language expresses knowledge of the general or universal. (71) Here, there, and now cannot express sense-certainty, because there is more than one here or now – it is a universal. Wait! How do we then make sense of proper names one might ask? Aren’t they particular? Hegel’s answer to this question was that proper names are meaningless because they only refer to the name itself. One could push further on this issue; but I won’t pursue it anymore since this essay’s aim is to draw a parallel between Hegel’s theory and Meruem’s character rather than to criticize Hegel’s philosophy.

At the next level of perception, consciousness classifies objects according to their universal properties; this proves inadequate and so at the level of understanding, consciousness imposes its own laws on reality. Such laws include Newton’s laws. They classify raw sense data under concepts like gravity and force. They “are not things we see existing in reality, but constructs made by our understanding to help us grasp reality.” (74) Beyond this level of perception is the level of understanding in which consciousness begins to reflect upon itself. However, Hegel noted that, “self-consciousness…cannot exist in isolation. If a consciousness is to form a proper picture of itself, it needs some contrast.” (75) This means that we must be aware of something other than ourselves. Hegel explains that we have a desire to possess that other entity of which we are aware. We want to “transform it into something that is [ours], and thus strip it of its [sovereignty].” (76)

This all sounds similar to those who have witnessed Meruem’s character arc, as he first began as a being that merely satisfied his basic desires – sense-certainty and the particular rather than the universal. This is evident in the way he forcibly ripped himself out of his mother’s womb and immediately embarked on a search for food. According to Hegel, Meruem would be in the first stage of self-consciousness at this point. It is interesting to take note of the fact that Meruem did not speak very much during the first few days after his birth. He was simply performing whatever action seemed to satisfy his desires rather than reflect upon his actions or himself through language, which Hegel believes is juxtaposed with desires – desires are subjective and language is universal.

Sure enough, when we begin to see more of Meruem’s inner dialogue and conversations with other people he isn’t merely focused on his primal desires anymore. He has arrived at the next stage of self-consciousness. This is when we see him classifying human beings and chimera ants according to their properties. He is now interested in the differences between those who possess Nen and those who do not. Such contemplation eventually leads him to impose universal laws unto the world as we can witness from his rather extreme form of social darwinism – power is the only thing that matters. He tries to organize his underlings and the food he eats according to this philosophy. However, it is quite obvious that this mode of thinking is immature. It resembles a caricature of Nietzsche’s übermensch that people often tout as profound and enlightening. Such immaturity begins to be expressed through the desire to possess and destroy another entity. This can be seen in Meruem’s battles against chess masters and Komugi. But even such relationships are unstable as we see Meruem destroy the chess masters and grow agitated by the fact that he cannot best Komugi.

Hegel argued that, at this stage of self-consciousness, one needs to observe another self-conscious entity to grow. He believes that this allows one to see what self-consciousness is like. He believed that social interaction was crucial, for an isolated child would never develop mentally beyond the level of mere consciousness without social interaction. (77) We can observe such growth from Meruem as he interacts with Komugi. He begins to notice the majesty and complexity of other self-conscious beings. He wishes to be recognized as a worthy adversary and he becomes angered when he mistakenly believes that she does not consider him as one. Hegel explained it could destroy one’s identity if others fail to recognize his or her self-consciousness. Like nations that need to be acknowledged by other nations to be a full-fledged state, self-consciousness needs to be recognized for what it is, which peculiarly makes it what it is. A nation was already there, but recognition makes it more complete. (78)

Nonetheless, even such interactions can be toxic. Hegel believed that self-consciousness tries to be pure – detached from material objects – yet it is very attached to its body and others’ bodies. In order to show that they are not attached to such bodies, they try to kill each other. (79) One can observe this from Meruem’s bid to wager his arm and Komugi’s life over a game of gungi. Surely, such violence is pointless. If the loser dies, then the victor kills the person by whom they need to be recognized. Such insight led Hegel to write his famous master-slave dialectic. The victor keeps the loser alive so that he can have someone by whom he can be recognized – the master is dependent on the slave. This concept is quite revolutionary as it turns the usual thoughts regarding this relationship upside down – the master is the one who needs the slave, but the slave does not need the master. The slave shapes her ideas into objects and labor. Through this process, she becomes more aware of her own consciousness that is poured into her labor and the objects of her labor. Through such labor, she learns that she has a mind of her own. (80) On the other hand, the master sees the slave as a thing; therefore, he doesn’t get the recognition he needs.

Analogous to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Komugi the slave is confident in her own identity through her labor: gungi. We see her crying over the product of her own labor – her original gungi move– for it represents her essence. Meruem is destabilized by such confidence, since he had seen her as a mere thing rather than a self-conscious being. And once he begins to treat her as a self-conscious being he begins to contemplate his own identity – What is his name? What does it mean to be a King? In other words, he becomes more self-conscious.

Unlike Hegel’s odyssey, Meruem’s journey doesn’t end with the recognition that Mind or Geist is the essence of all reality and that our individual minds are parts of a whole that shapes and constitutes reality. His journey ends with the recognition that he can choose to be human, that he wishes to spend the rest of his life with Komugi. This decision isn’t so surprising if one realizes that Komugi herself is an existentialist figure. She embodies Heidegger’s argument that a worker who is absorbed in their work is more in touch with their Being. Komugi, as we have surveyed, is very in touch with her Being. She looks ahead to her death and believes her life to be finite, which Heidegger insisted was the essential nature of our relationship with Time. She sees her life as a series of choices that she makes for herself rather than what they tell her; hence, she sets up her own principles for her own life as we see from her vow to take her life if she loses a gungi match. It is all the more meaningful to take this into account and witness Meruem’s choice to be with Komugi rather than fulfill his genetic and socio-cultural destiny as a Chimera Ant King who must procreate with another female to continue the prosperity of his race. Instead, he chooses the person who is dearest and this very choice itself is a lesson she taught him – that life is a choice rather than what they tell you to do.

Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction

3 x 3 of my favorite anime shows

These are my favorite anime shows! I didn’t include any feature length films because I feel like they deserve a separate list.

3x3 anime shows.jpg

Space Dandy, Hunter x Hunter, Cowboy Bebop (top row from left to right); Bakemonogatari, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Monster (middle row left to right); Samurai Champloo, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, and Steins;Gate (bottom row left to right)

Hunter X Hunter

Hunter x Hunter has been in my life for a while. I read the manga as a child in Korea, and I kept up with it after I moved to the US. Yet, I would describe its presence in my life as sparse and skimpy. For one, I was too young to understand the complex world of Hunter x Hunter; furthermore, the frequent hiatuses interrupted any sense of continuity or significance. Therefore, even though I was aware of many of the major events in the plot, I wouldn’t say I really knew what the show was about. You might ask then, what made you watch the show? Well, there’s a very simple answer: YouTube! I follow a few popular YouTube channels that analyze and criticize anime; and all of them recommended Hunter x Hunter (2011). I had been craving a new show to watch, so I took their advice and dove into the wonderful world of Hunter x Hunter.

YouTube told me I would be impressed by these things: 1) Killua and Gon’s friendship 2) the adventure and 3) the animation and the action scenes. In this review, let’s begin with these things and see if my experience of the show lived up to the authoritative advice of my favorite YouTubers. So let’s get to the first question: What’s special about Gon and Killua’s relationship? Isn’t it common for shonen mangas to mess up rivalries and friendships? Yes it is. Look at Naruto and Bleach. However, Hunter x Hunter is fundamentally different from Naruto and Bleach. Unlike Naruto and Bleach, Hunter x Hunter is not a typical shonen manga. It does not have an invincible protagonist defeating every enemy. For instance, Gon, the main character, never really wins. He lost to Hisoka during the Hunter Exam and he lost to him again during the Heaven’s arena arc. But, for some reason Hunter x Hunter makes those losses epic and awesome. How? Well, the focus is not so much on victory but rather on character development. This makes it so that even though Gon lost we were exhilarated to see his vast improvement as a fighter.

Moreover, Hunter x Hunter’s characters do not partake in shallow relationships that feel contrived. Killua’s bond with Gon feels organic. Gon was Killua’s first friend, he has a bright and bubbly personality, and he rescued Killua from a life by which he felt trapped. We also see them go through so many trials and tribulations together –and also joy as they make jokes and goof around– that the gradual strengthening of their trust and love feels very natural. It makes sense as to why Killua cares about Gon. Not only does the relationship feel organic, it is also very personal to the viewers. The show takes a lot of time into probing into Killua’s psychology and how he feels towards Gon. We see how much he cares about Gon and how much he tries to be a better friend for Gon. Such frequent exposure to his psychology makes us care about him and his relationship with Gon. Since it invests so much time into their relationship, we become invested in their relationship as well.

On top of such solid rapport between the protagonists, we have the fascinating villains of Hunter x Hunter. These characters are so complex, funny, compelling, and unique that it’s honestly inappropriate to call them villains. Most of these are just characters who lead their own lives, with their own unique goals, who happen to cross paths with the main characters. Sure, none of these are upstanding models of good moral conduct, but they are not your typical villain who just “wants to see the world burn.” They have friendships, bonds, goals, and attachments that make their every move interesting and relatable. No wonder some of the most popular characters are villains –Hisoka, the Spiders, and Meruem.

So far it appears that my favorite YouTubers were correct: the characters’ relationships are indeed compelling and interesting. Could we say the same about its world –the place in which the adventure takes place? My answer again is yes. The world of Hunter x Hunter is complex and mysterious. For instance, Nen, the energy that allows the characters perform inhuman tasks, is very complicated. It’s not a simple system like the ki of Dragonball whose only feature is that those who have more ki are stronger. Unlike ki, Nen isn’t a system in which you simply climb up the ladder to become stronger. The system is set up in a way so that there are many different types of Nen users. Their types and abilities are determined by their personalities. These abilities are often not about overt strength, i.e., it’s not always about battle. To be fair, there are a lot of battles in Hunter x Hunter. But these battles are not about overpowering your opponent through brute strength or speed. It is more about using your unique ability to the fullest. This is quite apparent in the fight between Uvogin and Kurapika; it ain’t always about muscle. Lurking in the background of this complicated Nen system is the world of Hunter x Hunter itself. This is a world full of properties, institutions, assassins, games, bandits, and creatures that are so disparate and creative that it is nigh impossible to explain all of them in this review. I think the best way to somewhat grasp the enormity of this world is to look back at my list – “properties, institutions, assassins, games, bandits, and creatures.” Unlike a typical shonen manga that revolves around beating the Big Bad, Hunter x Hunter lets you take a peak at their political institutions, the kinds of games they play, and so on. This is further amplified by the nearly endless amount of details that turns everything in this whacky world into a coherent network.

Last but not least, the animation is superb. Coming from Madhouse, which gave us One Punch Man, Wolf Children, and Death Note, one can only imagine the quality of the animation. I was and I am still surprised by the quality of the animations for a show that spans over a hundred episodes. How is this possible? I am not so sure. But perhaps the long list of Korean animators might give us a clue as to how many people were involved in producing this masterpiece of show. I highly recommend it.

P.S. I plan on writing a Hegelian analysis of Meruem from Hunter x Hunter. This will be a long project so hold on tight. I think it’s going to be good!