Isaac Netero watched first the snow fall, and then the seasons’ change around him as he perfected his technique. For two years, he stood fixed on the same spot as the world ebbed and flowed around him, reciting the same prayer and throwing 10,000 punches of gratitude, until, at last, he beat the setting sun. Upon achieving a state of symbiosis between his body, spirit and his surroundings, Netero returned to the world.
His devotion is only revealed in flashback at the apex of Hunter x Hunter’s Chimera Ant arc, in which Netero clashes with the King of the Ants. Before, Netero was simply the head honcho of The Hunter Association, the eccentric straddling the cool grandpa stereotype as he played keep-away with then Hunter hopefuls Gon and Killua. Though the show was still in its infancy, his aura radiated power, intelligence and a more than a little mischief. But as the episodes unfurled, his full potential remained disguised.
Born god-like to his people, the monarch of the Ants is predestined to reign over humanity, and this unwavering, unquestioning drive pits him opposite Netero. During this climactic conflict, the King first identifies his enemy’s dedication, before comprehending it as madness when compared to his own existence; one of beastly urge and Darwinist betterment. But in the end, it’s his example that inspires the King to overcome his preconceptions of humanity, overwriting the fundamental superiority of his species.
Passing the time until he can assert his rule with a Holocaustic selection ritual, the King plays board games against their respective champions. But there is one human he can never defeat. The Gungi mastermind Komugi is fragile in every other respect; blind, feeble and constantly sniffling snot. Lacking any sense or ability outside of her proficient gaming strategy, without Gungi she would be, in her own words, “garbage”. Confounded by her in defeat and his growing concern for her weakness, something’s awakened inside the King, a new aspect of his spirit which even he cannot define. He begins to question his very existence, what or who he is within the invented figure of prophecy. It’s with this confusion lingering that he goes into his clash with Netero.
Netero is a representation of the Buddhist ideal of strength and courage in tranquillity, modesty and spiritual grounding, only unleashing his true, unequivocal power on an equal opponent and always in the greatest love. His Nen ability is dubbed the 100-Type Guanyin Bhodhisattva, or Hyakushiki Kannon in Japanese. His golden aura idol is Guanyin (or Kannon) herself, one of the most eminent Bhodisattva. Sometimes known as the Medicine Buddha, in legend she’s granted a thousand arms so she can reach all those in need of healing. But Netero is also worthy of the honoured title. Bhodhisattva are the enlightened ones who have turned away from entering Nirvana, a sacrifice made in service of others who wish to achieve enlightenment. So Netero comes to echo the Mahayana Buddhist figure of mercy and compassion, and the mother’s love as complete and eternal shines forth when the battle comes to its head. Images of roses unfurling and shedding their petals pepper the fight scenes, juxtaposing the fleshy combat with the spiritual and the natural. The distinctions between the battle and these themes are blurred with each passing punch, until they are one and the same. Netero symbolically returns the King to the womb with his hands, granting him renewed life, gratitude and love.
Some would insist that only male followers of the Buddha may become enlightened, taking as read the legend that his female followers, led by his stepmother, were restricted to subordination. Guanyin, too, first appeared in legend as a prince akin to Buddha’s own origin tale. But in a sequence that could have been blown up with machismo and braggadocio, compassion stands on equal terms with power, ambition and the weight of duty. Masculine ideals of supremacy are abandoned, and love is left for all. Their battle is held in Namaste, respect and good will overcoming pride, honouring the phrase which, in its literal translation, means “I bow to you”. The King will later understand the significance of this statement, as he kneels before his presumed enemy appealing for forgiveness, a reverential exchange between his newly discovered humanity and the empathy of his enemy. Violence is ended by non-violence, as the parable goes.
“I dreamed of giving my heart and soul to battle an unstoppable adversary,” Netero says, holding up his hands in the shape of a heart. “I’m a lucky man. I’m thankful for everything that led me to this point…that led me to you.” His presence and the goddess’s reflect a very shonen message, and one that mirrors a Buddhist value; that it is one’s actions, and the sincerity in those actions, which determine the nobility and strength of the spirit, above all else.
The Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra says that Buddhahood, absolute happiness and freedom from human fear and suffering, is inherent in all of life and nature. When Netero awakens his ability, he’s pictured sitting in meditation inside a fully-bloomed lotus flower, a symbol of illuminated self-awareness. As a flower that emerges from mud, it represents first and foremost rising above adversity to achieve enlightenment. Its second meaning is purification, while the third is faithfulness, crucial to rising above the murk. The mud itself represents how humanity is born, in a world of suffering. The suffering is essential in making us stronger, teaching us the value in choosing the right path over the easy one, like Ging’s message to Gon at the start of his journey as a Hunter. He warned his son that if he searched for him, he shouldn’t expect to find him. Gon’s lesson is that he must find his own path, on his own terms and through his own strength.
Finally, the lotus symbolises rebirth. In Buddhism’s literal sense it relates to reincarnation, but it also refers to overcoming, getting through dark times, discovering a new way of seeing the world. The King is reborn in defeat and from the womb of the Earth as Meruem, “the light that shines on everything”, serene in his revived and renewed prowess. Through Netero’s sacrifice (in which he punctures his own heart, detonating a bomb that explodes into a gargantuan rose) he has learned the value and beauty in humanity and its simplest pleasures, with the Ant aspect of his consciousness swamped by the empathy and understanding of his blossoming humanity. In loving Komugi and being loved by her in return, her blindness capturing the childlike purity that awakened his compassion, he knows honour beyond status. He has found the means of living his life as his best and truest self, and returning to the name his mother gave to him, he places himself in Komugi’s care. It’s intriguing that the Mantra for strength and courage is “Om Hanumate Namah”, the final utterance similar to the Japanese for name, “namae”. This word in turn holds the term “amae” – psychoanalyst Takeo Doi’s coined concept of an ideal relationship, similar to the dependent bond between parent and child.
This is the inspiration Netero provides, in the legacy of leadership he leaves behind to his Hunters. The hunter appears in Buddhist fable as a reprehensible figure, selfish, impetuous, impatient and unwise. The Hunters we know are learning to overcome their fury, naïveté and selfish urges, and Netero presided over them all, equal, caring and sage. In sacrificing himself, he ensures a bright future for his fellow Hunters to continue building, offering them all new life.