(Spoilers for the 2011 anime adaptation of Hunter X Hunter)
What is the meaning of life?
Why am I alive?
Is there really anything out there for me?
Whether we are a student, a businessman, or a sports player, at some point in our lives,
we’ve all asked ourselves these questions before. While we keep pushing forward in our lives, we often wonder whether there is more to it, constantly asking ourselves if we could’ve been doing something more. As humans, we constantly strive for improvement and aim for bigger and better things, hoping that we can find something we can love and cherish, thumbing our noses at the circumstances that were forced upon us.
And Killua Zoldyck’s character is no different. As a mere child raised to be a perfect killing machine destined to head the family business, Killua undergoes rigorous and torturous training that teaches him the killing and leadership skills necessary for him to take over as the family head. But yet, even with the training and mental manipulation that he goes through, Killua strives for more. Instead of succumbing to his family’s desires, he questions whether being an assassin is the life that he wants to lead. Because of everything his family has done to him, Killua knows that he does not want to be destined to a meaningless life as an assassin, and instead, focuses on trying to create something greater, finding a purpose outside of the his family’s superficial hopes that Killua will become the great assassin he was always destined for.
Through his desires to prove his family wrong and to create something greater, Killua runs away from home, starting one of the hardest, scariest, but most important journeys of his life. And through watching Hunter X Hunter, we as the viewer are able to get a first class seat watching his journey through his insecurities and struggles to realize his own self worth.
(okay, that sounded weird. What I’m trying to say is we are able to glimpse into Killua’s head as he goes through his struggles, but whichever way you want to take it I guess)
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Part One: Family and upbringing
In today’s era, there’s often a joke to be made about the way that asian parents treat their children. In their harsh efforts to make sure that their children turn out as the doctors and lawyers of society, asian parents are known for putting through their child harsh training schedules, making them practice a wide variety of things ranging from the piano to playing chess for nonstop hours, and then when they’re free, making them study in the hopes their children are able to obtain good grades, all while disregarding their children’s emotions.
While this is a culture that has stretched many, many years(and many books and mediums attempting to capture it), there have been cracks. All over the world, children have rebelled from the cruel practice of their parents, hoping to prove to their parents that they can live their own life and make their own decisions. And as children being born are becoming more and more self aware, and as the human race becomes more and more advanced, the cracks in a flawed system are becoming more and more obvious.
Which is the case of the Zoldyck family. As the most dangerous and prominent family of assassins in the Hunter X Hunter universe, the Zoldyck’s add a world of colorful characteristics and intrigue into Hunter X Hunter. While they are cold blooded killers, it feels like he added a group of people, with their own instincts, ideas, and thoughts that greatly added to the ocean of interesting elements in Hunter X Hunter
The most fascinating thing about the Zoldyck’s, however, isn’t their characteristics, their nen-types, and the style they conduct business, but instead, the way their business is done. The Zoldyck’s are a family that revolve around tradition. There is always one child born to head the family, while the rest of the family supports that child, and when the next head of family is born, raise that child. While one child is raised to be on the top in everything, the others are all meant to play second fiddle to him and taught to help him in any way possible.
Hunter X Hunter is good because although there are elements and feelings of jealousy in the story, that jealousy never feels forced or unrealistic. Instead, we get a much more real and complicated story, with its own twists and turns. It’s the reason it’s quite easy to find characters like Illumi, Milluki, and Kikyo Zoldyck unlikable, yet so understandable. Yes, they make Killua emotionally vulnerable and upset, yes, they tell him that he’s not allowed to make friends and he’s not cut out to be a hunter, but there’s a logic and driving pain behind these words. Instead of being purely jealous, they are motivated by the good of the family, and even for the good of Killua. A person who is simply jealous wouldn’t go as far as to go all the way to get him back from the Hunter exam. They wouldn’t want to go through the trouble to make sure that Killua realizes that he is nothing without his assassin life.
They’re not motivated by jealousy, or at least, they don’t think so. Instead, they’re motivated by a twisted love. Although they torture and abuse Killua, his family believes that the torture and training is necessary for Killua to become the next head of the family, something that benefits their family, but something they also believe to help Killua. They are so sure that he will never amount to anything outside an assassin that they mentally manipulate him, sticking Illumi’s needle into his head.
But the idea that they are helping Killua through hurting him isn’t true. Sure, the Zoldyck’s might have good intentions, but the still reality of it is that they all have been through some bad shit as well. They’ve all been born and always reminded daily that they were to support a child that hadn’t even been born yet, having a mental inferiority complex stuck to them. And when the child is born, when they were hoping to get some sort of attention from someone, for their hard work, they don’t. Through all the frustrations of not having their parents or their family care for them, and being too afraid of their parents to tell them, they turn inward toward Killua and unconsciously project their anger toward him. Aren’t you supposed to be the great child, their mind says, aren’t you supposed to be the head of the family.
We’ve seen it in Milluki’s, his characteristic of not holding back when beating Killua with a whip. We’ve seen him lash out, annoyed that his grandpa always spoils Killua. We’ve seen Milluki say that maybe he could be the head of the family, half joking, half serious, desperately want to at least wanting to be cared for, but at the same time fearing what the family will say. In Illumi, we’ve seen that know-it-all smile that sounds like he knows everything, the feeling he knows what you’re going to do next before you do, that dare-you-to douchebag look. They all try to run from their true feelings. Instead of facing their jealous emotions toward Killua, they run from it, masking their feelings under a mask. The badass nature that Illumi poses as, the eating problem and the aggressive nature of Milluki has, and the reserved hope that Kalluto possesses with Killua.
The Zoldyck’s put a tremendous amount into Killua, but also are putting a tremendous amount of pressure while completely failing to even try and understand him. They force him into a lifestyle of assassin-hood while projecting their own emotions and ideas onto him, while Killua only sees a family that resorts to fear and tyranny. And after having his feelings disregarded so much, Killua runs away in the hopes that there is something greater out there, proving his family wrong. The irony is that in their attempts to make Killua the perfect assassin, They do the complete opposite. Instead, Killua now feels hatred toward the family who have treated him like a tool, and while focusing all their energy to training, the Zoldyck’s fail to consider the important question:
“What does Killua want?”
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Part Two: What Killua wants
Trying to find something you want to do in life isn’t easy. It’s not as suddenly having the idea of something you really want to do, instead it demands price, it demands courage, it demands effort, and most importantly, it demands time.
Time that Killua never had, and even in the period in between the hunter exam and running away, still doesn’t have. His parents and family always make him go from one training exercise to the next, and he’s never experienced anything outside of his assassin training. As much as he would like to, he simply doesn’t have something that comes to mind when talking about what he loves to do. And although he knows he does not want to stay in that house or just submit to his family’s expectations for him, it means that he does not know what to do, a point that his family knows, and constantly uses against him.
What makes it worse is that through his family’s constant mental abuse and asking him constantly what he wants to do knowing it will hurt him more, Killua is led to believe that he doesn’t have the luxury of time. Suffering through the mental trauma that his family inflicted on him means that every second spent not being able to find a purpose means that he is less and less likely to prove that his parents are wrong. Every second he’s tormented by the actions of his parents, constantly being reminded that if he can’t find a purpose, he’ll have to go back.
That fear is what drives him so desperately to find something. Deep behind the badass nature and his confident look is fear that he isn’t good enough to find a purpose, and that his family has hindered him so much that he is unable to return to the real world. In his desperation, Killua takes the Hunter exam, hoping to find purpose in the only way he knows how: fighting through it. So Killua fights, and fights with a passion. His brutal smile after murdering two people taking the exam. The fascination in the way he talks about the art of killing to Kurapika, Leorio, and Gon. And when he talks to Wing about fighting and Gon’s enjoying the moment that almost got him killed, it’s really quite obvious the level of love that Killua has for fighting.
Killua wants a challenge. He wants something that makes his life worth living, and because he’s never really had any friends, the ideas of someone else helping him has probably never even crossed his mind. So he takes the hunter exam for a thrill, hence him explaining to Gon that he joined for “fun,” and “a challenge”
But in his desperation, Killua doesn’t realize that to find something you love isn’t something to be rushed. It requires time and patience, and to find meaning within doing the things you love while having to suffer through moments of moments of pain to make the journey more meaningful.
It’s not Killua’s fault, though. Even as a 12 year old child, Killua has already suffered through more pain that the average adult does, and although he’s still a child, it often comes to show that Killua is a lot more mature than your usual 12 year old. But this also works against him, the idea and the angst of that pain stuck in his head and wanting him to get out, but also makes him desperate and scared of time. It’s like he is left in a square room, with the walls closing down on him every second. Every second Killua spends wasting his time not being able to find a purpose means that he is one second less from being crushed by the walls of his family’s expectations
It’s a struggle that I’m sure a lot of people have gone through at some point in their lives. Being so desperate to find something, being so fearful that a hated foe was right about you. Maybe you’ve felt the never-ending anxiety biting at you and telling you that you weren’t good enough. If so, you might’ve felt that ever-closing wall as well. It knocks the breath out of you and slowly you start to suffocate while you desperately try to find a way out.
And this can really go both ways, while he is quite a mature child, Killua is still that, a child. He’s still under the influence of his family and still acts to protect himself. So while he is able to take that scary first step, Killua reaches a roadblock, unable to advance any further, on the verge of giving up.
Then comes a Gon.
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Part 3: Killua and Gon
Gon’s character is interesting not only because of the old-school shounen troupes and childlike innocence that he represents, he also serves as a great character foil for Killua. In the first scene they meet, Killua approaches Gon tentatively, remembering all of the past failures. In this tentativeness, however, Killua is also aware that he so desperately needs someone, so to compensate, he dons a mask, putting up a confident front on one side, and on another, being able to test the waters and dropping subtle hints and clues about his past.
It’s almost like Killua is trying to set Gon up for failure. While he projects this outward confident nature to Gon, he hides the pain and suffering inside. It always felt like the same thing he was doing to his parents, telling himself that they knew nothing about him but also not being able to tell them anything out of fear.
But Gon is different, and Killua realizes that this innocent 12 year old has more to him than he originally thoughts. When Killua drops his first hint, telling Gon that his parents are assassins, Gon asks “What? Both of them?” Killua laughs, still playing his part, noting that it’s the first time someone has ever responded seriously. He’s testing Gon, trying to make him crack and laugh along with him, but Gon sees past that, explaining to Killua that he was being serious about his parents being assassins was “just a hunch,” helping Killua truly open up for the first time in his life, even if it is in a joking manner
Gon provides exactly what Killua needs. He provides a child Killua’s own age, someone that Killua can play with and talk to. And even as an innocent 12 year old child, Gon is able to see through Killua’s mental shield and understand the person underneath all the masks and parts that Killua plays, something Killua, as a child who has always been bereft of any meaningful connection, never experienced before.
Watching Killua poke around Gon, testing the waters and finally learning to trust someone, it was almost bittersweet. While it was heartwarming to see someone like Killua finally get someone he really deserved, at the same time, it makes the viewers feel like crying.
Even then, although Gon almost immediately considers Killua a friend, Killua doesn’t trust him quite as quickly. Although Gon has made it farther than people have ever made it, Killua still doesn’t trust Gon in spite of the fact that he is so desperate for someone. Killua is bent on testing him further and staying with him longer, hoping that he has found the purpose he was looking for. So while we desperately want Killua to trust Gon, when the viewer sees moments where Killua starts projecting himself onto Gon and the moments where he feels insecure about having less potential than Gon, we also understand. Understand that he’s a child that has never really had anyone. After all the conditioning and trials he’s faced, we understand that it’s almost impossible for him to trust anyone, but still, all we want is for Killua to trust Gon, to trust anyone. And that’s why when we see Killua warm up to Gon, it warms our hearts seeing these two kids interact, and watching Killua getting the help that he so deserves.
Which makes it harder for us to watch the struggles that Killua faces with Gon. In his case, as a child that is so cut off from genuine love and affection and taking so many drastic measures for it, it also means that when he finally does obtain it, he is constantly in fear of losing it. In his desperation, Killua sacrifices thinking about what he wants in favor of asking himself what Gon wants. After everything that Gon’s done for him, Killua clings on him, seeing Gon as a perfect being who lowered himself down to compliment him and give him a meaning, and with everything that’s happened, Killua only wants to repay Gon.
And he tries, he tries so hard. On his journey to reach self-worth, he sacrifices everything about himself. He doesn’t know how good of a person he already is;he only believes that he is a good person if he is useful to Gon. He believes that he is only a tool used for Gon’s purpose, and that his one purpose in life is to keep him safe.
It’s a tragic reimagining of a child who only wants love. A child who has been denied that his whole life, running away trying to find something he can appreciate, something he can love like his own. And in doing so he doesn’t understand his worth, and he doesn’t understand that he has always been an important person to Gon.
The irony of it all is that with Killua’s nonchalant, untrusting nature and personality many would expect him to be the one that would betray Gon. That he was the one that Gon would be the one who would probably put more in the relationship trying to prove himself to Killua. But here it’s quite obvious that Killua puts much more into the relationship, to the point that his need for Gon’s friendship comes into conflict with his family’s teaching to run from an enemy you don’t know the power of. Killua even contemplates leaving Gon’s side when Gon gets his nen back, after being told countless times that he is going to have to leave Gon if he can’t break that “bad habit of his.”
And it’s here where the cracks in their friendship start becoming more obvious. As Gon looks forward to his goals, Killua looks back, cleaning up the mess left in Gon’s wake. While Killua is so anxious and terrified that he is disposable and not doing enough for Gon, Gon, being the innocent child that he is, does not notice Killua’s mental struggles with himself. What results is a tragedy between two young boys, boys who aren’t capable of seeing from someone else’s perspective.
And then Killua pulls the needle out.
Illumi’s needle is an interesting object because it’s a physical manifestation for the reach of the Zoldyck family. It represents the struggle for Killua to escape from the family destiny set for him and everything that holds him back from really giving his everything from protecting Gon.
But it also does something else for him. During the climax of the Chimera Ant arc, as Gon’s frightening rage reaches its peak, Gon says the words, “You have it easy Killua, you’re perfectly calm.” Separating himself from the boy that has done so much for him. It’s a moment that’s heartbreaking yet eye-opening for Killua. After going through so much pain and anxiety for Gon, while he goes through pain at first, Killua comes to realize that Gon isn’t perfect; Gon is a human being who makes mistakes, maybe even more mistakes than Killua does. And it’s here where all of his mistakes and good parts about him culminate and Killua is able to realize that he is also human, and while he is prone to make the same mistakes that Gon does, Killua also has some really great parts about him.
He’s able to truly see his self-worth, laughing and joking in a manner that now feels genuine. Finally, he sees Gon as an equal, forcing Gon to apologize after while freely stating his feelings . And, while he still makes mistakes, and he still finds himself being influenced by his family, he is able to see past himself and apologize for his mistakes. He sees his flaws and is able to move past them without having them control his life, and is even able to accept the compliments that Gon provides to him without feeling embarrassed like he used to.
Killua’s story is a journey of triumph, a boy who only wanted to prove himself that he was better than he seemed. It’s a story of anxiety and insecurities, the frightening reach of one’s demons telling him that he wasn’t good enough for Gon and would have to leave him. It’s a story about failure after failure, mental breakdown after mental breakdown, tears dropping one by one onto the ground like rain, and it’s a story about triumph, breaking through, realizing that you don’t have to be anyone’s tool. It’s a story about realizing that you don’t have to be given compliments to be a good person, that in reality, everyone accepts you for who you are.
And interestingly enough, Killua’s relationship with Gon parallels a lot with the relationship between Killua and the Zoldyk’s. While Killua does not actively try to hurt Gon for him to become stronger and does not mentally abuse him, he often shows signs of clinginess and puts more than what’s healthy into the relationship. And while physically it is different for a person to want more for the relationship and he seems like he’s doing the exact opposite of what his family did to him, it’s actually more similar than you think. His ultra sensitive protection of Gon feels familiar especially when you look at the steps his brother Illumi takes to protect Killua from the pain of failing. While both parties have very different ways of looking at things, they both have goals and ambitions very similar and would both sacrifice everything for that goal, that goal being either helping Gon reach his highest potential, or Killua reach his highest potential. Both parties fail to reach their goal, and have moments where their circumstances are the thing that bring them down, the misunderstandings and the inability to understand, the difference being that Killua, with everything that life throws at him, is able to get past this and accept himself.
Togashi’s beautiful execution and passionate, intimate details, make Killua Zoldyck’s character so relatable. While he is an assassin with supernatural abilities, it feels like he’s is written with a personal touch with it, so many details that he could almost be writing about the human condition. It’s a touch filled with passion, with the brutal emotional moments that makes Killua’s triumph so much more deserved and worth it.
Killua Zoldyck’s story isn’t just a story about a regular badass power fantasy hero that stories nowadays love to tell, it’s a story about self worth, and the road to getting there. Through the awe-inspiring fight scenes and the heart — breaking emotional moments, he story tells us that love has to come from within.
From the scary way you can relate to him to his triumphant victory, Killua Zoldyck’s road to self worth is inspiring. It’s one that tells me there is an end to this road, that through the fire and the flames, there is something worth it in the end. It made me cry, it made me laugh, but in the end, it made me have hope: Hope that maybe, just maybe, I could accept myself too.
Thank you for reading.