The old-man mentor. Or as I like to call them: the not-Roshi. A staple of shounen anime that has endured almost as long as the genre itself. Generally, they fit a few personality traits. They’re usually very silly, highly perverted, and goofy all around; this is done to make their wisdom, knowledge, and power all the more impactful. They’ll usually guide and teach the protagonist in weird round-about ways that don’t make sense to them until the training is complete and the lesson is learned.
When he was first introduced near the beginning of Hunter X Hunter, Netero fit all of these traits. He’s a crazy old pervert who is far stronger than his looks make him out to be. He takes a shining to Gon and Killua (mostly the former) and spends some time testing the young boys. Afterwards, he disappears for a while, only re-entering the story during the Chimera Ant arc.
Which is where Togashi decided to flip the entire character archetype on its head in what might be the darkest way possible.
In a typical shounen, this would be the part of the story where Netero takes the protagonist, Gon, under his wing and teaches him some new technique that would make him ridiculously powerful. But Netero doesn’t do that. Instead, he points Gon and Killua towards someone else, then basically forgets about them. He ain’t here to take students, he came to crush bugs.
From there, Netero goes on a path completely different from the archetype he started as. One practically entirely separate from Gon or Killua’s. The two only share one more scene together, and they don’t even exchange words. Any expectation of Netero being the crazy, fun, but wise and kind mentor are all out the window.
What do we get in its place? An old man that, if we’re being entirely honest, is kind of terrible. In a way, it wasn’t the Chimera Ants that were the real monsters of that arc. Nor was it our main antagonist, Meruem. It was Netero.
Despite a lengthy backstory flashback, we don’t really know all that much about Isaac Netero as a person. We know that he underwent brutal training, praying and punching over and over and over until he developed his Nen techniques and became the strongest man alive. We know that he faced many strong opponents, defeated them all, and became so bored that he eventually stopped showing them any respect whatsoever because they were so far beneath him. We know that he is close friends with Killua’s grandfather, whom respects and fears Netero (a terrifying feat, considering that he’s a fucking Zoldyck). And we know that at some point, he became the Chairman of the Hunter Association, essentially becoming humanity’s ultimate defender.
Oh yeah, he also stuck a nuke into his chest. Whether that was specifically for the Chimera Ants or some precaution taken long ago, we don’t know. But we’ll get to that.
Most of this information is vague, but it does tell us a lot about Netero as a character. He developed the mischievous personality we saw on display before and started screwing with people not because he was a goofy old man, but because he was so strong that it was the only way he could entertain himself. By all accounts, he seems a good man; defender of humanity and devout prayer and all that. But his strength soured and darkened his personality, and his connections to the Zoldycks implies that he got up to some messed up stuff at some point in his life.
This makes Netero somewhat unpredictable, especially during the Chimera Ant arc. He’s not a terrible person, nor is he an especially good one. He is the peak of humanity in its strength as well as its complexity. Is Netero a man or is he a demon? Well, the answer is… that there is no answer. Isaac Netero was simply a man, and he carried all of the dark sides that make men men.
All of this is perfectly displayed during his battle with Meruem. When confronted with Meruem’s humanity, Netero initially hesitates. However, he’s grown cynical enough through the years that he doesn’t believe that Meruem can put aside the monstrous urges of the Chimera Ant inside him. Nor does he believe that humanity would be willing to follow a creature they saw as less, even one as powerful as the King. So he does his job and goes to wipe him out.
During the fight, Netero rediscovers the joy of fighting that led him to become so strong in the first place. Up to this point, he’s been told repeatedly that the Chimera Ants higher up the chain of command could absolutely crush him. Now, facing the King, he realizes that this is, for the most part, true. And this excites the old man to no end. He is delighted to fight Meruem. Here, he displays to Meruem the aspects of himself that make humanity so admirable; he could keep up with a god-like monster like Meruem simply because he worked hard for his whole life.
But as Netero realizes that he’s losing, he is forced to show the King the absolute worst and most terrifying of mankind.
Enter the bomb in Netero’s chest. A tiny nuke placed within him specifically to deal with any potential threat that even the strongest human alive couldn’t defeat. Out of everything he threw at Meruem, this is the one thing to strike fear into the King’s heart. Because no matter how powerful or evil or frightening Meruem might be, he still can’t compare to the absolute worst that humanity has to offer.
Think about it like this: Netero has spent his entire life praying. But when he uses the bomb, what does he say?
“If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”Isaac Netero’s final words
Netero is a perfect amalgamation of humanity. He is capable of incredible kindness, able to make the world a better, more joyful place with his presence. But when pushed too far, he becomes a monster far more terrible and frightening than anything you could imagine. A wonderfully complex and memorable character.
And to think. At the beginning of the series, he was just another perverted old mentor.