Hunter X Hunter (2011)
Quoth ANN: "Gon Freecs' father abandoned him as a baby in order to become a Hunter, an elite class with a license to go anywhere or do almost anything. Now 12 years old, Gon wishes to follow in his father's footsteps and become a great Hunter. While Gon faces the unexpected challenges the Hunter Examination throws at him, he makes friends with three other candidates: Kurapika, Leorio, and Killua."
Oh, how deceptive this is.
Hunter x Hunter begins in the manner of a myth, or a fairy tale: A young boy on a small island, abandoned by his father in the pursuit of untold glory, catches a monstrous fish known as the Lord of the Lake, a feat of which only his father before him had been capable. Having met the conditions of a promise made to his adoptive mother, he sets out alone, seeking to find his father by, in a sense, becoming him. It is a simple, almost cliché set-up, but the clarity of it sparkles, and draws you in.
Beyond that point, however, even when that epic, ballad-like quality returns, it is increasingly evident that things are far from clear. Even towards the beginning of what becomes the first arc, there are hints of the horrific beneath the exuberant surface — a few blatant, most subtle, but all handled with a light touch that almost makes you forget what you just heard or saw. "Almost" is the operative word: Hunter x Hunter's mastery of tone and perspective is such that while it may take a very long time to show its hand with respect to a particular aspect of its world or its characters, one is always waiting for that other shoe to drop, breath held.
The setting is at once outlandish and curiously familiar. Consider, if you will, a world not entirely unlike our own, with skyscrapers and trade agreements and wireless internet and people of every colour of the rainbow — a trait notably lacking in most anime, save perhaps for hair — yet also founded as much on powers beyond scientific understanding as on electricity, national sovereignty and the subjective theory of value. There is magic in this world, and although we are ultimately introduced to its mechanics about a quarter of the way into the series, one gradually comes to realise that while the distinctions made are useful, they are by no means absolute. The domain of this power is too protean, too elemental to be so easily delineated, a quality encapsulated by the strange powers of the catch-all Specialist class which range from the relatively innocuous to the incomprehensibly dangerous.
But the magical aspect alone is but a single facet of the wild potential and mystery of this world. It should seem absurd that a character should be chatting idly on a cellphone while pacing the deck of a wooden galleon, but in a world where Luddites may form forbidden kingdoms, demoniac thieves hail from cities built from rubbish heaps, and ants become gods through the sacrament of flesh, there is a certain logic to the illogic. Children often conjure up such beautifully mad congeries of ideas, but Hunter x Hunter goes one further in that it brings to life the fancies that children refuse to tell to their parents for fear that they should frighten them.
This bountiful oddity extends to the cast. Never have I before encountered characters that are broad in quite the way that Hunter x Hunter's characters are. They are larger than life, but rarely thin and never flat, all but the most cursory of supporting players coursing with life. Some characters may, if one is to be uncharitable, be boiled down to several key traits, but those traits are in themselves rarely so simple as they first seem.
Take, for example, the chief protagonist, Gon. While introduced as the archetypal earnest, happy-go-lucky shounen hero, his superhuman determination and innocence of intention evokes as much bemusement and trepidation in other characters as admiration; there is, it dawns on you, something a bit frightening about such a relentlessly pure, uncompromising hero, and by the end of the series it is impossible to say that those fears were unjustified. Providing a consistent foil to Gon's unsettling gormlessness is Killua, a child assassin whose initial chilly indifference to the taking of human life reflects an inner life shaped by a family both loving and unspeakably cruel. He is one of the most fascinatingly complex characters that I have ever encountered in a series aimed at teenagers, and watching his evolution in tandem with Gon's development is an absolute treat. The other two of the main four at the beginning of the series — goofy, sly Leorio and dour, intense Kurapika — are perhaps less engaging, but I mean that as no slight; both are well-written, interesting characters with their own struggles, follies and strengths, each receiving some truly excellent moments as the series goes on.
This all, of course, is merely discussing the protagonists, and only a small core of them at that. To fully encompass the sheer number, range and depth of the characters in Hunter x Hunter — perhaps just the villains, let alone the supporting cast — I would need pages upon pages. The antagonists of the final stretch of the Chimera Ant arc alone are worth an essay; the recurring figure of the combat-fixated sadist Hisoka, with his uncomfortable sexual fascination with Gon and his equally ambiguous relationship with Killua's elder brother, the similarly enigmatic and repulsive Illumi, is probably worth another.
This ties nicely into the running themes of the show, which like the darker elements early on are sometimes very obvious but just as often require some contemplation: The capacity for love, when it can better a person or worsen them, and where it blurs into darker drives; what makes a family, whether through blood or in the abstract, how families can be torn apart and how they may survive; what power is, what it means and what it is worth. The battles escalate in terms of raw energy and violence — and make no mistake, while Hunter x Hunter is by no means astoundingly graphic, it pulls no punches — but what wins them is not simply being able to throw the right hook that ends the world, but knowing your enemy and knowing yourself. Ruthlessness and selfishness are not the monopoly of the "bad guys," nor unconditional love and mercy the sole domain of the "good." Even stripping away the sensational quality of the gore, the emotional brutality of the show's harshest reversals often makes the murder and mayhem pale in comparison.
I must emphasise that last point, should I fail to capture what in any of this is particularly unique; indeed, part of the appeal in Hunter x Hunter is that it does what it does so exceedingly well. Yet it is also honest about itself in a way that very few shows of its type are. To call it "deconstructive," as is the typical label for works that do roughly what this show does to their respective genres, would feel a little disingenuous here given the earnestness of its presentation, but it might be truer to the original meaning of that word than many other, more superficially mature series slapped with it. In the same way that the details of its setting and plot draw on the unfettered strangeness of childhood fantasy to increasingly unsettling effect, there is a disarming innocence about how Hunter x Hunter casually dismembers and cannibalises the trappings of its genre. Key roles are inverted, altered, tossed aside entirely; base assumptions are disappointed, subverted, half-fulfilled and then undermined; styles and perspectives shift, from hero's journey to ensemble drama to chamber piece, high adventure to crime thriller to sci-fi horror to war chronicle, without missing a beat. One imagines that, were this child-beast to look up at any point from its grisly feast, it would — without any hint of self-consciousness or artifice; face caked with what, we dare not ask — flash the viewer the most gormless, winning smile they had ever seen.
To be charmed is, after all, to be subject to spectral powers.
On the technical front, the animation is more than solid, and actually seems to improve as the series progresses, which is a plus with a show like this. While the direction is initially very standard action show, fairly straightforward even with the introduction of the magic system, certain later developments lead to some downright artsy visuals, with a number of scenes veering into the outright hallucinatory, and even early on there are moments of weird inspiration. Singling out individual moments would spoil the surprise, but you will know them when you see them.
The music is perhaps a weaker link, but not because of quality or even quantity so much as because it is stretched over such a great length of time. Even hours upon hours of original music and unique themes will go so far over the course of 148 episodes (between six and thirteen times the length of your average self-contained show). Thankfully, the background material is almost uniformly enjoyable and fairly diverse. The opening and ending themes are pretty average for the most part, although the revolving door of animations set against two different sections of two versions of the same song in the opening is certainly clever, and the music for the first ending is strikingly bizarre: A mix of elastic synth-driven J-pop and extreme metal, complete with wretched screaming.
The downsides are minor and easily enumerated. The show is very long, and occasionally the pacing is odd. The narration can get tiresome, although it is at times important and thus not dispensable. Some characters simply do not get enough screen-time — I would have welcomed a lot more of Neferpitou, for one — and certain plot threads simply end rather than truly resolve, which is realistic but dissatisfying. While most of the humour works, some of it falls flat quite badly; the post-credits bits in particular are often a bit stupid and entirely skippable.
But again, these are minor issues.
I wouldn't say this is quite one of my favourite series ever as a whole. There are certainly portions which, while relevant to the progression of the story and not technically bad, did little for me. But what struck me did so with an incredible impact. This is one of the very few anime that I have seen which actually made me cry, and possibly the only one to make me do so more than once. I never thought that I would say that about a shounen tournament series, even a good one, but it did. And I honestly think that exceeding one's expectations to that degree, let alone compelling me to write this much in one sitting, is worthy of a special kind of praise all its own.
About as good as it gets in this genre. Drop a star if you do not care for shows with a lot of fighting, really detest the first arc's tone, or cannot take the length. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: This show does not shy away from showing the bloody results of violence. I cannot stress this enough. There are moments in the Yorkshin City and Chimera Ant arcs which, were this a live-action film, could easily have earned this a hard R. By comparison, the small handful of very off-colour jokes, usually involving Hisoka's creepiness or Leorio's total lack of a mental filter, are pretty tame, although the latter does lead to a rather unfortunate transphobic joke early on — particularly ironic given the very sensitive depiction of a young transgender character towards the end of the series. All in all, definitely not for young children.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of Netflix and Crunchyroll (Japanese with English subtitles).
Review Status: Full (148/148)
Hunter X Hunter (2011) © 2011 / Yoshihiro Tagashi / Madhouse / NTN / Shueisha / VAP
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