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Long-running Shounen Jump manga have gotten heavily stigmatized by anime fans over the past fifteen years or so–and not without good reason. Series like Dragonball, Bleach, and Naruto are often accused of being repetitive, overstaying their welcome, and failing to live up to the promise of their early material over the years. But hey, it’s no big deal, right? These shows are made for little boys who just want to see cool guys beating each-other up, so it’s hardly surprising if they can’t hold the attention of an older audience.
Well, if you know me, then you know I don’t buy into the idea that stuff made for kids can’t also be cool–and in this case, I’m far from alone in that sentiment. If you can overcome your bias towards long-running shounen manga and start looking into the critical and fan receptions of different series, you’ll find a surprising amount of variance in how people react to each one. Last year, I made a video analyzing the ways that One Piece has managed to become a massive critical and commercial success in spite of its reputation for longevity–and today we’ll be talking about another, similar case in the form of Hunter X Hunter. However, what makes this series special isn’t just the reception of the manga, but the critical success of its anime adaptation.
More so than the material that they’re based on, anime adaptations of long-running shounen manga tend to be fraught with problems. For starters, since most of them are aimed at children who probably won’t notice either way, a lot of these adaptations tend to feature low-quality artwork and animation, while dragging out each chapter of the source material to be as long as possible. Thanks to the endless production cycle, there tend to be tons of animation errors and other technical issues, along with pointless padding in the form of reused footage.
Because the manga series is usually still running alongside its anime adaptation, there are often times wherein the anime has to slow down to allow more chapters of the manga to be released; so in order to avoid taking the show off the air, the anime staff starts inventing their own unrelated filler storylines which have nothing to do with what’s going on in the manga. Plus, as these shows grow longer and more bloated with episodes, it becomes harder and harder for new viewers to get into the series, for fear that they’ll be sitting through hours of terrible episodes, and end up stuck watching the show for another twenty years.
However, there was one long-running shounen manga adaptation which managed to turn these trends on their head, while kickstarting a whole new trend of its own. Back in 2003, Studio Bones produced a fifty-one episode adaptation of the still-running manga series Fullmetal Alchemist. Because the manga was only about seven volumes long at the time, out of an eventual twenty-seven, the majority of the anime series consisted of original content–which, depending on who you ask, sucked ass. Nevertheless, the series became a massive worldwide success, to such an extent that in 2009, Studio Bones adapted it all over again.
FullMetal Alchemist Brotherhood was a sixty-four episode, mostly faithful adaptation of the manga series; but what made it remarkable was that the entire thing was gorgeously produced, quickly paced, and absolutely bereft of filler. It felt like the final form of what a long-running shounen manga adaptation was supposed to be, and it most likely ignited the emergent trend in the past five years of anime re-adaptations. Popular series which had received limited or poor anime adaptations in the past, such as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Fate/Stay Night, have been getting remade into higher-quality anime series; and another Shounen Jump manga to receive this treatment is Hunter X Hunter.
The original Hunter X Hunter adaptation was produced by Nippon Animation in 1999 and ran for sixty-two episodes, along with a handful of OVAs. It wasn’t bad–in fact, it was probably above-average as far as long-running shounen jump adaptations go. However, it still faced the same problems with padding, filler, and lackluster animation which plagued a lot of its ilk; and, having ended in 2001, it was far from complete. In 2011, one of the most acclaimed anime studios in the industry, studio Madhouse, decided to adapt the series all over again from the beginning–but this time, without fooling around.
Madhouse produced 148 episodes, which not only remained faithful to the manga without any unnecessary filler, but maintained a high standard of visual quality throughout. While Hunter X Hunter may not reach the same heights that Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood did with its production on the whole, it is easily the most consistently high-quality production to reach over one-hundred episodes which I’ve ever seen.
But while the production values are what make the anime notable in comparison to its contemporaries, they aren’t the only thing which makes the series worthwhile; and certainly are not the reason that its managed to become the third highest-rated series on MyAnimeList. The reasons for Hunter X Hunter’s critical success are a lot more complex, especially considering the unconventional style of its narrative presentation.
Hunter X Hunter is the story of Gon Freecs, a twelve year-old boy who grew up with his relatives on an island in the middle of nowhere after being abandoned by his father as a baby. Gon wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Hunter, so that he can eventually meet him and try to get some insight into why he was left behind. Hunters, in this story, are essentially mercenaries, although being a hunter gives one access to all kinds of faculties and abilities outside of taking on mercenary missions. It’s kind of like mensa for people with superpowers, and to be a Hunter basically means being one of the biggest badasses on Earth.
On his way to becoming a professional Hunter, Gon befriends the vengeance-seeking hard in the paint mofo Kurapika, and the goof with a heart of gold Leorio, shortly before meeting his instant best friend and arguable life partner, the child assassin Killua. While these four could be considered the main characters, and appear together on all of the promotional art, Gon and Killua are the only characters who consistently appear throughout the entire story; and the main emotional crux of the narrative is focused on their relationship.
In many ways, Gon and Killua are the glue which holds this series together, as the storyline itself is absolute madness. It feels like the creative stream-of-consciousness of creator Yoshihiro Togashi, with an arc structure that at times barely feels like a structure at all, so much as the loose thread binding all of Togashi’s wild ideas together. Over the course of the first twenty-six episodes, which comprise the Hunter Exam arc, the characters are put through a huge variety of unique situations which have virtually nothing to do with one-another. One episode will have a test of endurance where the characters have to run down a hallway for miles, and then there’ll be a cooking contest, followed by a puzzle where they have to find the entrance to a pyramid, then a series of unique battle scenarios, and then an intense game wherein contestants all have to try and steal badges off of one-another’s chests.
At heart, Hunter X Hunter could be considered a battle manga, but the kind of battles that it incorporates are rarely about just fighting. Even when the characters do fight, they rarely have to rely on physical strength as much as they do on tactics and creatively manipulating their powers and surroundings, which makes it a lot less obvious how things are going to turn out. Togashi is a master of creating scenarios in which losing won’t necessarily put the main characters out of the game, or in which the circumstances for winning are a bit more complicated, which allows his characters more opportunities to fail. Because failure in most scenarios won’t immediately lead to the death of a character, it’s not always easy to predict what the outcome of a scenario might be–and often those outcomes can be pretty surprising.
As the series gets into its later arcs, it becomes more combat-focused, but also invents a number of massively fleshed out systems and power balances which keep the combat fresh and interesting time and again. There also is not a single battle which ever lasts for more than one episode, with the exception of one part in the epic finale of the Chimera Ant arc, wherein the series continually cuts between a bunch of simultaneous battles over the course of several episodes. This way, none of the action ever feels drawn out, and even if there’s a battle which isn’t as interesting as the one before, it will quickly be followed-up by something cooler which might catch your attention.
In this way, the moment to moment appeal of Hunter X Hunter is like that of a variety game show, wherein half of the fun is in learning the unique rules of each new game, and then seeing how the characters will interact with the set pieces. However, again, were this all that there is to the series, then it wouldn’t have reached the level of acclaim that it has. The true magic of Hunter X Hunter is in its character-driven core narrative and unique execution.
What sets Gon and Killua apart from most shounen anime leads is that the two of them are often bit players in the stories that they find themselves involved with. While Killua is significantly more powerful than Gon, for the most part, both of them are often overshadowed both by their allies and their opponents. They often are not the deciding factor in which side prevails during any of the central conflicts; and even when they are, they have to win by outsmarting their opponents more so than by overpowering them.
This works awesomely in favor of the series’ grand sense of adventure, because no matter how many leaps and bounds these two make in power levels, it’s always made abundantly clear that they still have a long way to go. Gon’s main rival in the series, the badass evil gay clown Hisoka, is implied to be one of the strongest characters in the show–but his interest in Gon comes from how much potential he sees in Gon to eventually become much stronger. Hisoka never has to use much of his power when he comes into conflict with Gon, and even saves Gon’s life or helps him out at times with the hope of getting to see him grow.
Because the narrative puts so much emphasis on Gon and Killua’s lack of strength, not only is most of their training and progression more satisfying, but we also get to take a step back and watch them develop as people without being too worried about how Gon is going to fight the next bad guy or whatever. Gon and Killua’s relationship is the bread and butter of the show’s emotional resonance, and with Gon being the kind of straightforwardly honest numbskull you’ve come to expect from shounen manga, this means that the lynchpin of the series is Killua.
What makes Killua fascinating is that, rather than trying to fulfill his own ambitions like the other characters, the only thing Killua wants is to be friends with Gon, and to prove to himself that he’s capable of experiencing friendship in spite of his ultra-controlled upbringing as an assassin. Even though Killua plays the straight-man to Gon’s idiot, their personalities somehow coalesce perfectly, and Killua ends up being more like Gon’s better half than his sidekick. It’s hard to imagine either of these kids making it very far without the other, which is why it’s so interesting that the two of them basically met by random chance and instantly became friends.
While Hunter X Hunter can be a little bit cheesy and hammy about its character development at times, I really think that Killua’s relationship with Gon manages to be among the most emotionally gratifying friendships in anime; which is why it’s able to really pull at the heartstrings when Killua has to deal with even more complex emotions towards Gon in the later arcs of the series. This relationship pulls so much of the series’ weight that there were several times at the start of a new arc, wherein I found myself kind of bored by the setup and introduction of new characters, and then was instantly drawn back in as soon as Gon and Killua became involved in the action.
That isn’t to say that none of the other characters can pull their own weight, and indeed the exact opposite is usually true. While not every character in Hunter X Hunter is equally fleshed out, it’s rare that any of the characters are outright boring. Almost everyone has some kind of uniquely quirky personality or superpower. One of Togashi’s biggest strengths in my opinion is his ability to make almost every single character in the series totally unique, both in terms of design and personality. The variety of design styles makes the world feel mysterious and vast, and the characters represent so many different perspectives and ideals that they give the story a sense of worldliness and intellectual weight.
Another of Togashi’s biggest strengths is that he seems to have a ludicrously vast general knowledge of many unique concepts. There are nearly as many nods to philosophical, psychological, economic, and political ideas, as there are implementations of game design, shounen battle tropes, and segments of heart-stopping violence. Have I mentioned that this series is incredibly violent? Holy shit, it is seriously violent. Many would even call it depressing. Rest assured that no character makes it out of this series physically and mentally unscathed.
Togashi seems to have a penchant for subversive elements in his writing, which has made him somewhat infamous over the years. It often feels like he wants to reveal as little as possible about his characters so that he can still pull more cards from his sleeves later on. He likes leaving little plot threads untied as he segues from arc to arc, keeping the audience constantly wondering what happened to so-and-so character. This can even be frustrating at times when one arc suddenly ends, and then a new one opens in full force–but since every arc turns out to be pretty great in the end, it’s hard to ever stay too mad.
At one point in the series, a certain character explains to Gon that life is all about enjoying the little detours on the road to your destination, and that the connections you form along the journey are what counts the most. I think that this basically represents Togashi’s entire ethos when it comes to writing this story. Fans of Hunter X Hunter often find themselves frustrated thanks to Togashi constantly taking hiatuses as the result of poor health, meaning that it takes even longer for the unpredictable chapters to come out–and at present, the series is still unconcluded, with Togashi on hiatus once more. However, I think that if the story had to end at the place that the 2011 anime concludes, then it would be a satisfying enough ending for the kind of story that Togashi was trying to tell.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said that every single arc of Hunter X Hunter is equally good. There’s at least one arc where it seemed like Togashi realized that it was turning out kind of shit early on and just quickly jumped into the next one to get back on track. There are some weaker episodes here and there, but the best parts of the show more than make up for them. A lot of reviewers seem to think that a so-called “ten out of ten” show is one which doesn’t have any flaws, and I tend to disagree. To me, the best shows are the shows that do the most good, and there’s no question that even in spite of its minor failures, this series has excelled at providing some of the best things which I’ve ever seen in an anime series. If that’s not enough to make it one of the most deserving series around, then I don’t know what is.
Part of how Hunter X Hunter succeeds is also in how well it covers up the parts which might not have looked so good anywhere else. There are two recap episodes and a fair share of recap footage, but all of it comes at the beginning of the episodes, meaning that it can easily be skipped when marathoning the series. Even though there are quite a number of talkative exposition scenes, Madhouse practically got away with murder through the clever use of the show’s exciting and highly memorable soundtrack. A lot of times, the longer exposition scenes are combined with an attention-grabbing backbeat, which makes them feel a lot more exciting than they are, and causes the episodes to seemingly fly by. In spite of its length, I found Hunter X Hunter to be one of the easiest shows to sit through that I’ve watched, and most of the people I’ve talked to who watched the show said that they marathoned it in less than a week.
While I’m on the subject of audio, Hunter X Hunter also has some of my favorite ending themes in the form of Just Awake by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the spectacular Hunting For Your Dream by Galneryus which practically made a lot of episodes in the Phantom Troupe arc. Most of the voice acting in the series is pretty good as well, though I’d say that Megumi Han’s performance of Gon improves dramatically over the course of the show, having started out pretty uneven.
At this point, I’ve said about all that I can about Hunter X Hunter without going into too many specific details, and hopefully some of what I’ve said has resonated with you as well. If you’re a fan of this series who finds it difficult to explain the appeal to others, then I hope that I’ve given you the tools to do so; and if you’re an outsider looking in, then hopefully I’ve explained things in such a way that you can understand what others see in this show. I don’t know if Hunter x Hunter will ever continue as an animated series, or even as a manga series for that matter, but right now I’m satisfied with what I’ve gotten from it, and am very glad to have experienced it. Whether you feel similarly or not, tell me about your thoughts on the show in the comments, and if you want to talk about spoilery events, please be sure and give a spoiler warning at the start of your comment. Feel free to share this video around, and if you like my content, consider supporting me via patreon or paypal, or just by subscribing. Peace out.