When it comes to Japanese manga, there are many iconic series that started more than a decade ago and are still running strong. Series like Dragon Ball helped establish many of the tropes seen in shonen manga. One Piece is a cultural phenomenon and possibly one of the most popular manga/anime series in the world to date. Naruto was the formative anime for a lot of young fans that first experienced the medium in the early 2000’s. Among the most influential manga of this time is Hunter X Hunter. Debuting in 1998, Hunter X Hunter quickly became well known for its fleshed out world, eclectic characters, and shockingly dark themes. This series is still running to this date but has been known for its creator, Yoshihiro Togashi (Yu Yu Hakusho, taking long hiatuses due to chronic back pain. Recently we learned that Hunter X Hunter will be returning to Shonen Jump on June 26th, so I thought it would be a good time to tell you a bit about this fantastic series. There will be some light spoilers here, but nothing that will give away major plot points.
Hunter X Hunter is best represented by the 2011 anime series produced by Mad House as well as the manga series. I will be focusing largely on the anime as it is very accessible on both Netflix and Crunchyroll.
While Hunter X Hunter can be classified as a battle series in the same vein as Naruto and Bleach, it turns the genre on its head in a lot of interesting ways. It is important to understand that the series starts in a very standard way, almost lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. if you stick with the show past the first few episodes, you will find that there are a lot of strange but interesting challenges the characters have to face, apart from simply fighting people. One of the first challenges they face is literally a lethal game of “follow the leader”.
But I digress. The basic set up for the series could not be any more straight forward. The story follows the exploits of a young boy named Gon. His goal is to become a Hunter; high ranking people in society who hunt for rare treasures, track down unidentified beasts, preserve nature and history, and take all kinds of jobs as bodyguards, mercenaries, and bounty hunters. Gon’s father Ging, is a world renowned Hunter who abandoned Gon as a child. His goal is to find his dad, not to ask him why he left, but because finding Ging would be the most difficult challenge as the man is a complete enigma. Each Hunter Gon encounters, both friend and enemy, is unique in both style and personality. Character and development is one of the many places where this series shines. Gon, while starting off as a fairly standard anime main character, quickly becomes fascinating as he is not only naive to the world around him, but his morality is challenged in ways that make it unclear if he is even “the hero” in certain situations. These moments serve to deconstruct the quest for strength as well as the unwavering sense of justice that many shonen heroes have. His best friend Killua was raised as an analytical killing machine since he was able to walk. His new goal in life is to break away from his family and live his life. This 12-year-old boy admits that he has killed several people and brutally kills several more during the run of the series. Despite this, he is still a young child who likes to have fun and wants nothing more than to be friends with Gon. Their friendship and development as characters, both in their personalities and their fighting abilities is the linchpin of this show. While Gon and Killua are in most of the episodes, they are often completely dwarfed in power and experience by most of the characters around them. Because of this, it makes sense for them to lose in fights or get caught by their enemies. It also gives them a lot of space and incentive to grow. While the two of them face many life-threatening situations before this, Gon’s first true life or death battle takes place during episode 73.
Likewise, the main villains get almost as much focus as the Gon and his comrades. Rather than being mustache twirling jerks that want to blow up the planet, their views and morality simply run contradictory to the main characters, leading to some incredibly clashes. The main group of villains that show up in the show are known as the Phantom Troupe. The show takes a lot of time developing their personalities, so when they suffer losses you cannot help but feel their pain. They are shown a people who are a close family that truly care for each other. They are also thieves and killers but manage to be fully formed characters.
There is definitely a lot of fighting in Hunter X Hunter but it often manifests in interesting ways. Rather than people punching each other really hard until the other stops moving, Togashi has developed a system of magic that allows for some incredible battles. Nen, much like Ki in Dragon Ball or Chakra in Naruto, is the spiritual energy that characters use to manifest their special abilities. Each character’s abilities tend to strongly reflect their personalities, so each power is unique. No two fights are ever the same and with the exception of a few occasions, most fights only last for one or two episodes. Thes conflicts are snappy, to the point and never overstay their welcome. They also serve as tools to advance the story and development for characters. Their thoughts and feelings on the conflict tend to be displayed by their fighting style as well as what is currently at stake. The best part about Nen is the fact that having “more” does not automatically mean that you win. Characters win their battles because of the way they are able to outthink their opponent or trip them up in order to have them make a mistake. Another twist on the genre is that fact that it is rare for Gon and his friends to have a “final battle” during major story arcs. There are often major conflicts throughout the plot, but there is only one instance where punching the crap out of their opponent wins them the day. In most cases, Gon and his friends have to formulate plans that allow them to circumvent the overwhelming strength of their opponents. Often these conflicts leave the characters involved with new lessons about the world or deep scars both emotionally and physically.
Mad House’s production of Hunter X Hunter has to be mentioned as well. In 148 episodes, the show never sees a large dip in quality. The artwork is detailed and consistent giving the show a level of quality that is rare in long running anime shows. Everything from the animation, the fitting score and the intense depiction of Nen coalesces into Hunter X Hunter’s ability to build a believable world. Songs like “The World of Adventures” is an upbeat anthem that signifies a sense of wonder that is prevalent in the first few arcs of the show. Other songs like “Kingdom of Predators” reflects the darker and more somber tone the show takes on regularly. This dichotomy of light and dark is a strong theme throughout the show. Togashi goes out of his way to give us a world that is many shades of gray often leaving viewers to ponder the morality of the characters within the story.
Hunter X Hunter is one of the most interesting anime series I have ever seen. If you grew up watching classic battle anime such as Dragon Ball and One Piece, you will likely find a lot to love in this show. Even if you have grown tired of the many tropes of this genre of anime, you may find that Hunter X Hunter is the series you have been waiting for.