For me and likely many others, once a series is over a certain length, the prospect of even just actually starting it seems insurmountable. Time is limited and it can be hard to convince yourself that long anime are worth watching when you could consume three or four shorter ones in relatively the same amount of time. However, sometimes there comes along a series that is so popular and so acclaimed, despite its length, it is nearly impossible to ignore. It is for this reason I tried out Gintama a little over a year ago, and well, we all know how that turned out. But, I don’t make it a habit of watching long anime. The vast majority of series I’ve seen would fall into the one or two cour camp, with hardly any at all being more than four. Nonetheless, in mid-March of this year, I decided to finally bite the bullet and see what this Hunter x Hunter business is all about. Once I got started, it did not take long to finish.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
The titular Hunters of Hunter x Hunter are elite individuals with incredible physical prowess, a myriad of strange abilities and an unquenching thirst for adventure. Hunters are licensed by the international Hunter Association, which allows them to go almost anywhere and do almost anything in their pursuit of knowledge and glory. (They are somewhat similar to Mass Effect’s Spectres, if you are familiar with that series.)
Against this backdrop, a boy named Gon Freecss has a dream: to become a Hunter himself and find his father, the man who left Gon in the care of relatives when he was but an infant, in order to pursue his own Hunter dreams. So, at the ripe age of 13, Gon sets out to take the Hunter Exam, a series of rigorous and possibly deadly tests designed to screen potential Hunter applicants.
In his travels, Gon becomes quick friends with three more wannabe Hunters: Leorio, a tall, brash and well-dressed medical student hopeful, Kurapika, an intelligent, calculating and vengeful young man, and last but certainly not least, Killua, a boy Gon’s age with brilliant white hair and a calm, cool demeanor that belies a rather twisted upbringing. Can they each triumph over the Exam and become true Hunters, or will they find this world much more harrowing than they could possibly imagine?
The Hunter Exam itself is only the first arc of Hunter x Hunter, taking up approximately the first twenty episodes, of which there are one hundred and forty-eight (forty-six if you skip the recap), and that is because the Hunter Exam is not Hunter x Hunter. It is the beginning of Hunter x Hunter, the mere stepping stone for the entire journey to come. The series tackles many stories, large and small, over the extent of its run, unified by the inclusion of at least a couple of these four characters, and these stories expand the series’ genre, tone and thematic specialties tenfold.
It starts pretty cheery, even wacky, feeling exactly as you would imagine a shounen story about teenage boys following their dreams to be, but over time, it veers away from that simple if entertaining narrative to become a quest to help a friend, then a fighting tournament, then a crime thriller, then a video game, then a zoological odyssey that I don’t even know how to adequately condense and communicate with words but it is amazing. There’s not exactly ever a precise turning point, the series just gets better and better, and pulls you deeper and deeper. The tone becomes darker, yes, and a darker tone is not automatically better (you can have a dark and crappy show just as easily as a merry and amazing one) but, it works oh-so-well with the story that is being told here, and the messages, and the scores of character development, that are being presented.
If you talk to any Hunter x Hunter fan, the one big arc that will always come up is Chimera Ant, and Chimera Ant is… weird. It’s good, really good (some episodes “holy shit” good), but it’s weird. It is a 60 episode plotline that comprises the near entirety of Hunter x Hunter’s latter half, and one that drops almost every other prior established character besides Gon and Killua in favor of new conflicts and a new cast. Without giving too much away, the arc is essentially about Chimera, or beastmen (hence the name), in a wide, strange tale that consumes literally millions of lives. It becomes a startlingly emotional and human story, with innumerable scenes worthy of praise. I do have quibbles with Chimera Ant, that I will certainly touch on later, but on the whole, it is an incredible experience, as are most of the other latter story arcs. So, if you are not or were not overly impressed by the opening episodes of Hunter x Hunter, which is understandable, keep going. Don’t stop. I don’t know anyone who got through the later arcs without admitting “yeah, that was pretty damn solid”.
And of course, every arc in Hunter x Hunter, from the most simple up to Chimera Ant, has battles. Not mere fights - battles. A fight can be but a scuffle, a thrown fist or two, a deftly placed jab or slice, while battles imply something grander, something with strategy and tactics and more than just overpowering your opponent. Hunter x Hunter has fights, indubitably, but most of its action, especially later in the series, is complex, intricate battles.
The very first scene, in the very first episode, sets up how this is all going to go down. This isn’t a shounen anime where friendship automatically trumps all, where the main characters will somehow pull a deus ex machina out of their collective asses to save the day simply by virtue of believing in each other. This is an anime where brains are just as important as brawn. At the beginning of Episode 1, to convince his foster mother Mito-san that he is ready for the Hunter exam, Gon must catch the “Lord of the Lake”, or a giant fish. Naturally, Gon completes the task as a matter of course, but he doesn’t just scream at the top of his lungs, pull with all his might, believe in himself and boom. One giant fish fished. No, he uses tactics. Gon, after hooking the beast, loops the line around a tree, working the force of friction to his advantage and making the catch reasonably possible.
It’s such a simple plan, but it sets the tone for how Hunter x Hunter approaches all conflict going forward. It’s rarely as easy as having a strong ability; you have to coordinate the strong ability, work it into your combat style, bait the enemy, consider their opposing strategy. If you charge in without thinking, you will lose, and even if you do stop to think, you might lose anyways, because the enemy thinks just a bit better. Episode 32 was the first episode that really impressed me in this regard, being a tournament battle with planning and preparation that ran deep enough to make victory all but assured for one of the combatants. A lengthy game of dodgeball around Episode 70 is another (and no, I’m not kidding).
But, the most obvious and most impressive action sequence to talk about would be the climax of Chimera Ant, a long stretch of time starting at Episode 112, and lasting for many more after that, in which the conventional fast ideals of “action” are thrown out the window, treating us to massive but digestible amounts of internal strategy monologues or straight disembodied narration, nothing but moves, counter-moves, and counter-counter-moves as a wide number of characters with a wide variety of abilities clash. It is at about that point when I realized how awesome Hunter x Hunter was, because what it was doing was so unique and so interesting that I wanted it to last forever. (Sadly, it does not, but we’ll get back to that.)
The Quartet (and Especially The Duo)
Of course, strong story construction and presentation does not necessarily correlate to strong characters too (as last time’s Shin Sekai Yori would attest), but in this case, it does. The early setup of Hunter x Hunter would lead you to believe that it is a show about the four Hunter applicants, Gon, Killua, Leorio and Kurapika, which is… not really true. In actuality it is a show about just Gon and Killua, with Kurapika receiving major focus in only a single arc and Leorio being more or less just a significant side character the whole time.
Which is not to say that I dislike either of them, because that would be untrue. Kurapika, as I mentioned in the premise, is a calculating young fellow, harboring a certain ruthlessness and rage after the slaughter of his clansmen, the Kurta, at the hands of a group of bandits called the Phantom Troupe. His pursuit of revenge characterizes his, er, entire character, coming to a head around Episode 50, which is the arc I mentioned where he actually receives focus, an arc which ends at Episode 60 with the cryptic statement “We’ll see him again”. (Yeah, no you won’t.) Kurapika is also notable for his very androgynous physical appearance, to the point that I literally thought he was a girl until the show told me otherwise (which is not helped by the fact that he is voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro). The lack of a pronounced bust, sported by every other female character early in the story, should’ve been a dead giveaway in hindsight, but… I dunno. But nothing, I guess, so...
On to Leorio! He’s the “normal guy” of the group. He isn’t very remarkable in a fight, or particularly smart, or brave, or just, or much of anything really. He’s just a guy, one who can be loud and often lets his emotions get the best of him, although he is undeniably kind at heart. Definitely the simplest character of the quartet, but one I still found likable and supremely entertaining.
Speaking of simple, we have Gon. Gon, by design, is pretty typical, unremarkable, even generic, at the story’s beginning. In a world with super powers like clairvoyance, smoke manipulation and teleportation, Gon over time develops a technique that is effectively a very strong punch. This is the kind of kid we’re dealing with here. A heart of gold, innocent and carefree. He refuses to ever abandon his friends, and always stubbornly adheres to his own ideals. In fact, early on I found his sheer bone-headedness rather irritating, coming off as prideful, even selfish, always insisting on fair victory, refusing to just take a win or settle for anything less than indisputable triumph.
When Gon eventually gets his Hunter Badge (spoiler alert: yes, Gon becomes a Hunter), he doesn’t even use it, because (due to the circumstances of the exam), he doesn’t feel he’s “earned” it, and to make matters worse, the plot rewards him for his repeated self-sacrifice and stupidity... for a while. Eventually, it brings up the very real danger of taking Gon’s attitudes to the realistic extreme. His feelings of compassion for others and loathing for those who would do harm become strong enough to whip him into what can only be described as a blood rage. He’d sometimes do things to make me think he was literally insane, illustrating the dangers of falling too far into the “shounen protagonist” mindset. You can curse evil and treasure your friends, sure, but if you don’t distance yourself to an extent, and step back from the situation, you can end up with tunnel vision, ignoring anything that’s happening for the sake of your immediate goal, which is a trap that, by the end, Gon falls into rather extravagantly.
Opposite Gon is Killua, a child assassin who starts the series full of hate and spite. He is a broken, murderous kid, logical and battle-oriented almost to a fault, finding little solace in friendships and usually opting for violence when met with opposition. Killua is classically considered one of the strongest characters of Hunter x Hunter, to which I would agree. His relationship with Gon dramatically shapes his beliefs and attitudes as the story progresses, initially by Gon being the voice of compassion in Killua’s dark, narrow world, and over time being a source of support, inspiration and even healthy criticism. Ironically, by the end, the role of the two boys becomes reversed, with Killua now the calm voice of reason and Gon the fragile, unhinged vortex.
Despite a strong chemistry between all four of these characters, Leorio and Kurapika as I said aren’t exactly leads, and in fact fade out of the show almost entirely by the halfway point to focus solely on Gon and Killua (which is kind of a shame, because I actually liked both of them a lot, more than Gon himself, I might even say.) So now, we might as well move on to the villains, or at least a villain. The villain? Hisoka.
Hisoka is a jester, and he is amazing, though it took me a while to warm up to Hisoka. You don’t get much of a feeling for his character beyond being very powerful and very ominous and “oooh, spooky villain” until maybe midway through the Hunter Exam arc. Despite a cardy, clowny design that borders on laughable, Hisoka manages to be sinister, suave and shrewd. He’s not just intimidating, he’s inventive and crafty; always the one with a plan, a method to his madness. He very vaguely reminded me of Monogatari’s Kaiki, neither an ally nor strictly an enemy, constantly pushing Gon to grow and become more powerful, because he will take perverse delight in stomping out the little boy’s life once he is just powerful enough to become a threat. So yes, Hisoka is a cruel being, he is not a nice person, but you can be entertaining without being empathetic (as proven by Dio Brando and Gilgamesh, among others).
These five characters, the quote-unquote “main” four and Hisoka, are certainly not the only major characters of the show. They’re not even the only good, or great, characters; this is such a long series, comparatively, that it has time to introduce and flesh out so many people. If I wanted to, I could make a whole other article about the characters of Hunter x Hunter, and why I like so many of them... but I don’t really want to, so just please trust me when I say that Hunter x Hunter’s cast rarely, rarely disappoints.
And neither does the music, for that matter. I wouldn’t call it like an amazing, top-tier soundtrack, but it is an effective soundtrack, with quite varied instrumentation from drums to spanish-ish guitar to trumpets to orchestra, whatever fits. The tone of the music in fact evolves with the tone of the show, starting pretty chipper and upbeat, often repeating and reusing some variant of the parade-like theme, then slowing down, darker, more dramatic, eventually becoming practical opera pieces, by some fights after Episode 100. It was admittedly rare that I noticed the music in a greater capacity than “Hey, it’s the ‘preparing for battle’ theme again”, but I never felt the music was intrusive or set too far in the background to become unnoticeable, which is a fine balance.
But no discussion of Hunter x Hunter’s music would be complete without the opening. You know how, when you’re watching an anime and there’s this opening you really like, it fits the mood and gets you hyped up for the episode, but there’s always the looming expectation that (with series longer than a cour or two) the opening will eventually change. Well, that is not a concern when you are watching Hunter x Hunter. All 148 episodes (with the exception of a small handful that skip the opening entirely) open with the same theme every single time, “departure!” by Ono Masatoshi. And I actually really like that, that the opening never changes. It creates a song that is so synonymous with Hunter x Hunter that all these memories come flooding back just from listening to it, and that my friends is a powerful experience.
However, I do wish the opening’s visuals did change, or more often than they did, that is. Every arc has its own new visual sequence, which is fine, but when it comes to Chimera Ant specifically, and the opening doesn’t change even once in those 60-some episodes, for someone like me who watches the opening every time because they can’t be bothered to extend the effort to skip it, that gets monotonous. Couldn’t have bothered with two Chimera Ant openings, maybe?
Regardless, while Hunter x Hunter has only the one opening, it does have five (or six-ish) endings, pretty much all of which I like a lot with the exception of the first, being a song by Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas, a band whose music I find much more akin to screaming than singing. The last 50 episodes or so deserve special mention for “Hyouri Ittai” by Yuzu, which, after sitting in my writing chair and staring at this sentence for a solid ten minutes, I struggle to say anything specific about, but it must have done something right because I was humming along by the end.
The Dub (Mostly)
The last facet of the sound to mention is a relatively recent development: the English dub, which began airing on Toonami this April, and which I have been keeping up with weekly in order to both sample the dub and schedule myself for a re-watch of some really great anime in a year or two. The dub is good, but that shouldn’t really surprise you, this isn’t the 90s anymore, most anime dubs are fine these days, at least as far as acting is concerned, but sometimes the voices just don’t entirely match my preconceived notion of the characters (which is to say, their Japanese voices).
Unfortunately, the shakiest casting is that of the leads, Gon and Killua, particularly Killua, whose voice (provided by Cristina Vee) is much higher than its Japanese counterpart, but over time, I have noticed this vaguely scratchy quality to his voice that I do think is fitting, despite being different than the original. Most other characters, though, are cast very well. Matt Mercer as Leorio is also higher than the Japanese voice (which is ironic since I know very well that Mercer can go deeper), but he retains the same comically outraged feel that defines Leorio in the first place. Kurapika is amazing, Erika Harlacher fits to a T. It almost sounds like Sawashiro just up and started speaking English, really great work there. Keith Silverstein as Hisoka is, thankfully, also very strong, which I’m sure the dub producers wanted to make sure they nailed, considering how much of a fan favorite Hisoka is. The dub also brings with it occasional weird pronunciation changes and emphasis on different syllables than the Japanese (Ku-rah-pika instead of Kurapika, for instance) as is unfortunately common with dubs, but you get used to it.
“Just” Good Presentation
If I had to find something to complain about with Hunter x Hunter, it would be that the animation, while almost always good, is only excellent when it absolutely needs to be, usually being big fights that have been built up to for several episodes. However, it should be applauded that this level of quality was maintained at all, considering that Hunter x Hunter ran for nearly three years straight, and only put out two recap episodes in that time, both during the first year, and contrary to what you’d expect from such a long-running series, it actually seemed to look better the further along it went. Whether that implies that the production team got a firmer handle on their schedule as time went on or that Madhouse simply started pumping more money into the project, I really can’t say, but it was certainly a welcome surprise as I got to the later episodes.
Weak Start, Strange Follow-Through
Later episodes, which many (including myself), would tell you, are the best in the series. That’s not to say that the early arcs (the Hunter Exam, Heavens Arena, etc.) it’s not to say that those are bad, but they pale in comparison to what comes later, partially because fights tend to be a lot of bluster, but little actual challenge early in the show, with one side or the other usually reigning supreme immediately. That’s not to say the strategic elements are entirely absent, because they very much are not, but that aspect of the show only really shines once some setting and world details have been nailed down, around the mid-30s of the episode count. Now that said, if (like me) you think even the early arcs are at least good and enjoyable, if not amazing, then you’re in for a hell of a time by the end, or even by the midpoint.
Another relevant warning I should give about Hunter x Hunter’s story is that there exists a heavy disconnect between arcs, some much more than others. The natural progression of characters and plot elements from one to the other is occasionally lacking. If you will forgive some slight repetition on my part, this is most prevalent with Chimera Ant, which drops nearly everything and everyone that the series had introduced thus far, with the exception of Gon and Killua themselves. Nothing about the series up to that point would make you think that you’re in for a long 60 episode arc about superpowered animals that threaten to destroy the world, and pose hard questions of humanity and morality to the viewer along the way, and that’s just weird to me, that the show’s literal magnum opus wasn’t built up to organically in any real fashion. I’d see Gon fighting an owlman around Episode 100, and can only think to myself “what the fuck has this show become?”, because it is so different than what I have been led to expect. Different can be good, and it ultimately is very good, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little irked by how isolated this arc felt, in terms of plot.
Speaking of plot, Hunter x Hunter’s pacing can admittedly get very shounen. Even the simplest of training plotlines will take a handful of episodes to get through; things rarely happen quickly. You’ll see a character appear in the opening, then it’ll take 20 episodes for them to actually appear in the show itself. I think I’d hate the pacing a lot more if I was a weekly viewer, forced to wait a whole seven days from one episode to the next, which I half am, since (as I mentioned) right now I’m watching the dub weekly on Toonami, and I do think weekly viewing kills some of the momentum. Five whole months to get through the first arc, which is unanimously considered one of the weakest of the entire series, isn’t what you’re looking for to draw in viewers.
Lastly, like the opening lyrics contend, Hunter x Hunter is indeed an owaranai bouken (endless adventure). It doesn’t end. It’s no Gangsta or No Game No Life, but it lacks an actual whole ending. Kurapika, Hisoka, the Phantom Troupe, and a few other characters could’ve used a much stronger resolution than what they got. Unsurprisingly, in classical anime fashion, this is because the manga is not yet finished, though it is currently only about 20 chapters past the end of the anime, due to the mangaka’s frequent health issues and hiatuses. Even so, in those 20 chapters, there’s some pretty cool stuff, including one particular fight that fans have been waiting for for a while, so I do hope that one day we may see in animated form the ultimate conclusion to the Hunter x Hunter saga. I can dream.
If you look around the internet these days, you’ll see people call Hunter x Hunter “unparalleled”, a “gem”, a “masterpiece”. Hell, at the time of this writing, it’s ranked #5 all-time on MyAnimeList. So, do I think Hunter x Hunter is overrated? If you asked me at about the midpoint, I would’ve said “Yeah, a little”, but if you asked me now, after I’ve completely finished the series, and ruminated on it for a few months... not at all. It completely lives up to the hype. The more time goes on, the more I love it. Yes, there are rough patches, but the high points are so damn high that they utterly overshadow any of those shakier moments, uplifting the series as a whole to become truly one-of-a-kind, in my eyes. Hunter x Hunter is an experience like no other, and one I would recommend to just about anyone I meet.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… For a long time, more than half the series I’d say, I was firm in my belief that this would be an A. But sometime, somewhere, as I think would be obvious, a switch was flipped, and Hunter x Hunter became an easy S. If you didn’t know much about the series before this review, and are skeptical about its merits, I know what you might be thinking. You search up Hunter x Hunter online, you see these young kid characters and maybe some wacky-looking images or the first reasonably cheery opening, and I would not fault you for thinking that this is not a series worth your time, that it’s not anything remarkable or memorable, just more shounen schlock. But it isn’t. When I finished Hunter x Hunter, I felt an emptiness, a void that had not visited me in quite a while, and that was the moment when I realized how much I love Hunter x Hunter, so I urge you to have faith and watch it for yourself.
This 2011 adaptation of Hunter x Hunter is currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll, Hulu and Netflix, through only Crunchyroll hosts the entirety of the series. Alternatively, as I have mentioned, the English dub is currently airing every Saturday night on Toonami. They’re not far in, only a little over ten episodes, so if you want to catch up then jump in there, more power to you.
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