Long-running shounen anime, specifically anime adapted from Shounen Jump manga, are probably one of the most stigmatized and heavily criticized types of anime ever produced, yet are also some of the biggest money-makers the industry has to offer.
They’re the butt of pretty much every joke the anime community can come up with: they’re immature, they’re poorly budgeted, they never end, and the list goes on. Yet at the same time, they’re the shows that got a lot of us into watching anime in the first place: they’re exciting, they get us attached to really cool characters, they never have to end, and so on. The former group criticizes the latter for enjoying immature garbage, while the latter flips the argument and says the former is too jaded and can’t enjoy themselves anymore. Surely, there must be some kind of middle ground; an anime that makes the haters admit that they’re having fun, and the fanboys admit that there is stuff far superior to what’s been airing since the early 2000s. That anime is the 2011 masterwork of Madhouse known as Hunter x Hunter.
Readapting Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga of the same name, our story follows the adventures of a young boy named Gon Freecss, who longs to one day find his father, whom he has never met.
In order to do that, though, he must first become a Hunter, a title granted to only the most skilled and elite people on the planet, essentially making them independent mercenaries. Along his journey, he makes dozens of friends, goes on spectacular adventures, discovers new abilities and powers, and saves a city or country every now and then, as is the custom of Shounen Jump protagonists.
Right away, what impressed me the most about Hunter x Hunter is the indescribable levels of creativity,
ingenuity, and uniqueness jammed into pretty much every single moment in this series. I can’t recall a single point where something was presented to me and I thought “Yeah I’ve seen this before and better.” Everything feels unique, alive, and totally at home in this anime, and the concepts that have been borrowed from other series have been revamped, repurposed, and sometimes made even better than their originals.
Even at the conceptual level, the way that each arc is constructed seems to be unique and distinctly belonging to this series.
Rather than treat us to arc after arc of nothing but battling new enemies, each new arc of Hunter almost seems to reset the series entirely by introducing new elements of world building that drastically alter the world we’ve come to know, yet at the same time never feel out of place. One arc we’re taking the Hunter Exam with its bizarre rules and requirements, suddenly we get thrown into a traditional tournament arc, by the end we’re saving the world from mass genocide by a hostile race of Magical Beasts, and in the arc before that we’re trapped in a video game world and have to fight our way to the top (incidentally, that technically makes this the best trapped in a video game anime ever…oops). The unparalleled variety and creativity this show has to offer, from its inhabitants to the very life force that surrounds them, makes sure that there is never a dull moment in this series.
The other big point in this show’s favor that puts it above its Shounen Jump competitors is the tone, and by that I mean holy crap does this show get dark, though it doesn’t start off that way. Initially, it almost feels like it’s targeted at the bare minimum age for the shounen demographic, with its fun and whimsical world full of adventure, but as the story progresses, you start to see that facade fall away a bit, and by around episode 11 you realize you’re in for some pretty brutal stuff, and not just on the physical level either. There are some really horrifying and emotionally torturous moments throughout this series that will tear you to shreds if you aren’t dead inside already.
I know I was almost completely broken by the end of the now famous Chimera Ant arc, half because the characters are so beautifully realized and engaging, and half because my mind was nearly exhausted from how intensely it explores its themes of purpose, identity, and duty.
A lot of people have been calling Chimera Ant the best shounen arc ever written, and I totally agree.
In its 60-episode run, this arc is filled with intensity, complex strategy, and uncontrollable emotional breakdowns. It takes this show to some of the darkest places that shounen has ever been and really digs deep until its hits you dead center, and its finale was one of the most beautiful and sobering ends to a story arc I’ve ever seen. There’s a point where an entire episode has practically zero music in it because the atmosphere of the scene is so intense that music would just get in the way, and it was easily one of the most gripping experiences I’ve had with any piece of fictional media.
Going along with that kind of tone, this show also manages to shrug off the “power of friendship beats all” stereotype that plagues other shounen.
Yes those ties of friendship are definitely there and they’re probably some of the strongest you’ll ever see, but when it comes to coming out on top in a fight, it’s all about strategy and how every character uses information and special skills to outwit, manipulate, or overpower their opponents. You never get the sense that Gon and his friends won a battle because they’re the main characters, but rather because they used their resources and abilities more efficiently than their opponents and managed to come out on top. On top of that, you rarely ever get the sense that the main group is significantly overpowered when facing off against a main antagonist. Very often, especially in Chimera Ant, they’re surrounded by other fighters that are light-years ahead of them in skill, and that was really refreshing to see. These guys aren’t going to be the best fighters just because; they have to train and bust their butts constantly just so they don’t get completely rolled-over when they hang with the big boys.
As for the characters themselves, they are an absolute splendor to follow.
Gon takes the wide-eyed, naive youth archetype to some rather unprecedented places, and it’s incredibly engaging and even slightly disturbing to see how his character progresses as he is confronted with some of the nastier parts of the real world, yet still maintains a lot of the wonder and excitement that makes Gon who he is. Kurapika’s lust for vengeance and his ingenuity in battle make his arc one of the best in the series, while Leorio provides some solid lighthearted moments while also being a legitimate character in his own right.
While Kurapika and Leorio are really solid, the true standout in this series aside from Gon is Killua, the child assassin that Gon befriends at the beginning of the Hunter Exam.
Rather than simply play up the anti-hero archetype as a loose foil of Gon, Killua goes through some of the most treacherous and intense moments of the series alongside Gon simply because he has made it his goal to become Gon’s friend, a dream that he sticks to through the worst pains imaginable. The bond that Gon and Killua share and develop over the course of the series keeps the narrative grounded throughout its progression as the story takes one wild turn after another, while Gon and Killua do their best to train, grow stronger, and try not to get killed or lose their minds in the process, and it makes for one of the most beautiful friendships that anime has ever seen.
The secondary characters are nothing to scoff at either.
While most of them don’t get the extremely extensive fleshing out that Gon and Killua get, practically all of them do have some sort of back story or development that make them more than just disposable characters. From the comically diabolical Tonpa, to the flamboyant and possibly pedophilic clown Hisoka, to each member of the infamous Phantom Troupe, and even to the individual Chimera Ant soldiers, every character has some story to tell and will definitely get their chance to tell it. There’s a point in the series where none of the main characters are on-screen for two whole episodes, but the support characters are so engaging and fun to watch that I didn’t even realize the main characters had been gone for that long until they came back. I would also like to briefly mention that the villain of the Chimera Ant arc is easily one of my favorite anime villains of all time because of how deep his intellectual and philosophical thought processes are, while also being one of the most threatening villains to ever grace the screen.
The animation is handled by Studio Madhouse, a studio widely regarded as one of the most consistently powerful and reliable in the industry, and I honestly couldn’t imagine another group handling this project.
One of the other complaints about long-running shounen is that the animation quality fluctuates like it’s riding a roller coaster due to money and talent constraints, and yet Hunter almost never has any huge fluctuations in quality; on top of that, the animation actually appears to get better and better as the series progresses. The color palette can shift from vibrant and inviting to grim and menacing at the drop of a hat, the character designs are unique and appealing, the CG is very minimal, and the action sequences are some of the best that the shounen genre has ever produced, on-par with the best works of Studio Bones. It’s almost miraculous how consistently beautiful this anime is, though considering that Madhouse then went on to make One-Punch Man a year later, it’s not much of a surprise.
On the sound end, the score by Yoshihisa Hirano of Death Note and Ouran fame is simply awe-inspiring. From soaring adventurous melodies to somber piano ballads to bombastic and downright frightening full orchestrations, this soundtrack has a tune for every tone imaginable. It also pulls double-duty for the ungratifying job of keeping the pace hot during exposition scenes, adding even more intensity to whatever is being explained. As for a dub, there is unfortunately nothing to speak on yet aside from the fact that Viz Media has said that they will dub it, but considering some of the rumors I’ve heard on who will voice Gon and Killua, I could not be more excited to show this to my dubs-only friends. As for the Japanese cast, each of them is pretty much pitch perfect, tackling the tone of each scene perfectly and nailing the overall arcs of their characters. Coupled with some pretty epic ending themes and one really solid opening used throughout the series, the sound work on this show is simply phenomenal.
If I absolutely had to pick a flaw with this series, it would be that it’s over…but not really over.
The original manga is still ongoing and we get new chapters with about the same frequency as congressional elections, thus earning this series the unflattering nickname Hiatus x Hiatus. If there were to be no more from the Hunter x Hunter anime after what we’ve been given, it is still a satisfying endpoint, but there’s still that little nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I absolutely need more to be fully satisfied.
Maybe it’s just because this series is so good that I can’t let it go, but in any case, Hunter x Hunter is not just one of the best action/adventure anime ever written, and not just one of the best Shounen Jump adaptations ever, but is simply one of the best anime of all time, and now sits very comfortably in my Top 5. If you haven’t had the chance to check this one out yet, then strap in for 148 episodes of pure shounen excitement, cause once you get on this ride, you’ll never want to get off.
Final Score: 10/10