“It takes only one person, one person in the entire world who will trust you, to save you”
Hunter x Hunter is a story about many things, but fundamentally Hunter x Hunter is a story about detours. It’s a story about detours and a story about the human connections that change your world along those detours of life. It’s the detours of Hunter x Hunter that charge the unpredictable narratives, and the human connections that gracefully tie a thread through each of those narratives. Hunter x Hunter is a beautiful, insane, intricate, charming, enthralling and moving work of art and a phenomenal triumph that does more as an action shonen than I ever believed was possible.
Let’s start from the top: I firmly and thoroughly believe that Yoshihiro Togashi’s Hunter x Hunter is the greatest long-form action shonen narrative to exist, and furthermore I believe that studio Madhouse’s 2011-2014 adaptation of the series is the greatest long-form action shonen adaptation ever made. With the culmination of a brilliant source material narrative and a brilliant adaptation I can say I wholeheartedly believe that Hunter x Hunter is the greatest long-form action shonen *period* and one of the greatest works of the entire Anime form. I don’t say that as a casual viewer of the genre. I’ve put lots of hours into watching and/or obsessing over lots of action shonens (perhaps most notably Togashi’s previous action shonen series, Yu Yu Hakusho). I know battle shonens and I have plenty that I love very, very dearly, but in my eyes Hunter x Hunter 2011 is the undisputed crème de la crème.
Hunter x Hunter revolves around Gon Freeccs, a hard-headed good-spirited 12 year old boy with superhuman talents and seemingly limitless potential, in typical enough action shonen fashion. Gon’s dream is to become a great Hunter so that he can find his estranged father, the legendary Zodiac Hunter Ging Freecss, and make him proud. We begin with the Hunter Exam, wherein he quickly befriends our other main characters, Killua Zoldyck, Kurapika and Leorio Paradiknight, getting together the charming little 4-man character dynamic that was present in Yu Yu Hakusho (although it sticks less strictly to that dynamic in the long-run than Yu Yu Hakusho). As well as being able to meet his estranged father, Gon wants to understand the glory of being a Hunter that made his father abandon him. This isn’t a concrete endgame like, say “I’m gonna be King of the Pirates!”, this is left in vague terms to us so that it can be a central aspect to expand on in the beginning arc, and boy does Hunter x Hunter expand on it.
Without a doubt one of Hunter x Hunter’s most shining triumphs is the grounding of its concepts. You engage with the Hunter profession because you come to understand that not only is it clear how such a profession can evolve from a world that’s so wild and chaotic but also because you come to understand that the profession is much broader than a cool action shonen concept. It’s fundamental for Hunters to learn how to defend themselves, but there’s a wide range of incredibly varying passions within the one profession, some good-willed and some ill-willed. We first see that demonstrated with the Gourmet Hunters, Menchi and Buhara. Gourmet Hunters develop their skills to be able to hunt for the most delicious delicacies the world has to offer, which involves being capable of hunting down and killing dangerous wildlife for themselves. Not a very action shonen-oriented talent, but one that Togashi allows the audience to admire and respect in fleshing out his world. It’s no understatement to say that’s only the beginning of how brilliant Hunter x Hunter is at being conceptually grounded.
Togashi covers such an insane range of ideas and genres in Hunter x Hunter that it’s arguable that he’s the most ambitious action shonen writer of all time by a mile. Hunter x Hunter goes from Action-Adventure to Tournament Shonen to Crime Thriller to War Drama and plenty in between over its course, and not only does it manage to execute every last idea with brilliance but it also gracefully ties them into a consistent overarching character-driven narrative. With all the crazy twists and turns, the goals that the characters had at the beginning are a consistent focus that change and develop in meaningful ways, whether it’s Kurapika’s goal to do justice to his endangered Kurta Clan interspersed with his journey to understanding the meaningful connections he makes with others in Yorknew or Gon’s aforementioned goal of wanting to make his father proud in Greed Island or Killua simply wanting to feel like he’s a friend good enough for Gon in Chimera Ant (more about Chimera Ant later), their goals are so clearly defined and eloquently developed even amongst the most chaotically structured arcs.
Of course, Hunter x Hunter *is* still fundamentally an action shonen, and obviously I consider it a very good one to put it at the top of its genre. Hunter x Hunter’s battles revolve around a brilliant magic system known as ‘Nen’. Nen has quite literally infinite potential, and thus you’ll see a range of abilities on display that rivals JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure in sheer insanity, but Nen goes above and beyond Ripple/Hamon and Stands because, you guessed it, it’s conceptually grounded! Nen has just about infinite potential in the scheme of things, but the individual potential is limited dependent on a huge range of factors from personal environment to characteristics among other things. That individual potential can be surpassed, but only through immense sacrifice, like Kurapika for example who develops Nen chains that can’t be broken by Phantom Troupe members, with the repercussion being that he’ll die if he attempts to use them on anyone else at all. Kurapika severely limits his Nen capabilities to overcome people exponentially more powerful than him in reaching his goals. He’s probably not engaging in any power level battles any time soon… not that Hunter x Hunter has those.
That brings me to my next point: Hunter x Hunter never ever banks its suspense on all-or-nothing power level battles. The characters you tend to root for in Hunter x Hunter, in particular Gon and Killua, very rarely go against opponents who they have any chance whatsoever to simply overpower. It takes careful planning, it takes battle psychology and it takes genuine risk to fight like that, which, combined with the grounded diversity of Nen abilities, makes action scenes consistently inventive and consistently carrying weighted substance. When Gon lands one single punch on Hisoka in Heaven’s Arena you feel that punch, and you feel that punch because it took every bit of his being just to be able to deliver it. Gon ends up losing miserably almost immediately afterwards, but that’s okay because Hunter x Hunter is capable of having the protagonist lose a battle and dust himself off and keep moving forward. Hunter x Hunter has better things to do than to exclusively rely on action scenes for narrative tension, and it knows that.
Most of what I said before is thanks to the genius of Togashi, but one thing Togashi can’t take pride in is consistent aesthetic quality. The Manga’s art can range from extremely hit and miss to crude and downright laughable, which would be completely and utterly inexcusable given he’s constantly on hiatus (namely at this very moment) if not for how god damn good everything else is. Madhouse comes to the rescue with the adaptation and manages to be one of very few Anime studios to actually try to take worthwhile liberties with Manga adaptation in the name of elevating the work. Not only has the artwork been cleaned up, not only is the adaptation tightly paced and not only is it not padded with filler, but it’s also an adaptation that works extremely effectively to the Anime form with damn good production and fantastic directing.
The scene where Kurapika’s Nen blade kills Uvogin in Yorknew is one really good demonstration of all that. A loud haunting choir in the background score builds up to the climax only to suddenly cut off into total silence at the moment Uvogin dies, immediately followed by the evaporation of the colour palette offset by the glowing scarlet of Uvogin’s blood and Kurapika’s pulsing Kurta eyes, which are focused on in a dramatic closeup as Uvogin drops to the ground. Subsequently the dry background noise and colour creeps its way back into the scene and we’re given a moment of quiet for breathing room. That’s gorgeous production, that’s tight visual and sonic storytelling, and that’s profound purposeful directing that only a multi-modal form like Anime can engage you with.
Now let’s talk about Chimera Ant. LET’S TALK ABOUT CHIMERA FUCKING ANT!!! Chimera Ant is beautiful beyond what my words could even come close to doing justice, but I can only hope to try describing how deeply I felt it by dedicating an entire portion of this review to the arc. The aforementioned aspects of Hunter x Hunter make it an extremely good action shonen, but it’s Chimera Ant that makes Hunter x Hunter a truly brilliant work deserving of recognition beyond being the action shonen cream of the crop. Chimera Ant certainly does every last one of those things that are really good about Hunter x Hunter equally as well if not better than its preceding arcs (especially the directing and visual storytelling, because holy fucking shit Chimera Ant is full of masterfully atmospheric visual storytelling), but that alone isn’t what makes it such a profound work of art. Simply put, Chimera Ant is a complete arc. Complete in narrative structure, complete in dramatic structure and storytelling, complete in rich and fully realised thematic structure and, perhaps most importantly (though definitely most subjectively), complete in emotional resonance. I was brought to tears and then I was brought to tears again, and by the dramatic conclusion of the arc not only was I in tears once more but I was straight up audibly sobbing. Chimera Ant broke me; it broke me harder than I could have ever imagined, harder than I could have ever imagined any work of art breaking me.
Chimera Ant is a story about human nature, and throughout you get numerous intricate mirrored reflections on that through its many character arcs. The first big human moment is the small character arc of Kurt and Reina. Kurt comes up against a Chimera Ant and knows for absolute certain that he has no chance, but he continues to boldly defend his sister and stand strong until the moment he dies. Subsequently human nature becomes a part of the Chimera Ants, and they lose their loyal instincts as ants and begin to do things their own way. From then on the arc is largely defined by those big human moments, and all throughout the final third they crescendo towards a glorious climax.
From Shoot overcoming his cowardly human instincts and the fear of death under pressure counterpointed by Knuckle failing to overcome his compassionate human instincts, to Ikalgo and Welfin finding their humanity in their past lives, to Youpi finding admiration for the human spirit, to Pitou developing compassion and humanity counterpointed by Gon losing his own compassion and humanity, to Killua’s self-doubting loyalty towards Gon, to the unconditional love that the Chimera Ants show towards Meruem, to Netero’s brutally ironic ultimate display of the human spirit in his triumphant selfless act to protect humanity through the use of humanity’s most vile and destructive creation, the nuclear bomb. Chimera Ant is such a massively ambitious tale of human instincts and human nature created within the dozen or so character arcs and narratives it juggles with perfect grace.
The episode that brought me to the point of audible sobbing is probably an easy one for you to guess. It was episode 135. Throughout Chimera Ant Meruem had come to admire Komugi, the one opponent he could never defeat, but it was a battle of the minds in a game known as Gungi that he kept coming up short in rather than a physical battle. He kept her alive at first because his ego wouldn’t accept killing someone for proving themselves better than him at something, but that eventually grew into genuine admiration when he realised her complete dedication towards Gungi transcended fear and desire, because he realised that, despite his infinite power, Komugi was truly better than him, and more than that Komugi showed genuine gratitude for any kindness Meruem gave her because she had lived her life as a constant victim of hardship in a country that’s essentially the North Korea of Hunter x Hunter. After his altercation with Netero and his apparent recovery from the nuclear bomb, he developed a a broader earnest sympathy towards humans, which came into fruition after his memories of Komugi returned. His second to last scene with Palm is one of my absolute favourite in the entire series because it’s the scene where Meruem learns and accepts his fate. It demonstrates that Meruem is a complete character who has overcome all his malicious instincts, and it demonstrates that he’s content to die knowing he lived with a sense of purpose.
My favourite scene in the entirety of Hunter x Hunter, however, is the final exchange between Meruem and Komugi. Once again Meruem comes up short to Komugi in Gungi and realises once and for all that he will never beat Komugi. Meruem is slowly dying from the aftereffects of surviving the nuclear bomb and decides he wants to spend his final moments with Komugi, and Komugi, knowing that her exposure to Meruem is making her vulnerable to the poison, decides for herself to stay with him. The poison causes Meruem to become blind just like Komugi, which is never outright said but something you discover rather poignantly through the way he desperately asks her if she’s still there over and over again, to which Komugi assures him every time that she’ll stay with him. As he fades out of consciousness Meruem asks Komugi to hold him. When Komugi does she runs her hands across his face, totally silent and unflinching towards the inevitable realisation that he’s not human. The almighty Meruem dies in the frail little arms of Komugi who subsequently dies shortly after, as the scene comes to a heartbreaking silence. Both Meruem and Komugi die tragic victims of one of humanity’s most despicable creations, and yet their final moments with each other are a beautiful pure display of human compassion.
Togashi isn’t the kind of guy who wants to dwell on the sad stuff, though, so he made sure that Chimera Ant ended on a happy note, and what better way to book end the story than to give a happy ending to Reina, one of the first two humans to suffer from the Chimera Ants? Despite Reina having become a hideous Chimera Ant, her mother accepts her with open arms in a display of unconditional, indiscriminate motherly love. This moment is the perfect optimistic full circle moment of the arc, giving closure to some of the innocent victims and in itself being yet another beautiful display of human nature. Chimera Ant is an incredible multi-faceted reflection on all the awfulness and all the goodness of our triumphs as a race, and in a broader sense than the action shonen genre or the Anime medium as a whole I wholeheartedly believe that it’s an absolute masterpiece of a story on its own. It is Hunter x Hunter’s greatest detour.
After the dust has settled, Killua has the chance to prove to himself that he’s a friend worthy of Gon, and in turn rescue his sister Alluka. Though the 13th Hunter Chairman arc isn’t as profound as Chimera Ant it’s as fun and intricate and heartfelt as any other Hunter x Hunter arc, but more than that it’s a perfect conclusion with great closure. Killua proves to himself that he’s a good friend to Gon, and subsequently Gon makes up with the reincarnated Kite and reunites with Ging. Ging speaks to Gon not as a father but as a Hunter and as a friend, and he inspires Gon, in a quote that has no doubt become legendary to Hunter x Hunter fans, to “enjoy the little detours. To the fullest. Because that’s where you’ll find things more important than what you want”. There’s seriously no better way to put it, that quote is Hunter x Hunter.
There’s still many stories to tell and many detours to take in Hunter x Hunter, but I would be okay to part with it here. Though I would miss it ever so dearly I would walk out knowing I went on one of the wildest rides of my life, knowing that I earnestly laughed and I earnestly cried with all of my soul. Hunter x Hunter is one of the most complete incomplete stories ever told, a story with infinite ideas that come to fruition ever so fantastically, a story with characters who endear me in my heart of hearts and a story I hope to never, ever forget. Thank you for everything, Hunter x Hunter.