Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 1st 2012
Hunter × Hunter
Episodes 27-52 Streaming
After escaping Killua's family, Gon and Killua decide to go somewhere they can get stronger and get rich at the same time. Killua knows just the place: Heaven's Arena. A dizzying spire divided into ranked tiers, it's a great place to learn the in-and-outs of combat while earning piles of cash. The higher you ascend, the stronger your opponents and the more you earn from defeating them. No problem for Gon and Killua, but at the 200th floor they learn that there's a side of the world kept hidden from them. A side filled with unbelievable powers and unbelievably powerful opponents. Luckily they're quick studies. Elsewhere, Kurapika is learning the same lessons, but for very different reasons. He's on the trail of the Phantom Troupe, the murdering bandits who slaughtered his people. New abilities in hand, he heads to Yorknew City to babysit a girl with some ghoulish hobbies, a decision that will ultimately bathe the city in blood.
The straightforwardness of this version of Hunter x Hunter is its strength, no doubt. It's a swift and fun watch: stripped down, with no sluggardly detours or unnecessary baggage, no stylistic or narrative ambitions to get in the way of Yoshihiro Togashi's free-spirited adventure. But it can be a weakness too. With no added layers or even eye candy to provide extra support, when Togashi's story slumps, so too does the series. Nowhere is that clearer than when Gon and Killua enter Heaven's Arena.
Heaven's Arena is a thankless stretch of the show. It's hackneyed and pedantic and largely devoid of excitement or involvement. Towers full of leveled baddies were old hat back when people still said old hat. If memory serves, the original Tower of Druaga game used the same basic concept when Pong was still the rage. The baddies themselves are all empty shirts and paper tigers—fodder for the boys to chew on as they gain new powers. There is precious little tension, and even less emotional engagement. Other than their new powers, the characters gain nothing from the arc, and the ongoing plots—Killua's family troubles, Gon's hunt for his father, Kurapika's quest for revenge—are all in stasis. It is painfully clear that the Arena's only purpose is to introduce and explain the series' new system of superpowers, which is itself a dispiriting development, as early Hunter had been refreshingly devoid of the special powers that are the bread and butter of most shonen properties.
And the show has no weapons with which to fight this shall we say less than optimal run of material. It doesn't have the skills of a Kazuhiro Furuhashi, whose cinematic flair kept the '99 version afloat through Heaven's Arena. It's too straight-shooting to graft on supplementary character development or intercut the Arena with interesting developments elsewhere or even to cut the arc short. Heck, it doesn't even have the visual pop and sizzle to distract us momentarily. No interestingly mobile characters, no arrestingly designed interiors, not even any divertingly well-constructed fights. From the opening cannon fodder all the way to the finale's Hisoka/Gon match (the only fight to really matter), the arc's battles are strictly middle-of-the-road: all still images and simplified or truncated movement, arranged in purely conventional ways—sufficient to communicate what is happening and why, but not to thrill or engage.
This isn't to say the whole thing's a waste. The Gon/Hisoka fight does resolve a long-standing conflict, while also recalling the thrills and terrors of some choice parts of the Hunter Exam. There are a few satisfying tidbits scattered elsewhere as well—Killua's strategy for dealing with a trio of rookie-sniping cheaters being probably the best—and if you have to have a system of super-powers, you could do worse than Hunter's “Nen” system. It has an intriguing, Chinese-zodiacish complexity, with different applications of internal energies and various categories of Nen-users with their own in-born specialties and relations to other categories. It's the kind of system that unlike, say, DBZ's, can add layers to a fight rather than remove them. Which, though not as good as jettisoning special energies altogether, is a good thing.
Still, the lesson is clear: when Togashi's story dies, the whole show dies with it. The flip side to that, however, is that when his story rises like the phoenix, the show returns to glorious life as well. This lesson we learn during the Phantom Troupe arc. It is everything that Heaven's Arena wasn't: tense, ambitious, periodically clever, and every once in a while genuinely, emotionally resonant.
It brings three groups into ever-tighter orbits of each other: Gon and Killua and later Leorio, making their way through Yorknew's famous auction, trying to scrape together the money to buy a preposterously expensive game; Kurapika and his fellow bodyguards, trying to keep a young fortuneteller out of trouble while Kurapika uses his position to hunt for the Phantom Troupe; and the Phantom Troupe, a team of terrifyingly strong, utterly amoral outsiders with an eye on the auction's treasures. As they circle and bump into each other the tension ratchets inexorably up until the whole thing explodes into bloodbath that draws in everyone from Killua's family to Kurapika and, more peripherally but no less frightening, Gon and Killua, all while never going exactly where you expect it to.
It is clear that Togashi's heart is once again in his story. The dance of the three groups as they plan and execute and interfere with each other is as fine as you could ask, and Kurapika's journey from upstanding young man to ice-cold badass, his soul withering every step of the way, is a thing of genuine beauty. The supporting players are all colorful and fun and surprisingly likeable—especially Kurapika's bald, buck-toothed, gentle-hearted sidekick Melody (yes, she's a girl). Even the villains are great. The Phantom Troupe is packed with bizarre freaks of unknown ability (boxing mummy anyone?), all of whom are bloodthirsty psychopaths but also have feelings and histories and relationships of their own. It is impossible going into any one of the arc's many lopsided bouts of ugliness to know who is going to make it or even who to root for. By the end of Kurapika's disturbing showdown with Phantom meathead Uvogin, you're actually rooting for the bad guy, if only to save Kurapika the stain on his soul.
Which is something you couldn't have imagined the series capable of just a dozen or so episodes previous. And for once, the animators seem to have their heart in it too. They deploy some surprisingly effective flourishes to buttress the show's usual blend of clean but unimpressive visuals, including a nice burst of fisheye-lensed terror during Gon and Killua's ill-advised stalk of a Phantom Troupe pair. The humor is less rote, the action livelier—particularly during Kurapika's fights and the bout between the Zoldyks and the Phantom Troupe—and the atmosphere richer. The real surprise, though, is Yoshihisa Hirano. His compositions for the Phantom Troupe are revelatory: spooky and beautiful and spiked with dark, unsettling chorales. When the score tries for energy it still pushes way, way too hard, but those choral interludes earn Hirano some serious points.
This is, in short, the best the series has ever been. The worst thing you can say about the arc is that its blackness squares uncomfortably With the Light, fleet feel of the rest of the series. The show has a hard time juggling its child-friendly intentions with the arc's limb-tearing, head-lopping, heart-exploding, children-imperiling, soul-wrecking violence, resulting in several awkward moments. Even so, it's a barn-burner. It's downright disturbing how fast the episodes fly by. After episode fifty two, the next thing you'll likely be doing is watching episode fifty three. It's even worth fighting through Heaven's Arena for. And that's saying something.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B
+ The Phantom Troupe.
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