Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 8th 2009
Hunter X Hunter
DVD - Set 2
Spunky country-boy Gon and his misfit buddies are finding the Hunter Exam harder and harder going. Every round ruthlessly whittles the competition, but those who remain are formidable opponents. Trick Tower, with its pitfalls and mind-games, culls all but the most hardened and resourceful of the candidates—killing many and disqualifying even more. After making it through by the skin of their teeth, Gon, Kurapica and Leorio look forward to the three days of seaside R&R that the proctors promise, but naturally not all is as it seems. The unrestful rest and relaxation is followed by a weeklong survival exercise during which each candidate is expected to steal the number-badge of whichever other candidate they are assigned to. Gon's opponent? Hisoka.
Predictably, the Hunter exam continues this set, consuming another fifteen episodes. The bonds of friendship are tested, contrived conundrums are engaged, villains are confronted, and in the end it all comes down to a tournament (you knew it was coming). As always it sounds pretty bad, and as always, it isn't. Hunter x Hunter is the product of two past masters of the shonen action genre—manga-ka Yoshihiro Togashi (Yu Yu Hakusho) and director Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Rurouni Kenshin)—and the experience shows. Togashi's plotting is canny and occasionally insightful and Furuhashi's visuals inventive yet attuned to the measured pacing of the series. Together they create a shonen action series that is both fun to watch and curiously respectful of its audience's intelligence. A strange combination indeed.
The Hunter test grows more serious as this set progresses, gradually losing the walking-contest, ingredient-hunting silliness and focusing on genuine life-or-death battles, raising the stakes with each and culminating in perhaps the single ugliest child vs. adult confrontation this side of Night of the Hunter. Regardless of their tone, the trails Togashi arranges for his cast remain smarter and more unpredictable that one would expect, forcing the characters to rely on strategy, cooperation and planning rather than spunk and spirit-energy power-ups to resolve their problems. The show doesn't always pull it off—the resolution of Gon's round in the tournament is inelegantly presented and more than a little forced—but overall it's a refreshing change of pace.
Though they aren't going to burn their way up anyone's “ZOMG they're my favoritest character of all time!” list, Gon and his buddies are all highly sympathetic. When they're in a pinch, you want them to succeed (the final tournament has us cheering even for bratty Killua's success), and when they don't it hurts. However, the guys who really steal the show aren't the heroes, but the villains. Or should I say, villain. Actually, Hunter x Hunter is remarkable for its lack of villains. There's no shortage of antagonists, but rarely are they so simple as to be categorized as “villains,” and often they are the protagonists' friends or former allies. But there is one incontestable villain. Hisoka. And he's one hell of a villain. He's a bone-chilling psychotic whose hard, imperturbable surface can barely contain his seething bloodlust. His interest in Gon is perhaps the series' most terrifying subplot (“why does unripe fruit always look so tempting?” he asks) and he snakes pretty much every scene he's in directly from underneath the supposed leads. Far and away this set's most memorable scene is the brief, goose-bump-raising moment during Gon's badge-hunt when Hisoka drops his joker's mask to reveal the raging sea of insanity beneath. It's one of the genre's few truly chilling moments.
Furuhashi translates Togashi's action to the screen with understated energy and flair, making the most of the era's (1999) mix of traditional and CG animation to bring Gon and friends' physical feats to fluid, exhilarating life. The wide variety of action, ranging from tense cat-and-mouse games to deadly hand-to-hand combat, allows for a wide range of visual styles, all of them blending seamlessly into the series' occasionally gorgeous hand-made look. He isn't afraid to experiment (the climactic tournament is a veritable orgy of stylistic showboating, combining odd perspectives, expressionistic imagery and detail-smearing, fully-animated action) or to linger on telling details, and he allows events to unfurl at an unhurried pace that leaves plenty of space for gorgeous scenic interludes.
Furuhashi eschews almost entirely the vulgar introspection and obvious emotional manipulation that plague Hunter's peers. He communicates complex feelings with very few words, trusting to his own cinematic skills and the skills of his cast to keep viewers in the emotional loop. That places rather a heavy burden on the cast. While the original cast of veterans was equal to the task, Viz's English cast of relative unknowns isn't. They're solid matches for their roles, and are working from a script that preserves the feel of the characters and their dialogue, but their delivery tends to be flat and they consistently lose the series' subtler undercurrents. Elinor Holt's Gon never quite shakes a generic spunky kid vibe, even as her performance settles later on into a nicely mature variation on the original. Kurapica is fine, at times genuinely superior, but Jonathan Love sometimes forces Leorio's emotions, and Brendan Hunter is obviously struggling to project Hisoka's sly menace. It's a reasonably professional effort—the occasional cultural-reference substitution notwithstanding—and in another series the dull acting wouldn't necessarily be such an issue, but more than mere professionalism is needed to pull off Hunter x Hunter's balancing act.
Viz misses yet another chance here to provide fans with clean versions of the decent opener and superbly vocalized closer. Instead they give us character line-art. Yay.
In a genre where energy is entertainment currency, Hunter x Hunter is defiantly reserved. Many of its finest moments unfold in complete silence, without the benefit of Toshihiko Sahashi's superior but seldom used score, and without the razor-edged editing that typifies shonen action. It won't knock your socks off, crumple them in a pile and torch them with kerosene the way some Shonen Jump properties do, but it does present the customary thrills at a mature pace and with intelligence and respect such that you needn't fall back on your inner teenager to enjoy them. And in a way, that's more impressive than the exploding socks.
Ah yes, and for the record, this set does bring the Hunter Exam to a close—with (like any good shonen show) a coda that segues straight into the next story arc.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Leisurely shonen adventure with smarts and subtlety enough to entertain the non-shonen among us; Hisoka.
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