Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 26th 2009
Hunter x Hunter
DVD - Set 4
The first clues Gon and Killua gather about Gon's father lead them to a video game called Greed Island. The two kids look it up only to discover that the game will cost them in the realm of nine billion Jenny, which, if they're anything like yen, translates to about ninety million dollars. While they parse their options, elsewhere Kurapika has gained employment under a Mafioso who is attending the Yorknew auction. His boss turns out to be the prescient daughter of a powerful don, and her divinations indicate that something very unpleasant will go down at the auction. Kurapika has a pretty good idea that that unpleasant something will involve his archenemies the Spiders, and he proves more right than he could ever know. The entire troupe has moved in to rob the Mafia blind, and the aftermath combines with Kurapika's vendetta to paint the city in hues of blood and fire.
Hunter X Hunter's first two sets, hampered by a very traditional shonen structure, relied heavily on Kazuhiro Furuhashi's directorial prowess to separate them from the herd. The third was a choppy interstitial affair; solid shonen entertainment, but more concerned with laying the foundation for future events than succeeding on its own merits. This set, the last in the series' television run (three lengthy OAVs follow), is finally the real deal: fully matured shonen action—focused, intelligent, and blessedly free of narrative crutches. If the first three sets were all about Hunter's potential as a grown-up shonen title, this is the potential grown up, blossomed into something just a few shades short of great.
This is Kurapika's show. Gon and Killua get their fair share of screen time, but it's Kurapika who drives the show forward, who evolves the most, and who ultimately gives this set its darkly human heart. While anime is clogged with tales of revenge, Kurapika's stands out for its restraint and its firm handle on the effects that a nasty quest can have on a decent man. Never does the series stoop to preaching or even overtly judging, but it nevertheless communicates clearly the emotional and mental costs of hatred. The change in Kurapika once he begins his Spider-hunt is startling, and when he finally does face off with one of their number, the result is more sickening than exhilarating. The aftermath of the act, when Kurapika momentarily lets slip his implacable mask to reveal the havoc wrought beneath, is positively heartbreaking.
Kurapika's quest also brings an unusual focus to the show. For once an entire set is driven by a single plot, allowing for a slow-mounting tension that builds incrementally but inexorably to a cataclysmic climax. The show has its side-bars, but eventually everything comes back to the Spiders, the auction, and Kurapika's murderous determination. Even Gon and Killua's seemingly silly game-search eventually merges (though not entirely gracefully) into the greater Spider/mafia tale. For a show that has shown remarkable stubbornness in sticking to its short-arc structure, it's a cleanly orchestrated and thoroughly professional extended arc. And if the conclusion isn't entirely satisfying, that's only because it refuses to compromise its psychological realities for the sake of neat closure.
For an action show, Hunter X Hunter has always been curiously indirect in its action. It's always been the kind of show that knows it doesn't need to blow something up every three minutes to keep your attention, preferring mind games and strategic positioning to the good ol' fist to the face. That is less true for this set than sets past, however, as the Spiders afford far more opportunities for general mayhem and mano-a-mano unpleasantness than the Hunter Exam or even the tower tournament did. A lot of stuff blows up and at least three times the series allows itself the luxury of full-blown martial freakouts. For all the upwelling in testosterone, though, Furuhashi's heart doesn't really seem to be in the straight action. In comparison to the no-hold-barred invention of past action sequences, the Spiders' many mafia-massacres are almost rote. Violent to be sure, but also repetitive, even bored.
Far more impressive are the simpler, more emotionally complex scenes. Kurapika's post-battle depression showcases the power of traditional animation to represent complicated feelings with the drawn image, while the presentation of one doomed character's flight as one of those slow-motion nightmares where you run but never move transforms what could easily have been a disposable scene into something memorably terrifying. Elsewhere Furuhashi lavishes care on creepy atmospheric touches—moons leaking blood, Kurapika's eerily lifelike chains—even as he uses static compositions and cheesy streamers of ki to decide climactic battles. It's no coincidence that the set's most memorable fight is the one that never happens (when Gon and Killua must escape the Spiders by not fighting).
That division can be heard as well as seen. The themes attached to plot twists and mental jockeying are far more memorable than the merely serviceable action themes used during the various Spider slaughters. Furuhashi also feels entirely comfortable allowing scenes to carry themselves sans musical cues, a trait that lends the arc's emotional baggage a spare power that its violent baggage, with its compensatory bombast, rarely achieves.
Viz's dub for this series has been a letdown since day one, and really, that hasn't changed. A deadness infests its every moment, with flat delivery leading to flat emotions and flat confrontations. It isn't the kind of dub that kills a show, but it hardly presents it in its best light. It is exceedingly faithful, but given the end product, one has to wonder whether the dub's adherence to the subtitle script is the product of respect or pure laziness. The focus on Kurapika, who thanks to Cheryl McMaster is one of the dub's few strong characters, is beneficial, but even McMaster's performance shows cracks under the spotlight. As for the new supporting cast...well, it's an achievement of sorts when a dub crew can make one of anime's few genuinely terrifying gangs sound like a slightly goofy after-school club.
As the series comes into its own here, much changes. Adults take center stage, the plot levels out, and the tone (and content) grow dark. But just as much stays the same. Even as external battles consume it, its heart still lies in the internal ones; its insight and restraint are unflagging; and no one, but no one, can do queasy-making peril to children the way it does. This particular arc has one eight-episode OAV yet to go, and it cannot come soon enough.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Takes the series down darker avenues than sets past without losing any of its customary subtlety.
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