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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Hunter x Hunter

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CV: Hunter X Hunter

"I'll work hard to crank out dozens of volumes. I promise not to complain. I won't run away. I won't lose it. I think. Maybe."
Yoshihiro Togashi, artist's note for Hunter X Hunter v.1

Gon Freecss is a young boy who grew up in a small village on top of a giant whale floating in the ocean. All his life, he's explored the forests (on top of the whale, that is), learning the ways of the animals and plants, learning to catch giant fish, becoming stronger. His goal is to become a Hunter—not just some dude who kills animals, that is, but a HUNTER, a member of the famous Hunter Society of explorers, archaeologists, botanists, monster hunters and treasure seekers dedicated to doing the impossible and discovering the unknown. And there's lots of unknown: Gon's world is vast, with giant animals, man-eating plants, ancient ruins, strange technologies and strange mysteries everywhere. But for Gon, what matters most of all is finding his father: Ging, a legendary Hunter who left him when he was a baby.

If you try to explain Hunter X Hunter in one paragraph (a very unwise task), it sounds like other shonen adventures I've read. It's a fantasy manga set in a big sloppy mixup of the Age of Exploration: a little like One Piece, a little like Treasure Hunter, maybe even King of Bandits Jing. (Not that I don't love One Piece—the only reason I haven't written about it yet is because I'm still waiting to see where it goes. Also, it's so LONG, it'd be like writing about the encyclopedia.) Hunter X Hunter is a manga of a tall-tale world, a world of great heroes and great exaggeration.

But the basic idea isn't what's great, it's the execution. Yoshihiro Togashi is no ordinary mangaka; he does things his own way. His first few Shonen Jump one-shots were a mix of school comedy and splatter-film horror references. Then he hit it big with the supernatural fighting comedy Yu Yu Hakusho, one of the most obvious imitators of the Dragon Ball "start out as a comedy and then, once the readers like the characters, have them kick the crap out of each other" formula.

Then things got interesting. The typical mangaka who launches a bestselling Shonen Jump series at age 24 keeps it going for a zillion volumes to make as much $$$ as possible, but Togashi pulled the plug and stopped it after 19 volumes, just as a new storyline was starting, ending the whole thing by turning it from a fighting manga back into a comedy. He drew three volumes of Level E, a creepy science-fiction horror manga about aliens, with almost 0% fighting and 100% humor, H.R. Giger-esque gore and bizarre plot twists. Then, he started dating his future wife Naoko Takeuchi. (A mangaka with a social life?!? You can see he's a weirdo.)

Then, in 1997, he started Hunter X Hunter, and it was so popular that today, he's still drawing it. He draws slowly and misses lots of issues; only 30 volumes of Hunter X Hunter have come out since the series started in 1998, and Naruto, which started in 1999, is already up to 60. Even when the manga does appear in Shonen Jump, it often looks…well…rushed. Missing backgrounds and sketchy art are common. (Togashi often goes back and fixes things for the tankobon edition.) Perhaps he takes lots of time off to be with Takeuchi and their children ("I spend my spare time with my family," he wrote in a Shonen Jump interview); as for Takeuchi, she works occasionally as his assistant and colorist, arguably a comedown for the creator of Sailor Moon, to become merely the Lynn Varley to his Frank Miller, but they sure make beautiful manga together. I suspect that Togashi's slow drawing pace is because he's a perfectionist who enjoys his work and wants to do things himself; if he really wanted to get it drawn faster, he could always just have the assistants do everything. And miraculously, despite missing jillions of deadlines, Hunter X Hunter is actually MORE popular than it was at the beginning: it's been recently re-adapted into a new TV anime, 14 years after the first one was canceled. The Togashi Love is so strong that even Level E was recently dusted off and turned into a new anime series. What is the key to his success? Does this mean if I don't update my webcomic for six months I'll still have a chance of getting an anime series? Well…maybe if I was Togashi.

One of the problems with summarizing Hunter X Hunter is that it's like every shonen manga in one. There's training sequences. There's tournament battles. There's a crime-mystery story arc. There's a virtual-reality, RPG-style story arc. There's a Fight To Save The World From The Big Bad. It's as if whenever Togashi gets tired, he simply changes Hunter X Hunter into a different manga.

Volume 1, Chapter 1: Gon, your typical spiky-haired naively honest shonen hero, sets off for the annual Hunter Exam to become a Hunter so he can find his dad! "The pass rate is said to be less than one in a hundred thousand," someone warns him, but once he gets to the exam after a long journey over weird, Dr. Seuss-like landscapes, there's 404 dudes left after the first round of elimination, suggesting that over 40 million people tried to be a Hunter that year. (Popular job.) The Hunter training tests both body and mind: even finding the location of the Hunter Exam is part of the test. The first day of training starts off with a brisk 100km uphill run, leading the would-be Hunters into a swamp full of deadly monsters who kill most of them quickly. Then there's a meeting with two Gourmet Hunters (the entire manga Toriko crammed into two characters) who challenge the applicants to make them some tasty eats. Then they head to Trick Tower, where they must defeat a squad of ruthless killers and hitmen to advance. Then Zevil Island. And on and on, with lesser men dying in horrible and ironic ways at every step.

Along the way, pure-hearted Gon makes friends with some of the other contestants. There's Kurapika, an androgynous youth who's the last of his clan, and seeks revenge against the ones who killed his family. There's Leorio, a 'cool older brother' type in a suit, who wants to become a Hunter so he can make lots of money. (Or so he says, anyway.) And there's Killua, a child assassin, trained since birth in all kinds of torture and killing; he's from a family of killers who make the Addams Family look like saints, and his father, the master of the assassins, looks like Labyrinth-era David Bowie. (According to the popularity poll results printed in a few of the volumes, Killua and Kurapika instantly became the series' most popular characters, and Leorio quickly fades into a side character to make more room for them.) There's other, less savory characters too, such as Hisoka the Magician, a bishonen super-martial-artist who kills people with tossed playing cards and who has, shall we say, impure (actually, blatantly pedophilic) feelings for Killua and Gon. Gon doesn't exactly like Hisoka, but he knows he's not strong enough to defeat him yet, so at times they become reluctant allies. Eventually, the wannabe Hunters are winnowed down to a dozen or so, who clash at a final tournament. And then Gon gets his Hunter license, and the manga ends!

…No. Of course it doesn't end. Getting the certificate isn't even the true definition of being a Hunter. To become a Hunter, it turns out, you must master nen, a martial art so secret most people don't even know it exists. Like reiki in Yu Yu Hakusho, Togashi describes nen so thoroughly that you almost think it could exist: in brief, there are six types, emitter, enhancer, transmuter, manipulator, conjurer and specialist, and they all use their power in different ways. "Talented people in any field often use nen without knowing it," a friend tells Gon. Some nen users are like Stand Users in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, with ghostly nen monsters they conjure from themselves. Others shoot blasts and beams of energy like Son Goku in Dragon Ball. Gon has to train for ages with his 'emitter' power to do more than knock a leaf off a branch from inches away, but gradually, he and his friends learn the power of nen. Things that once seemed impossible, and enemies that once seemed unbeatable, suddenly come within reach. Gon takes Killua along with him on his journey, over the objections of Killua's family, who just want him to stay at home and become the perfect killer and not have any friends. Eventually, Gon discovers a clue about his father's whereabouts. His father might be in…

Cut to the crime storyline. The place: Yorknew City. While Gon and Killua were training, Kurapika has been training offscreen, and he too has become a nen master. Kurapika finds himself hired by a mafia don to protect the don's daughter and stop the Phantom Troupe, a group of 13 incredibly deadly nen masters, who want to steal rare items from a mafia auction. Furthermore, the Phantom Troupe are the ones who killed Kurapika's family. Kurapika's quest for revenge turns into an all-out war between two groups of nen-powered superhumans, with hundreds of mafia thugs dying in the crossfire! And of course, it turns out that one of the precious items the Phantom Troupe seeks is…

…the world's rarest video game, Greed Island, a special game made only for Hunters, created by Ging's father himself! It's a limited-edition video game which costs 5.8 billion jenny (the currency, which incidentally sounds a lot like "zeni" in Dragon Ball), and only a few people have a copy. When you play the game, you are transported to Greed Island, a faraway, Virtual-Reality-like land of great grassy fields, villages full of NPCs with a limited vocabulary, and ferocious monsters. Furthermore, the game turns out to be a CCG inside a MMORPG, as you "win" the game by collecting items and converting them into cards which you store in a binder. (Items and people even respawn when the heroes leave a place and come back). Are you following all this? "I'm reaching my limit of memorization," Gon thinks. Inside the gameworld, Gon and Killua must figure out the rules and battle with other Hunters who have become trapped in the gameworld, including, as is the case in every Hunter X Hunter storyline, some real scumbags. Luckily, one of the other Hunters in the game is the friendly Biscuit Krueger, a 57-year-old martial arts master who looks like a 12-year-old girl, although when she releases her full power she transforms into something like Ms. Olympia. Like Genkai in Yu Yu Hakusho, she trains Gon and helps him get even stronger. After many quests and gaming in-jokes (such as a side trip to Aiai, the Town of Love, which is full of NPC girls perpetually acting out shonen love-com clichés), Gon and Killua finally discover the secrets of Greed Island.

They get off the Island just in time to deal with a global crisis, as a Chimera Ant, a deadly lifeform, has washed ashore in a low-technology country unequipped to deal with it. The Hunters, who by this point we realize essentially rule the world, and who specialize in weird monsters, are of course the ones who deal with it. (Don't these countries have, you know, armies? But I guess they'd be redundant in a world where one person can be a match for 10,000.) Once the Chimera Ant Queen discovers the taste of human flesh, she begins consuming it voraciously, sending her worker drones to capture whole populations of people and scoop up their flesh into meatballs. Since the Chimera Ant Queen absorbs DNA from those she eats and transmits it to her offspring, the Queen's children look really weird and have all sorts of powers, but it's not until the Chimera Ant King is born that things really get bad. The King, who looks EXTREMELY like Cell in Dragon Ball, takes over a thinly-veiled North Korea-like country, sets himself up as the dictator, and prepares to consume the entire population of the country, five million people at once. Can Gon and the world's most powerful Hunters defeat the Chimera Ants and save the world? What about Knuckle Bine, the yankii Hunter who looks like a Yu Yu Hakusho character multiplied by ten? And how does shogi, go and an imaginary board game called Gungi figure into the conclusion? And then…

If that's a lot of plot summary, it's because Hunter X Hunter has a lot of plot. Compared to most shonen manga, it's incredibly dense, a good choice for people who read fast. Not that the plot is especially character-driven, mind you; the characters' motivations are pretty simple like in most shonen manga, mostly focusing on Gon and Killua's friendship, and Gon's quest for his father. There's lots of cool characters showing up all the time, but the story stays pretty much focused on (1) finding dad, (2) friendship and (3) getting stronger. Still, there are some character surprises, like when 12-year-old Gon reveals he's got some experience with the ladies ("Sometimes ships with all-female crews stop by Whale Island. Some of them only go out with younger guys. They call those types 'cougars'!") The character art is great. Togashi is capable of drawing in an ultra-realistic style, an ultra-cartoony style, and everything in between, but instead of doing what some artists do and just alternating between realistic and chibi, he has cartoony and realistic characters interacting together in the same panels, as if Gon will be forever a big-eyed kid (spoiler: he won't) and another character, like Chrollo Lucifer, will always be a serious, sinister bishonen.

But what really fills pages in Hunter X Hunter—and what keeps it interesting—is the challenges that the characters face. Not so many pure-strength, good-guy-vs.-bad-guy fights (except in the Chimera Ant sequence), but little challenges, puzzles, games. The Greed Island sequence, when Gon (and the reader) have to learn the rules for an entire imaginary card game, is just one of the more extreme examples of the puzzle-iness of this manga. Like the whole sequence explaining the rules of auctions. Or the deadly dodgeball game with Razor, Game Master of Greed Island. Or the time when Killua is used as a human dartboard by the Chimera Ants. Over and over Togashi invents some little closed system or rules just so the heroes can break them; if he ever wants to change careers, I'd suggest game designer. Sometimes you wish the characters would stop explaining things so much ("These are the rules for this new thing that will only last for 20 pages…"), but mostly, it's interesting. Often the solution turns out to be lateral thinking: when Gon and Killua are trapped in a room whose only door is guarded by a deadly swordsman, and they realize they can't beat him, they remember that they're super strong, and just break through the walls instead.

Life isn't easy in this manga. The heroes are always having to sacrifice their limbs and undergo terrible pain, in classic shonen manga fashion. Yoshihiro Togashi loves gore and shocking violence and evil folks. The child heroes are always fighting serial killers and maniacs and sadists. This is, after all, the mangaka who when asked "What Yu Yu Hakusho character are you the most like?" answered "The sum of all the evil ones." It's one thing when Killua's family guard dog eats some people in a few instants and tosses their clean-picked bones out the door, it's another thing when Uvogin, one of the Phantom Troupe's brutes, wins a fight with just his mouth by biting a chunk out of the skull of one of his opponents who gets too close, then spitting the skull fragments like a bullet into another enemy. Some of the panels in the later parts of the manga are apparently censored for gore, images covered with screentone.

In a sense, just as Hunter X Hunter is about Gon's simple optimism vs. the evil conniving folks he encounters, the whole manga is about the mixture of childish adventure and creepy, adult themes. In this manga, machine guns and nuclear bombs and cannibal fish abound, but the heroes' tools of fighting are childrens' toys. Gon has his fishing pole and his jan-ken-pon nen martial arts technique. Kilua ends up fighting with a 50-kilo yoyo. Kurapika has his rings with chains attached to them, which start out small and jewelry-like, then turn massive and deadly. As the characters' power goes up, of course, the stakes go up. Everything gets bigger, even the world. We first see Ging, Gon's dad, who we first see in volume 8, riding on the back of a giant monster. The camera then pans out into a two-page spread, and we see that the supposedly giant monster is actually riding on the back of an even bigger monster. Gon doesn't have a crew of pirates or fellow martial artists to ride out into the unknown with him. Mostly, it's just him and Killua, or maybe one or two other friends. And people are always dying. And the reader, like Gon, never knows exactly what's behind the next hill and the next adventure, even though there's sure to be lots of weird puzzles and problem-solving and deadly battles.

In a sense, Hunter X Hunter is like the Chimera Ants. It absorbs other shonen manga and spits them back out in strange, mutated forms. Recently the plotline has turned towards exploration, and a place called the Dark Continent, which reminds me of a plotline in One Piece, but much deadlier. Maybe if Hunter X Hunter goes on long enough it'll eventually mimic every other manga in Jump, only weirder—or who knows? Maybe Togashi will call it quits first, he's unpredictable enough. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended within the year. I also wouldn't be surprised if, 10 years from now after One Piece, Naruto and Bleach are over, it's still one of the most popular manga in Shonen Jump. I don't know how often it'll come out, though.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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