Reviewby Mike Toole,
Hunter × Hunter [Steelbook]
Gon Freecss has one goal in life: to be just as great as his dad, a famous explorer and adventurer. To do this, he'll need to pass the Hunter Exam, a mysterious and dangerous trial that promises to test all of his many skills. As he takes his first big steps out into the world and starts to make friends among the pool of applicants, one thing becomes clear to Gon: success will open the world up to him, but failure could mean a fate worse than death!
Right from the beginning, Hunter x Hunter trades in adventure. The show's narrator darkly invites the viewer to seek out monsters, hidden treasures, and evil haunts. (Evil haunts are my favorite type of haunts.) It's a series rooted in its pedigree—a shonen fighting tale by Shonen Jump mastermind Yoshihiro Togashi—but it's really about adventure, about hitting the road and finding those stories for yourself, those great tales of derring-do promised in comics and movies and pulpy action adventure books that we spent our childhoods seeking out.
Hunter x Hunter has that cutting edge of childhood braggadocio too, where the story starts with a big adventure but starts taking weird and violent turns. Its narrative opens like any grand journey, centering on the exploits of talented 12-year-old Gon Freecss of Whale Island, who sets off an expedition to find his long-lost father. Dad's a famed nomad, but his whereabouts are unknown, so Gon starts his search by doing the first thing his dad did—getting his Hunter's License. In this show's world, a Hunter License is kind of like a driver's license, a passport, a gun permit, a license to practice law and medicine, a high-limit credit card, a business certification, and a Chipotle Rewards Card all in one. It gives the holder broad authority to travel and seek out danger, treasure, and other secrets. Accordingly, the exam to get this license is both extremely popular and prohibitively difficult to pass.
Typically, there's not a mean or cynical bone in Gon's body – he's totally guileless, kinda like Goku but not quite as enjoyably dumb. Gon sees the world as it is, accepts it, and keeps pushing forward; there's something oddly zen about his cheerfulness. “It's a lot of fun!” Gon tells the chairman of the Hunter organization at one point, describing a grueling obstacle course in which scores of applicants have died horribly. Gon starts to make friends for his big trip on the boat out of Whale Island: smart and taciturn Kurapika, dour and cocksure Killua, and Leorio, a classic “big friend” who wears a nice suit and fancies himself the grownup and voice of reason, despite being less clever and adroit than the rest of the quartet.
After a perilous trip, the sea captain reveals a secret: the Hunter Exam has already started! The treacherous boat trip was just the first part of a grueling ordeal that will include trying to escape an ominous town, eluding savage beasts in a mysterious forest, an underground footrace, a hike through the world's most treacherous swamp, a cooking contest, and a brain-busting thought experiment/cage fight. Emerging competitors include a murderous clown, a con man who only enters the exam to spoil others' chances, and a bona fide ninja. Through these tests, you may notice this trip parallels that first big step we all take towards adulthood, when you plunge into the unknown and start to make the buddies who will have your back for the rest of your life. Gon and Killua in particular become fast friends, sharing a cheerful conversation while racing up a massive flight of stairs, stepping over the prone bodies of less worthy Hunter candidates.
If Hunter x Hunter has a child's sense of wonder, it also has a child's sense of meanness, which is entertaining in its own way. The aforementioned con man tries to feed the competition laxatives, gleefully imagining them overcome with diarrhea. Through each phase of the exam, we always get to see at least one competitor almost make it, only to have the door slam in their faces. The examiners are a motley crew of misshapen weirdos, and almost all of them delight in toying with their students and muddying their chances of success. The particulars of the exam really drive home a central conceit of the story: the Hunter license is important, hard to get, and people are willing to die for it. Gon, of course, pads through most of the challenges without really thinking much about them.
With Gon and his pals, Togashi polishes his character archetypes to a blinding shine; you'll quickly recognize these characters and may grow to see them as you would a beloved old cousin. The sense of camaraderie that Gon, Killua, Kurapika, and Leorio build together is infectious and fun; it's kinda like the Goonies, but with murder. But even when you realize who's the best at murder in Gon's group, it's not an unpleasant shock. Even the bad guys are likable in Hunter x Hunter. Even the serial-killer clown who has an unsavory fascination with the boys is fun to watch. That's how solid this series is.
Hunter x Hunter got an anime adaptation in 1999, directed by Gundam Unicorn guy Kazuhiro Furuhashi, and while it's quite good, the manga has been going on for so long and has been so popular that NTV felt the need to buy an animation studio to churn out a remake in 2011. The studio was Madhouse, and the new director was Hiroshi Koujina, a worthy steward who'd long proven his mettle as an action animator in shows like City Hunter and One Outs—he also made it clear he could direct a longer show and keep it interesting, which he did with the otherwise forgettable card-game anime Kiba. His partner in crime from that series, designer Takahiro Yoshimatsu, turns up here as well, ably transferring the charm of Togashi's original drawings to the screen. I watched the Japanese version as it originally aired and watched the dub on blu-ray—both are worthy of your time. The voices of Gon, Megumi Han and Erica Mendez, both put forth class-act shonen hero performances. The rest of the regulars are similarly well-matched, though I find myself slightly preferring Keiji Fujiwara's Leorio, who he imbues with an indignant nerdy honk, to Matthew Mercer's lighter and squeakier performance.
I'll also pause to appreciate the packaging of Hunter x Hunter on blu-ray. The version I received for review is a steelbook, which is currently exclusive to Best Buy. I'm not an ardent fan of steelbooks – they usually look kinda cool, but they're harder to take care of than digipacks or regular keepcases. This one looks particularly good, however, as does its protective plastic O-ring. Inside, along with the two discs, you'll find postcards (in a nifty Hunter-esque envelope), a code redeemable for a digital copy of the first manga volume (genius!), and a plastic replica Hunter's license, perfect for your plans to cosplay as the guy whose arms get violently turned into flowers at the next local con. It's a nice package, though there aren't that many on-disc extras.
What really sticks with me after watching these first thirteen episodes of Hunter x Hunter is the knowledge that, since I already watched the show during Japanese broadcast, this buoyant and surging adventure tale isn't even the best part of the series. It's arguably not even in the top three of Hunter x Hunter's numerous story arcs, but it's still tons of fun, a show that's charming enough to hook the kids who started reading the manga when it debuted in 1998, and sophisticated enough to keep their attention as adults, 13 years later. Hunter x Hunter is right up there in the pantheon of Shonen Jump greats like One Piece, Naruto, and Fist of the North Star—it's a series that wants to entertain and succeeds in fine fashion.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Brisk action show with a great sense of wonder, likable characters on a fun adventure
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