Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 20th 2012
Hunter × Hunter
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Gon Freecss has spent his twelve years communing with nature on the isolated island he calls home. On his twelfth birthday he decides to leave the island to take the Hunter Exam, as his absent father did at the same age. The Exam is a long and arduous test, the reward for which is a license that allows the Hunter to do and access just about anything in the world. As you'd expect with such a valuable prize at stake, thousands upon thousands flock to the exam. Very few pass. On his way to the exam site, he meets fellow rookies Leorio and Kurapika, and the three soon form a fast unit. The addition of fellow child-applicant Killua at the actual site rounds out their team, and the rookies set about taking the test by storm. If it doesn't kill them first.
Around the turn of the millennium, Yoshihiro Togashi's long-running, off-and-on shonen manga Hunter x Hunter was adapted into a 62-episode television series, helmed by Rurouni Kenshin director Kazuhiro Furuhashi. It was followed by three OVA series helmed by three guys who were not Kazuhiro Furuhashi, after which the franchise laid fallow for the better part of a decade—one assumes because Togashi's production got highly irregular following the last of the OVAs (in 2004). Rather than continue in the convoluted tradition of the franchise, this series opts to reboot the whole thing: starting at the beginning and, with luck, continuing past where the patchwork of works preceding it left off.
It's a tricky endeavor, rebooting an established franchise, particularly in the early stages where the original and the reboot still overlap. The truly interesting part of the series, both for consumers and creators, comes after the two versions diverge, so there's a real temptation to rush the previously-animated arcs. And then there're the inevitable comparisons. Competing with any predecessor is tough; competing with one by a skilled practitioner like Furuhashi is doubly so. Furuhashi's adaptation wasn't eye-popping, gobsmacking great, but it was a thoughtful, at times almost lyrical variation on shonen tropes. Hiroshi Koujina and Madhouse's Hunter is an entirely more conventional thing, paring away atmosphere and emotions and explorations of nature to focus hard on the adventure.
The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it as a worthless remake and leave it to the vultures. That was certainly my first reaction. It's also the wrong one. That's simply a reaction to it being different, and being different is exactly what Koujina's series should be. After all, what would be the use of a series that simply regurgitated Furuhashi's vision? It would inevitably be off—after all Furuhashi isn't involved—and even if it was perfect, it would just be the first series all over again. If we wanted to see that, we'd just watch the first series all over again. What Koujina and his crew deliver has the same characters and plot contours as Furuhashi's series, but is a decidedly different experience. It is fast and light and most important of all fun. Lots of fun.
Koujina's approach to Hunter is surprisingly smart. For one, it's different enough that returning fans won't mind running through the same story again. And it actually makes an advantage of the streamlined plotting and swift pacing required to hurry us through the "same story" part on our way to the all-new portions of the series. What makes the series fun, though, is mostly just that it gets out of Togashi's way. This portion of the series is devoted entirely to the Hunter Exam, a tricky, fast-paced thing where a test can come in any form at any time. Togashi prefers odd, sometimes humorous challenges for his heroes, usually requiring as much brainwork as fist-work. There are cooking contests where ingredient-gathering is a risk to life and limb, gambling games that hinge on brain-busting psychological maneuvering, a march through a swamp teeming with lethally smart wildlife, a trap that forces its victims into an awful moral quandary, a quiz game where there's more to answering than just answers, a battle with shape-shifting marauders that may or may not be a test... The best decision the series makes is simply to clear way any clutter, to dash (sometimes literally) from test to test, turning these episodes into one uninterrupted run of puzzles and surprises, impossible challenges and creative solutions.
That comes at cost, specifically to the characters. They don't emerge gracefully; they're just kind of thrown at us. Some characters are all but cut out, as with Gon's surrogate mother Aunt Mito. Emotional nuances are mostly abandoned, especially when they apply to characters that are all but cut out, and the introspective facets of Gon's journey—his pursuit of his father, for instance—get pretty well shafted. That makes for a bumpy first few episodes, during which it isn't clear that Togashi's generally charming characters will make the transition intact.
We should have had more faith. It takes a few trials, but before too long the immediate charms of Gon (unflappable innocence), Leorio (total honesty) and Kurapika (iron honor) are out and about. It takes longer for their nuances to show, Gon's sharp instincts and quick mind being the first and Kurapika's inner darkness bursting forth towards the end. As they flesh out, they're joined by a slew of strange, colorful and occasionally crazed supporting characters: a chatty ninja, a slimy "rookie killer," a bad-tempered wrestler, a freak with a face full of metal, a snot-nosed computer expert... Nearly everyone in the rapidly-decreasing roster of applicants is interesting enough to be a major character—even if their exams, and sometimes their lives, are quickly and ignominiously terminated.
Killua isn't officially one of the supporting characters, as he quickly joins the core cast. Like everyone else, though, he's more interesting and complicated than he seems—and a lot easier to like than he was in previous incarnations, thanks probably to Mariya Ise's easier performance. Among true supporting characters, the reigning king has to be Hisoka the clown. He hasn't truly gotten to strut his stuff, but in his two major scenes (and several smaller ones) he positively thrums with barely-concealed psychosis. He's to be the series' main antagonist for some time, and as before he's shaping up to be a terrifying force of nature.
The characters are drawn to match their personalities: colorful, simple and yet expressive. Each has an appropriate manner of dress—sporty green for Gon, brat chic for Killua, formal robes for Kurapika, decidedly un-funny jester's attire for Hisoka—and an appropriate comportment, animated with economy by Madhouse. The series is by no means a wonder of technical prowess. In particular its background artistry is merely sufficient, as opposed to the hand-drawn beauty of Furuhashi's settings. But it is put together reasonably well. The designs are exhibit one, and the scenes that need to impress do. The tension and overpowering sense of danger during Hisoka's ad-hoc "test" for his fellow examinees is just right, and despite the usual shortcuts, Kurapika's explosion in episode nine is powerful stuff.
Yoshihisa Hirano's score is a similar mix of good and bad, specifically good music—particularly its lighter compositions, but even its overt action guitar is pretty decent—and poor-to-middling deployment. Koujina is too eager to beat us over the head with the score. (The opening and ending themes, for the record, are pretty bad). It's obvious that Koujina isn't the craftsman that his predecessor was. Never does anything he does, visual or aural, add the kinds of layers that Furuhashi's direction could. But that's exactly the point of doing the series the way he does—all adventure, all fun, little nuance. He doesn't have to be brilliant; he just has to present Togashi's story and characters and let them do their job. And it works great. It's brisk, it's straightforward, and yet full of twists and surprises and characters that don't do exactly what you expect them to. It is, in short, fun. Which is all a shonen property really needs to be. Bring on the new material!
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Quick-moving, consistently fun adventure; interesting cast and a nice variety of often clever challenges for them to resolve.
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