Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Hunter × Hunter
Episodes 53-65 Streaming
Just as his quest to exterminate the Phantom Troupe is coming to a boil, Kurapika's luck turns. The Phantom Troupe's leader and several others are apparently killed when Killua's family is hired by the Mafia to take the Troupe down. Robbed of his vengeance, a deflated Kurapika reunites with Gon and company. But all is not as it seems. Before the Yorknew Auction runs its course, internal complications will send the Spiders hunting Kurapika even as he and his friends hunt them, culminating in a confrontation that will weigh the lives of his friends against the fulfillment of his vengeance. Afterwards Gon and Killua finally gain access to Greed Island, the game designed by Gon's elusive father. Literally transported into the game, they face monsters and players who are far too powerful for them. They're going to need a new Nen teacher, stat. In the meantime Greed Island's other players jockey for valuable game cards, with increasingly complicated and deadly results.
As enjoyable as Madhouse's Hunter X Hunter reboot has been, there was always a part of one's mind that was counting down the episodes until it hit fresh material. For those who've been following the franchise's stateside releases (which didn't include the Greed Island and Phantom Troupe OVAs), that time is now. And it's a good time to be sure.
It begins in the dark convolutions of Kurapika's war against the Phantom Troupe (AKA the Spiders). As with all of the show's best tales, the final throes of Kurapika's clash with his intended prey is more about outthinking and outmaneuvering than it is about overpowering. The Spiders figure they've thrown the “chain user” off their tail by faking their deaths. But when their leader Chrollo dabbles in some fortunetelling with his stolen Nen powers, Hisoka monkeywrenches the group's plan in order to facilitate his fortune. Which sends Kurapika, accompanied by Gon, Leorio, Killua and Melody, after the Spiders. In the meantime the Spiders decide to pursue Kurapika.
The resulting dance of plan and counterplan, measure and countermeasure is a tense, touchy thing. The show has been careful to demonstrate the gaping abyss between the strength of the heroes and that of the Spiders. Direct confrontation equals instant death. So Gon and company shadow and observe, think and plan. The margin of error between success and failure is razor thin—sometimes for both sides. Every escape from harm is a breathless high-wire act, every plan one mistake away from messy death for all. The result is in many ways more thrilling than any long-built shonen brawl. The plan Kurapika puts together when their initial stalking of the Spiders goes badly awry—leaving Gon and Killua at the group's mercy—is a nerve-wracking improvisational gambit, all split-second timing and high-risk misdirection. And what follows is just as bad: a hostage exchange, every stage of which has many more ways of going wrong—nastily, murderously wrong—than going right.
You have to give Yoshihiro Togashi his props. The finale may not be totally, viscerally satisfying, but it's smart and well thought-out every step of the way. The characters work through their possible courses of action: weighing consequences, trying to predict their opponents, thinking how best to get the result they want. In a different show that might bog the story down; in Hunter's cat-and-mouse game, it sharpens the tension to a fine point. It illustrates, in nail-biting detail, all of the ways that the characters' plans can go off the rails at certain crucial junctures.
You also have to admire Togashi's ability to weave character into his plot machinations. The finale forces Kurapika's obsession with vengeance to do battle with his love of his comrades, pitting rage against reason as his plans come to fruition. Hisoka's single-minded devotion to his own bloodlust destroys the Spiders' initial plans, setting the final leg of the arc in motion. His plan to destroy their plans hinges on Chrollo's deductive prowess, just as Kurapika's later plans unwittingly hinge on lady Spider Pakunoda's well-hidden warmth. And then there's Chrollo, whose hubristic conviction that his underlings share his beliefs proves his undoing. It's a move that wouldn't be out of place in a Greek tragedy.
After all of that darkness and complexity it's rather nice that the series opts next for bright, straightforward adventure. Greed Island is a game after all, so Gon and Killua's escapades there are orders of magnitude less intricate and intense. Which is, after the strangling we've just subjected our armrests to, just what the doctor ordered. The opening episodes are spent in carefree exploration of Greed Island's properties and rules. Gon and Killua learn about the island's card system—in which cards allow players to store items, animals, and spells in special books, to be brought out when there's a use for them. They chase monsters, face off against inept (or perhaps deviously effective?) bandits, and generally run around having fun.
When things do get rough, as they must, they happen upon an unlikely new teacher and thus adventure segues into training. All of which might sound a little uninspiring if not, again, for Togashi's deft hand with plot and character. Greed Island is a chance for a brand new cast of characters, and Togashi obliges with a veritable slew of new and interesting players. Chief among them Biscuit, the pig-tailed girl who becomes Gon and Killua's martial-arts master. She's a fifty-year-old lady in bouncy little-girl guise, as apt to wax scary as crack a joke. There is also an entire guild of strength-in-numbers weaklings, a vile (vile, vile, vile!) player-killer villain, and a PE-themed border guard who may (or may not) be a friend of Gon's pop.
Togashi keeps the training interesting by anchoring Biscuit's lessons in surprisingly sound logic, applying the show's Nen energy as real martial artists very likely would if given such powers. He does something similar with Greed Island's rules and in-game objectives too. The way that Greed Island's restrictions unintentionally give birth to homicidal gaming strategies will strike a chord in anyone who's seen the devilishly inventive ways that players work around video game rules. Greed Island may find the show in lighter territory, but Togashi isn't letting his writing slip because of it.
This far into the show, Madhouse and director Hiroshi Koujina's stylistic approach is pretty well set. They aren't out to wow us, to dazzle or impress. The show's visuals are designed only to deliver Togashi's story, without distracting from it or getting in its way. Koujina's focus is less on the technical skill of his animation and more on keeping the plot flowing, the tension ratcheting, the adventure loping along. Keeping each episode cohesive and each sequence cogent—their meaning clear, their implications intact. It's a strategy perhaps epitomized by the first stage of Kurapika's bid to rescue Gon and Killua. It plays out without music, without backgrounds, without much in the way of fluid motion, and yet its throat-constricting power is utterly undeniable. That's the show's philosophy at work: get out of Togashi's way and his story will do the rest.
(Tension via silence, by the way, is the score's hallmark in the later Phantom Troupe episodes, along with some impressively atmospheric themes; Greed Island, on the other hand, is more mundane in its scoring, though without the bludgeoning repetition that sometimes marred Koujina's earlier use of background music.)
Naturally, Greed Island can't remain a carefree refuge of gaming fun and Gon-and-Killua power-ups forever. And already in these episodes we can see something big and ugly and dangerous brewing. Greed Island's players are splitting into factions, all of them set on clearing the game, many looking to do so via theft and skullduggery, and at least one of them willing to kill in staggering numbers while doing so. How Gon, Killua and Biscuit will fit into the evolving picture should be a pleasure to watch. Which is as good a way to describe the show at this point as any: not gorgeous, not great, not profound or hard-hitting, but yeah, definitely a pleasure to watch.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Kurapika's arc comes to a tense, intelligent end; Greed Island is more fun than you'd expect.
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