The Mike Toole Show
Night of the Hunter x Hunter
by Mike Toole,
A few years back, the 2011 version of Hunter x Hunter was appointment TV for me. I watched it every weekend (and later, every Tuesday), eager for its thrills, plot twists, and the fun chemistry between heroes Gon and Killua. Later, when it hit Netflix, the show became appointment TV for my nephew, who viscerally identified with the young protagonists and gobbled the whole thing up in big chunks. Now, it's appointment TV for the entire United States, with a slot on Toonami introducing the series – which stands alongside luminaries like One Piece and Naruto as one of Japan's most popular – to an entire new set of viewers.
Toonami's a good place for Hunter x Hunter. (And before I continue, I'll point out that this column has no major spoilers for the show on Toonami – just a few character details.) Fourteen years ago, damn near the same airtime slot was occupied by Yu Yu Hakusho, the series that launched Hunter x Hunter creator Yoshihiro Togashi's career into the stratosphere. Funimation were wise to pick that show up for adaptation – while not as strong as similar shonen fighting series Dragonball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho was similar in that it seemed to gain strength and momentum every time a new wave of viewers discovered it. It was a decade old when it hit American TV, but it still felt fresh.
I'm not just bringing up Yu Yu Hakusho to be all neat and chronological, but because I've been re-watching the show. I bailed on it somewhere in the 30s when I last watched it (on Toonami, natch), and with Funimation adding the whole thing to their streaming platform, I figured now would be a good time to get back into it. The first time around, I was caught up in the excitement of the premise, with resurrected high school hoodlum Yusuke Urameshi playing the role of spiritual detective, chasing down demons causing mischief in the human world. This broad hybrid of comedy, action, suspense, and horror was really snappy and fun at first, but then something changed: the squad of spirit detectives just couldn't stop getting roped into a succession of magical martial arts fighting tournaments.
In retrospect, it's easy to see why Togashi made that decision. Shonen manga about fighting is a perennial favorite, and pitting Yusuke and his pals against a nice, clear line of big baddies is less complicated than trying to figure out how to turn a hard-punching tough guy into a cerebral paranormal investigator. And so it turns out that Yusuke fights a quartet of demons in a creepy castle, then a dark tournament, then a grudge match against his spirit detective predecessor, then a fightin' tournament to decide the fate of the demon realm… you get the picture. It gets repetitive in the home stretch, and if you take a close look at the manga's later volumes, you'll notice that even Togashi seems to be getting bored – there's more detail in the backgrounds and side characters than the heroes! Maybe his assistant was the one getting bored.
Yusuke's a fun hero, but like most shonen heroes, there's something weirdly low-stakes about his trials and tribulations; the fact that he'll win out never seems to be in much doubt. But I'm not watching Yu Yu Hakusho through to see Yusuke, or his would-be girlfriend Keiko, or his dour demon buddies Hiei and Kurama, or even his spirit guide, the cheerfully pushy grim reaperette Botan but rather for Kazuma Kuwabara. Kuwabara's my absolute favorite example of the reformed delinquent, a kid who still gets in fistfights and wears a pompadour, even as he hustles off to cram school and courts a nice girlfriend. (Sure, he found her in the demon world and she's completely oblivious to his feelings for her, but who cares?!) If you want a modern-day analogue to Kuwabara, just look at Okuyasu from the current Jojo's Bizarre Adventure season – both characters have that bewitching, hilarious mixture of clueless bravado and earnest loyalty. There need to be more Kuwabaras out there, both in manga and in real life.
But even as Yu Yu Hakusho hewed towards formula, it became a monster hit, both an engine for licensed goods to enrich Shonen Jump and a launch pad for Togashi to fire off his next huge hit that would inevitably spawn an anime adaptation. I am speaking, of course, of Level E. Wait a minute, what the hell is Level E?!
When I was researching this column, I dialed the clock back to 2011, intent on figuring out why there was this entire series from the Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter x Hunter guy that nobody seemed to have discussed in any length, even though the TV anime version is still a relatively recent thing That winter 2011 preview guide gave Level E pretty high marks – but that was just for the first episode. The series, based on a decades-old 3-volume manga that bridged the gap between Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter x Hunter, turned out to be unlike Togashi's other hits—a comedy.
In the world of Level E, several alien species hide among the population of earth—known to each other, but not to humans. One particular alien is a handsome prince suffering from amnesia, who grandly reveals his secret to Tsutsui, a college kid who just wants the weirdo to get the hell out of his apartment. It quickly becomes apparent that the prince (whose name, tellingly, is Baka) has more in common with Bugs Bunny than Prince Charming, as he spends the entire 13-episode run relentlessly fucking with another, far more vindictive alien species, a squad of schoolkids forcibly made to become a super sentai team, and a visiting alien princess searching for a human mate.
The series draws its strength partially from turning beloved old tropes askew; most of the sentai kids hate their powers and resent the prince, and that alien princess turns out to be a monster whose mating ritual will wipe out the human race. Your enjoyment of Level E will hinge on how much you like the prince's shtick, as he pits characters against each other, refuses to leave when asked, and annoys the ostensible protagonists with endless barrages of bad jokes, musical numbers, and silly voices. There's diminishing returns in play, though, even as the series pivots hard a few times in a bid to stay interesting. My favorite part? Not the prince, but his high-strung, perpetually furious assistant, Craft, who openly fantasizes about murdering his obnoxious charge. Don't miss the Japanese version, featuring Takehito Koyasu as Takehito Koyasu as Takehito Koyasu as Craft!
Despite its relative obscurity, Level E was useful in that it gave Togashi some room to experiment before going back to another old formula: a bright, chipper, fresh-faced kid setting off for high adventure! In Hunter x Hunter's world, there's a specific career path for Adventure – you gotta pass a stressful, taxing, and dangerous exam to get your Hunter License. Once you have that license, the world is your oyster—you get access to the special job board for adventurers, trading marketplaces for rare treasures, and career postings at the most important and well-connected companies in the globe. You can even just turn around and sell your license to forgers for a huge payday. Our hero Gon doesn't do that, though, because that would've made for an awfully short series.
Gon is right there in the pantheon of shonen heroes next to Goku and Naruto and Monkey D. Luffy – brash, confident, friendly, and charmingly unaware of his own prowess and intelligence. He's got the whole absent-dad baggage too, which is his motivation for going for the Hunter Exam – his dad Ging is a famous hunter, who travels the world and is rarely seen. During the exam, Gon is joined by Killua (heartless assassin in training; when he's suddenly surrounded by people who care about him, his perspective starts to change! But he's still really good at murder.), Kurapika (the nerd of the group, a troubled, bookish young man who forgoes a long climb to power to take bloody revenge against the people who killed his family), and Leorio (the “big friend,” a dumb, loud, hapless older dude who nevertheless has the clearest, most specific goals – he wants to be a Hunter/Doctor), and bang, there's your core group.
Hunter x Hunter took off like a shot in 1998, and has barely lost momentum since then, despite a chain of long breaks in the manga's publication. I'd like to think that Togashi is just a championship vacationer and takes breaks to enjoy his success, but I know a little too much about how manga editorial practices work – the guy's probably in poor health, and it's obvious that he sweats hard over how he's going to advance his increasingly long-running, heavy story.
But why does Hunter x Hunter work so well? How come we've gotten not just a hit 2011 adaptation, but an earlier (and also successful) 1999 anime version, plus two feature films that have barely been seen in the west at all? I think I can answer that—some manga excel at one or two dramatic devices, or ride mostly on the weight of one really charismatic character. Fighting manga depend on the excitement of the one-on-one battles; sports manga emphasize competitiveness and dramatic tension. Hunter x Hunter works so well because it's kinda every single shonen manga genre at once; there's fighting, adventure, sports, horror, card battles, comedy, even gambling. The only thing missing is romance, which is fine, because Gon and Killua are kinda too young to date anyway.
Hunter x Hunter also works because Togashi never forgets his characters. Both heroes and villains are really fleshed out and interesting—the series' ostensible big-bad guy, a murdering clown named Hisoka, starts off really creepy (he gets sexually excited at the thought of fighting Gon to the death—gah!!), but he executes a couple of amazing face turns, briefly joining the good guys to fight greater adversaries before reminding Gon that the world is only big enough for one of them, and their showdown is coming. When Gon and company encounter the Phantom Troupe, the company of gangsters who killed Kurapika's clan, you end up rooting for the rogue's gallery, just to see them survive long enough to have bigger and better fights later. The crew's mentor figures include a cheerfully merciless gym instructor, a bubbly little girl who turns out to be one of the deadliest martial artists alive, and the stereotypical nutty old man, who Togashi fills out with real humor, pathos, and a sense of weary desperation, as their roles in the story grows later on.
I sometimes talk to my nephew about the series. We mainly argue about which story arc is the best one. He likes the Hunter Exam and Heaven's Arena arcs, which are the ones currently airing on Toonami. They're the most gentle and carefree parts of the series, depicting an excited kid as he finds his friends and goes out into the world. I'm a bit more partial to the later Greed Island arc, which introduces video game mechanics, card collecting, sports competitions, and a mad bomber into the mix. The consensus favorite amongst fans seems to be the long-running Chimera Ant arc, in which Gon and friends face an implacable enemy that wants to eat the human race; down the stretch, Hunter x Hunter certainly gets ambitious! Togashi has said that he really likes horror films, and his appreciation can be seen most obviously in this arc, with lots of spooky scenes and gruesome stuff. When I met Kazuhiro Furuhashi, the man who directed the 1999 Hunter x Hunter, he remembered the series fondly, but regretted never being able to adapt the Chimera Ant arc. He wanted to make it a little less brutal.
Now, we live in a world where you can be a Hunter x Hunter fan in real time—the TV series, despite having ended its run in Japan, is on American TV, and Togashi's started up the manga once again. At this point, I just want Togashi to be well and finish the series at his own pace, and to his own satisfaction. I just hope I'm still around to see it end! After all, Hunter x Hunter has been running for eighteen years. If the characters aged in real time, Gon would be 30 years old. At this point, the only missing pieces are some of the later Hunter x Hunter 1999 OVAs, which didn't make it to DVD, and the two feature films based on the newer anime—they've screened at a couple of film festivals, but that's it.
So that's why I'm glad Hunter x Hunter is out there for everyone to enjoy. Now let me pose this question: who's your favorite bad guy? All of the good guys in Hunter x Hunter are fine and cool characters, but think of the various killers, sociopaths, and henchmen! Are you watching on TV, and thrilling to the exploits of Hisoka, who casually kills the first guy to insult him in a really unsettling way? Do you like Gon and Killua's adversaries in the arena, or Killua's jerky family? Or do you look ahead at the Chimera Ant arc, and the world-beating adversary waiting there? Share your answer in the (no doubt spoiler-filled) comments
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