Even as a long-time fan of dark action anime, few series have unexpectedly struck my emotions as Hunter x Hunter did. This seemingly benign anime and manga series by Yoshihiro Togashi of Yu Yu Hakusho fame has a reputation for surprising its viewers with sudden heartbreak and paralyzing philosophy that could even give Attack On Titan fans an existential crisis. Speaking personally, I began watching it on a friend’s recommendation for a fun action show, and a few months later found myself sobbing at two episodes in a row at the end of an emotionally devastating story arc.
But how did this happen? What makes this series about a boy on a grand adventure so different from its anime contemporaries? And why should you go watch or rewatch it IMMEDIATELY? I plan to put on my writer hat and find out why this series is so uniquely special. Because whether you’ve never heard of Hunter x Hunter or are very attached to it like I am, we can all learn a little bit about our place in the universe by diving into this deceptively cruel world that Togashi created.
(We’ll go light on spoilers. Don’t worry; I’m not a monster.)
Hunter x Hunter is special because it subverts the formula of shounen anime. While “Shounen” in Japanese literally refers to adolescent boys and their interests, the shounen anime genre is enjoyed across demographics. Its typical stories feature young people growing up into heroes who can face down evil and change the world and thus are loved by many for their inspirational and cathartic nature. Whether it’s Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, My Hero Academia, etc, they tend to follow an effective but formulaic plot structure: Characters start weak, train to grow strong, meet lovable side characters, topple a villain, then repeat with new training and tougher baddies. It’s a formula that works across seasons and series.
As anyone who has seen the show can tell you, Hunter x Hunter begins by following the shounen formula. But it will often swerve at the last minute into the unfamiliar and unsettling.
Some plot points are solved unceremoniously offscreen. Characters will abandon conflicts because it no longer serves their agenda. Our heroes might not defeat or even fight the big villains! The world moves at a frenetic pace as characters crash into the plot and each other, always dancing on the edge of danger. But those moments rarely linger or give catharsis. The world rushes on, making no promise to stick to the formula its story was built on.
Usually, in shounen anime, the heroes will lose, train, and then beat their big arc baddies with a power-up or new technique. Instead, in Hunter x Hunter, our young heroes are often forced to run away from villains without engaging. Because the world Togashi crafted is vast and vicious. Sometimes the best victory you can have against someone who can kill you with a wave of their hand is survival and escape.
Due to this, Hunter x Hunter is often called “subversive” because it pretends to follow a conventional shounen structure before flipping it on its head. But unlike Attack On Titan or other similarly dark shows, it will lead you back into the familiar whimsy and moments of triumph before suddenly striking your heart again, seemingly at random. Togashi knows the formula and how to twist it around to shock you. You’re only as safe as the characters in this world–which is to say, you very much are not.
Another way Togashi’s story throws off long-time shounen fans is how casually death occurs in the narrative. Sometimes a new character will be introduced and named as if they will serve some significance to the plot. They’ll monologue about protecting their loved ones or toppling evil. And then they’ll just…die. Because, of course they did. The villains are terrifying and monstrous. And so the tale goes on, leaving the viewer to remember their lives because the story will not.
And as depressing as that is, it almost feels more realistic. In real life, people don’t die to serve a greater narrative or perish to weaken a villain so a hero can finish the job. People die, and life goes on unflinching. Why would it be any different in a world where people can control electricity or create fireballs with haikus? There is a scary reality under the whimsy of Hunter x Hunter, that death can happen to anyone at any time. Heroes, villains, it doesn’t matter how important you are to the plot. Are you in the wrong place at the wrong time? Well, tough luck. There’s a lot more story to go, and maybe it’s just not yours anymore.
AND YET! Despite Hunter x Hunter’s casual portrayal of death, Togashi takes plenty of time to humanize his characters. Not just the heroes and civilians but even the villains of his twisted tale. While his antagonists are often vile and heartless murder machines, they also feel like people you’d want to hang out with. They’re the heroes of their own story.
In one of my favorite fight scenes in the series, a hulking antagonist is cheered on by his friends while he pulverizes a trio of other fighters. They’re playing cards on the sidelines and riffing over his battle, not afraid to take jabs at him because they have so much faith in his power. By the end, as he is covered in blood and organs, his friends laugh off his wounds and think about the next big score to settle together.
There are powerful themes of family, both found and biological, among the evilest monsters of the series. It makes a fascinating contrast when the heroes are hired hands for a morally nebulous Hunter Association. In a slightly different story, you could see yourself rooting for the charismatic group of thieves or the mutants discovering their humanity instead of the giant organization that aims to stamp them all out. And without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll leave you with a tease: Togashi is well aware of this, and there are moments when you will ask yourselves if our heroes are even the heroes anymore.
When reckoning with dark media, I often ask myself what I gained from it as a viewer. Did I learn or think about anything? Or was it just edgy and shocking without a point?
I adore Hunter x Hunter because it manages to be profound among the frequent deaths and hopeless battles. Not because there’s hope of ending the cycles of violence or changing the world. But because of the people in this story who still live their lives to the fullest. They laugh, dance, and change in unbelievable ways. Heartless assassins can become loyal friends. Murderous mutants can learn to love. And even if they perish before their time, you can’t tell me that their stories aren’t beautiful. In the cruel world of Hunter x Hunter, there is even more meaning to living a full and happy life. You find your peace in the chaos and let the story go on.
Well…what are you waiting for? Your adventure awaits!