After learning that his father is not only alive, but also a prestigious Hunter, Gon Freaks becomes determined to follow in his footsteps. At age 12, Gon leaves his home in order to take part in the Hunter Exam, a rigorous assessment of skill and stamina where even making it to the next exam is a test in itself. Together with the friends he makes along the way- hot-headed Leorio, logical Kurapica and youthful assassin Killua- Gon becomes determined to meet all the challenges that come his way, and prove himself capable of becoming a true Hunter.
There comes a time in the life of any Shounen Jump reader when you start to realise that it’s all beginning to feel a bit worn out. Training, powering up, extended fights- after 1080 chapters of repeating the same cycle over and over, it can all start to wear a little thin after a while. Fortunately, Hunter X Hunter is a refreshing change from the norm, “action done right”, if you will, that keeps the core elements of an action series but adjusts them to great effect.
Much of HxH’s strength lies in its pacing; where other series have been known to take the DBZ route of stretching out fights to the point where a single chapter may entirely consist of a pair of men grunting and posturing (aka ‘powering up’), HxH always moves the story along quickly. Admittedly, the latter arcs cover many more chapters than the earlier one, but this only seems to reflect the amount of characters and plot threads they contain- individual fights are always remarkably brief. Similarly, training is also handled swiftly (whilst remaining free of stupidly large jumps in power level for three days spent swinging a sword), whilst tournaments are kept to a minimum. Perhaps even more amazingly, characters are allowed to die (often in quite gory ways) rather than miraculously surviving or ending up in comas.
When it comes to characters, the average SJ series usually sticks to an entirely standard offering: the spiky-haired, pure-hearted and incredibly strong hero; the rival anti-hero obsessed with the futile task of becoming stronger than the hero; the useless female friend and assorted cheerleaders; and of course the succession of progressively stronger villains who eventually realise the error of their ways and turn to the side of good. Once again, however, HxH chooses to be different- Gon may be spiky-haired, pure-hearted and loaded with fighting potential, but instead of being arrogant, stupid or ridiculously overpowered, he is a likable character who has to work as hard as anyone else to attain mastery of his skills. Anti-heroes are neglected in favour of good friends who may well be equal or superior to Gon in ability, whilst cheerleaders are absent- the cast is extensive, but anyone who appears near the battlefield is there to fight. Similarly, antagonists are more complex than generic faces of evil, and are more likely to escape or get killed off than suddenly change their ways.
That’s not to say that HxH is without its flaws, the most obvious of these being in the series’ infamously inconsistent artwork. At the best of times, HxH’s artwork has a certain rough charm, but thanks to the purported health problems of the mangaka, a number of the latter chapters are barely more than scribbles. Added to other minor quibbles such as the overextended cast and often hard-to-swallow special abilities of the more recent arcs, and the overall impression is of a great series now in slow and unfortunate decline, a mighty warrior beset by the infirmities of old age, who may even die before the story is fully told.
At its best, Hunter X Hunter is a dose of straightforward fun, filled with likable characters whose adventures are refreshingly different from the SJ norm. Unfortunately, the variable artwork does adversely affect enjoyment, but on the whole this is one series worth investigating.
Extra: Plot Summary- Spoilers ahead
Hunter Exam Arc
The first arc, and still my favourite, this was the intro that proved that HxH was going to be more than a run-of-the-mill Shounen Jump series. Divided into several phases, each more difficult than the last, HxH dispensed with tedious training and powering-up in favour of a more complex and absorbing storyline- even the obligatory tournament was mercifully brief. The manga is extremely fast-paced during this arc, but the anime slows things down to great effect, even adding an extra story between the third and fourth exams.
When Killua returns home after failing the Hunter exam, Gon, Kurapica and Leorio decide to go after him, with just one catch- Killua’s family home is the estate of a famous family of assassins. A relatively brief arc, this marks the beginning of training segments in HxH, but they are briefer and less unrealistic than the average SJ training arc.
Sky Tower/Celestial Arena Arc
From this arc onwards, Leorio and Kurapica take a backseat in favour of Gon and Killua, who head to the Sky Tower arenas to test their combat skills. The arc marks the first appearance of ‘Nen’, HxH’s version of life energy/chakra/ki, which can be used in various ways to enhance fighting ability. As an arc purely focused on arena battles and the introduction of Nen, it isn’t terribly exciting, but happily nor does it last too long.
The last arc to feature Kurapica and Leorio, this part of the story centres on the yearly auctions at Yorkshin and the Phantom Brigade that killed Kurapica’s tribe. Whilst Gon and Killua attempt to earn enough money to buy a copy of the Greed Island video game (an important clue to finding Gon’s father), Kurapica begins orchestrating his plans for vengeance. This arc does a drag on a touch and ends a bit anticlimactically, but it also features some interesting characters.
Greed Island Arc
The best arc in the latter part of HxH, Greed Island sees Gon and Killua taken inside the videogame of the same name. Although there is no sign of Gon’s father, the two boys begin playing and refining their skills in this real world RPG, with the help of Nen master Biske. This is the last arc to have been animated.
Chimera Ants Arc
At the end of the anime, it seemed as if Gon had finally found his father, but as we find out in this arc, the person he actually met was none other than the Kaito, the very man that set him off on his quest to become a Hunter in the first place. Thus begins the Chimera Ants arc, in which a terrifying race of giant ants start absorbing the appearance and abilities of humans and animals in a quest to create their own kingdom. This rather lengthy arc remains unfinished to this day, and is less satisfying than its predecessors due to a rather diluted focus and no small number of new characters.