I have an otaku confession: I’ve never seen Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece. I know, right? They all came out when I was in high school, and all the kids in my anime club were all over them. But I’ve never been a huge fan of Shonen anime. I enjoyed Dragon Ball as a kid and love Fullmetal Alchemist (both versions), but the huge episode length was always hard to get through, and many of the most famous series had a ton of unnecessary filler episodes. So when I got recommended Hunter x Hunter from a friend, and the first episode featured what looked like a green version of Kid Goku running around with an oversized fishing rod, I was a bit apprehensive that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all 148 episodes.
Well, I did, and my initial fears were totally wrong. Hunter x Hunter is amazing. And I really should watch Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. I’m sure they’re all great.
The thing is, it’s hard to convey what Hunter x Hunter is about to those who aren’t already familiar with the series. The premise is that it’s an action/adventure/fantasy series about a boy named Gon Freecss, who wants to join the Hunter Association (basically, a martial arts superhero agency with a lot of material and political influence) so he can meet his long lost father. But it goes so much deeper than that. Hunter x Hunter is a fantasy adventure story, a suspense-driven crime thriller, a gripping character drama, an existential musing on what makes us human, and a kick-ass action show. And it’s pure Shonen, which is part of what makes it so great.
See, the benefit of a show like Hunter x Hunter having so many episodes is that it can tell a wide variety of stories in an ever-expanding world. Every story arc is different from the last, with drastic changes in setting, characters, style, and tone. My favorite arcs are the Yorknew Arc, in which best boy Kurapika joins the Mafia to get revenge on an elite murder gang, and the Chimera Ant Arc, a 60-episode epic in which humanity must fight monstrous insect creatures for their own survival. The unpredictable plot twists prevent any arc from getting stale, and they all have a great cast of characters that I fell in love with almost instantly.
There’s so many characters that I’d love to talk about, but the bedrock of this series is the ride or die relationship between Gon and Killua. Gon is the archetypical Shonen hero – strong, optimistic, kind-hearted, a bit playful and mischevous – but also hotheaded and quick to run into dangerous situations without thinking. Killua, as a child runaway from a family assassins, is a cautious antihero longing for redemption. The two complement each other brilliantly – they bicker and argue, as friends of their age often do, but they have a genuine bond that makes them stronger together than they are apart. Gon inspires Killua to fight courageously for the sake of his friends, and Killua reigns in Gon’s more self-destructive impulses. And they both have some truly great moments together as they grow, become stronger, and learn how to survive in the dog-eat-dog world they live in without losing their humanity.
But the world of Hunter x Hunter is huge, and there are many other fascinating characters who get the spotlight. The enigmatic Kurapika gets an entire arc dedicated to his fall and redemption, and Leorio gets some stellar comedic and heartwarming moments towards the end of the series. There are loads of interesting side characters as well, some as well-developed as anyone in the main cast. The villains are some of the best in anime: they all have unique backgrounds and motivations, and often team up or fight each other to pursue their own goals. Sometimes, the series takes the focus off the main characters entirely and will devote entire episodes to its supporting cast, fleshing out the series world and making even the most seemingly insignificant of characters more dynamic and exciting.
It’s easy to nerd out about such a fascinating world and cast of characters, but the story is also fantastic, featuring tons of great moments and unpredictable plot twists. The thing that surprised me the most about this anime is how deceptively dark it is. It may not be as much of a gore-fest as Attack on Titan or as psychologically unnerving as Evangelion, but the later arcs of Hunter x Hunter are filled with dramatic stakes, moral ambiguity, and existential dread. The heroes don’t always win, and they don’t always do the right thing either. Even the most vile and depraved antagonists will have a sympathetic quality to them, making the viewer pause and wonder whether defeating them is truly justified.
The series tackles many heady themes – betrayal, revenge, war, genocide, even a fictional version of North Korea – not simply for plot advancement or shock value, but to illustrate how truly evil humans are capable of being, and how hard we must all strive to overcome those dark impulses. The most heartbreaking part is that, despite their superhuman strength and larger-than-life personas, the heroes of Hunter x Hunter are still just children, who sometimes have to overcome obstacles no child should ever have to deal with.
But despite all the convoluted plots and dark moments, Hunter x Hunter is still pure Shonen, and at the end of the day, it has a very Shonen worldview. All the stuff that makes series like My Hero Academia or Demon Slayer great is here too: it’s got tournament arcs and over the top action, but also a belief in perseverance, fighting spirit, and overcoming any obstacles the world may throw at you. In spite of the emotional gut punches this anime throws at the viewer, it still has a largely positive outlook on the world. Even the most terrible monsters are capable of redemption. Even when all hope seems lost, there is a way to succeed and thrive. I found watching Hunter x Hunter to be inspiring, and when that last episode ended, I couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed as the final notes of “Departure” rang out from my laptop speakers.
There’s still so much I could go on about what makes Hunter x Hunter so amazing. I haven’t even talked about the engrossing martial arts system, or the ways it showcases diverse sexual orientations and gender identities without using them for a stereotype or a cheap gag. If you haven’t seen Hunter x Hunter yet and you have even a passing interest in anime or animation as a whole, it’s worth it to check out. The first few episodes are fairly slow-paced, but the series just gets better and better the more you watch it. It’s full of action, adventure, great characters, and a lot of heart. I’m even considering reading all 300+ manga chapters, so maybe I’ll go back to writing about this enthralling franchise once I come back from the abyss.