“Being able to cry for his companion. I was thinking you couldn’t cry, nor did you have a heart. But in that case why… even a little… don’t you share that feeling… with all the people you kill!“
The 2011 anime Hunter x Hunter is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It’s got kickass fights, a rich story, and, most importantly, an unforgettable cast of characters. There are so many that deserve their own write-up, from best boy Kurapika to my favorite genderfluid cat Neferpitou, but I thought I’d start with the main protagonist, Gon Freecss. He’s the archetypical spiky-haired Shonen hero: upbeat, strong, full of grit and determination. But he’s also got a dark side – he can be reckless, selfish, and willing to destroy lives in his quest for power. He’s an antihero, and one of the most adorable, badass, and terrifying characters in all of anime.
Gon’s journey starts off in typical Shonen anime fashion: he’s an ordinary boy who leaves his country home on a quest become a Pokémon Master… er, Hunter! He quickly earns his title and makes some fantastic friends along the way: the enigmatic Kurapika, the lovable goofball Leorio, and most importantly, Killua. The gang’s adventures take them all over the world of Hunter x Hunter, meeting more colorful characters and fighting deadly villains. Gon’s relentless optimism leaves an impact on everyone he meets, and it seems like he and Killua are just going to be happy gay boys forever.
But as the series goes on, we start to learn that this kid is not all right. He doesn’t seem to understand right and wrong, often only acting according to his own personal interests. His intense passion and refusal to quit put him in reckless and life-threatening situations, usually forcing poor Killua to bail him out. Most disturbingly, Gon (who, by the way, is eleven years old), doesn’t seem to care about the value of human life. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it means destroying someone else’s – or his own – life in the process.
This is apparent as early as the first arc, where Gon watches hundreds of people die in the Hunter Exam with barely a shrug, but almost dies himself when he stubbornly refuses to give up against a much stronger opponent in the tournament. It’s badass, for sure – Gon is defiant, even with the tip of Hanzo’s sword piercing into his bloody forehead. But if his enemy had been less merciful, Hunter x Hunter would have ended at episode 19. How would his Aunt Mito have felt, losing the closest thing she had to a son with nothing more than a quick letter home?
As Gon becomes stronger, learning the mystic art of Nen and battling more powerful enemies, his actions become more impulsive and morally grey. He’s willing to hurt innocent people or let an unapologetic serial killer go free, if it helps him accomplish his goals. Gon judges people completely in the moment, based mostly on whether they are useful to him or not. He’s actually a great foil to his rival, Hisoka – both characters live to fight, and will do anything to acquire more power.
This leads to the climax of the series, the Chimera Ant Arc. Here, Gon and Killua face an existential threat – not just the monstrous Chimera Ants, but the loss of their own humanity. The endless fighting takes its toll on Gon, and he starts to lash out at his friends while trying desperately to keep a smile on his face. Killua tries everything to help his friend, but Gon acts oblivious to Killua’s feelings and the sacrifices he’s made.
And then, Gon loses Kite. Kite was Gon’s sensei, and more of a father than Ging. And Gon loses it all in one swipe from Neferpitou. It’s the first time Gon experiences grief, and his fragile mind can’t handle it. During the final battle between the Hunters and the Chimera Ants, Gon gives up everything for pointless vengeance. First, he basically tells Killua to go fuck off. Then he threatens to murder the blind child Komugi to get Pitou to take him to Kite’s corpse. Finally, he gives up his own life, using up all the Nen he will ever have to grow to a monstrous size and brutally murder Pitou.
Gon is a difficult character to understand. How can such a sweet boy be capable of such horrible things? (Besides the fact that, ya know, this is anime and not real.) I’m not sure what was going on in manga author Yoshihiro Togashi’s brain when he concocted this crazy story, but I think Gon’s story is all about trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, and the painful realities of growing up.
One of the first things I noticed when first watching Hunter x Hunter is that its society is almost entirely centered around fighting. Hunters are ranked hierarchically based on their fighting prowess, and being good at fighting gives you the ability to do, well, whatever you want, really. Because of this, there is constant pressure to be the best, and heroes and villains alike will constantly sabotage each other to get ahead. It’s a cruel and unfair society, but I’d argue it’s not that different from our own.
Gon enters this world as a child who hadn’t known anything beyond seas of Whale Island. He sees Ging as his role model, a guy who abandoned his only child to pursue his own selfish goals. Being a kid with limitless energy and an adaptable mind, Gon strives to catch up with those on top of the food chain. But he’s still too young to fully comprehend the consequences of his actions, and his views on morality are skewed by the fact that he had no real friendships until meeting Killua and company. Gon has a lot of amazing adventures, but he also learns that the world is often cruel and indifferent to his suffering. It’s a harsh lesson, even moreso for a troubled child who just wants to prove himself.
Fortunately for Gon, his story arc doesn’t end in tragedy. Sure, he needs help from Killua’s seemingly omnipotent sister Alluka, but the end of Hunter x Hunter 2011 brings Gon back to life and face to face with his father for the first time. Although the manga continues after this, Gon’s journey ends here. He can’t use Nen anymore, so he goes back home to see Aunt Mito and do two years worth of missing homework.
And honestly, I’m fine with that. I think Gon’s character arc is fantastic – he goes through every stage of the classic Hero’s Journey, from the call to adventure to his (somewhat literal) death and rebirth. Even though Gon is a flawed hero, he has a lot more depth than a lot of people give him credit for. Plus, he’s adorable and he can punch really hard, so that’s cool.