I want to apologize to myself for the long wait on my FAVORITE anime of all time – Hunter x Hunter (watched last year). This is without-a-doubt, one of the best shounen ever made. I thought long and hard how to convince others to watch it, but I think it serves others best to highlight why HxH is different and better than other classics of the genre.
When we think of shounen, we think of a relatable protagonist who undergoes a hero’s journey, defeating monsters as he “levels up”. In doing so, the viewer experiences vicariously his triumphs. I’ve seen variants of this classic weak->strong hero’s arc like: “strong-all-the-way”, “strong->weak” (tragedy), “weak-all-the-way”, “physically-weak-but-mentally-strong”, etc. but the story always has resolved around the protagonist’s power levels in comparison to the world he/she encounters. Thus, it may strike you as almost bohemian to view HxH as that shounen with the “irrelevant protagonist”.
You see, HxH is a “deconstruction” of the genre (similar to Evangelion and Madoka Magica, both of which I should write reviews on in the future). It takes a contrarian approach to a genre defined by a tried and true template. The protagonist is also not mentally strong like in thriller/crime/mystery anime who, despite appearing weak, has compensation in other ways by having e.g. genius deduction skills or psychic abilities. The protagonist is also not vulnerable to be relatable (the opposite becomes true near the end) like in My Hero Academia. He also doesn’t dream big. He is simply a 12-year-old boy who is… irrelevant!?
The show is best characterized by spontaneity and “fun” taken to chaotic extremes. The intention is for the random and irrelevant to become center-stage and relevant. Does it come as a surprise when I say the antagonists are even less ambitious than the protagonist? Rather than concocting up some evil plan against the hero, the main early antagonist is a clown pedophile whose most famous quote is, “Bungee Gum has the properties of both rubber and gum.” It’s a great gateway villain into the series, and when later antagonists do come with more backstory, they strike you as more relatable than those on the “righteous” side.
This brings us to the second characterization of the show – moral ambiguity. Hyori Ittai, the ED of the best arc in the series, means two sides of the same coin. This characterizes the show’s view towards good vs. evil, and any attempt to become partisan during the arc will backfire on you with devastating effect. Moral “whose-side-is-good” ambiguity is present in many great shounen (e.g. Naruto), but HxH complicates matters further by forming meaningful interactions between the two sides. In fact, this is the primary source of character development for both the protagonists and antagonists.
Perhaps what best drives home the permanent appeal of the show is our own character developments by the end. HxH can get extremely personal and be judged differently at different points of our lives. As such, HxH is often hated on by shallower viewers. If you watch anime for an escapade from reality or for its fast-paced eye candy, HxH may not be for you even though it has those elements. Ultimately, HxH has at its core an un-ignorable message that will change you and the choices you make in life.