There’s this strange trope in shonen anime which is the exemplification of the idealised protagonist, stretching out to what seems like a constrained metamorphosis of power fantasy which as the times tend to change, becomes much more cliche and convoluted to the point of outmost ridiculousness. Out of the mess of subjects of grand prophecies, and insurmountable power levels, a new kind of shounen trope came to be, and changed the entire scope of shonen anime as we know it. We touched on the subject a couple of months ago in my My Hero Academia review, and the existence of such great stories, has awoken in me my new favourite kind of anime, the likes of which makes previous generic comtemporary series such as Bleach and Fairy Tail completely mundane in my eyes. This, by any means, does not go to say that I don’t like generic power fantasies here and there; the escapist quality of such great shows shaped a generation of anime lovers, and it’s normal for me to genuinely enjoy such story structure, but the kind of fantasy that shows like MHA and MP100 present changed my life forever, and instead of watching anime to escape the triviality of reality, I now see them as characters and stories that I strive towards. They’re not just ideals of badassery and escapism, but just people whose stories and emotions run parallel to my own. I love GOKU..so much, but I could never resonate with him as a character. He was an idealistic hero resembling classic greek heroes of myth and just a character you can just watch and enjoy without actually finding yours and his journeys intertwine. Along came Deku, from MHA. What I love most about Deku, is that his feelings and emotions were so similar to my own, especially because I watched and rewatched the entire series at a very low, painful and emotional period in my life. I could talk at length about his character but this is not about him or MHA, but I’m here to talk about an anime that is equally as important to me as the air I breathe, and if you read the title of the post, then you know what I’m talking about: Hunter X Hunter (2011)!
Now, the world of Hunter X Hunter is vast and has remained evergreen in anime so many years after its conclusion. In order to truly define the scale and point of its appeal as one of the best long running shonen anime ever made, I’d have to break it down into… components, if you will. Let’s get started!
The most defining aspect of a great story is echoed in its main character. The protagonist is the driving force of the story, and the core motivator through which the audience experiences the story. If your protagonist is weak as character, no matter how great and fleshed out your story and world is; said story will fail. What sets Gon Freecs apart from his counterparts is, first and foremost, in his goal(I know, but bare with me). The most common and basic aspect of any shonen anime is arguably the main character’s goal. Usually, a main character’s goal is usually his narrative identifier, therefore, usually something that seems far reaching and fundamentally unattainable by normal means.
In One Piece, Luffy wants to find a mystical treasure that may or may not exist; Goku wants to be the strongest in the universe, be damned the fact that the universe is esssentially infinite, and Naruto wants to be Hokage, an honour bestowed upon only the most elite and respected ninja in his village. These aren’t bad goals by any means, in fact, it’s exciting to invest oneself in these stories, but the sheer scale of their depth, makes it feel like these aren’t goals, but ideas. The idea of One Piece as the greatest treasure of all time is fundamentally ambiguous, as it could suggest that the treasure is the gift of great friends, adventure, and the ability to overcome any obstacle that comes your way; all aspects that we see depicted in the show. Being the greatest in the universe emphasises the state of your being, and depicts the power in yourself to become the best person you can be. In contrast, Gon’s goal is merely to find become a hunter so he could find his father. I was emotionally engaged in his character from the onset, as the grounded nature of his appeal set the entire show apart from its contemporaries. Don’t get me wrong, Gon isn’t above the usual shonen protagonist. He’s also loveably innocent like Goku; he’s delightfully dimwitted like Luffy; and he’s annoyingly stubborn, like Naruto. What makes him different, however, isn’t who he is as a character, but how he’at the mercy of the world around him, and how that world has an effect on him. This makes him feel real and no matter how strong he gets, it reminds us that he’s still just a child, as he is partial to the darkness that is created in him by the harsh realities of the world. It becomes clear, that he is just a small part of a larger world, and that he’s essentially powerless to solve all his problems as effectively and morally as he would like. This shatters the myth of the general shonen protagonist and frees Gon from the cultural consciousness sense which has become the gold standard by which the normal shonen protagonist is based.
There’s a beauty in the cyninal, annihilistic nature of a good antagonist. With such an overabundance of stagnant narrative driven heroic counterparts, a villain, well written, can appeal to the darkest parts of our subconscious and can elevate a story. Let’s take a look at my favourite villain the series: Hisoka!
For the most part, Hisoka is a masterfully written and beautifully drawn character, and what makes him special, is not that he’s a narrative driven villain, but a morally ambiguous non-trivial character. He doesn’t have any grand aspirations; he doesn’t want money, or to take over the world. He just wants to find the most powerful nen-user; someone worthy of killing, and test the extent of his own abilities. He’s nihilistic and nuanced in such a way that he becomes sort of unpredictable and fantastic to watch. His obsession with getting stronger and fighting a strong opponent is a grounded reverse reflection of Gon trying to better himself and his skills in order to find his father. Both characters are subjective counterparts, trying to form their own identities in the world. This develops a kind of weird relationship between the two, with Hisoka going out of his way to help Gon survive and grow in order for him to one day become strong enough to fight and kill. Like, is that good writing or what!??
Another one of my favourite villains in the show is the overpowered, yet ever-so-endearing Meruem. He’s the main threat in the final arc of the story, and considering how his character is originally perceived and built up to this point of the story, his is not the story of a guy with a tragic backstory trying to create some semi-justified imbalance in the world, but is the simple idea of someone who was born for a purpose and knows nothing else, but what he is told. At first, he seems shockingly abhorent and inhuman, but as the arc goes on, we begin to see the little details of his character, as a result of not only being born in a world he doesn’t understand, but one he doesn’t identify with. It becomes clear that his constant and obsessive need for being the best at everything stems from his lack of identity. He was born at the cost of his mother’s life, therefore, unlike everyone else around him, he doesn’t have a name to call his own. It was only revealed later that his mother gave him the name, Meruem, on her dying breath, which means, “the light that illuminates all!“. This series has many antagonist who feel real and nuanced in such a way that they’re not just stock template plot devices that exist merely for the protagonists to look more heroic, but people with their own lives, who live in spite of our heroes. Among these villains are the Phantom Troupe, a gang of mercenaries who live outside the law and are made up of some of the most powerful nen-users in the world; the king’s Royal Guard, and some of the chimera ants.
The Power System:
There’s this annoying shonen trope in anime, called the “Power Creep”. This is the insatiable power boost afforded to to characters in shonen anime, which stands as a way to increase the stakes of a show, and its characters. Initially, this was one of the best things ever; first introduced in Dragon Ball Z, which was known as the Super Saiyan in the Frieza saga, which became synonymous with shonen anime. Overtime, this element of story became overdone and essentially a bad plot device which bordered on sheer ridiculousness and bad character growth. When HXH first came to be, it followed a standard system of hand to hand combat and well-defined technical and emotional narrative-based combat. It was well-established and grounded the show to a realistic interpretation of pushing the limitations of characters and their capabilities. However, Yoshihiro Togashi, the series manga-ka, took note of this growing problem, and develops one of the best power systems in anime history, known as the Nen System. Nen is a technique that allows a living being to use and manipulate their own life energy, known as aura, and one can create a great variety of para-psychological abilities through Nen depending on their aura type. The different kinds of aura type are mainly: Enhancers, Manipulators, Tranmuters, Conjurers, Emitters, and Specialists. All people of one aura type are generally of the same personality type, so the amount of aura a person has, does not necessitate their strength in a fight.
The power of Nen is versatile and so vast a system, where people are born with the affinity of one aura type, and the calibur of what someone can do is virtually limitless, and combatically unpredictable. In addition, you can set conditions which determine how powerful your Nen can be, which means anyone can be very ridiculously overpowered, by merely finding the most optimal way to use their abilities. This prevents the usual power creeps in anime and makes every character powerfully diverse, and the fight scenes immensely rewarding!
Finally, I’d like to end this off with a fantastic element in the show, which is the animation by Studio Madhouse. The animation in the show is amazingly consistent, so much so, that no two shots are artistically different, and the art is consistent from every angle. The world of HXH is even more fascinating when viewed through the sheer scope of its stellar art style. HXH is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’d really like to see more of Togashi’s work, or merely Togashi-inspired works in the future.
The Geek Writer.