Yesterday I talked about Kumagawa Misogi from Medaka Box, and my personal thoughts on why he’s an excellent character and why I relate to him so much. Today I’ll be discussing another Jump series, one which has had almost as big an effect on me as Medaka Box in 2017 – Hunter x Hunter.
This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.
Although Hunter x Hunter is not as overtly meta as Medaka Box, there are still some key elements to Hunter x Hunter that are “meta” since they criticise the shounen genre that Jump is the king of. Most of it’s arcs present in some way a criticism of the shounen genre, leading all the way up to a final rejection of shounen tropes themselves.
Since I’m going to be talking about most of the arcs in the series in detail, there will be spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t watched the anime. I won’t be talking about the latest developments in the manga during the Dark Continent arc, so don’t worry if you’re an anime-only viewer.
Dormant evil and the Hunter Exam
I have had many conversations with many people who express shock at the amount of adult content in manga supposedly aimed at young boys, including with my mother when I first started to get into anime at the age of 12.
If we compare the media aimed at this demographic in the west – Star Wars, Marvel series etc – to shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, we can see the differences in cultural conceptions of what’s acceptable to show for kids. It’s also a case of the shounen genre being quite wide in terms of actual age and therefore relative maturity, much wider than the genre in the west. Whereas it’s easy to segment media according to age ratings, with the 12, 15 and 18 ratings in the UK clearly showing the targeted audiences for any given piece of media (mainly TV and film).
However, the lack of such ratings in Japan as well as the fact that despite shounen technically meaning “young boy”, the actual shounen genre’s demographic age range goes all the way from 12 to 18, thus making pinning down any particular standard of what’s “acceptable” for the demographic in Japan even harder.
Hunter x Hunter relishes and toys with this lack of standards. It starts off as a fairly standard battle manga with the Hunter Exam arc, with simplistic characters and storytelling. We are introduced to Gon Freecss, our main character, whose characterisation is very deliberately typical of the genre. He’s a happy-go-lucky main character with a goal that will most likely shape the events of the story, finding his father. The viewers infer from this the general course of the story by drawing on their previous experience with media and tropes, which would be exploited later in the story.
Furthermore, the fact that Gon is a young boy of 11 at the start of the series was a deliberate decision by Togashi. By placing his character at the lower end of the demographic, instead of making him maybe 15 or 16, which would be more fitting consider the mature direction the story takes, Togashi is able to engage with the lower end of the demographic – both in order to get them to read and support the manga, but also in order to keep them engaged long enough for the story to develop in the mature direction it does.
Conversely, older sections of the shounen demographic may turn their nose up at the manga, since Gon seems like a relatively typical shounen main character, and therefore may form low expectations which then Togashi can easily overcome in order to draw both success for the manga but also attention for himself as an artist.
But Gon’s characterisation also hints at a darker darkness beneath his happy-go-lucky, typical shounen characterisation. His moral compass from the beginning is shown to be rather different from what we usually consider an 11-year-old boy’s to be normally. Despite Killua openly saying that he is an assassin and has killed many people because of that, Gon shows no qualms in becoming his friend. Furthemore, despite the Hunter Exam constantly being shown to be very brutal in nature, with characters clearly dying because of it, and even because of Gon and his friends’ actions, Gon himself is not fazed in the slightest.
These subtle elements in his initial characterisation clearly show that his moral compass is very different from the norm. Most children, even though selfish, do possess some element of good and evil as taught to them by society and parental figures. Yet because Gon does not go to school, living on an island with no other children his age, growing up without his mother and the knowledge that his father abandoned him for more important matters, his upbringing was very different to many other children and therefore his sense of morality developed very differently. I’ll talk more about Gon and his function in Togashi’s critique of Jump conventions later, but for now I wanted to lay the foundations for my analysis of his characterisation.
Finally, Hisoka’s presence is one of the first major obvious signs that Togashi isn’t simply satisfied with sticking to the Jump status quo. Far more than being just brutal, sadistic, homoerotic and possibly paedophilic clown, Hisoka’s motivations are the true scary part about his role in the Hunter Exam arc. Most shounen villains are pretty clear-cut, with goals and backstories (usually elaborated in lengthy flashbacks) that back up their evil actions.
Hisoka, however, has no clear goals beyond simply enjoying killing – and even this goal isn’t a majorly important one for him, as shown when he lets Gon live and pass the exam. There is something terrifying about the unknown, and Hisoka is perfectly terrifying because of this. He is the true joker of Hunter x Hunter – a role which he grows into more as the series progresses – and his terror is the first initial taste we have of the darkness lurking under the surface of Hunter x Hunter.
Heaven’s Arena and the beginning of the end
The Heaven’s Arena arc is the first sign of a larger narrative change that would become more apparent as the series goes on. This change would come to define Hunter x Hunter in the eyes of fans and critics alike – it’s shift from goal-oriented narrative to character-driven narrative.
Following the Zoldyck Family arc, which is essentially just an epilogue for the Hunter Exam arc and therefore not really substantial enough to examine in much detail, we are introduced to the Heaven’s Arena. This large colosseum-esque building which literally stretches up to the heavens is home to the world’s fiercest fighters, who battle each other on each floor in a bid to advance up the arena tower, earning money and glory as they go. Once the upper floors have been reached however, money stops being given as a reward to participants, and instead combatants only participate for glory. They battle Floor Masters in an attempt to become a Floor Master themselves, which gives them an apartment in the arena itself as well as prestige. More importantly however, is the fact that only Floor Masters can participate in Battle Olympia, a tournament that pits all of the Floor Masters together in order to find the strongest warrior, who is then essentially the champion of Heaven’s Arena.
In any other shounen manga, the goal of beating Heaven’s Arena and taking part in the Battle Olympia would make up the core of the arc, yet Hunter x Hunter takes a different approach. It instead places the Gon and Killua’s desires to become stronger, as well as Gon’s desire to beat Hisoka after being humiliated by him at the forefront. It’s not unusual within shounen to have character motivations within these plot structures – if we look at the pioneer of the tournament arc, Dragon Ball, Goku and Krillin’s desire to get stronger is much the same as Hunter x Hunter matches up perfectly with Gon and Killua’s desires, who participate in a tournament-like structure that Dragon Ball first made use of.
However, what is important to note is that once Gon and Killua’s motivations for participating in Heaven’s Arena have been fulfilled, with having learned Nen and having become much stronger, and with Gon defeating Hisoka, the two actually leave, having not become Floor Masters or challenged Battle Olympia. Therefore, the suggested structure of the arc has been subverted by character motivation. Despite spending so much time explaining the structure of Heaven’s Arena, Togashi chose to allow character motivation drive where the story went, and therefore the plot advanced without a true triumph over Heaven’s Arena.
Obviously, at this moment in the story, Hunter x Hunter did not shift completely to character-focused storytelling, since it did rely on the plot structures at least part of the way, up until character motivations when were fulfilled. Furthermore, the early progress of the arc was clearly engineered in such a way so that Gon and Killua, and therefore the viewer, would be introduced to Nen. The sudden emergence of Nen and Hisoka as a Nen-user also signals this overriding narrative need over character motivations. However, once these narrative goals necessary to advance the plot were out of the way, character motivations took forefront and allowed the arc to progress in the way it did. In this sense, although once again subtle, we can see the emergence of a trend in Hunter x Hunter that rejects plot-driven narrative and promotes character-driven narrative in the Heaven’s Arena arc – a trend that would be further strengthened in the next arc.
Kurapika and the development of motivation
Kurapika’s shining moment (so far), the Yorknew City arc, is another example of this half-fulfilled plot structure narrative development that Togashi used in the previous arc.
From the onset, Kurapika’s characterisation and motivations are focused on the Phantom Troupe. He trains his Nen powers, takes the Hunter Exam and works tirelessly to avenge the massacre of his clan by the Troupe. It was also obvious from the beginning that eventually we were going to see a clash between Kurapika and the Troupe, since the series spent so much time explaining his backstory.
Yet not everything in the Yorknew City arc goes Kurapika’s way. He is able to successfully infiltrate the Nostrade family as a bodyguard, thus allowing him to travel to Yorknew City where the Troupe are rumoured to strike at an annual mafia-run auction. Even though Kurapika is able to kill Uvogin and seal Chrollo’s Nen, throughout this his motivations change because of the events of the arc. He realises that killing all of the members of the Troupe is unnecessary as without Chrollo, their leader, they would not be as strong as before and would not be able to commit another tragedy on the same level as the massacre of Kurapika’s clan. Also, Gon’s incessant criticism of Kurapika’s ultimate goal of killing all of the troupe does sway him slightly, as he had lost himself to his rage and sadness when he parted ways with the rest of the characters. Togashi here is challenging the notion of goal-driven characters, as Kurapika, despite having a strong goal, is swayed by circumstances and changes because of events in the narrative.
In effect, the Yorknew City arc continues the trend set by the Heaven’s Arena of subverting narrative expectation with character motivation. If we look back at the Hunter Exam also, we can see that it is during this arc that the darkness which had been lurking underneath the surface of Hunter x Hunter finally comes to the forefront. This arc is relentlessly dark, tackling issues of loss, grief, solitude as well as moral issues such as the righteousness of revenge, and challenges our conceptions of the antagonists through the brilliantly human characterisation of the Troupe as a broken family, who mourn their dead and have their own honour.
When compared to the Yorknew City arc, the Greed Island arc seems to take a step back to the established shounen plot-driven narrative, since it is mainly focused on and determined by the narrative structure of beating the game – it is the Chimera Ant arc that takes the work done by the other arcs to move the story to a fully naturalistic direction and develops it further.
Chimera Ants and remoulding
During the Chimera Ant arc we see the fruits of this slow move towards a character-driven, more naturalistic narrative.
Focus shifts from just Gon and Killua, and we start to see events from different character perspectives. A large part of the beginning of the arc is centered around the Chimera Ant Queen, her motivations and actions, and then the development of Colt and the other human-based Ants. It takes a while for our main characters and the Ants to even meet, and when they do it is clear what is at stake for each side – extinction. We begin to understand not just the emotions of our main characters, but also the antagonists, which allows us to appreciate both sides better.
Even so, the main character’s motivations are still very much at the forefront of this arc. Gon wants to follow in Kite’s footsteps since his father respected him, and then later in the arc acts out of a sense of regret for Kite’s fate. His confiding in Kite as a father figure also allows the type of breakdown he has to occur in a realistic and naturalistic way, since we can clearly see his thoughts and motivations at play. Killua accompanies Gon during this arc since he has formed a strong friendship with him, but ultimately doesn’t develop the same kind of connection with Kite, which affects his actions later in the arc – namely that he can’t bring himself to stop Gon’s breakdown, despite knowing something bad will happen, which further accentuates his guilt.
As we can see, these main character motivations shape the course of the action and the arc. Without Gon’s connection to Kite, his character development would not have occurred in the way it did, and without Killua’s guilt surrounding Gon, he would not have allowed such a development to occur, since he would have accompanied Gon. Subsequently, since the motivations are so potent during this arc, they intersect and block the progression of the overall narrative goal – defeat the Ants – and eventually become the overall narrative once the Ants’ role as “antagonists” is thoroughly dismantled.
Togashi clearly took great pleasure in this arc in subverting our expectations as to the nature of the “villains”. The antagonists do not “lose” in a traditional sense of the word – it’s more like they didn’t gain as much as the humans did thanks to the outcome of the arc, since they lost their King, many of their numbers, and didn’t take over the world. But they continue to live their lives – a conclusion that contradicts the initial narrative end goal of destroy the Ants for our protagonists.
Even before the conclusion, many of the antagonists lose their antagonistic elements, and therefore begin to break out of their narrative roles, such as Mereum and Welfin. We begin to see the villains’ points of view, who are acting out of the same sense of self-preservation that the humans are. Through this, Togashi dismantles the antagonists’ status as antagonists – discarding the overall focus of a shounen arc entirely, and remoulding them into the naturalistic narrative.
Overall, the way that Togashi slowly shifted the narrative of Hunter x Hunter from a plot-driven one to a character-driven, more naturalistic one doesn’t seem to be an accident. The ultimate goal of Hunter x Hunter’s narrative progression seems to be one of refuting the genre and criticising other shounen series.
Firstly, by slowly changing the plot, Togashi can play with our expectations and go on to subvert them. The choice to start the series off with an arc like the Hunter Exam arc and not with the Chimera Ant arc – which could have been entirely possible – makes us form expectations based on our previous experiences with shounen series and the tropes within it, allowing Togashi to subvert them in the first place. Hunter x Hunter could have worked as a naturalist story from the beginning – but it’s not just about that. By placing Hunter x Hunter within the shounen genre, Togashi is able to create something that both transcends the genre and its tropes as well as criticise them both.
Secondly, the way that Togashi purposefully creates plot structures, such as the Heaven’s Arena’s floor progression and Kurapika’s goal of killing all of the Phantom Troupe, and then goes out of his way to blatantly ignore them seems to have more point to it than many people give it credit for. By subverting these structures that many other series may rely on and taking advantage of, Hunter x Hunter draws our attention to the laziness of such tactics and subsequently draws attention to it’s own unique character-driven narrative. Yet, Togashi’s aims aren’t all negative. By playing around with tropes and oft-employed narrative structures, Togashi demonstrates to his peers that there are ways to be creative in the shounen genre, and ways to innovate in a magazine such as Weekly Shounen Jump, which has a history as long as the genre itself.
In this sense, Hunter x Hunter seems to be the anti-Jump Jump series. It’s subversion through subtle narrative shifts and disregard for the narrative structures created within it offer at the same time both innovation and criticism for the genre. This duality to the series’ subversion is why I get so excited about the series, and especially because Hunter x Hunter is so popular and beloved within the genre precisely because of it’s subversion – meaning that people are listening to it’s criticism whilst simultaneously enjoying it.
What’s even more exciting is thinking about how the shounen genre will change once the generation who have grown up appreciating Hunter x Hunter grow up to become mangakas and critics – it’s at that point that we’ll be able to see whether or not Togashi’s criticism of the genre has proven effective or not. It takes a certain type of genius and courage to situate such a genre-critical series within a medium so dependent on genre, and within a magazine that helped create so many of those genre tropes. This one goes out to you, Togashi.
I have to give credit to Aleczandxr and his excellent video for many of my ideas concerning Gon and his characterisation, but I do respectfully disagree with his conception that Gon’s characterisation is natural due to his childish nature. I attribute Gon’s moral development more to his unusual and flawed upbringing. But it’s a very good video nonetheless.
After writing this I stumbled across this good overview on why Hunter x Hunter is a deconstruction of the genre also.
Enjoy the post? Disagree with it? Let me know down in the comments or via Twitter. Tomorrow I’ll be exploring another manga that has already left it’s mark on history, with a legacy spanning almost fifty years…