Battle Royale at Hogwarts: The Wide-Eyed Optimism And Ludicrous Violence Of ‘Hunter X Hunter’
Other than my deep and abiding affection for Sailor Moon and my more recent, in-at-the-ground-floor love of One Punch Man, quite possibly the best superhero comic on the market, I’m pretty notoriously late to the party when it comes to manga. It’s something that I’ve been trying to fix lately, diving back into a few older series as I try to catch up with the current stuff, and while there’s a ton of stuff that I love enough to shout about it to anyone who will listen, it also sometimes feels like I’m sitting down in 2016 to write a piece about this great song I just heard, “Gangnam Style.”
So forgive me if that’s the case here, but for real, do y’all know about Yoshihiro Togashi‘s Hunter X Hunter? Because even though it started in 1998, I’ve just been getting around to it over the past month, and it’s one of the most fun, ridiculous, and ludicrously violent comics I’ve ever read.
Admittedly, I have only read the first story arc, but since that introductory story takes place over four volumes worth of comics — all of which I picked up the last time Viz had one of its regular digital manga sales — I think it’s given me a pretty good feeling for how the series goes.
I picked it up because a friend of mine recommended it to me, specifically referring to Togashi’s earlier comic, Yu Yu Hakusho, as being “prime shonen” and then calling Hunter X Hunter “even more shonen than that.”
I figured I might as well skip to the high-octane stuff, and I can tell you that he was not wrong at all. Every basic, stereotypical idea about shonen manga is here in full force, from the twelve year-old hero with spiky hair who’s fueled by determination, to the fights that are won by clenching your fists and talking about friendship (and also occasionally hitting someone so hard that they explode), to a world where people just have extremely specific super-powers that require no explanation other than the fact that other people with different extremely specific super-powers also exist. And it’s great.
So here’s the plot. Our hero is a twelve year-old (of course) named Gon, who has never met his father. He wants to remedy that, but there’s a problem: His father is a Hunter, one of an elite and powerful group of individuals whose nominal purpose is hunting down dangerous magical beasts and criminals — hence the name — but who seem to have the extralegal authority and personal power to do pretty much anything they want. Some of them are treasure hunters, some of them explore and protect archaeological sites, and some of them just want to be able to do a whole bunch of murders, secure in the knowledge that their Hunter credentials will allow them to do so without fear of consequences.
The only way for Gon to be sure he can track down his father is for him to become a Hunter himself, and in order to do that, he has to go through a nearly impossible and incredibly lethal Hunter’s Exam, a test that plays out like Battle Royale at Hogwarts.
That’s the story arc that stretches over the first four volumes, test after test of wits and strength, and along the way, Gon finds a few friends: Kurapika, who’s seeking to avenge his family’s death, Leorio, an aspiring doctor who’s in it for the money, and Killua, a tween assassin runaway who can tear your heart out with his bare hands.
In other words, these first four volumes are like 800 pages of riddles and deathtraps that can only be beaten through the power of friendship. Also, there are skateboards. So basically, it’s a comic scientifically designed to appeal to me. I mean, there’s even a dude in there who is just straight up Shonen Manga The Joker.
But even so, the one element of the story that jumps out the most isn’t the friendship, the determination, or the cleverness of the traps that the heroes enter when they literally have to descend a D&D-esque tower full of riddles and monsters in the middle of the test, even though all of those are certainly on display. I’d go as far as saying that the single most evocative image of the story I’ve read so far is Gon, in the middle of a tournament battle with another aspiring Hunter, standing there with a broken arm yelling about how he’s never going to give up, even if the other guy cuts off his legs. The only way that could be more shonen is if they were having that same fight about some popular but non-combative sport, like swimming or basketball.
And even then, Hunter X Hunter has that covered.
But that’s not what really sticks out. No, that would be the violence. The ridiculous, mind-boggling, blood-soaked, over-the-top violence.
The Hunter Exam begins with over 400 applicants, and by the end of the story, that’s been whittled down to about ten. We don’t see every one of them meet their gruesome demise — and in all fairness, some of them drop out in non-violent ways, like during the 80-kilometer marathon that serves as the first test — but we get enough of it that it’s not just notable, but remarkable. People get their heads sliced in half and their throats cut with razor-sharp playing cards, or lured off into the swamps by man-eating monsters. And even when they don’t actually get killed, they still get punched really, really hard.
And like I said above, all of this is happening in the context of a giant-eyed twelve year-old, whose primary weapon is a fishing pole, who makes friends through his honesty and optimism. It’s pure adventure comics, except with people getting dismembered on every other page. It’s like Inglourious Basterds and Speed Racer fell in love and had a beautiful child that they did not raise properly.
It’s a lot of fun, full of clever setups and characters that, while simple to the point of almost seeming one-dimensional at times, still manage to be solid and entertaining based on their reaction to the increasingly strange, increasingly deadly events around them.
Also, there’s a guy who fights by literally juggling knives, and he’s barely even around long enough to call it a cameo.