Hunter x Hunter is a 1999 anime series that ran for 62 episodes, along with a handful of OVAs, directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, produced by Nippon Animation, and based on the manga of the same name by Yoshihiro Togashi. It tells the story of 12-year-old Gon Freecs, as he journeys to find Ging, his father. That’s as specific as I can go, because throughout Hunter x Hunter, Gon and his best friend Killua go on some strange adventures, only loosely connected by said premise.
On the production side, the 62 episode TV series is very impressive. The colors are muted but feel natural, and the backgrounds and designs are very detailed. The fights, which are actually pretty rare, baring some sections, are lavishly animated. Very fluid, weighty, and fast paced. Norio Matsumoto was even brought in for some of them, which was a huge treat as both a sakuga fan and someone who grew up loving Matsumoto’s work on Naruto.
Musically, the series contains a large variety of interesting tracks, many of which are understated and serve more as atmosphere pieces rather than pop-fodder. Often times, scenes will be lacking in music, or have songs that are scarce and uncomfortable; in a good way.
The director clearly tried to lean on the psychological and eerie side of the original manga, and it works to great effect. The aforementioned style of the music adds a lot to that, but the color design, gritty art style and occasional moments of complete psychological analysis are the key to that feeling. The thriller-esque atmosphere is at its peak during the “Yorknew City” arc, in which the series most closely resembles a supernatural, but grounded, crime thriller.
The first OVA, Spider, keeps up a lot of those aesthetic strengths. It does use darker colors, and has basically no fights, but it’s still a strong visual product. The music and sound design is very similar, so it can be watched pretty seamlessly after the series.
The next two OVAs, Greed Island and Greed Island Final, are a huge step down in every way, aesthetically. The colors are now strange and unfitting, the actual animation has gone down to Powerpoint level, and the music is changed to generic anime tunes. The most painful aspect of the visuals would be the fights, which have devolved into stills with static backgrounds that look like they were pulled out of the 70s.
The world of Hunter x Hunter is imaginative and expansive, but it is defined more by its detail and realism than its vastness. Hunter x Hunter is an almost dryly serious look at a shonen world. The characters are deeply psychologically affected by the weird shit in the world they live in, systems are put in place that logically make sense as a result of the strange places and powers that exist, and the fights are based purely on strategy. Until one fight, very near the end of the whole series, the main character, Gon, is hopelessly outmatched by all his opponents. He wins because he’s a prodigy, and can outsmart his enemies. Killua is the perfect foil for Gon, as he is a force of brute strength, who can take down beasts with one well timed punch to the gut.
Even then, the Hunter world is terrifying, and even by the end of the series, neither of the two protagonists are even close to some of the people lurking in the shadows. Gon’s rival, Hisoka, is miles beyond even Killua in brute strength, and surpassed Gon in mind and determination the day he was born.
The culmination of Hunter x Hunter’s realism is Nen, the mystical force that the characters use. Instead of just being magic for the sake of it, Nen is a meticulously detailed system with sub-categories within the established types, different ways to employ it within your own body and even a full explanation of how it affects the body and how to start using it. Togashi has a deep love of not just shonen manga, but also the human psyche and economics, which shines through fully in Hunter x Hunter.
The expansiveness and eeriness of the Hunter world creates an underlying sense of fear in the viewer as the series goes on. We don’t know what’s out there, and neither do our protagonists, and what we do know is far more than they can handle. This sense of fear is perpetuated by the aesthetic design I described earlier, which, combined, leads to a thick atmosphere that acts as this 1999 series’ strongest point.
The actual characters in Hunter x Hunter are genuine, likeable, natural and developed. Gon is a classic shonen hero, which, in a realistic world, is as much a good thing as it is a flaw. A character flaw, rather than a narrative one, of course, as Gon’s childish nature and reckless abandon leads to as much success as it does failure, which makes Gon a far more interesting character than his predecessors. Killua was raised as an assassin, and, because of that, he starts the series very reserved and spiteful towards the world around him. He has a clearly loving and silly center, but that is often held back because of his past. Upon meeting Gon, he slowly learns to want friendship and to love people, while Gon learns to grow up a little. Gon and Killua’s friendship ends up being one of the most heartfelt, natural and realistic relationships in anime, and I would go as far as to say that their friendship is the lynchpin of the entire Hunter x Hunter multimedia franchise, through both anime adaptations and the manga. The characterization is quite strong as well, with Gon and Killua being very clearly defined within a few episodes, and many of the side characters being memorable, most notably, Kurapika, Leorio, Tonpa and Biscuit.
However, the cast truly shines with the antagonists. The aforementioned Hisoka has the most defined personality in the whole show, and I was thoroughly entertained whenever he was on screen. The way he pushes Gon to greater heights, while he remains a both threatening and silly figure is very unique. Killua’s older brother, Illumi, is absolutely horrifying, and his appearances lead to some of the most painful and crushing mental breakdowns and freakouts in the series. The Phantom Troupe, a group of terrorists that shows up near the end of the TV series, are particularly fun, with their leader, Chrollo, being a strange and interesting view on how group leadership really works. Of course, all of the nen abilities and strategies of these villains and side characters are very unique and fully fleshed out. My only complaint with the villains would be Genthru, a bomber that appears in the final arc, and is extremely disappointing as the final villain, considering he has basically no personality to speak of, and he isn’t that fun to watch fight, especially because the animation had already all but completely gone to shit at that point.
To get into some more narrative flaws, I felt that the pacing was pushing it a bit. While the slow pacing felt atmospheric at times, it also was flat out boring at others, mainly the final arc, where the atmosphere wasn’t really present, so that excuse doesn’t even work. The exposition could also go overboard at some points, with one character in particular feeling like a box that shoots info rather than a fleshed out human being.
While the conclusion to the TV series is lacking, the ending of the final OVA is quite satisfying. The main plot points are wrapped up well, though some loose ends and unfinished character arcs still remain. Despite that, it still has by far the most conclusive ending of any version of the Hunter x Hunterstory.
As a long time fan of Hunter x Hunter, going back to watch this original series was a decision I was skeptical about making, but it paid off in spades. The vibe and atmosphere of this 1999 classic makes it a very worthwhile watch, and if it had adapted the famed Chimera Ant story arc, and cleaned up the animation in the later OVAs, I’d vastly prefer it over the 2011 version, and it might even come close to the original manga.
Hunter x Hunter (1999) is a phenomenal shonen series, with a strong cast, a realistic world, strategic and clever fights, a thick atmosphere, fluid animation, great directing and a somewhat satisfying conclusion. It’s a journey you won’t soon forget.