If there is one mode of manga storytelling that has fully captivated audiences both domestic and abroad, it’s shonen. Primarily aimed at younger teenage audience, the shonen genre is a sprawling tapestry of power fantasy, rules-based combat and young men maturing through fantastical adventures. It’s a formula that was popularised through Toriyama’s peerless Dragon Ball, and has been repackaged and rehashed in all shapes and sizes.
Hunter x Hunter, Yoshihiro Togashi’s long-running magnum opus is on the surface a standard shonen story. Each story arc focuses on a well worn trope such as a training story or a series of arena battles, things that Togashi has covered before in YuYuHakusho. But where Hunter x Hunter differs is in the way that it takes these formulas and breaks them apart in interesting ways before returning to its shonen roots. It does not deviate out of necessity or shame, but out of a desire to constantly invent. At its core, it is a story about the grey morality of the world, and how right and wrong are defined by relationships between people.
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Gon and Hisoka
Binaries are at the core of Hunter x Hunter. It might seem asinine to say that characters are defined by their relationships to other characters, but Togashi is especially accomplished in the way he uses the differences and similarities between characters to dig into their personal philosophies and morals, and how thin the lines that delineate good and evil in HxH’s world are.
The primary binary is the two main protagonists: Gon and Killua. Gon is the shonen poster boy — young, plucky, irrepressible, spiky hair — he’s Son Goku without a tail. He is seemingly nothing but good natured, and depending on your preferences as viewer his indefatigable attitude can be charming or intolerable. Killua is cool and collected, the youngest son in a family of assassins, he’s drawn to Gon’s natural charisma and irrepressible nature, and a friendly rivalry is the bedrock of their relationship.
What separates Gon from most other shonen protagonists is his skewed moral compass. Gon is entirely selfish in his desire to better himself through seeking challenges, and his morality is completely stunted. Instead of weighing up the consequences for his actions, he only seems to care if he will feel bad if he harms people — he is totally naive.
Togashi contrasts him effortlessly with Hisoka, a psychopathic Clown and apex of hedonism. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, no matter the damage it does to himself or others. Hisoka first appears early in the Hunter Exam — a series of complex challenges designed to test the ability of wannabe Hunters — announcing his arrival when he cuts off the arms of a man who bumps into him simply because it makes him feel good to hurt people. Despite the differences between Gon and Hisoka, the two find themselves inextricably drawn to each other. They appear to be opposites, right down to Hisoka’s appearance as a scary clown — the mortal enemy of pre-pubescents everywhere — but as the show continues their differences blur into similarity.
Their desire to better themselves through combat is nothing unique to HxH, but most shonen tend to shy away from so blatantly highlighting the problematic stance of their main characters. It’s not hard to imagine a small misstep in Gon’s life pushing him into a position similar to Hisoka’s, and Togashi hammers this home in a few ways.
In the Heaven’s Arena arc Hisoka fights a battle where his opponent underestimates him. To prove his superiority, Hisoka sacrifices an arm to gain the upper hand, and satisfy his desire to dominate his foe. Later, in the Greed Island arc, Gon mirrors Hisoka’s sacrifice against the murderous villain Genthru. He risks abandoning a carefully thought out plan by weathering an explosive attack from Genthru which results in him losing an arm for little reason beyond a desire to prove his superiority.
Of Ants and Men
Togashi followed the Greed Island arc with one of the most infamous story arcs in shonen history. The Chimera Ant arc is a sort of homage to Dragon Ball Z’s Cell Saga. The titular ants are human-sized beings that are born with the genetic traits of the creatures their queen ate whilst they were gestating, creating an Island of Doctor Moreau-style affair where mashed-up creatures run wild on a continent where technology is banned, feasting and slaughtering humans with abandon.
For a shonen, the horror factor is cranked up to uncomfortable levels as uncanny creatures murder, capture and eat swathes of the populace to give their Queen the energy to birth the Royal Guard and the Ant’s King — the impossibly powerful Meruem. Despite its setup as another arc that requires our heroes to train to defeat a tough foe, the defeat of a close friend sends Gon spiralling down a darker path whilst Meruem finds himself in combat not with a team of martial artists, but his own existence.
Togashi uses the Chimera Ants themselves to reveal things not just about the characters involved, but about humanity more broadly. Meruem is programmed to attain perfection, to be a “True King,” something that his Royal Guard facilitate by bringing him the best players of various games — from Chess to Go — for him to play against, learn from, and defeat. It isn’t until he encounters Komugi, the blind, snotty and sublimely naïve Gungi player that he finds some reason to exist beyond his genetic programming.
The delicate way that Togashi introduces the corrupting idea of feelings, philosophies and ideologies into the Chimera Ant society is fascinating. Characters become undone not through combat, but through coming to terms with ideas such as pride, paranoia and self-identity.
Meruem spends much of the series frustrated with his life, and begins to doubt his worthiness as he fails to beat a clearly inferior being. His frustration with his lot unexpectedly starts to manifest itself as affection for Komugi. Losing to her sparks not irritation, but feelings of respect, friendship and affection, which is seen as irrational by Meruem’s handlers and cuts to the core of the human experience — one of contradictions and irrationality fueled by emotional response.
Poor Man’s Rose
The climax of the Chimera Ant arc takes place as Meruem and Netero — the chairman of the Hunter Association — battle to decide the fate of humanity. Like Gon and Hisoka, Netero is a character who puts martial prowess above all else. His battle with Meruem is not just a battle between powerful characters, it also represents the opposing ideologies of Humanity and the Ants. Meruem is convinced of his superiority, but falters at the idea entirely destroying humans as he has found respect for them not just through Komugi, but through Netero’s determination.
Unsurprisingly for a shonen, the good guys lose their battle here as the unstoppable Meruem slowly picks apart Netero, forcing him to lose an arm and a leg. Before he finishes Netero, he delivers a monologue about theories of evolution, and how humanity has stagnated due to its inability to evolve beyond its current state. Netero’s answer to this is as definitive as it as terrible: he ends his life and detonates the Poor Man’s Rose — a dirty bomb that he had surgically implanted with him, taking both he and Meruem to a fiery grave.
Togashi here deploys nuclear imagery to contrast the ferocity of the ants with the lengths that humanity will go to in order to defend itself. Netero goes into battle knowing full well that his entire species is at stake. The irony of his victory is in the weapon itself — a dirty bomb used to terrorise and kill countless humans is the very tool that saves his race. Humanity leans on its irrationality and emotion that lead it to wage war on itself with horrific technology to aid in its victory over the ants.
Black and White
During the Chimera Ant arc, whilst the fate of the species is in the balance, Gon and Killua’s relationship also reaches its climax. Despite Killua’s seemingly alien position to the audience as a young assassin from the notorious Zoldyck family, he quickly becomes a far easier reference point than Gon. He starts to see nuance in situations where Gon only sees his own naïve sense of Good and Bad. Killua saves Gon from being killed by a Chimera Ant early in the arc as Gon throws himself into combat unprepared in order to get revenge for the death of a friend. Killua begins to understand the complex sense of justice and morality that the world of Hunter x Hunter operates on, and comes to worry about Gon’s single-minded, inflexible approach.
Late in the arc, Gon finally gets his shot at revenge and at this point his personality has almost entirely flipped. As Gon vows to kill the innocent bystander Komugi to get a shot at the ant who killed his friend, Killua is only concerned with ensuring his friend’s safety — a far cry from the cold blooded killer he starts out as.
Gon’s final act in the arc is by now one of the most notorious events in shonen manga. In order to gain revenge, he calls upon all of the potential energy he will ever have for a short bout of combat where he brutally kills his opponent without a shred of remorse. In doing so, he trades the rest of his life for one short moment of violence as Killua is unable to do anything but watch. It’s some of the most harrowing reading or watching in the genre, a perverse inversion of Goku’s Spirit Bomb. As Killua abandons his merciless past by forging a relationship with Gon, his friend abandons all of his humanity — becoming a monster in the process.
As with everything Togashi does in Hunter X Hunter, the resolution to the Chimera Ant is indisputably shonen. Everything resets to zero, but as is his way, not without its costs. Gon eventually bounces back, ready to face the challenge of the Dark Continent — something that Togashi is working through his illnesses to bring to readers — but not without a great sense of loss. The anime itself wonderfully captures this, capping off the series with a long montage of the characters’s whereabouts and occupations to the relentlessly upbeat “Departure!” By Masatoshi Oso.
After a whole series of binaries and juxtapositions, it feels fitting that such an optimistic song accompanies something that’s fairly rare in a shonen — characters moving on and leaving things behind, deeply marked by traumatic events. As Gon and Killua pass with each other and go their own ways, it feels like something significant has changed. It’s a departure in every sense of the word, and the lingering final shot of two opposing Gungi pieces overlapping each other fades away it feels impossible to reconcile the beginning of the show with the end. They’re black and white, and they mix to grey, complementing each other as much as they throw each other into sharp relief.