It's August, which means it's time for yet another Old-School Month! This time we're going to kick things off with an old-school Shonen Jump favorite that somehow is still running, even today!
HUNTER X HUNTER (Hanta Hanta), by Yoshihiro Togashi. First published in 1998 and first published in North America in 2005.
Gon wants nothing more in the world than to become a Hunter. To be a Hunter means to seek the wildest, most exotic, most profitable, and most magical things in the entire world, and the Hunters who discover them can gain fame and wealth beyond their dreams. Gon, meanwhile, simply wants the chance to follow in his father's footsteps.
Simply getting to the first Hunter examination site is an adventure onto itself, but Gon manages that with ease thanks to the help of his new friends Kurapika and Leorio. The next step for them is to survive the Hunter tests, and sometimes the applicants are more dangerous than the tests themselves.
Even by the standards of shonen manga, Hunter x Hunter has an almost ludicrously simple, even vague premise. Yet somehow Togashi manages to craft it into something truly memorable and more substantial than its parts would be alone.
While the very concept of the Hunter is vague, it's also brilliant in its narrative flexibility. Most shonen series are about some kid who wants to be the very best [insert profession here] there ever was, so why not make that goal be a license to basically explore the world and do whatever you want? Right from the start, Togashi made it so that he can take this story in literally any direction he wants and have it still be on-topic. He will never want for plot material because virtually anything could become the plot! I almost have to stand up and salute him for such a clever move.
It's a good thing he gave himself such flexibility because so far Hunter x Hunter is not a terribly personality-driven one. Gon's a good kid, but he's not a terribly complex one. He's something of a naturalist savant, able to detect all sorts of sights and smells that others cannot. Still, he's an incredibly focused young boy, quick to learn and good with people, so already he's got a bit of edge over your average blockheaded shonen lead. Kurapika and Leorio aren't much more complex than Gon, but they do have tragic motivations of their own (even if Leorio tries to hide his behind a smartmouthed, greedy facade). They make good foils for Gon and the trio feel like a team almost instantly.
Of course, friend and foe alike are dwarfed by the size and the danger of the world around them. Right from the start, Togashi establishes that this is a world where danger could be lurking in any woody spot, usually in the form of something big and furry with many nasty, pointy bits. He also establishes that survival relies just as much on endurance and luck as it does on skill and strength, which means the outcomes are a little bit less predictable than usual. The world here perhaps is not quite as fanciful as we would see in later Shonen Jump works like One Piece or Toriko, but there's more than enough here to stimulate the imagination.
All of these elements on their own would be fine if not all that impressive. What makes them (and Hunter x Hunter as a whole) work so well is that they're put together in a way that highlights all their strengths: simple yet endearing characters to get attached to right away, exotic locales full of crazy beasts, and a premise loaded with promise and freedom. Togashi weaves them together in a fashion that makes them feel just as fresh now as they would have back in 1998.
Togashi's art is much like his writing: simple, but elegant in its efficiency and slightly off-beat charm. The character designs here are slender and straightforward for the most part, although some of the less scrupulous Hunter candidates can get rather wacky looking. He does a great job at capturing the scale and wonder of Gon's world. The backgrounds are beautiful, vast, and more than a little bit dangerous, be they a churning ocean, a misty wasteland, or a sprawling cityscape. Yet even at his most expansive, Togashi tends to keep things fairly compact. Even the biggest spread only covers half of a couple of pages. As such, he keeps the visual nonsense to a minimum and every action is rendered in a clean, crisp, and easy-to-follow fashion.
Hunter x Hunter feels unique amongst old-school shonen series. It doesn't aim for the moon in either story or tone, but instead takes a lot of elementary elements and skillfully assembles them into an attractive and intriguing whole right from the start. It's a feat that was remarkable then and remains so even now.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 34 volumes available. 33 have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available digitally.