In Defense of the 2011 Adaptation of Hunter x Hunter

As it currently stands, Hunter x Hunter is the 10th highest ranked anime on MyAnimeList, with a mean aggregate score of 9.04/10. Similarly, AniList has it just below at 8.90/10, which is enough for it to stand as the eighth highest rated show on the platform. No matter where you look, the 2011 Madhouse adaptation of Hunter x Hunter sits atop the charts – so why does it need defending?

There is a tendency among critics to push back against things that are deemed mainstream or popular, and make no mistake, there is a ton of valid criticism that can and has been leveled at this adaptation. However, oftentimes we can see an overcorrection. To combat the ludicrous hype and praise, we engage in criticism that is similarly overblown and exaggerated.

Further complicating the issue is that Hunter x Hunter 1999 exists. Beyond just existing, it’s a fantastically put-together anime. Throughout the ’90s, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable ability to engage the audience through a combination of fundamentally strong compositions, and creative techniques galore. As a cel anime – among the last of its kind even – there is an irreplaceable feeling associated with the hand-painted acetate and analog photography. In fairness, nostalgia may be a factor to an extent, but I do believe there is a genuine “craftier” feeling to it.

From the framing, rich colors, dense backgrounds, and even the animation to an extent – every aspect of this short scene is a feast for the eyes.

Perhaps more controversially, Furuhashi was quick to make changes to the story as he saw fit, going so far as to add entire episodes of original content. Nothing he added feels drastically out of place. However, simply by virtue of not being in the manga, the series is often dismissed as the “untrue” version of mangaka Yoshihiro Togashi’s story. This ends up forming an interesting dichotomy with the “too faithful” criticisms of its 2011 counterpart.

Returning to the production front, the anime was also fortunate enough to receive top of the line outsourcing, with the illustrious Production I.G. regularly showing up in the episode rotation, while elsewhere, long-time Furuhashi collaborator Akira Matsushima was brought along via Studio Jec. E. It was the latter in particular that was responsible for the majority of the standouts, including the crowning moment of the entire adaptation: Kurapika vs. Uvogin.

Visually, the 2011 adaptation could not be more different. The color palate and direction is much more sterile across the board. The frequent outsourcing is typically serviceable, but rarely more than that. The pacing can often suffer for long stretches at a time where the series feels somewhat akin to being on auto-pilot. The near constant deployment of the narrator in the Chimera Ant arc is a hotly debated topic. I could go on, but just a few of these reasons alone amount to the ’99 adaptation taking the cake in nearly any frame-to-frame comparison you could possibly make.

Often cited comparison image from an equally often cited blog post

None of these, however, are the most important difference between the two. That is, the 2011 adaptation encompasses 30+ volumes and stops at about as satisfying of a conclusion as it could possibly have. Conversely, the well-produced portion of Nippon Animation’s adaptation ends abruptly prior to the conclusion of the York New arc, with a handful of OVA’s pushing the story past Greed Island. Unfortunately, aside from failing to reach the fabled Chimera Ant arc (it had yet to be written), none of the OVA’s were directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, having long since moved on. In short, this left them somewhat creatively bankrupt, perhaps with the exception of the first, which holds its own fairly well.

To that end, there is inherent value in faithfully adapting one of the most universally beloved manga of all time. Yoshihiro Togashi crafted a timeless masterpiece, one which many will tell you is the best thing to have ever run in Shounen Jump magazine. His mere arrival to Twitter vaulted him to the position of highest followed Japanese mangaka, amassing more than two million followers in a matter of 72 hours. To say he is a beloved creator would be an understatement. So, for all the shortcomings of the Madhouse adaptation – most of which the casual anime-goer is unable to notice anyways (as well as with the small, unfortunate exception of omitting Kite’s introduction in the first episode), it goes the distance.

It is also worthwhile to point out the circumstances it was conceived under. Approaching bankruptcy after repeated risky investments, the renowned Studio Madhouse was obtained by broadcasting corporation Nippon TV in February of 2011. Previously holding 10.4% of the company’s shares, the 1 billion yen purchase skyrocketed Nippon TV’s shares to 85%, and gave them majority control of the studio. The politics of the takeover was associated with a difference in management perspective, and in combination with several other factors (Satoshi Kon’s untimely passing for example), we find a far less ambitious output from the studio in the years which followed. That then speaks to Hunter x Hunter’s place as a safe investment. From the very outset, the anime was never going to be a platform for major theatrics, with notable directors bending over backwards to transform the source material and flex their creative muscle (Not enough of the show was even made inside the studio for that to happen!). Instead, it had no choice but to rely on a modest team, with modest expectations.

Even despite that limitation, I would contend that there is plenty worth praising from an adaptation perspective. For as much criticism as its bland, every-day visual aesthetic receives, the anime is far from unwatchable on an episode-to-episode basis. Meanwhile, when the situation called for it, the staff were sometimes able to reach back for something extra. A contrast-heavy black and white style ended up becoming a staple throughout the production, perhaps as a remnant of Takeshi Koike’s Redline – a historic endeavor for the studio. Though, it was not until the later peaks of the Chimera Ant arc when the staff had really hit their stride that it totally assumed the visual identity of the anime.

Hidehiko Sawada’s animation on episode #47.

A number of young, talented key animators would also use the series as a springboard for their careers – namely, action animator aces Hidehiko Sawada and Yoshihiro Kanno. Tomoko Mori is also worthy of a mention as over time she developed into by far the strongest animation director in the rotation. These types of long running series are ideal environments to grow as an artist, since sticking with the same designs for multiple years leads to complete mastery over them, allowing for attention to spend honing other areas of the craft.

Yoshihiro Kanno was responsible for animating part of Meruem’s fight with Netero.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be a question of which version of Hunter x Hunter is “better”. They exist in two separate planes of historical relevance with only a relatively small amount of source material shared between them – a lot of which the 1999 version takes its own liberties with. Similar to the situation Fullmetal Alchemist finds itself in, both can be validated and enjoyed for their own reasons. If nothing else, fans can be united in their wishing for the health and wellbeing of Yoshihiro Togashi, and subsequently, the hope of a continuation to this story one day.

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