I confess that when I first picked up Hunter x Hunter, I didn’t really get it. High school me was able to enjoy the fights and cheer on Gon and have fun with it the way I would say, Naruto. I got through Greed Island while sitting in the corner of my local Barnes and Noble and revisited the series when Togashi restarted the Chimera Ant arc, but something didn’t click. It was fun, but I was only able to grasp how cool the series was. I understood that something was missing on my end, but I couldn’t figure out what.
All stories want the audience to understand their heart. I never put this feeling into words until I read the visual novel Umineko no Naku Koro Ni, in which one of the characters, Will, routinely speaks of “the heart.” According to Will, “the heart” encompasses the rationale behind characters’ actions, and how that shapes the story as a whole. It doesn’t have to do with how flashy the fights are or how cool the one-liners are, but rather the mettle of the story. In my first encounter of Hunter x Hunter, I’d failed to understand the heart of the series. I didn’t understand – why couldn’t the characters be logical? Most importantly, what happened to the cheerful Gon that I knew at the start of the series?
While Hunter x Hunter has four primary characters: Gon, Killua, Leorio, and Kurapika, most of the time we follow Gon. It’s Gon who introduces us to the concept of Hunters and who we follow on his journey through Togashi’s massive world. Hunter x Hunter wraps its heart up in the traditional shonen model, so we follow Gon as he makes friends, encounters enemies, suffers setbacks, and trains to get stronger as he follows his dream. It’s the typical hero’s journey of shonen series, which should ultimately end up with Gon triumphing, having finally achieved his dream and getting all the recognition he deserves for his hard work. Maybe he’ll save the world in the meantime, but that’s a bonus for the friendships he forges.
Gon starts out with talent, a dream, and the willingness to succeed. He’s young but not incapable, as he has the ability to take care of himself and the mettle to one day he a good Hunter. He’s kind, compassionate, and is able to move the most unlikely people to, if not believe in him, then at the very least sympathize with him and become intrigued in the way he does things. Gon’s age isn’t a barrier as much as it is a point of amazement for many surrounding him. He makes friends fairly easily and gets his Hunter’s License in the first arc. Taking all this into account, Gon begins strong. He may not have reached that point of ideal strength, but he has almost everything else on the checklist. Unlike heroes like Luffy or Deku who start out disadvantaged, Gon is off to a great start. Too strong a start, almost.
It’s easy to forget when you’re lost in the swirl of shonen heroes with similar ideals that heroism is rare. People don’t always work for the greater good. The belief that everyone should be happy doesn’t always align with reality. Shonen heroes are exemplary, with their ability to pick themselves up and forge forward no matter the cost – to keep their dreams shining and never turn away. It’s easy to forget that people fall along the way. When people fail, they don’t turn around right away. Sometimes they go backwards. Gon continues searching for his father, becomes closer with Killua, and meets interesting people. He reunites with Kite, his mentor figure who helped Gon on his journey to become a hunter – and then that’s all snatched away.
Plucky Gon from the first arc hasn’t experienced a deep, bone-crushing loss that upturns his entire world. But that changes. Gon finds out that Kite is dead, in a world where for the most part, death is irreversible. Most heroes would be paralyzed and maybe regret their decisions. Not Gon, who breaks down. When Killua tries to reassure him, Gon coldly brushes him off. He takes a hostage in exchange for fixing Kite. When the truth hits, misery consumes him, and in exchange for power, he turns into a monster. At the end of the Chimera Ant arc, Gon doesn’t emerge as the beaten hero, but as a shadow of his old self. He has become the antithesis of a hero. Luckily, the show doesn’t end on that note. Killua makes a miracle happen and saves Gon. Gon recovers and is able to meet his father and complete his journey, but not without taking a severe step back.
Gon’s heroic journey is one in reverse. He starts out optimistic and surrounded by friends, and ends up half-dead and alone. His friends haven’t abandoned him, but he pushed them away for the sake of revenge. For most shonen protagonists, who take friendship as a form of strength, this is unheard of. It’s not a question of the morality of the situation, or whether you agree or disagree with Gon’s choices. What makes it so impactful is the fact that this reversal isn’t unrealistic. Gon’s reaction is truly human, much moreso than a hero. Standing by your morals is hard to do while under extreme duress. It’s not fun to admit, but the ability to retain all parts of yourself when encountering trauma is a talent that most shonen takes for granted. To take a step back, to temporarily betray your ideals in the whirlwind of fury – that’s more human than hero.
Togashi’s writing routinely champions humanity, with all its strengths and flaws. Heroism is rare, and it’s harder to be a hero shouldering the burden of a dream than to be human. Hunter x Hunter and Gon delivers a frank point – it’s not easy. But the series is also not a dismal one, for it radiates hope in the middle of chaos. Gon doesn’t remain lost, but comes back to live on. There are handfuls of heroes that fit the plucky, determined, shonen ideal. There are far fewer that allow their characters to be human, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Thus lies the true heart of Hunter x Hunter, and the unique journey it portrays: the struggles of being human.