So far. Oh, and nitpickery is spoilers. Real quick, the spoiler-free review.
Well, I really liked the first season. It was fun, dramatic, and had a story that only got more intense. Hunter X Hunter is the story of Gon Freecss, a twelve year old boy who dreams of becoming a Hunter, just like his long lost father. A hunter being someone who fights exotic monsters and discovers treasure. The trouble with becoming a hunter is that you have to survive a death-defying series of difficult tests, assuming you even made it to the testing location in the first place. Gon is joined by Kurapika, a "boy" trying to avenge the gruesome deaths of her people, and Leorio, a goofy guy intent on getting money. They are later joined by Killua, a young boy trying to escape his assassin family and do what he wants with his life.
Hunter X Hunter starts out very well, with a happy, fun tone that promises good times. However, after the first season, it starts having major tonal shifts every season, more or less becoming entirely different stories that happen to feature the same characters. It can be entertaining, but it's also exhausting to keep up with all the randomness in the plot. While this show has good characters and a great premise, its story is rather like being taken by the neck and shaken repeatedly.
Oh, and a quick note on the animation. It's not as expensive as other anime, and some people found fit to severely criticize it, particularly for not being up to modern standards of action animes. However, the lower quality animation never bothered me at all. If you're someone that cares, it might be a problem, but this anime looks perfectly fine. I appreciate the lack of obvious CGI, like lots of modern animes have. While I'm at it, the music is okay. Nothing mind-blowing, but nothing bad. Except for a time or two where for some reason there's a piece of music that sounds like a phone getting a text. Distracting.
Onward, into spoilers!
Like I said, season one was amazing. The four main characters have to deal with five different tests of their hunting, fighting, and survival abilities, all for the reward of becoming a hunter and gaining all the money and prestige that comes with. Slowly but surely the weaker candidates are picked off (some quite literally), while our heroes must not only survive the tests, but also sabotage from other candidates.
Honestly, there's no need to spoil the first season much. Nitpickery by its nature focuses primarily on negatives, as it's easier to describe why someone dislikes a thing, rather than explaining why they like it. Still, there are lots of positive things to say about the first season, so I'll try. The characters are very good, and the plot is very intense. In particular, the way Leorio's backstory comes out is brilliant.
As the tests are more or less a survival story, viewers can't help but try to imagine how they would get through those situations. The first three tests in particular were very creative. My favorite was the second one, which entailed hunting a giant pig monster, then cooking it for the judges to eat. What a great idea, especially in how it turned out.
What made this season dramatic was its obsession with character, making each one special in their own way. Even characters that appeared for only a short time were shown appreciation in one way or another. While some may feel like filler at times, none were boring outright. A good case of this is a prisoner who showed up in the third phase of the test. Despite being a character who very obviously had to lose for the main characters to move forward, the writers gave him a great backstory and disturbing appearance. Despite his short time on screen, this prisoner is very memorable. You'll know 'im when you see 'im. Or you won't, because there are many characters who get the same good treatment.
One character who is handled very well is the villain Hisoka. He's an evil clown guy who can throw cards that kill people. And when we're first introduced to him, he turns a guy's arms into flower petals, just for the fun of it. Hisoka has an obsession with Gon, and the viewer is left to anticipate just where this creepy obsession will go.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the anime is that Gon is not invincible. After watching things like Sword Art Online and Irregular at Magic High School, it's so nice to have a fallible protagonist who legitimately isn't good at everything. Despite being a great fighter, Gon sucks at math, and is too impulsive a lot of the time. And he doesn't win every fight he attempts. This alone makes the anime better than the nonsense I've been watching lately.
This arc slows down a bit towards the end of the first season, as the friends have to go to Killua's house to rescue him from his family, who are trying to manipulate him into being the assassin they want him to be. This part of the season doesn't quite work for me. Not only does it truncate the excitement of Gon getting his hunter's license, but it's not nearly as tense as it should be. Killua's family is supposed to be a gang of uber-tough assassin people, but they aren't as intimidating as they need to be.
For example, there's an adorable butler girl who works for the family. She, being young and still a child, is about to give in and let Gon and company walk in. She's then shot in the head by Killua's mother. Is the girl dead? Nope. She's just knocked out, because that's exactly how guns work. Granted, it's probably a stun-gun or something, but it takes away from the cruelty of the act for the girl to simply get up a few minutes later, with no apparent physical problems or implication of further punishment from Killua's mother.
But the real problem is that Gon, Kurapika, and Leorio struggle so much to get into Killua's house, only for Killua's father to decide, with no apparent reason, that it's okay for Killua to have friends and leave the house. His father assumes that Killua will just come back later.
Ooookay. Granted, the members of Killua's household are interesting. There's his mother with the robot face, his fat, computer-hog brother, his creepy little sister, and his older, insane brother. These are all strong characters. So despite the ending of the first season not being all that strong, I was still rolling with it. It was fun enough. Then the second season happened.
The second season was....eh. I skipped through most of it. Thing is, the first season of Hunter X Hunter always opened with talk of monsters and treasure. So you figure that the second season, when Gon gets his license, he'll be hunting and getting treasure. Instead, Gon and Killua leave Leorio and Kurapika to go train at a massive tower called Heaven Arena, where fighters duel for money, and the winners of the duels get to go up to higher floors. It's got over 200 floors for the world's best fighters, and the floors over 200 are especially difficult.
Thing is, there's no emotional attachment here. The people they fight mean nothing to Gon and Killua, and especially nothing to the audience. It's just a cheap way for Gon and Killua to train and get money. Yawn.
To make it worse, this is where the whole "nen" element is introduced. It's some weirdo philosophy (presumably not a real one) where fighters gain magical powers by controlling their own auras. Gon and Killua spend the whole season fighting and training in nen. They don't do anything else until the end of the season, where Gon finally gets clues to his father's location, which involves a game called Greed Island. The only break we get from the pointless fighting is when we briefly see Kurapika.....find out about nen and start learning it.
Besides the season being really, really boring, nen itself is a bit of a flawed element to bring into the story. It changes the whole scope of the show. Beforehand, all the fighting seemed more or less semi-realistic, as in all the moves were clearly based on real, though exaggerated upon, ideas. The whole idea of nen, or any similar philosophy, reduces the whole show to a magical fighting show. Magic in television has the common problem of having its rules changed for the convenience of the protagonists. While there are a few stories that keep their magical rules consistent, anime is replete with protagonists who overcome their problems through wishy-washy, emotional emphasis. The rules always bend for the protagonist who believes in himself enough.
Not to mention that adding something like nen to the story pushes this up into the magical fantasy realm, whereas before the story was an adventure story in tone. That tonal shift can be enough to dissuade some viewers, even if the second season isn't boring. The viewers came expecting one thing, only a different thing happened. Even a good or okay thing isn't so good if it's not what was expected.
Moreover, in season 3 and beyond, nen suddenly becomes really, really common. Thing is, it was never even slightly mentioned in the first season. It's retconned into Hisoka's arsenal, which is fine in itself because he's a mysterious character. But what of the rest? If the hunter status is so coveted, why then isn't nen highly coveted by the hunter-wannabes? Killua's family is retconned into having nen, but if that was the case before, why didn't they teach Killua about it? They've apparently been teaching Killua to kill since he was three, so surely they would have taught him nen if they could. Instead, Killua gets to be just as surprised by it as Gon is. Now, nen could work better as a concept if it were only one fighting style among many, or if it wasn't something that allowed people to conger items out of nothing and shoot purple dragons out of their hands. As is, it feels like a cheap addition to a world that didn't need it. This also signals the end of Gon using his fishing rod to fight, making him less unique.
Apparently there were some issues with the manga this show is based on, with lots of hiatuses and such. That probably explains a lot.
This issue will bother some people more than others. It bothered me a lot because I liked what the show was before its addition, and was looking forward to when Gon would actually get to the whole hunting thing. Instead, we have to wait most of a season for anything interesting to happen. Sure, it's nice that Gon gets a fight with Hisoka, but it's really just a placeholder until better things happen. And the viewer is left to wonder why Gon tries to go after some game, when he'd be better off just asking the other hunters if they had any idea where his dad was. Seriously, if his dad is as great a hunter as everyone says, surely he's made an impression to somebody.
Season 3 is where things go from exposition land to a magical murder/revenge story. Before I get to that, though, let me address something. Kurapika is said to be a boy, and after looking it up, apparently that's what the writer says. However, from the instant anyone sees her, their first impression is that she's a girl disguising herself as a boy for whatever reason. Hence the loose clothing and short hair.
Thing is, she's still drawn as a girl, and is voiced by only female actors. Moreover, everything she does, despite her activities not being traditionally female, is done in a female way. There are many subtle personality differences between a man and a woman, due to brain and genetic differences between the two; a male's brain, before birth, undergoes a chemical separation between the two halves, and he is also missing one quarter chromosome of genetic material that a woman has.
There are many differences between men and women's behavior, and though sometimes we lack the words to describe those differences, those differences are still observable, like the way we can tell a person has had plastic surgery, or a young child is faking tears. In other words, you can't say someone's a guy simply by saying it. Kurapika thinks and acts as a woman does, without deviation and with all subtlety. She is therefore female, and no progressive nonsense or desire to mess with the viewer's minds will prevent me from using female pronouns when referring to her.
In season 3, Kurapika finally catches up to the Phantom League (also called "the spiders") which is the group responsible for murdering her people. They killed her people because the Kurta have eyes which turn a beautiful red when the Kurta is emotionally charged. So the Phantom League killed everyone, cut out their eyes, and then sold them in underground auctions. Kurapika swore to kill the spiders, then recover her people's eyes. For this purpose, she got a job working for a mob man as a bodyguard for his daughter. This daughter, a fortuneteller named Neon, wants to go to an auction in Yorknew, and as it so happens, the spiders intend to rob the auction of its rare goods.
This tonal shift threw off more people than the second season's, if the reviews I've read are any indication. Beforehand, even despite the deaths that happened, Hunter X Hunter has always had a fairly happy tone, with lots of innocent optimism. This optimism is still present for much of Gon's storyline in season 3 (he's trying to earn money to buy a game that he believes will lead him to his father), but Gon ends up being more or less left on the back burner in favor of hanging out with Kurapika.
Neither the shift away from Gon or towards violence is too bad, if you can look past those things (though the violence does get pretty bad). This season is overall more interesting than the previous one. Things progress well enough, and the learning about nen flows much better with the plot this go-round.
Of course, this is the point where the reverse storytelling becomes excessive. Slowly throughout the first two seasons, more and more things will happen, but not shown on screen. Then the characters will explain what happened to other characters, rather than simply showing those events in present tense. This technique is okay if used a time or two, but during season 3 it gets really annoying.
Also...well, Kurapika isn't that interesting, for some reason. She worked well in season one because she was a side character who added flavor to Gon's story. However, she's such a straightforward, focused person that leaving her on her own removes a lot of interest in the story. Especially because she's engineered her nen to become nearly unstoppable when fighting the spiders. Because she's so emotionally distant, it's harder for the viewers to become immersed in her conflict.
This season is pretty brutal. There's lots of deaths, particularly among Kurapika's new bodyguard friends. Some of the Phantom League also die, but strangely enough, it doesn't end with their dissolution. Kurapika doesn't kill or arrest them. They capture Gon and Killua, Kurapika captures their boss, and in the end they exchange their prisoners. The spiders' boss can no longer use nen, and he disappears. Then, in the first episode of the next season, the spiders explain that they don't want to kill Kurapika anymore, for some convoluted anime reason.
Alright then. Honestly, this season is pretty convoluted, and explaining it out would take too long, especially since season 4 is another tonal/setting shift, rendering much of this season useless plotwise, other than the introduction of the spiders.
There were two really good elements to this plotline, though. One was that Hisoka pretended to work with the spiders so that he could attempt to fight with the boss (a fight that never materializes because of the boss' loss of nen), while handing Kurapika information on the side. Another was the creation of a guy that can write haikus that give him power, like setting chairs on fire or punishing people who lie. Both elements are underused. Hisoka does very little, and the other guy more or less disappears a few episodes in. What a waste. What' more, there were two or three spiders that didn't get to do anything at all.
Speaking of wasted characters, Leorio didn't do much. Sure, his role in this season was appropriate for the story being told, but the trouble is, Leorio's backstory is much more interesting than Kurapika's. Kurapika has your typical revenge plot. Leorio, on the other hand, is obsessed with saving people because of the people he lost as a child. Granted, Kurapika's past was always going to haunt her, so it's not surprising that this came up. It was just resolved very strangely, and I'm still left to wonder if Leorio is going to get the screentime he deserves. Instead, he does a few things, while another character tells him to abandon being a hunter and become a doctor. Well and good, but can't he be both? If a girl can be a connoisseur and a hunter, why can't he be a doctor and a hunter?
Whatever. The season ends with Kurapika temporarily giving up on the spiders. Season 4 shoves her out of the plot, and Leorio too, as Gon and Killua finally manage to become players in the game Gon's father Ging created, Greed Island, in the hopes that they can somehow learn about him.
Y'know what? This review is getting long. I think I'll break it up, for the time being. I'll pick up with season 4 next time.