Contains spoilers up to the end of the 2011 anime, so beware!
Yoshihiro Togashi’s Hunter X Hunter (HXH) is an adventure anime falling under the shonen subtext, typically geared for young males. It has everything a normal show from that genre would have: a form of magic powers (called Nen), fight scenes, a complicated journey for strength, and incredible character design. However, HXH steps away from the mold when it crafts characters differing from typical anime archetypes. Togashi’s long-held interest in exploring gender norms and queer themes in his works influences this.
Emotionally Strong Males
There are a lot of healthy male tears in this anime. One of the most satisfying parts is that the male characters never try to bottle up their emotions but instead directly interact with them. Additionally, these tears are not portrayed as a sign of weakness. Togashi toys with the concept of male mental health and PTSD with most of his characters, but most notably in Killua Zoldyck. Killua’s arc confronts family toxicity, dealing with uncertainty, and navigating his first real friendship with Gon. Gon’s arc is motivated by his goals and, later on, overcoming his personal darkness.
It’s important that the main two protagonists are best friends who push each other to be stronger. This is different from the more common shonen anime trope where the two protagonists push each other but as rivals. With Gon and Killua it has never been about superiority. Neither of their arcs would have been as poignant if they didn’t have this close bond.
It’s their unique circumstances that allow for their friendship to thrive: because Killua was raised to be a cold-hearted assassin, friendship is something he longs for and is eager to treasure; Gon, who is simple-minded and straightforward, is deeply affectionate towards those he regards as friends.Shounen Friendship: Gon Freecs from Hunter x Hunter
I’ve seen some suggestions that Killua has a homosexual subtext. Togashi has written gay characters in the past so that’s not out of the question. I’m always happy for homosexual representation, but I don’t personally think this is the case. However, I would argue that there is an equal need for close male friendships without romantic implications in mass media. I’ve never gotten the impression that Gon and Killua’s relationship was written as anything other than an extremely intimate–but strictly platonic– friendship.
Hisoka the Magician
Hisoka is the most recognizable and iconic HXH characters despite his role in the show as a morally gray antagonist. He’s got a twisted genderqueer appeal, marrying perverted bloodthirst with flamboyancy. In his first appearance in the show, Hisoka kills a man by causing him to dissolve into a pile of flower petals. This theme follows him throughout the series, as he demonstrates stereotypically masculine violence with feminine finesse. He subscribes to many traditionally feminine beauty standards such as the hourglass figure, heels, and noticeable face makeup.
Hisoka almost solely shoulders the role of fan-service sexualization in HXH. A very common trope in anime is the “encountering a woman bathing” scene. HXH reverses this role. Hisoka gets not one, but two strategically orchestrated bathing scenes. The entire show he remains androgynous with suggested homosexual leanings.
It took me a while to realize why I wasn’t a fan of a lot of screen-time “strong female characters” got in the action/adventure anime genre. Their relevance to the storyline is often achieved through fan-service or romantic storylines though framed as feminism. A woman’s sexuality is an important topic to explore but not at the expense of any further depth. When we are reminded every few episodes of her placement as eye-candy, her character is undermined. It just doesn’t feel very feminist watching a woman kick ass from the perspective of up her skirt.
Hunter X Hunter doesn’t have as many female characters with an active role in the storyline as male. However, the female characters included each had depth, purpose, and their own moments to shine. They are warriors, leaders, and strategists. Many females weaponize traditionally female roles to make themselves even more deadly– like cooking and sewing. There are many great honorable mentions, such as the ladies of the Phantom Troupe, Alluka’s bodyguards, and the female politician Cheadle. My focus will be on my two personal favorites, Bisky and Komugi.
Bisky is the one who teaches our two main protagonists, Gon and Killua, how to polish their abilities and become better fighters. Older masculine figures usually play the role of “The Sensei” in anime. Bisky’s role in the show goes against gender norms. She throws off many by her small, childlike appearance but is actually a 55-year old professional Hunter.
Bisky is perfectly capable of defending herself in her smaller form. She is trained in the martial arts and well respected in the field. Her “ultimate form” transforms her into something of a She-Hulk, with a monstrous muscular body rivaling that of the series’ most powerful men. Unlike the fan-service tied in with the popular Magical Girl sequence, Bisky goes through the opposite of a beautification process. This is an extremely interesting take for a character depicted as incredibly feminine. In doing so, Bisky defies fetishization.
Komugi is one of my favorite characters of all time in the series. She is a blind 15-year old Gungi genius, which is a fictional game resembling chess. She comes into the show to play against chimera ant King Mereum, whose power and birthright set him up to take over the world and enslave all humans. Mereum sets his sights on mastering all the games in the world for entertainment. He defeats the reigning champions just to showcase his unyielding mental and physical power. He kills those who lose to him. Mereum believes that humanity is nothing more than cattle to be put to work or slaughtered. When he is unable to win against Komugi it shatters his entire frame of thinking. By defeating an otherwise unbeatable creature, she earns the King’s respect. She inadvertently saves all of humanity by showing that humanity’s worth isn’t as black-and-white as Mereum thought.
Besides being a genius at Gungi, Komugi is simple-minded. She is childish and quick to tears. Her backstory suggests she has not had a good life but she never shows any malice towards anybody. Komugi is personified innocence and goodwill, and her arc a lesson in what it means to be powerful. She lightens up an otherwise extremely dark arc where the protagonists descend into being morally gray. I love that a disabled and emotional character is the one who saves the day in the end through her sheer goodwill.
Alluka is the most acclaimed character in HXH as far as clear LGBT representation goes. Her characterization is genius, carefully inserting common transgender themes without directly calling attention to this subtext. Togashi has attempted trans narratives in his past works, at times getting it incorrect due to ignorance (Miyuki from Yu Yu Hakusho). Alluka is his greatest transgender character yet.
Alluka (13) is the second youngest in the Zoldyck family, a family of professional assassins. Since a young age, she has had two beings living in her body: herself and “Nanika,” a shadow creature that will either grant wishes or kill the requester. Fearing the dangerous alter-ego they are unable to control, the Zoldyck family locks Alluka up to keep her ability a secret. Her family doesn’t see Alluka as human, much less their child. The only exception is her older brother Killua, who goes against the grain to maintain a loving relationship with Alluka.
But how does this put the T in LGBTQ+?
Alluka’s family and staff consistently refer to her using masculine pronouns. Alluka was born biologically male, as stated in the Hunter handbook. However, Killua uses the feminine pronouns that Alluka seems to align with and loudly corrects those who misgender her as seen here. The rest of the family is either unclear on Alluka’s gender identity or simply doesn’t care. Alluka’s experiences with Othering reflect those of trans children growing up in conservative families.
In the end and once Nanika has fulfilled the duty her power is necessary for, Killua tries to banish Nanika. He does this with good intentions, wanting to help Alluka live a “normal life.” Though Killua is an ally, he makes a mistake when he asks Alluka to suppress an important part of who she is. Alluka sticks up for Nanika. She tells Killua that if he truly loves her he needs to love Nanika as well.
The conclusion to Alluka’s storyline is not overcoming her connection to Nanika, but forcing those that love her to grow to understand. Alluka’s struggle to express herself to her family and Killua’s learning how to support his little sister is an incredible metaphor for the trans experience, one that is impossible to think unintentional.
Probably the most debated character gender identity is that of the cat-like Chimera ant Neferpitou, or Pitou for short. There are plentiful threads and videos attempting to prove a male or female narrative. The confusion is understandable due to different interpretations using male pronouns, female pronouns, and even an “it” at times. The anime depiction of Pitou differs from the manga drawing slightly. Anime Pitou has female attributes that are typically used to gender a character such as a slender waist and long eyelashes. At the end of the day, the author hasn’t confirmed a gender so it’s safe to settle with Pitou being gender-neutral.
Another incredibly popular character that typically trips up the audience at first glance is Kurapika. Kurapika sports a softer, more feminine look than many other leading male protagonists. He is even mistaken as a woman by other characters in the show, though these scenes are never spun as comic relief.
Kuroro: Nothing, I just hadn’t thought that the one we were searching for was a woman.
Kurapika: I don’t remember telling you I was female. Don’t rely on appearances, pay more attention to what you are saying. They could be your last words.Excerpt from the manga.
So why include these instances of misgendering? Kurapika’s character arc is based on avenging the ones who murdered his family, not gender identity. Gender-swapping Kurapika wouldn’t change his storyline. An interesting opinion says the creator did this to make Kurapika’s strength and mystery relatable to both genders.
I loved watching Hunter X Hunter. It perfect confronted adult themes with light-hearted moments of enjoyment. For such a long anime– 148 episodes!– it didn’t feel like the story dragged or anything. Part of this I definitely credit to turning tired tropes on their head.