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Review: ‘Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge’

It’s not surprising this film opened at number one in Japan when it first hit theaters in 2013.

Released by Viz Media, February 20th, as both a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack and a standard DVD-only edition.

Put simply, Hunter x Hunter has longevity. The initial serialization of Yoshihiro Togashi’s work in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine began 20 years ago, in March 1998! While it is not surprising – these days perhaps even expected – for a manga series to spawn an anime version, not every series manages to avoid exhausting its audience, let alone seemingly pass from one generation of fans to the next with ease. But that’s Hunter x Hunter!

Perhaps its secret to success is its character driven nature. The story of Hunter x Hunter, after all, is simple: Gon Freecss, who discovers that his father is alive and a world-renowned Hunter – a licensed profession involving the search for unidentified creatures, treasure, and criminals – sets out both to become a Hunter and to find his dad. As a story, that’s it. This coming of age canvass is largely blank in terms of trials and growth; the freedom to create is nearly unlimited. And so, it’s indeed all about character. We must be attached to these characters in order to enjoy any adventurous or dramatic circumstances in which we find them.

In Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge, fans of the series definitely get their characters: Gon, Killua, Leorio, and Kurapika in particular. This time, someone has stolen Kurapika's eyes, and the perpetrator might be a survivor from his massacred Kuruta clan. On this journey, Gon and Killua will not only track down the culprit, but also encounter the Phantom Troupe, that nefarious criminal organization, in the process.

Now, to be truthful upfront, I’ve never been a big fan of Hunter x Hunter. But that’s not because I thought it was bad. Like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, or even One Piece, the episodic adventures of a group of characters, mostly involving teenagers and largely dependent on trials of combat, can just get a little old and repetitive. I like Bleach, for example, but I still don’t have a craving to watch every episode ever made. Even as story arcs change, especially when a series has been around for such a long time, you often get the feeling that you’ve seen this episode before. Moreover, on the path from anime TV series to feature length film, these kinds of movies often play out and feel like an extended TV episode. So there is a high risk of creating something interesting but simultaneously redundant and not really great. This is essentially what I was expecting from Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge.  Be that as it may, with Yuzo Sato in the director’s chair, who was most recently associated with series such as Marvel Future Avengers and Attack on Titan, along with studio Madhouse, the creative team behind this film iteration got it right.

Phantom Rouge fuels another Gon and Killua adventure with both a coherent story and those fun characters that fans obviously love.

For the most part, we expect action, and the Phantom Troupe, with their spider tattoos, is the main attraction. If you’re going to sit down and enjoy some combat, who doesn’t like seeing Machi and the skilled swordsman Nobunaga at work, let alone the entire criminal organization putting their deadly skillsets on display? Yet the members of Phantom Troupe aren’t the principle antagonists in this film. They’re the icing on the cake, which delights the audience’s appetite for good fight scenes. No, the main villain is actually Omokage, a former member of the Phantom Troupe, and he provides a dark supernatural layer to the film’s overall composition. His ability to steal eyes and the zombie-like puppets he creates from both the living and the dead – who also steal eyes since they are eye-less – produce enjoyable and slightly creepy adversaries. The dangerous path on which Gon and Killua have been placed seems more of a challenge than the usual. Add the fact that the Phantom Troupe is after Omokage, and thus technically on the same side as our two Hunters, and this path even feels unexpected – Hunters are after the lawless, remember.

As for story, Phantom Rouge notably avoids the pitfall of just loosely stitching together action sequences as we inevitably reach the moment in which Kurapika gets his eyes back. That may be the fundamental plot point, but it is Omokage’s sister, Retsu, and her unwitting friendship with Gon and Killua that actually moves the story along. The problematic relationship between the three characters leans heavily on the usual tropes of adolescent friendship, especially jealousy and insecurity, as Retsu’s identity is slowly revealed. Nevertheless, this doesn’t feel like stale, filler content. Gon and Killua actually have something to learn from this encounter with Retsu and, ultimately, her brother.

I should also note that the murderous magician in light clown make up, i.e. Hisoka, another former member of the Phantom Troupe, nearly steals the show.

Now, Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge definitely feels like an extended TV episode. And as a stand-alone movie outside of the TV series, we just expect Kurapika to get his eyes back. But that’s not really the point of this movie. In the bigger picture, we get exactly what we want from an anime like Hunter x Hunter.  We get the expected combat and character development on Gon’s long road to finding his father. But when that expectation is met creatively, it’s another adventure that fans will most likely devour and then feel satisfied.

Again, for a series with such longevity, it’s all about character. More importantly, as a fan, it’s about your favorite character. Gon, Killua, Leorio, Kurapika, the Phantom Troupe, Hisoka… Phantom Rouge delivers the goods. But story is there too, so even the uninitiated will enjoy this ride. It’s not surprising the film opened at number one in Japan when it first hit theaters in 2013.