Hunter x Hunter (2011) is a popular and well-respected series that also happens to be my favorite shounen anime. It aired from Fall 2011 through Summer 2014. Studio Madhouse animated this masterpiece which is based on (and quite faithful to) the manga by Yoshihiro Togashi. (This author is also known for creating Yuu Yuu Hakusho.)
Now then, HxH contains dozens of fascinating elements, such as potent themes and messages, the development and growth of so many characters, the way the Nen system of magic works, and storytelling tools like foreshadowing and irony. For this post, I'm focusing in on a single recurring theme in HxH: the humanization of all the villains. The show rarely makes these characters morally redeemable, which I find appropriate, but it shows us that even these horrible people are still, well, people.
Hunter x Hunter spends about equal time on its antagonists as it protagonists. We are even put into the head of Hisoka, the perverse and bloodthirsty rogue, more than a few times. Besides Hisoka, we also have Killua's family. Even though it's an entire family that makes a business out of murdering targets, the Zoldycks have interesting dynamics and nuances to their personalities and motivations.
There is tension and jealousy between the siblings, with Killua being "spoiled," or regarded as the best of the children. Killua's mother is mentally unwell, with some twisted mix of seeing Killua as a tool for the family business, and "loving" him enough to want him locked up in the family estate all the time. She gets hysterical when the boy is allowed to leave. To a less hysterical degree, Illumi shares this possessive love of Killua. Silva and Zeno make a point of saying that they do not kill for enjoyment, but only as their jobs. Those are a few examples about the Zoldyck family.
Of all the villains in the Hunter x Hunter universe, the only ones I fully and truly loathe are the members of the Phantom Troupe. I will continue to hold the opinion that they are the most appalling and hideously evil characters in the entire universe of HxH. Yet an entire arc was spent showing viewers that even the Troupe members (well, some of them) experience human emotions and mental struggles.
Despite having no feelings of remorse for the thousands they murder, Phantom Troupe members are in some cases closely bonded with one another. Nobunaga cries after Uvo is killed. Chrollo sheds a few tears as well, though it's debated whether his were genuine. Pakunoda was willing to put aside the safety of the Troupe and throw away her own life in order to bring Chrollo back from captivity unharmed. Though all the members deserve fates worse than death in my opinion, they still have some lingering human traits.
The Chimera Ant arc is all about monstrous man-eating creatures as they become increasingly similar to humans. So, in this sense, humanizing them is quite literal. I am quite fond of the Chimera Ants, but I see why they had to be dealt with, and I wouldn't want the HxH universe to fall under Meruem's complete control. Anyway, half the series of 148 episodes is focused on this arc, where we learn much about these supposed "monsters" and their individuality. Some of them have great capacity to care, be reasoned with, or change their ways. Most of them are able to regain memories of their past lives of being human before they were eaten.
One example of the humanity of the Chimera Ants can be seen in Colt. His undying loyalty and love for the Queen led him to willingly surrender to the Hunters, betray information about the other Ants, and beg for help. From the beginning, he was disgusted at the way many of the other Ants killed for pleasure, wasted prey, and targeted children. He was able to find deep personal meaning in raising and protecting the Queen's final prematurely born child.
There are examples like Colt dotted all over those episodes, but let's just go with one other. That would be Meruem, the Ant King. Unlike Colt, who completely changed his ways, Meruem never comes close to respecting humans as equals. He is still a human-killing, arrogant dictator who believes himself in every way superior to everyone else. But even this creature came to develop a "weakness" that showed bits of humanity in him. He fell in love with the human girl Komugi over their many days playing Bungi together for his entertainment. The protection and healing of Komugi becomes Meruem's number one priority during the Hunter attack on the palace.
In all these cases, we're presented with villains who take lives at the drop of a hat. And yet, we're also shown the complexity and individuality of each, as well as their last vestiges of human goodness. Why does HxH go so far with this idea and incorporate it into most of the arcs? I don't think the message is to have mercy for people who are menaces to society, or to excuse them, just because there are commonalities in our human psyches. What, then?
I think the point of all this is to give the message that people are not simple. Everyone is complicated. Despite the human tendency to dehumanize people who are different, there's no avoiding the fact that even the worst scum of our species are still human. In the case of Chimera ants, they aren't biologically human, but their minds, languages, and abilities are equal or greater than those of humans. So they are "people," too.
Hunter x Hunter may at first glance seem like any other tiresome shounen anime. In actually, the series is all about the details and exploration of the world, the characters, and more broadly, the human mind. The "moral" of it, for me, is that nothing is simple. Thank you for joining me in this examination of one fascinating aspect of Hunter x Hunter.