hxh 99> hxh 2011 btw [rehost]

This is a repost of an article from my old old blog. At the time I was writing this my knowledge about anime production stuff was fairly meager but I think everything below still holds up. I know a few people enjoyed this specific article so I thought it would be worth rehosting, and I might rehost a few others like it in the future. I’m not particularly interested in getting into a lengthy debate about HxH so don’t waste your breath on a massive counter-opus in the comments. But I hope it generates discussion among others.

There’s two things I want to add in retrospect. First, never underestimate the importance of how you convey visual information. Anime is in as good a state as it ever has been, but the >50 episode series is a dying art and the biggest reason why is a lack of capable episode directors. HxH might be an engaging story in its own right but if its presentation is poor then entire work will suffer. Second, anime adaptations where a personal vision supersedes the original source material are generally preferable to a straight adaptation, regardless of the quality of said original material. This isn’t just an empirical observation (FMA>FMA:B, Sailor Moon OG>Sailor Moon Crystal) but something fundamental: if the director cares about the adaptation personally, then they have a greater stake in its success. Say what you will about Furuhashi’s additions here and there; the direction and writing in HxH 1999 are far more consistently and cohesively realized than the Madhouse adaptation, which suffers from extreme disparities in quality on an episode-by-episode basis.

I’ve been watching a lot of Hunter x Hunter recently, and I’m struck by the disparity of quality between the 1999-2001 Nippon Animation adaptation and the currently airing Madhouse version. In my eyes, the former outclasses the latter in its direction to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine anyone believing otherwise. Yet, many seem to prefer the 2011 version. I’m gonna demonstrate why I see things this way by comparing how both versions deal with the end of the Hunter Exam arc (episodes 27-30 in ’99, 19-21 in 2011). Some might object that the 2011 rendition gets significantly better once it’s past the Hunter Exam arc, and judging it in this way is unfair, but I don’t think so. Firstly, the Hunter Exam arc is incredibly important for building the leads’ personalities and backstories. A lot of what follows the Hunter Exam arc only has weight given the events in these episodes. Secondly, while the newer adaptation does get better as time goes on, so does the ’99 version, and the storyboarding problems highlighted here never really go away. Thirdly, I find “it gets better after X episodes” to be an unconvincing argument, especially for a long running series such as HxH. If the first 20 (!!) episodes of a show are bad, I have no problem saying said show isn’t worth watching. Though I won’t pass judgement on 2011 HxH entirely, since I’ve yet to see how they’re handling the Chimera Ant arc, I can safely say the 1999 adaptation covers the first four arcs dramatically better than the 2011 one.

I want to point out some general visual differences first. For ’99, lighting is a big asset in setting tone and mood

You can immediately tell those shots are set at different times of the day, and as the fights progress in the final exam, the sunset becomes more and more ominously red, marking the difference between Gon’s recovery room and flashbacks to the fights even more starkly. The change is gradual, but correlates to the successive seriousness of each fight (Kurapika vs Hisoka then Hanzo vs Gon then finally Illumi vs Killua). In 2011, however…

What the hell is this? Are there invisible floodlights hidden everywhere in the world of HxH? Whatever the reason, the lighting here is horrific, and doesn’t match the mood of the scene at all. Two notable things from the last screenshot: 1) at times, the depth of field is shallow for seemingly no reason (’99 is usually shot in “deep focus” and modifies DOF only during poignant scenes) and it looks really ugly, and 2) while I appreciate the liberal references to Arabic architecture like the Court of the Lions and the Mosque of Cordoba in the set design here, it looks kinda tacky. In my opinion, such a blatant real-world artistic reference doesn’t work for the show’s vaguely-defined fantastical setting.

The character design is also worse in 2011. Compare the designs for the character Satotz:

The 2011 one has a more exaggerated feature set and is more diminutive. The color work in 2011 is brighter and a bit garish compared to the Earthier palette of ’99. In 2011, he looks like a caricature of an adult, in ’99 like an actual adult. This type of stylization isn’t on-face bad, as it’s suitable for the average fighting shounen. But Hunter x Hunter isn’t the average fighting shounen; very frequently it goes into darker territory, and the show is more of an action-thriller than a straight up fighting shounen anyway. The more naturalistic designs of ’99 are a better fit for the material.

The ending of the Hunter Exam arc is comprised of a series of one-on-one battles where winning a single match guarantees passing the test. The fights are a big draw, obviously, but the most important thing here is how the characters’ personal journeys resolve. Only ’99 understands this, however.

’99 starts the test with the Kurapika vs Hisoka fight, while 2011 delays it till after the Hanzo vs Gon fight. In 2011, it’s little more than an afterthought, while in ’99 it helps reveal a lot about the fighters’ motivations.

Look at this framing! Very little actual fighting occurs, much more emphasis is placed on Kurapika positioning himself for an attack. There are a lot of POV shots too. In general, ’99 goes to great lengths to convey the fighters’ perspective during fights. Despite Hisoka’s taunts, Kurapika manages to land a counterattack on Hisoka.

Hisoka has a moment of weakness; he wants to kill Kurapika, but letting him grow stronger would make killing him later more satisfying. The ’99 Hisoka is far more menacing because he isn’t some impenetrable monster, but an unpredictable deviant. The 2011 Hisoka, on the other hand, is more like a B-tier JoJo villain, and his fight with Kurapika in that version reflects that.

A whole lot of posing and speedlines with no buildup or tension. Hisoka is some crazy powerful dude, Kurapika is made to be the stooge, nothing more. For comparison, while the Kurapika vs Hisoka fight in ’99 takes up over half an episode, in 2011 it’s over in literally 5 seconds.

Next up is the Hanzo vs Gon fight, and in ’99 it’s more of a beating than an actual fight.

Hanzo breaks Gon’s arm, damages his spinal cord, and crushes one of his ears. The 2011 version is superficially similar, but falters in several respects. First, Hanzo in 2011 is cool and collected for most of the fight, only breaking down towards the end. In the ’99 version, Hanzo is evidently frustrated with Gon’s stubborn refusal to give up, lending greater emotional weight to the proceedings. The tone of the fight in ’99 is much more violent too, with Hanzo torturing Gon mercilessly. In 2011, it’s more like a standard “never give up!” shounen fight.

The Hanzo vs Gon fight is good place to examine the issue of animation quality. This can refer to either each show’s best moments of animation (ie the sakuga fights) or to the average episode-by-episode quality of the visuals. For the former, I personally prefer Norio Matsumoto’s and Akira Matsushima’s work in ’99 over anything in 2011 (compare these sakuga MADs for ’99 and 2011). As for the general visual quality of the show, while Madhouse can be commended for maintaining a consistent animation quality, the bad art design and storyboarding really brings down the show, whereas Kazuhiro Furuhashi’s excellent direction in ’99 renders any small animation shortcut negligible. For instance, here is how the climax to the Hanzo vs Gon fight is framed in ’99:

Beautiful. The last shot in particular is great because Hanzo later mentions that his reason for sparing Gon was because his eyes lacked hatred. The same can’t be said of Gon in 2011, who looks like a generic angry shounen protag. 2011 tries something similar visually but ends up being, uh, less effective:

What is with this gross violet matte? And why are we so far away from Gon and Hanzo during their most impactful moment? 2011 simply commits far too many cinematographical sins in any given scene to list them all here, but this one couldn’t have come at a worst time!

Gon wins and wakes up a day later in a resting area. There he chats with Satotz and learns of what happened to the rest of the candidates. I’ve always like this way of framing the rest of the matches, but only ’99 pulls it off effectively. In 2011, the narration is intrusive. For instance, here is how 2011 portrays the Bodoro vs Hisoka fight:

Oh for fucking real dude? I couldn’t tell. Here’s how ’99 makes the fight seem one-sided:

He lets himself get punched in the face while yawning (to no effect) and then takes down his opponent using his pinky, to prevent himself from accidentally killing him. Again, like the Kurapika match, 2011 pointlessly abridges this fight.

All could be forgiven if the Illumi vs Killua fight had been done well. Arguably the payoff for the entire arc, it establishes the importance of Gon and Killua’s friendship, the dangerous nature of the Zoldyck family, and sets into motion many of the series later events. As I pointed out earlier, ’99 often likes to use POV shots to involve the audience more intimately in the fights. During his match with Killua, we get a strong sense of what kind of a person Illumi is.

(note: the mountain in the background is the zoldyck family manor, giving this shot more significance upon rewatch)

I think a lot of these shots speak for themselves. As for 2011, well…

Who is this clown and why should we care?? Is he supposed to be threatening? Because nothing in this scene effectively conveys that. The lack of POV shots is doubly problematic, not just in their absence but in how nothing meaningful replaced them. They couldn’t have phoned in Illumi’s introduction more. Worse yet, instead of the visceral images of ’99, 2011 uses a generic hypnotic spiral to signify Illumi’s control over his brother.

looks like illumi borrowed that ugly matte from hanzo lol

2011′s terrible soundtrack makes this scene even worse. While ’99′s OST is often fitting, very much so during the Illumi fight, 2011 uses a lot of out of place electric guitar riffs. I couldn’t help but think the 2011 Illumi is supposed to be some jaded hair metal bassist instead of a ruthless killer.

Gon’s confrontation with Illumi is affected by bad sound design too. ’99 uses this track to build-up the tension, while 2011 uses some generic marching band snare drums that eliminates any sense of stake from the encounter. In ’99 the confrontation is messier and more emotional, causing Illumi to lose a bit of his poise

whereas in 2011 it’s a “badass” shounen moment where Gon lifts Illumi over his head no problem.

I could go on and on. The general level of polish is just so much lower in the 2011 version it’s disheartening. Sometimes people point out similarities between these debates about which version of HxH is better and the debates about Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. While Brotherhood is more poorly storyboarded than FMA, the main point of contention there is the differing scripts. With Hunter x Hunter, both adaptations share more-or-less the same narrative. As such, it baffles me when people say they prefer the 2011 version because, from where I’m standing, there isn’t anything to favor. A downgrade in every sense.


About tamerlane

World animation guy for Wave Motion Cannon. Not a professional animator or involved in the business in any way. All of my research comes from secondary sources so if you notice a mistake, please let me know.
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11 Responses to hxh 99> hxh 2011 btw [rehost]

  1. Kuboa says:

    OK, *now* everything makes sense. Never having seen the ’99 version, I was always baffled by the universal acclaim HxH managed to garner, since everything before the York New arc seemed to me as your standard, annoyingly bright battle shounen with some potentially interesting puzzle mechanics thrown in as an afterthought. And as much as I appreciated and enjoyed the inventive broodiness of the York New and Chimera arcs, the transition from the previous arcs to those, both in general quality and tone, was incredibly abrupt and jarring. Thankfully, later episodes of Chimera have done some truly wonderous things, which made the investment of time spent watching the series finally pay off, though it *was* a close call.

    Looking at these screenshots, I’m struck by how ‘cinematic’ and tonally foreshadowing the ’99 version feels, which makes me think that the cognitive dissonance between the dramatic ingredients of the story and Madhouse’s visual representation of them was not coming from the original material, after all (or if it indeed was, they made a mistake by staying loyal to it).

    Liked by 2 people

    • camonte says:

      Though the Madhouse adaptation is faithful to the narrative of the manga, it definitely isn’t faithful to its tone and in fact very deliberately attempts to broaden the appeal of the story. The overarching conceit of the manga (and the 99 adaptation) is a humanity vs nature dynamic. The world of HxH is extremely violent and uncaring, where physical strength matters above all: the Hunter Exam is so dangerous participants can lose their lives, the only way to enter the Phantom Troupe is by killing another member, Chimera Ants focused on consuming strong organisms to steal their power, etc. The humanity of Gon et al is supposed to counteract this, and most of the major arcs culminate in some kind of confrontation between a nihilistic ‘nature’ and human ethics (Illumi telling Killua he was born to be an assassin, Kurapika choosing his friends over his revenge, Meruem questioning the difference between humans and ants). The Madhouse adaptation subtly undermines this by making the story more palatable to normal shounen audiences: Gon & Killua’s uneasy friendship becomes a bromance, Hisoka is a JoJo-esque fabulous joke character instead of a dangerous pervert, etc. The dangerousness of Gon and co’s adventures isn’t adequately conveyed which robs the important character moments of their impact.

      If you’re at all interested in the base story, I recommend watching HxH 99. Not only does it execute the first four arcs supremely better, Furuhashi & co added small side stories not present in the original manga to help flesh out the characterization. Stiffer animation than 2011, but good backgrounds and cinematography more than compensate. It also has badass garage rock OPs/EDs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tV1ZT9I2pSM

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kuboa says:

        It was a long and exhausting watch, and my backlog is full to the brim, so I don’t think I can afford to see the old one any time soon, but it does make me sad to realize that I’ve probably made a mistake by taking MAL’s advice (I know, I know) and going for the 2011 version.

        Hearing you talk about Gon and Killua’s “uneasy friendship” intrigues me though, since in the Madhouse adaptation it’s pretty much best-friends-forever from the get go, which is endearing, but I’d like to see the alternate too. Oh well, maybe someday… Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed says:

    I have only watched the 2011 version and I am personally a huge fan of this scene:

    I am a huge noob in cinematogrophy, but how does the 99 version do Yorknew better?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. To be honest, the Chimera Ant Arc is pretty good. I think the way that Madhouse made the first arc “childish” worked in this adaptation’s favor, as its tone completely shifts several arcs later. Seriously, in my opinion, this arc is much darker than the entirety of the 1999 adaptation.


  4. (This is more re-visioned version of my original comment)

    To be honest, the Chimera Ant arc was done nearly perfectly in the 2011 version. It was very dark, and I cannot think of a better way to have adapted that arc. Additionally, one could argue the “childish” tone of the first arc could work on this adaptation’s favor, as it catches viewers completely off-guard once the violent arcs come by.

    This change of tone could be argued to be more faithful to the manga. It’s about this naïve kid who wants to see his father. However, he grew up in an island in the middle of nowhere and is completely unaware of the horrors of the outside world. His mental breakdown at the CA arc is major evidence of this.

    If you haven’t watched Madhouse’s Chimera Ant arc, you should give it a shot. I actually think it is much darker than the entirety of the 1999 adaptation.


  5. kk says:

    As someone who has yet to see the 99 version and pretty much took everyone’s word for it that the newer one is better on all counts… thank you so much for this post. There are things that I find really jarring about 2011 HxH, as much as I love it (the inappropriate colour schemes, cheesy background music, and most backgrounds looking like they were added in just because they had to have a background). I watched the first ep of the original and man… you are so, so right. Excited to watch it but kind of sad that it didn’t make it to the later arcs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. After reading this post I can say that my hope in humanity has been revived :’)


  7. Anders Bateva says:

    Good post! I watched both series in the past, and while I watched 2011 version I thought it was better, because the drawing and resolution were better. But one day I re-watched some episodes of 1999 version, and they really feel better. The resolution was shit, because was the first anime I downloaded, using dial-up connection, but I could understand why I decided to keep watching animes after the 1999 series ended. The 2011 version could entertain, but I felt nothing watching it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oli Bear says:

    Great post; The first adaptation is still the best (along with the first OVA). The only reason to watch the remake is the Chimera Ant Arc and Chairman Election Arc. Watched a few of the Heaven’s Arena arc episodes made by Madhouse and was sorely disappointed. The scenes where Wing is teaching the boys about Nen, clearly was better handled in the original, ’99 adaptation while in the new version, the scriptwriters and director obviously tried too hard and it shows. The elevator girl in the Nippon Animation version was also funnier while the one by Madhouse, not so. So yeah, ’99 FTW.


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