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.