Hunter x Hunter’s thirty-third volume was entirely dedicated to establishing the base conflict of the Dark Continent arc. Even with a full volume worth of board-adjusting and exposition, those chapters still felt like they were bursting at the seams with pure information. The king’s declaration, and his alliance with Beyond. The Hunter Association’s reaction to that announcement, and their conscription of Kurapika and other potential allies. The background interference of Ging and Paristan, and the concerns of the larger scientific community. The introduction of the king’s succession war, and Kurapika’s subsequent enrollment in the youngest prince’s service. All of that served as meaty but ultimately passive setup, setting the stage for volume thirty-four to come barreling out the gate with the true start of the arc.
Turns out, that doesn’t actually happen. Instead, Hunter x Hunter’s thirty-fourth volume mostly focuses on another long-awaited but entirely unexpected conflict: the battle between Hisoka and Chrollo. It’s a very strange shift, one that essentially cuts off the building tension of Dark Continent at the knees, and which gives you the impression that maybe Togashi himself needed a break from that arc’s relentless slow build. But of course, this is Hunter x Hunter, so even this fan-favorite “downtime battle” ends up being a dramatic exercise in narrative excess.
Standing in the peaks of Heaven’s Arena, the battle between Chrollo and Hisoka starts off as a surprisingly traditional sparring match. In spite of this being a fight between two of Hunter x Hunter’s strongest characters, their early exchanges still feel mostly like a battle between two practiced martial artists. Smart tricks like the visual prominence of the referee give this fight a sense of intimate space and impact, helping us follow the tactical back-and-forth of the players’ exchanges. But we soon dive deep into Hisoka’s head, and from there, Hunter x Hunter’s unique style of conflict takes over entirely.
Given we just left a volume of material almost solely devoted to exposition, it’s probably appropriate to explore the unique dramatic gamble Yoshihiro Togashi generally tends to make. That gamble becomes clear enough quickly in this fight, as we’re made privy to Hisoka’s long-winded tactical reasoning in wordy panels that almost overwhelm the page. But even though huge piles of exposition and storytelling that tells absolutely every detail is generally not the best type of storytelling, this is the bargain Togashi almost always makes.
Essentially, Hunter x Hunter tends to embrace the importance of grounded conflict at the expense of basically everything else. Its fights tend to drag on, and there is a huge amount of tactical exposition, but that all exists specifically so the audience has a full understanding of the powers and stakes at hand, and thus can consciously engage with those fights as clashes between two distinct, clearly defined sets of powers and resources. In spite of its often fanciful nen powers, Hunter x Hunter works hard to keep things more grounded and parsable within the realm of its own established assumptions than almost any other action story out there.
In practice, this means that almost the entire first two chapters of this volume are dedicated to Chrollo explaining how his various powers work. This isn’t pulse-pounding storytelling, or even necessarily a realistic choice for Chrollo, but it’s basically the only way we can follow the complexity of the fight to come. Instead of coming across as a battle between two ineffable superpowers, Togashi wants us to see this as a tactical back-and-forth that we can completely follow at all times. When Togashi wants us to find a chess match exciting, he doesn’t just imbue the two sides with their own stakes, he teaches the audience how to play chess.
The downsides of this approach are immediately apparent, as the whole approach itself flies in the face of many conventional storytelling assumptions. His fights can come across as tedious or overly labored, and his dialogue can come across as long-winded and unnatural. The volume of exposition can stifle naturally emergent drama, and the audience can quickly feel like they’re being led too directly to the right tactical or dramatic conclusions. And perhaps most importantly, if all that exposition fails to properly explain the mechanics of battle, then all of these storytelling sacrifices can be made and the audience still won’t be able to more closely engage with the battle.
The Hisoka-Chrollo battle dances on that line throughout, with its worst moments coming near the beginning. The multiple chapters explaining Chrollo’s abilities are simply too convoluted to really parse – we’re expected to understand roughly half a dozen different powers, as well as how each of them can be manipulated by the presence of the others, and what tactical benefits might result. We learn that Chrollo has gained Shalnark’s phone-control ability, that he has a second ability which allows him to make clones, that he has a third ability which allows him to switch appearances with other people, and that he has a fourth ability which lets him create explosions when a pre-set Sun symbol touches a pre-set Moon symbol. On top of that, we learn he has gained a bookmark ability for his own core power, which allows him to control two powers at once.
With that all established, we are then expected to immediately parse the brilliance of the ways Chrollo manipulates all these powers, balancing his various new tricks with the limitations of his spellbook. There are moments here when the intended drama hung on understanding the implications of Chrollo specifically using eight different powers in one order, or understanding just how well he had overcome the limitations of having to hold his spellbook in one hand. Chrollo’s powers are a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, and thought Hisoka seems to understand what’s happening, it was all I could do just to hang on for the ride.
Fortunately, once the base mechanics of the fight are set up and Chrollo’s pulled off a few tricks, the mechanical complexity of this fight gives way to a gorgeous clarity of conflict and scale of setpiece. By combining his mind control powers, shape-shifting powers, and doubling powers, Chrollo is able to conceal himself within the Heaven’s Arena crowd, while simultaneously creating an army of clones ready to obey his commands. By further employing the devastating effects of Sun and Moon, Chrollo turns this army into a standing force of suicide bombers, all standing by to explode as close to Hisoka as possible. The second half of their fight is essentially Hisoka versus an entire stadium of suicide bombers, a conflict of insane scale brought to life with some truly jaw-dropping visual setpieces.
The second half of that battle also allows Togashi’s visual talents to shine. Togashi’s strengths as an artist are a strange bunch. The man has a very strong grasp of anatomy and bodily motion, but has a tendency to let action get a bit too floaty at times, with backgrounds and perspective fading a little too often. His art is loose and sketchy on the whole, featuring sharp-edged, energetic linework and a general lack of shading. His biggest setpieces feel like endless scribbles, drawings from another manga entirely, or Where’s Waldo pages imbued with a whole lot more screaming and explosions.
Many of this volume’s most engaging setpieces feel totally apart from the style of the rest. An early shot of a severed head being weighed against a bowling ball underlines Togashi’s sense of mythic whimsy, while the minimalist evocation of an angry outburst reduced to splashes of ink demonstrates his strong eye for visual drama. Strange monsters melt through the walls of a ship, while Hisoka’s design shifts dramatically depending on the goals of a panel. And yet, in spite of all this visual eccentricity, there are still plenty of panels demonstrating Togashi’s grasp of the fundamentals. The clear impact of Chrollo landing his first clean hit. The dynamism of Hisoka making a desperate bungee gum escape. The beauty of a page framed as one continuous cycle, a trick he pulls off both through dramatic shading and through the natural curvature of the arena.
Ultimately, in spite of its messy beginning and imposing weight of exposition, Chrollo and Hisoka’s duel ends up being one of the most tightly scripted and thrilling battles of Hunter x Hunter so far. Chrollo’s strange powers take some time to be explicated, but merge together to form an idea much clearer than the sum of its parts: “this entire arena and everyone in it will be Hisoka’s opponent.” Hisoka’s own efforts demonstrate his power and inhumanity while accepting the fact that he is clearly outgunned here. Hisoka lives, but loses a fair collection of body parts, and actually has to come back from the dead.
After seven chapters that essentially just establish the Spiders and Hisoka will also be joining this arc, we finally return to the Dark Continent arc, just as the grand ship is about to set sail. Having established the succession war, an intriguingly segmented ship, and Kurapika’s leadership role within the Hunters, all the pieces are set for a thriller arc that feels almost like a reprise of Yorknew City. These last few chapters mostly just up the stakes even more, but Togashi’s methodical style of scene-setting feels as confident here as it has anywhere in Hunter x Hunter. If anyone can pull off an arc as ambitious and convoluted as Dark Continent, it is this exact mad genius.
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