Hunter x Hunter: The Last Mission
Shonen franchise films have earned a reputation for being formulaic and phoned-in. There are over a dozen Dragon Ball Z and One Piece movies, and most of them follow familiar story beats featuring forgettable foes and paper-thin plots that serve as an excuse for fights to happen. Sadly, Hunter x Hunter’s films are no exception. These films transparently pander to the series’ fans, featuring gratuitous cameos and incorporating popular characters who have no reason being included in the story. Such choices wouldn’t be so bad if said story was well-written, but Hunter x Hunter’s films poorly understand the appeal of the series. These movies are written like your boilerplate shonen movie plots, and The Last Mission, in particular, uses one of the most tired of stock shonen storylines – the tower climb. Our heroes have to climb to the top of a tower, in this case Heaven’s Arena, in order to confront the big bad and stop his evil scheme, which of course requires them to engage in a series of fights with baddies along the way. Hunter x Hunter is known for subverting cliches and putting unique spins on familiar shonen tropes, but The Last Mission plays all its ideas embarrassingly straight, right down to its climax featuring a friendship speech that brings our hero back to his senses and a random last-minute power-up that inexplicably saves the day.
The Last Mission isn’t written like a Hunter x Hunter story, which is shocking considering writer Nobuaki Kishima is a veteran of the classic ‘99 series. Yet despite his experience with the franchise, the movie reads as if it was written by someone who barely knows these characters. Gon’s characterization is particularly bare, reducing him to a stereotypical optimistic shonen hero instead of the naive but morally grey protagonist fans laud him for being. Kurapika’s righteous characterization is also baffling, as his character arc in this film implies that he’s given up on revenge, which stands in stark contrast to his single-minded obsession with recovering his clan’s scarlet eyes and punishing their purchasers that isolated him from the rest of the characters until the most recent arc in the manga. The series’ protagonists are shallow imitations of themselves in this film, their characterizations boiled down to a few personality quirks and stock archetypes. Some fare even worse, with characters like Hisoka and Bisky essentially being included as glorified cameos without meaningfully contributing to the story. What’s most frustrating is that The Last Mission’s story offers opportunities to explore the characters in interesting ways, like emphasizing how Gon’s self-sacrificing protectiveness of his friends would lead to his mental breakdown and self-destruction in the Chimera Ant arc or truly exploring the lengths to which Kurapika would betray his moral code in pursuit of revenge. Alas, The Last Mission prefers to boil down its conflicts to simple, black-and-white good vs. evil conclusions, offering sophomoric perspectives and answers to moral questions that are completely inconsistent with the worldview of Yoshihiro Togashi and the series itself.
Where The Last Mission’s thoughtlessness differs from similarly fatuous shonen films is that it attempts to tackle themes necessitating careful exploration instead of indiscriminate idealism. The unimaginatively named villains of the flick, The Shadow, were once a division of covert ops agents within the Hunter Association. They differed from other Hunters because they used On, a virtually identical power source to Nen outside of the vague and intangible assertion that it is powered by malice and hence evil. One day the Hunter Association decided to not engage in covert ops missions anymore, but instead of simply disbanding Shadow, they had future chairman Netero murder them all. Deciding that wasn’t good enough as a cover-up, they rounded up their families and threw them into concentration camps to work them to death until their entire group died out.
This is where The Last Mission’s poorly thought-out narrative transforms from being simply trite to truly heinous. Essentially, the villains of the film are allegories to Jewish Holocaust survivors whose families were persecuted and murdered for their faith. Their goal is to force the Hunter Association to release the “Black Report,” which details all the atrocities committed against their people by the Hunter Association. Their end goal isn’t murder and bloodshed, but justice and reparations for the genocide of their people. These are the villains of this movie. They are all killed by our heroes. The Hunter Association does not release the Black Report, reveal the truth, or admit to any wrongdoing. This is presented as a good thing. Our protagonists do not mourn the needless genocide of a group of people but celebrate the fact that now nobody will ever use the power of On again.
The supposedly corrupting influence of On is treated like the problem and the reason for the deaths of the Shadow, but it is never made apparent what makes On that much more dangerous than Nen outside of simply asserting that it is and its aura being black. The idea of “evil Nen” is completely ridiculous conceptually since Nen is a neutral force that can be used by anyone regardless of their morality. It’s also difficult to believe that the Shadow, who were covert-ops agents simply following orders and doing their jobs, committed atrocities the Hunter Association couldn’t tolerate considering hundreds die cruelly in the Hunter Exam every year. Netero states at one point that Hunters are allowed to hunt other Hunters if they’ve committed an unforgivable sin, but it’s hard to believe that members of the Shadow ever committed more terrible crimes than what gleeful murderers like Hisoka or Illumi or even Netero himself have gotten away with without consequence. Instead, the members of the Shadow seemingly did nothing wrong, and their families were most certainly innocent, and yet they are persecuted for simply for using a different power from other hunters. Implicitly, being different was their sin. The film celebrates the destruction of the other and preservation of homogeneity and the status-quo.
It’s doubtful that screenwriter Nobuaki Kishima intentionally laced this story with such startlingly disturbing nationalism. However, the film’s appropriation of blatant Holocaust imagery and the parallels it draws are unignorable, which makes it difficult not to interpret its themes from that allegorical perspective and consider the real-world implications of its messages. Gon and Netero claim that they’re compassionate and tell the main antagonist Jed that they will change the way things are, words that ring hollow when it’s revealed that the Hunter Association continues to bury the truth and Gon’s takeaway is that they’ll never let people use On again. Instead, it reads as if our protagonists believe that they are morally right in persecuting and murdering the Shadow and their ilk and show no remorse, making Netero’s final speech to Jed feel condescending as if he’s forgiving him when it’s Netero who should be apologizing at the very least. What does Jed need to be forgiven for? For using a different power than what the Hunter Association prefers? For wanting the Hunter Association to be accountable for the atrocities they committed against his people? While Jed does kill people, he only kills those who are trying to kill him. In general, The Shadow members abstain from murder, and while they threaten to execute Netero and hold the attendees of Heaven’s Arena hostage it’s unlikely that they would’ve done them actual harm if the Hunter Association acquiesced to their demands. Much hullabaloo is made of Jed’s subordinates making a contract with him to put their lives on the line for strength and sacrificing their lives in pursuit of revenge, but that’s nothing that Nen users in the series haven’t done before, most notably Kurapika’s nen powers which are defined by his desire to murder members of the Phantom Troupe. Our protagonists aren’t morally righteous in the traditional sense; they don’t think about killing people or sacrificing themselves in pursuit of their goals. It’s hypocritical for Gon to become upset at the Shadow members for doing the same things he and his friends pull, and it’s especially nonsensical to place the blame on On when Nen users consistently make the same choices.
The concept of the “Black Report” itself is particularly annoying because of how blatantly it rips off the idea of Chapter Black from the eponymous arc of Yoshihiro Togashi’s previous series Yu Yu Hakusho. Like the Black Report, Chapter Black is a record of terrible crimes against humanity, and the spread of the tape becomes a worrying concern of the series’ resident institutional power, the Spirit World. Ultimately, the tape is destroyed because the protagonists come to the conclusion that it is a one-sided propaganda piece that only shows the worst of humanity, ignoring the good. Not making the tape public makes sense in context of that story for that very reason; antagonist Shinobu Sensui only sees the world in black and white, and Chapter Black is evidence to him that humans are evil, but our heroes know that people aren’t all the same and the world must be seen in shades of gray. It seems like Kishima was attempting to replicate that story’s message, implying that hiding the Black Report is the righteous thing because it only lists the Hunter Association’s crimes and doesn’t accurately characterize it as an organization. Where the Black Report differs from Chapter Black is that it is not merely propaganda, but explicitly a record of the genocide committed against the descendants of the Shadow, a crime against humanity that has been kept from public knowledge and has gone unpunished. Exposing the Black Report would force the Hunter Association to actually be accountable, offer reparations, and would hopefully prevent future tragedies at their hands. Destroying a glorified snuff film isn’t comparable to hiding a written record of systematic oppression and genocide of a group of people by a governing institution that wields worldwide influence. Yet the film depicts the truth being hidden away forever and the Hunter Association escaping accountability as a good thing; a righteous victory instead of an insidious act of inhumanity.
The ill-thought ideology of the film is already enough to declare it unwatchable, but there is genuinely nothing else worthwhile here for Hunter x Hunter fans. This is director Keiichiro Kawaguchi’s sole experience with the franchise, and he produces a serviceable looking film albeit uninspired in its staging, action sequences, and compositions. Despite making such a big deal of how dangerous On is, functionally it’s just nen and the fights boil down to traditional beat-em-ups, which stand in stark contrast to the complex power systems and battles of wit so integral to the series’ appeal. Not only is the bulk of the action unmemorable, but several key scenes are undercut by limited animation, particularly the hilariously unanimated battle between Netero and Jed in the film’s climax which consists mostly of still illustrations. The film’s score is its only strong point, using several iconic tracks from the series and some great instrumental renditions of a few of its ending themes. That aside, this film rarely feels like a cinematic experience, and any given episode of the television series is much better-looking and creatively directed on the whole.
The Last Mission not only misunderstands the moral complexities of Hunter x Hunter’s protagonists and world, but its attempts to draw a clear line between good and evil ring hollow when the institution the heroes are fighting to protect is so clearly corrupt. The “right thing” as presented in the movie is so clearly wrong, but the movie never questions whether our heroes are right for stopping Jed or interrogate Netero’s responsibility. It’s one thing to have morally ambiguous or even villainous protagonists, it’s another to use the Holocaust as inspiration for your villains’ motivations, and frame it being covered-up as a good thing. That’s not just an irresponsible message, it’s dangerous. While the movie might not be taking its ideas seriously, this is subject matter that must be examined and discussed critically, because even junk fare like this film can normalize hateful ways of thinking that have real-world consequences. The world of Hunter x Hunter is bleak, but what makes it so compelling is the humanity and creativity at its heart. The Last Mission is antithetical to everything the series stands for and is not an adventure even the most die-hard fan should embark on.