Movies that are outside the canon of a beloved TV usually have an uphill struggle to win over the fans before the first frame ever rolls. I think there are a number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that a simple line of reasoning is, “If it was good enough to be in the original series, it would have been in the original series.” There’s a reflexive revulsion against anything that has a whiff of “filler” to it that poisons the well before a lot of people take a drink, and in truth the track record of side-story movies of long-running shounen classics isn’t exactly a stellar one.
I prefer to take each one of these as it comes, and there are some contrary currents with Phantom Rouge. In the first place, Togashi-sensei himself wrote the scenario – if there were any doubt in your mind about that, he kills three kids in the first scene just to make sure you know it’s him. And it’s clear very early on that this is a Togashi work – the themes he loves from the manga are dominant in the film, if in a slightly different form than we’re used to. I saw the movie in a theatre when it came out and wrote a short review at the time – in short, I liked it a lot – and it turns out that I was able to follow along well enough to guess most of the major plot points accurately. The biggest uncertainty I had was Phantom Rouge’s place in the series timeline, but with subs it’s very clear – this is between “York Shin” and “Greed Island”. In fact, it could even be said that Togashi uses it to fill in some gaps in the series’ backstory (and what will later become backstory, once later arcs run their course).
Here’s the hard truth: Togashi-sensei is a writer who scripts almost exclusively in long arcs, with astonishingly detailed plots and subtle character progression. With a movie like this you’re talking about effectively four episodes of anime, which would place it as considerably shorter than the “Zoldyck Family” arc, the shortest true arc in H x H – and Phantom Rouge is telling a much bigger story. As such it obviously feels rushed by Togashi’s standard, and the character drama by necessity plays out in broader terms. In some respects I suppose the movie could be said to have a more traditionally shounen feel than the series, but there are still elements that are so uniquely Hunter X Hunter that you never feel as if you’re watching an imitation. This may not be the best album in the catalogue, but it sure as hell isn’t a cover band. Phantom Rouge is very good – it’s just not as good as an 18+ episode arc in the TV series.
There are many different things happening in the film, which does take on an epic feel that belies its short length (about 95 minutes, with credits). When I originally saw Phantom Rouge I thought (based on the advertising) that this was effectively Kurapika’s story, with the others as supporting players. Well, in fact while it’s Kurapika’s past that directly triggers the events that drive the plot, this is very much Gon and Killua’s movie in terms of screen time. In fact it’s Killua who has most of the big character moments in the film, and there are strong echoes of what we’ll see from him in the “Chimera Ant” arc later on. It seems as if Togashi took this opportunity to flesh out some of the more important elements of his character arc in a way he never had time to in the TV series, and Killua’s fans should be happy with the results.
I think the best part of Phantom Rouge, though, is – perhaps not coincidentally – the part that Togashi turned into a one-shot manga “Kurapika’s Memories”. It tells the story of Kurapika’s childhood with the Kurta, and his best friend Pairo (Umika Kawashima, who had me absolutely convinced she was actually a boy and not an adult actress). This is the part of the story that resonates most deeply in terms of emotion, a tragedy that refuses to stop being a tragedy, even after almost all of the players are dead. In the “fleshing out” of backstory process this is an example of how it should be done: the events match with the canon seamlessly, and they make perfect sense emotionally. If there’s a revelation here, it’s that Kurapika was not a sweet and gentle soul who was pushed to hate by what happened to his tribe. He was kind, certainly, and fiercely loyal to his friend. But he was also, even then, prone to rage and recklessness. The beast that we saw in “York Shin” was one that Kurapika always had inside him, waiting for the right trigger to awaken.
The plot that drives the movie’s present timeline is somewhat more conventional, though it does do a good job of allowing most of the cast to shine in a somewhat different light than we’re used to seeing them. There’s a man named Omakage (Fujiki Naohito) a Nen Specialist who fancies himself a “Divine Puppeteer”. He also sports a spider tattoo (#4) on his palm, which is effectively the nexus of the entire plot. There’s also a girl named Retz (Hirano Aya) who’s a bit of a puppeteer herself, and goes around pretending to be a boy while she performs her act. As for the main cast, Kurapika has been severely wounded while chasing down rumors of a member of the Kurta tribe being alive, and Leorio has called in Gon and Killua to provide assistance in helping to recover something very important that’s been stolen – Kurapika’s eyes.
In the first place, it’s awfully nice seeing the big four together again – it’s been a long time since that’s happened. But once again, one of the interesting elements of Phantom Rouge is seeing familiar characters in somewhat unfamiliar situations. Gon and Killua’s scenes with Retz are especially interesting, because we’ve never really seen them interact with a girl their own age before. Some of the best (and funniest) moments in the film come from watching Killua’s reactions to seeing Gon with Retz – and he’s transparently jealous even before he accidentally cops a feel and discovers “he’s” a girl. Killua and Gon’s relationship is the spine of the film, naturally, because it’s the spine of the series – but I think it’s meaningfully advanced here in ways the manga and TV series didn’t advance it. There’s a darker side to the degree to which Killua is dependent on Gon to provide meaning in his life, and Phantom Rouge certainly casts light on it very effectively, though ultimately their friendship is the positive energy that powers the engine of Hunter X Hunter.
Hisoka and the Phantom Troupe are here, too – even the dead members. That comes about as a result of Omokage’s ability to make a puppet out of anyone he sees, which was his reason for joining the Troupe in the first place. Hisoka is Hisoka – he’s creepy, hilarious, snarky and a badass of ridiculous proportions. That he should end up coming to the aid of first Kurapika and then the boys is hardly surprising – he’s been very consistent in his view that they’re “unripe fruit”, and he’s not going to let anyone else pick them. It’s a bit more of a jolt to see the other Spiders do so, though, even if their reasoning makes perfect sense in the context of the plot. If there’s a Spider who stands out in the movie, it’s definitely Nobunaga. He was always one of the more interesting members of the Troupe for me – the one who was hardest to classify as an outright villain. Nobunaga is deeply loyal, has a personal code of honor (such as it is; it does allow him to kill innocents) and clearly has a sense of affection for Gon and Killua that’s not hard to spot in Phantom Rouge.
There’s a kind of gleeful fantasy element in Phantom Rouge, where we get to see some dream battles take place at last – Nobu vs. Uvogin, Killua vs. Illumi, Hisoka vs. Chrollo. They’re all faux battles of course, but nevertheless provide a bit of a thrill. It’s Illumi and Killua who provide much of the drama in the second half of the movie, as we see that even in puppet form Illumi is still in Killua’s head. Much of what’s playing out in the “Chimera Ant” arc now is “foreshadowed” here, as we get a taste of how Illumi has bent Killua’s psyche in plainer and more direct form than we ever did in the series itself. There’s a familiar pattern here – Killua sees himself as not good enough to be Gon’s friend, and it’s Gon’s unbending belief in him that gets Kil through the worst moments and allows him to struggle forward. In the end, though, even as everyone else can point to the dream they’re chasing, it’s hollow for Killua because he knows he has no positive ambition on his own. His life is driven by a fear of what he is and what he might become, and the only forward ambition he has is defined by Gon. Kil’s deep desire to be a friend worthy of Gon is a powerful dramatic element, but the larger problem is never faced directly – only deferred. Until Killua defines himself by his own dreams and neither by his fears or his quest to stay by Gon’s side, he’ll always be incomplete and at risk of succumbing to the darkness inside him.
In the end, Killua is willing to make a sacrifice for someone besides Gon – for Kurapika, though it seems fruitless in that Kurapika’s hands are already dirtied. Still, this is the essence of Killua – to walk the dark path because he’s already in his mind a defiled person. One suspects that Killua would benefit from the opportunity that Omokage had, to see the world through Gon’s eyes – and it’s a bright and beautiful place. But as Leorio says, those things belong to ourselves and our own hearts, and it should probably stay that way. The ending is a bittersweet one, but ultimately affirms the friendship not just of Gon and Killua, but of all four members of the core group that we began this journey with. We even get a brief look-in on some faces that aren’t a part of the story yet – Bisky, Kaitou, and even Ging himself. This affirms the sense that Phantom Rouge isn’t an outlier, but rather a previously missing piece of the puzzle that slides neatly into place. When there’s only one piece of the puzzle left there’s not much challenge in finding its place, true, but the piece still fits – and Phantom Rouge makes Hunter X Hunter a more complete picture.
ED Sequence: “REASON” by Yuzu