Hunter x Hunter’s strength and beauty lies very much in how it examines queerness both implicitly and explicitly via how its many queer characters settle into their identities through self-awareness and growth, and by exploring relationships, friendly and romantic, with other characters. Over the course of the series, we meet a number of queer and queer-adjacent couples who illuminate the multitude of ways friendship and romance can develop while the couples involved are learning more about who they are as people.
Within the first arc, we meet three of Hunter x Hunter’s main couples, each of which embodies a different phase of romance — from sweet adolescent meetings, to emerging adults, and finally to established adulthood. Given that this is the introductory arc for HxH, I’m breaking up this mini-series within a series (truly taking a detour) into three articles, one for each of the couples I’m going to talk about. This won’t necessarily be the format with subsequent arcs!
The framing of the Hunter’s Exam allows us to see how the members of each couple come to understand and get to know their respective partners through the use of transitory moments and movement. It’s in the show’s quietest moments — long-distance running and conversations on airships — that we see the foundational romantic development between Gon and Killua and the murky romance-slash-friendship between Kurapika and Leorio. In the case of the fucked up oldest set of lovers, Hisoka and Illumi, we’re instead shown this development by their remaining fixed and at rest while the show also uses physical distance to indicate that they’ve been intimate off-screen. Using this time, which anime (and most media, honestly) often relegates to over-exposition or filler episodes, Togashi and the HxH anime team paint the foundational relationships that carry through the series in broad strokes.
As a note, I’ll use terms like “couple” and “partner” interchangeably to analyze how characters are paired off narratively into relationships with specific intensity; this doesn’t mean I’m discussing these relationships as currently established romantic ones.
*cracks knuckles* You with me? Awesome, let’s dive into the unfolding relationship between Gon and Killua.
A Skateboard and Fishing Pole Meet Cute
The nature of how Gon and Killua were raised in their respective homes kept them isolated from other children the same age, and left them both desperately seeking to fill a void of loneliness.
But it’s not just because these two are the same age and have the same level of loneliness that they sought each other out — they also each needed a friend who was at a similar level to them, and what they find in each other is more than friendship; they push each other to grow and experience the joys of youth together.
Their first meeting is organic and speaks volumes about their innate personalities. Killua, curious about this other strange twelve-year-old participating in the exam, approaches Gon, who we know from previous episodes is open, curious, and eager to meet others. In that small interaction we immediately see how easily taken they are with each other:
Killua introducing himself to Gon in the first gif is one of my favorite meet cutes in shounen anime (the other favorite being between Onoda and Manami from YowaPeda and their sunrise bike ride date a few episodes later). Within a minute of meeting Gon, Killua hops off his skateboard, choosing to run alongside this other kid taking the Hunter’s Exam to progress through the exam as equals. While much of the HxH anime takes us through Killua’s ruminations about how he is positioned in Gon’s life, the Hunter’s Exam and Zoldyck Family arcs make it clear that Killua distinctly chooses not to compete with Gon as a rival.
Taking that first step off Killua’s skateboard sets off what becomes his threaded internal struggle throughout the arc. Killua, with his years of experience, vast knowledge, and battle awareness often looks back at Gon, wondering why he chooses to keep the group together instead of prioritizing his own interests:
As far as Killua can tell, Gon is at roughly the same level for growth and potential as Killua, with the distinct difference that Killua’s skills are more polished — particularly when it comes to assessing battle circumstances accurately and comprehensively.
Collectively, this would usually be built into what other shounen series would set up as a classic rival scenario: In other situations (looking at you Sasuke), the already-polished deuteragonist would wonder what they’re lacking in comparison to their “rival” until their brooding potentially leads them to find a riskier path to gaining power (or turns them into a dubious villain) in an effort to be perceived as an equal again.
Togashi, however, dangles the rival bait before throwing it away all together. As Killua, slowly succumbing to Illumi’s manipulation, wonders what he lacks in comparison to Gon after watching him battle Hanzo, Leorio vigorously shakes Killua from the sidelines. What he lacks is emotional support from his family, but it’s okay because he’s already friends with Gon who does give him that support. Gon is almost naively transparent in his healthy displays of affection for Killua, which is something Killua hasn’t experienced before, and Killua is understandably dazzled by Gon’s earnestness.
Killua is only able to start believing that he and Gon are truly friends and equals because of their conversations throughout the Hunter’s exam, which give Killua the first sparks of hope that he is capable of throwing off his family’s expectations and living for himself.
Since the bulk of character development and relationship growth during this arc occur in transitional moments, like I stated in my intro, the payoffs come in the “dynamic” moments of the Hunter’s Exam. Utilizing downtime efficiently for these conversations adds weighted realism to the plot while simultaneously raising the stakes in the interspersed fast-paced action scenes.
How often do we find ourselves having meaningful, life changing conversation in dire moments? Because Togashi effectively balances his use of time, we’re rarely put in situations where the audience is bored or the characters remain in an extended state of brooding. And since we’re able to witness the conversations between Killua and Gon early in the exam, the subsequent manipulation inflicted by Illumi has added, tangible weight.
While in-transit between the second and third portions of the Hunter’s exam, Killua and Gon both run amok on an airship until they’re reprimanded for being kids, and have one of their first romantic conversations while looking out at the night sky. Since Gon already gave an honest answer about his family and motivations for taking the Hunter’s Exam way back in the first part, he patiently and without judgment waits for Killua to open up to him, giving Killua the confidence to show vulnerability for likely the first time in his life.
In a move that anyone who’s experienced some degree of trauma will recognize, Killua tells Gon about the assassin-family-business in a way meant to shock, or allow it to be brushed off as a joke as a defense mechanism. Gon, to Killua’s bewilderment, takes Killua’s words as truth. In response, Killua closes his body off from Gon:
This is likely one of the first times someone has seen Killua for who he is without his being tied to the Zoldyck family, and this gradually allows him to let his guard down and be honest about his feelings. In the following conversation, Killua reveals the underlying reason he’s taking the Hunter’s Exam — not because he’s bored but because he’s trying to carve out his own path:
Killua hasn’t been given the opportunity to safely discuss what’s really on his mind and in his heart to anyone before, and he needs to turn away and hide the depth of his expressions and vulnerability. Gon, despite appearances of pure naïvety, intrinsically understands Killua’s apprehension and loneliness since Gon himself has experienced a similar sentiment. He’s able to support Killua and give him the room he needs to be able to express himself as freely as he’s capable of in that moment.
Gon even takes Killua’s abrupt change in conversation tone and topic in stride without interrupting or judging him and, most importantly, without telling Killua what he should and shouldn’t be feeling. It’s a shockingly mature response which actually made me gasp the first time I watched it. And since Killua is extremely not used to being heard or opening up to this degree, his body language only opens again when he switches to making light of his warped family dynamics and joking around, which Gon only half-heartedly laughs at:
Damn Gon, way to be a good listener to your boyfriend! All joking aside, this moment sets up the underlying emotional depth to Killua and Gon’s growing relationship; it’s not about surpassing their current strength defeating increasingly stronger adversaries together. The emphasis on their relationship illuminates more about grappling with their internal struggles and trauma while also being there for one another. Which does eventually come to a head in the Chimera Ant arc but that’s *checks notes* another 70 episodes away.
NEXT TIME ON HxH DETOURS (mini-series!): I break down the early friendship-maybe-romance-potential partnership of Leorio and Kurapika.