Note: This review assumes that you have at least finished the York Shin City arc in Hunter x Hunter (whether the original or the 2011 version).
Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge is a largely derivative work replete with anime cliches. Omokage, Divine Puppeteer and ex-4th Phantom Troupe (from here forth referred to as “the Spiders” to differentiate it from the movie’s name, Phantom Rouge) member, conjures Soul Dolls out of people’s memories. This allows Phantom Rouge to conveniently revive old characters to become arbitrarily strong (due to people’s memories) and weak (because they are puppets) as the plot requires. But Omokage can’t conjure the eyes, so his puppets must steal other people’s eyes. The plot begins with Kurapika and Leorio hearing a rumor of another member of the Kurta Clan (with Scarlet Eyes) wandering around Yorknew City, and after a long search they confront Pairo. The kicker: Pairo (along with the rest of the Kurta Clan) is supposed to be dead. A confused Kurapika steps in closer to examine Pairo and end up getting his eyes stolen.
Right off the bat, whenever we long-term shounen anime watchers hear the words “memories”, we could already foresee a main conflict: the characters facing their inner demons. However, Phantom Rouge doesn’t stop at this cliche; instead, it racks them up like a Killer Instinct Ultimate Combo. Contrivances are made to give characters who have no place in a situation a role to play; for example, Kurapika selects this little boy Pairo to go on a mission that involves heavy lifting. He explains, “I’ll take Pairo. If it’s Pairo, I’ll leave with no regrets.” Later on, he proclaims his platonic love, “We’ll always be together Pairo.” And if that isn’t subtle enough, he adds, “Forever and ever!” Kurapika stubbornly laments, which is very much within his character, “I refuse to believe that was the real Pairo” (that stole his eyes). Leorio, however, replies, “No! If Pairo was your friend, he would have never messed you up that badly” — such vapid bro logic that leaves out a myriad of other possibilities. It also limits the possibilities once we understand that this is the level of writing we’re dealing with. Adding to the list of cliches: the mass public (imagine everybody on a busy street) uniformly responding to a relatively contained situation involving the main characters (we’ve all seen this one); Hisoka conveniently helping out Gon and Killua under the guise of having fun; Gon making bald claims causing Omokage to overreact, leading to his undoing. The Soul Doll puppets are not supposed to be able to betray their masters, but with enough… (you guessed it) willpower and love… And what shounen fight digression would there be without the obligatory little girl that falls in love with our protagonists, but must separate eventually because, after all, they are not a part of the canon plot? I introduce Retz, whose attachment to Gon makes Killua go into plenty of jealous fits.
The problem in all this goes beyond that it makes for a predictable, disjointed plot (that is a self-contained problem), but that when Phantom Rouge is taken in context of the overall Hunter x Hunter franchise, it makes the characters inconsistent — Phantom Rouge breaks the characters. Gon is made to be more happy-go-lucky than he has ever been. The amount of lines declaring the virtues of friendship in Phantom Rouge is enough to match a One Piece compilation. At one point a manic Gon (who has been separated) saves a dejected Killua from a train just in the nick of time by following his scent. Killua asks Gon why he’s willing to go this far for him even though Killua had abandoned him. Gon instantly responds in unchanging countenance, as if his face has been stuck on happy mode, “What are you saying Killua? If it’s you, I don’t mind getting betrayed. I’d still believe in you!” Killua, on the other hand, is constantly tormented by his older brother, as shown in the opening exposition, a nightmare of Illumi Zoldyck telling him that he would never make any true friends, that either they will betray him or vice versa. The problem is that this is actually a canon plot point later on in the Chimera Ant arc, and by repeating this device so frequently in Phantom Rouge and allowing Killua to overcome it diminishes Killua’s reaction later on. To be sure, it could have complemented it if it is portrayed more subtly, if it doesn’t brick Killua so immediately, sometimes making him run away with his head down and crying like a shy girl archetype of a harem show, making Gon out to be his knight in shining armor.
After all, freezing in fear plays no part in the fight-or-flight instinct, and Killua has fought strong opponents before somewhat functionally. Instead, Killua bricks and then overcomes this fear with such gusto by the end that, when viewed in chronological order with Phantom Rouge before the Chimera Ant, it would make Gon seem almost clueless and forgetful of his friend’s psyche, and Killua unrealistically relapsing as if this episode has never happened. The Spiders’ role in Phantom Rouge is relegated to arriving after most of the action, such that when they proclaim, “We take care of our own matters,” it make them seem incompetent. Lastly, it’s questionable how Omokage himself ever joined the Spiders, given that he has no offensive or defensive capabilities of his own — his powers revolve around making arbitrarily weak puppets and assuming their weakened powers.
With a plot like this, not even the fight scenes — including ones where every character preaches a sound bite before rushing in and hitting each other at the exact same time — could save it. The saving graces are that if you like Hunter x Hunter, Phantom Rouge has similar art style, more shadow detail, much more detailed backgrounds, and much better animation. And despite all its logic chops and character breaking, the movie never flat out offends — it could pass the time if you just want to relax and turn off your brain for a little over 90 minutes, just enough to take a short nap… or not (it’s a toss up). You might even wake up just in time to catch Gon professing, “Killua, I love being together with you!”, in which Killua nonchalantly responds, “It can’t be helped.”, before looking up at the horizon, blushing with puppy eyes. Whoever commissioned this amateur fanfic anyways? 3.5.
L-Bound/U-Bound represent the worst and best, respectively, that I expected Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge to end from watching it up until the point in the chart. I didn’t come into Phantom Rouge with high expectations, but I expected it to be decent. The initial dip at the start was due to it spending 5 minutes on an Huncyclopedia introduction, which if you haven’t seen the show, is a chibi Gon and Killua talking about things in the show. This is unnecessary considering the movie is self-explanatory. Nevertheless, the movie opened up with a quite extreme nightmare or flashback of Illumi making sure Killua never interacts with any children his own age. This sets the main theme of the movie, and not very gracefully. From 5.4 in the beginning, Phantom Rouge only goes downhill. The plot advances and fight scenes just aren’t interesting enough given the questionable plot to even temporarily raise the score. There just isn’t any hair-raising tension like when Gon and Killua infiltrate the Spiders in the show; the Spiders actually has a menacing air about them, as if something could go wrong at any instance. In Phantom Rouge, between the Spiders not being able to attack Gon and his friends due to the curse Kurapika put on their leader, and the inconsistent weakness of the Spiders puppets — and that Omokage was able to join it in the first place — the Spiders has been reduced to little more than a joke. Even when Gon is taking a beating, it never feels as if they are in any serious danger.
Warning: This pie chart is unscientific.