In the last five years, the modern adaptation of Yoshihiro Togashi’s Hunter X Hunter by studio Madhouse has gotten to be one of the most critically acclaimed long-form shounen action series ever put to animation–and rightfully so as I’ve discussed in a previous video. However, if you grew up with anime in the 90s and early 2000s as I did and lived in one of the countries where it was broadcast, then you may also be familiar with Togashi as the creator of Yu Yu Hakusho, which received a 112-episode anime adaptation from 1992 through 1995, and which was one of the first shows broadcast on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block in the early 2000s.
Now, I’m not typically the type to get into an old show again purely on the basis of nostalgia. Having remembered Yu Yu Hakusho as the usual sort of Shounen Jump series that I grew up with, I didn’t feel an incredible need to go back and rewatch or finally finish the show until after seeing Hunter X Hunter and coming to appreciate just how masterfully Togashi could handle the genre. After sampling the first couple of episodes, I was immediately struck by both the fact that Yu Yu Hakusho has probably my favorite English dub ever, being one of only five or so anime that I actually prefer in English; and by the fact that it was every bit as addicting as its successor.
Yu Yu Hakusho opens with the accidental death of its fourteen year-old main character, Yusuke Urameshi, in a car accident, which leads him to meeting the grim reaper, Botan, and realizing that the spirit world was not actually prepared for him to die yet. Botan gives Yusuke a chance at being resurrected–which, in the manga, involves him assisting with her grim reaper work for a little while through a series of random episodic stories as the spirit world judges whether or not his soul is worthy of resurrection. It’s pretty obvious when looking at the manga that the series was originally meant to be more about Yusuke doing ghost stuff, but likely as a result of this arc not being all that especially good or popular, Yusuke was resurrected by the end of the second volume, and the series was quickly retooled into more of a typical shounen battle manga.
The anime adaptation crops out most of Yusuke’s time as a ghost, leaving only the important and emotional plot bits, and has him resurrected by episode five–at which point Yusuke realizes that he is now able to see spirits and demons, as well as to use special powers thanks to tapping into something called “spirit energy.” Yusuke is then hired by spirit world to become a spirit detective, protecting society from all kinds of evil demons with his growing special abilities.
From there on, Yusuke gathers new allies in the form of his arch-rival turned best-friend with weirdly high spirit awareness, Kuwabara, along with the first two demons that he was forced to take down, Hiei and Kurama, and the hardass old spirit warrior who trains him to become much more powerful, Genkai. Eventually, the main four become a demon-hunting team, and the first twenty-six episodes focus mostly on their casework of fighting lots of demons with crazy powers. Eventually, the series introduces a more central villain in the form of the Toguro Brothers and launches into a gigantic forty-episode arc titled the Dark Tournament saga, during which the story becomes more streamlined and solidly battle-focused.
These first sixty-six episodes comprise the meat and potatoes of the Yu Yu Hakusho anime series, and are what I watched on TV over and over again growing up. As a kid, the things I remembered most were the awesomely over-the-top attacks which the main characters would learn as the dark tournament saga chugged along, as well as the truly epic fights which tended to come at the end of each minor team battle arcs. As an adult, I appreciated these fights only as much for the creativity of their powers as I did for the quality of the show’s visual presentation.
You know how in most long-running battle shows, you’ll every once in a while get that one extremely well-animated and cool-looking fight that really blows you away? Yu Yu Hakusho is like that for almost every fight in the Dark Tournament saga; and since there’s a fight in almost every episode, this means that the animation is incredibly impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another anime series with the sheer wealth of unique and awesome battle sequences that this one contains, with its frequent use of astounding animated backgrounds, intense effects animation, and highly imaginative framing and movement.
Every fight in the Dark Tournament saga has its own flavor to it–not only because of how different each fighter’s powers are, but because of how the animators went about representing the use of those powers. Yusuke vs. Jin is all about high-flying, sweeping motion and moving backgrounds, while Hiei using the Dragon of the Darkness Flame always involves episode director Akiyuki Shinbo turning on the trippy–using harshly-colored backgrounds, intense shading, and crazy effects work. Even if you ignored the storyline entirely, I think the first sixty-six episodes of this series would be watching for fans of animation in general just for how wickedly awesome the fighting tends to look.
That said, even if you do come for the story, then you probably won’t be disappointed. While the central narrative of the series is about as simple as they come, mostly serving as a vehicle to drive in as many battles as possible, the characters are among the more complex and interesting personalities in the shounen battle genre. Yusuke in particular is probably one of my favorite lead characters in any shounen series on the basis of his personality and how his arc plays out.
Yusuke is the typical sort of street punk who spends more time in fights than he does in school, which was a massively popular archetype in the early 90s; but right off the bat, we’re given a lot of insight into his state of mind and what’s caused him to act this way. His father has never been around, his mother is an alcoholic, his schoolteachers are assholes, and everyone is either afraid of him or out to kick his ass besides his childhood friend Keiko. Yusuke tries to deal with the pain of his situation by acting like a cool badass, but he’s also high-strung and hates being misunderstood just as much as he fears being actually understood, so he projects an angry and standoffish attitude in order to avoid confronting his feelings.
Over the course of the series, Yusuke’s biggest hurdle is in learning how to be outwardly authentic about his feelings, and to be comfortable with himself as a person. Even as he slowly realizes inwardly how much he values others and their friendship, it’s so hard for him to admit when he cares about something that it can cost him those things he cares about in the long run. His training with Genkai ends up being not only about trying to power himself up physically, but also about learning to admit the things that he cares about, and to put effort into fighting for them instead of giving up and taking the lazy way out.
Watching Yusuke grow up over the course of the series manages to be highly satisfying, as his emotional complexes become more and more difficult thanks to his growing power lever and feelings of belonging as a spirit detective clashing against his attempts to deal with the life that he always has to come back to. In the end, his arc is all about taking the things which he learns about himself over the course of the series and figuring out how to reconcile all of them against one-another to come out as a better-rounded individual–all of which ties in directly to how well he can use his powers.
Each of the other leading characters has their own arc to explore as well. Hiei similarly deals with giving in to authenticity and getting over his hatred of the world and other people as he slowly develops friendships with the rest of the cast. Coming into this series after having seen Hunter X Hunter, it’s easy to interpret Hiei as a sort of prototype version of Killua, both because of the fact that he’s got a younger sister with her own special powers that he’s trying to protect from a distance, and because of the way that he develops a bond with Yusuke over his respect in Yusuke’s ever-growing powers. There’s a scene at the start of the Dark Tournament wherein Hiei, after testing Yusuke’s new abilities, states that the two of them will be able to take on the entire tournament alone, which sounds exactly like something Killua would say about himself and Gon.
Kuwabara and Kurama are more stationary characters for the majority of the series, but are fleshed out in a lot more depth as we get into their heads and understand their perspectives on the world and people around them. Every one of the side characters and villains tends to have their own backstory and goals which drive them, with the history between Genkai and the villainous younger Toguro brother forming the awesome dramatic backbone of the Dark Tournament saga. It’s worth mentioning as well that Toguro is probably one of my favorite shounen villains, as he does the whole parallel-with-the-heroes thing very well without it ever feeling cheesy, and is the perfect mixture of threatening and badass that makes him a joy to watch. I think elements of the way that he tries to set everything up so that Yusuke will keep gaining power before their eventual battle have later been used as the basis for Hisoka.
As is the case with its successor, the biggest structural success of Yu Yu Hakusho is in how quickly it moves from battle to battle and from arc to arc, with new ideas constantly coming into play and keeping things fresh. Only a handful of battles at the end of the major arcs are given more than an episode and a half of runtime–and in the case of the final battle of the Dark Tournament, its four-episode climax is very well-earned. In fact, I think Yu Yu Hakusho does a better job than almost everything else in the genre at maintaining smooth and logical transitions between its major arcs. Having said that, if there were moments of Hunter X Hunter that you thought were kind of ass pull-y, then expect the same kind of things from Yu Yu Hakusho.
While the powers and situations tend to be a lot less complex or creative in this series than those in Hunter X Hunter, they are introduced briskly enough, and the dialog between the characters is enough fun, that the show remains nearly as addicting and exciting. It isn’t until the Chapter Black saga, which follows after the Dark Tournament, that the powers become complex enough to warrant more lengthy expository dialog–and it’s during this arc that the series overall begins to feel a lot more like Hunter X Hunter.
The Chapter Black saga brings with it an unfortunate trade-off, though. On one hand, the powers and the storyline are a bit more complex, and the new villain, Sensui, has a bit more going on with him than any of the previous ones. On the other hand, with the exception of a couple of standout scenes, it’s from this point forward that the animation consistentcy becomes a lot more standard. Episodes begin to feel a bit more drawn out, with a lot more use of recap footage, and some of the hand-to-hand combat sequences are a lot more lazily done. The narrative of this arc is more intriguing in its complexity, but features way less emotional gravitas compared to the Dark Tournament saga, and nowhere near the cathartic payoff that came with that saga’s climax. Nevertheless, Chapter Black is a worthwhile piece of shounen action, and ramps up the darker, more psychological elements of the series to the kind of level that Hunter X Hunter would become known for ten years later.
Rounding out the show, then, is the much more brief–perhaps outright truncated–Three Kings arc, which is probably the weakest in the series, but not without its points of interest. It gets pretty obvious pretty quickly that the show has to wrap up now, with the power creep having reached its logical conclusion and most of the characters being nearly done with their development; and it also gets pretty obvious that Togashi was bored of writing the series and tried to wrap it up as quickly as possible, as the arc starts off seeming like it could go on for a while before very abruptly speeding towards its end. In fact, the anime version actually adds in a lot more detail to flesh out the last part of the arc, whereas the manga simply brushed past it.
Even though the Three Kings saga has by far the least interesting plot and most lackluster animation, though, it actually does a pretty nice job of wrapping up all of the character arcs and sending the series off with satisfying conclusiveness. In the end, I wasn’t left with any unanswered questions, and I felt like I’d gotten everything I wanted from the series, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for most of the stuff in this genre.
If Yu Yu Hakusho is worth recommending, then it certainly isn’t for bringing anything wildly new or interesting to the shounen battle genre. If anything, it is decidedly straightforward, even in comparison to a lot of its ilk. You won’t find the seemingly endless universe of creativity in this series that you will in something like One Piece, Dragon Ball, or Hunter X Hunter; and indeed it seems like with the latter series, Togashi deliberately gave himself a lot more breathing room with what he could get away with. Having now seen the way Yusuke makes a beeline from powerless, to as powerful as he could possibly get over the course of the series, it’s easy to see why Togashi chose to surround Gon with a so much bigger and less scalable world, populated by so many more powerful fighters.
Yu Yu Hakusho feels like the shounen battle concept boiled down to its most simple and effective elements, and charges through it at a brisk pace without leaving a lot of room for continuation. It completes all of its world-building and character development decisively; which, depending on what kind of fan you are, may be exactly what you’re looking for after dealing with the endlessly incomplete nature of most of the modern Shounen Jump stories.
What sells Yu Yu Hakusho is simply its raw entertainment value and the strength of its characterization. Yusuke and his team have good chemistry together and are all highly memorable, distinct characters, both in terms of design and personality. Yusuke himself does a better job of carrying the whole series on his shoulders than any other shounen lead I can think of, to the point that during a few small arcs wherein he was either sleeping or training for several episodes on end, it almost felt like the entire tone of the series had shifted. Yet, any time that one of his teammates took the spotlight, they always brought their distinct flavor to the forefront and got me hyped to see what kind of stuff they were going to do.
All in all, I would say that Yu Yu Hakusho was among the best long-form shounen series that I’ve seen to date, and easily one of the best anime adaptations. I never felt like it was wasting my time, and there was not only a total lack of filler, but even a lot of questionably worthwhile parts of the manga cut from the show, with bits added in that the manga was at a loss without. For at least sixty-six episodes, it had a level of consistency in its inventive animation that honestly kind of blows Madhouse’s Hunter X Hunter adaptation out of the water; and after seeing just how much killer stuff could be done with this series on cels in the 90s, I found myself eager to check out the 1999 Hunter X Hunter adaptation, which I’ve heard is more inventive than its remake as well.
Parting thoughts: Botan is cute, Shizuru is mai waifu, and Koto is best girl, all years; dragon of the darkness flame in episode 58 was the most hype shit I’ve ever seen (except that Meruem vs. Netero was actually five times more hype); finally seeing the Fingers Around My Dick episode while drunk after seven years of quoting it was the most satisfied I’ve been and the hardest I’ve laughed watching anime in a long time; and follow me on twitter if you want to see thoughts like this while they happen.
If you’ve ever been a fan of Yu Yu Hakusho, then tell me about your experiences with it in the comments below; and stick around while you’re at it, because I’m gonna be using this show as a springboard in the near future to talk about more of Akiyuki Shinbo’s work in the early 90s, so check that out when it drops. If you want to help me to make videos like that one and this one from here on out, then consider supporting me via patreon or paypal by following the links in the description. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!