With Hunter x Hunter having claimed dominance in discussion of shōnen battle anime as of late, it’s easy to forget that its author, Yoshihiro Togashi, had already left his mark on the world of shōnen manga with another popular and critically-acclaimed series, so today we’ll be taking a look at the Shonen Jump classic: Yū Yū Hakusho.
Leading the charge on Yū Yū Hakusho‘s many, many strengths is its first episode, which I might go so far as to call the greatest first episode of anime of all time. The episode opens on our main character, Yusuke, dying after getting hit by a car, and then recaps Yusuke’s day up to that point. His different interactions with friends, students, and authority figures paint a complex and nuanced view of Yusuke as a teenage boy, conveying two fundamental aspects of his character. The first is the dichotomy between his violent and angry personality, as portrayed by how he interacts with those who dislike him and even how he tries to attack the EMTs moving his lifeless body, and his willingness to help those who deserve it at a moment’s notice regardless of his own well being, as shown by how he saves a child from being hit by a car without a second thought. The second is the cycle of violence that Yusuke has become trapped in, wherein his reputation as a punk causes others to mistreat him, thereby fueling Yusuke’s anger and spurring him towards more violent behavior that justifies the loathing others have for him, leading him to believe that the world might be better off without him.
All of this culminates in Yusuke viewing his own wake, where he realizes just how many people actually care for him, while also managing to not overreach or completely invalidate his frustrations with the people around him, and so Yusuke is set on a path towards getting his life back. It is, quite simply, the perfect character introduction. If I absolutely had to find fault in this episode, it’d be that there’s no indication that this series will eventually become an epic action/adventure story about fighting demons, but in this case, establishing Yusuke as a character is vastly more important, as the bulk of the story hinges on Yusuke’s growth and his interactions with others.
Adding onto the list of superlatives, Yusuke himself is certainly a contender for best protagonist of a Jump anime, both in terms of character development and as an engaging and compelling fighter. Yusuke’s eagerness to turn any opponent into his personal punching bag gives him a slightly angrier edge than is typical for Jump protagonists, and he rarely seems motivated by a search for justice or anything nobler than simply wanting to beat someone’s face in. Yet, he never goes so far as to be completely unlikable or morally unjust, with his few outbursts of nobility coming only when he’s faced with something truly despicable.
Each of the anime’s four main arcs also seems to convey a different step in how Yusuke relates to his fighting abilities and his role in the story. The first arc, the Spirit Detective Saga, is a series of shorter adventures in which Yusuke is thrust into the role of Spirit Detective in return for getting his life back and is forced to defend the Human World from a series of malicious demons who threaten the lives of everyday people. At this point, Yusuke mostly detests his assignments and would much rather goof off, though he does gradually become more accustomed to running errands for a higher power as the story progresses. The arc itself is a bit scattershot and functions mostly as a series of thrilling adventures for Yusuke to take part in, but is still immensely enjoyable as a series of retro demon beat ’em up stories while also planting many thematic seeds that will take dozens more episodes to fully blossom.
After that comes the Dark Tournament, consistently lauded as one of the best arcs in Shonen Jump history, and there is definitely a strong case for it. It’s an absolutely massive tournament arc where Yusuke and friends are forced to fight for their lives against some of the strongest competitors that Demon World has to offer and puts the fighting front and center to show off Togashi’s creativity in constructing fight scenes that are simultaneously creative and emotionally compelling. It’s here that Yusuke first begins to come into his own as someone who truly enjoys tussling with the world of the supernatural, with the straightforward brawls of the tournament both pushing him to greater heights as a fighter and serving as an outlet to relieve his stress.
Unfortunately, this newfound excitement doesn’t come without its drawbacks, as this arc, along with Yū Yū Hakusho as a whole, rides a fine line between celebrating and critiquing masculinity. On the surface, this is, without a doubt, a manly fighter anime. Chivalry and honor factor heavily into the motivations of several characters, and the vast majority of situations are resolved by a brutal beatdown between two insanely strong combatants. At the same time, Yusuke is constantly punished for suppressing his feelings. The story reinforces again and again that Yusuke’s power is directly tied to his emotions and his ability to fight for the people he cares about, but because he feels the need to emotionally guard himself with his tough guy act, he sequesters those emotions in a deeper part of his heart and has trouble accessing greater power when he needs it the most, leading to some of the most dramatic moments of the entire series in his showdown with Toguro, this arc’s final boss, that show just how powerless Yusuke can be despite all of his training.
Following that we have Chapter Black, in which a former Spirit Detective is corrupted and attempts to open a permanent tunnel between Human World and Demon World in order to bring about an apocalypse. This brings into focus yet another of Yū Yū Hakusho‘s many themes: the moral pitfalls of humanity as a whole. The arc’s namesake comes from a video tape compiling the worst sins of humanity, and the moral corruption of this arc’s main villain, Sensui, was caused by his previously simple view of humans and demons becoming uncontrollably muddled, thus leading him to yearn for humanity’s destruction. As such, Yusuke’s slightly-above morally neutral demeanor makes for a perfect challenge to Sensui’s desire for a purified world. Yusuke’s moral limits are continuously tested as the arc progresses until all that’s left is for him and Sensui to fight it out themselves in a “might makes right” duel for humanity’s future. This arc is also notable for its villain cast being composed primarily of humans, as opposed to previous arcs in which demons were the big bads, further feeding into the idea of humanity’s moral shortcomings and forcing Yusuke to come to terms with the reality of his own existence.
All of this eventually culminates in the anime’s final arc, Three Kings, where Yusuke truly becomes a more mature individual and all of the missing pieces to his character finally fall into place. Having soundly defended the Human World from so many threats to its existence, Yusuke’s only remaining quest is to figure out what direction his life should go in. Will he keep pursuing the upper limits of his fighting abilities or finally give it all up in favor of a more normal life? The restlessness of Yusuke’s heart and some shocking secrets about his heritage lead this story to one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve seen from a shōnen battle anime, cementing Yusuke as one of the most interesting, inspiring, and iconic protagonists to ever grace a Shonen Jump series.
Of course, Yusuke isn’t the only character in this story, and Yū Yū Hakusho provides plenty of supplementary character work. From Kuwabara’s classic chivalry to Kurama’s suave cunning to Hiei’s sinister scheming, the main cast of this series is filled with vibrant and lovable characters that, much like Yusuke, continue to develop and deepen as the story moves forward. Even the ancillary one-note characters go above and beyond the simple roles assigned to them, my personal favorite being the ever-excitable and charismatic Koto, ringside announcer for the Dark Tournament.
However, there is one supporting character that stands head and shoulders above the others in how she relates to Yusuke, that being Keiko, Yusuke’s girlfriend. That’s right: a Shonen Jump battle anime with a consistent romance element to it. Granted I’m not saying that every story like this needs a romance element, but if they could do it as well as Yū Yū Hakusho does, then they would definitely be more than welcome. With Yusuke being a generally aimless and reactionary character, lofty goals and great achievements aren’t something that he finds motivation in. Instead, the source of his power almost always lies in his relationships with others and his desire to protect the few people in his life that actually understand him beyond his surface-level facade, with Keiko being the one who tries the hardest to bring that more empathetic side of Yusuke to light. It’s for her that Yusuke is able to persevere through the most painful and desperate challenges of his life, with his love for her fueling his spirit well beyond what even he thinks he’s capable of.
Keiko on her own certainly isn’t a slouch either, in particular with her no-nonsense approach to the antics of Yusuke or anyone else who tries to mess with her, as well as a deeply empathetic side that draws the best out of those around her. While it certainly would have been interesting if she had become part of the main fighting group, her character works much better thematically as one that is entirely separate from that world. Though she recognizes that it’s important to Yusuke and one of the few things that evokes any emotion in him besides disdain and anger, she also recognizes that she has her limits and can never be fully brought into that world with him, leading to many of the most powerful emotional moments in the entire series.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the moral spectrum, the villains of Yū Yū Hakusho are just as captivating, each showing off varying levels of complexity and thematic intrigue. Those from the Spirit Detective Saga don’t have too much in the way of depth, but the creativity of designs and the scenarios built around them still make them memorable as far as fodder villains go. On the other hand, more relevant and impacting villains like Toguro and Sensui are incredibly captivating both on their own in seeing their back stories slowly meted out over dozens of episodes, and in how they work as foils to Yusuke and force him to reflect upon his inner self. The fact that the final arc doesn’t have any outright villains at all is yet another reflection of Yusuke’s growth, having neared the end of his journey and arrived at a point where the only battle with real stakes for him anymore is the one inside himself.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Three Kings for a sec. This arc is often derided as the ugly step-child of the series for its relative brevity and the notion that Togashi had wanted to end the series with Chapter Black, but was coerced into continuing it by Jump’s editors, but both of these critiques fundamentally miss all the great things that this arc has. A smarter, more developed Yusuke, a clearer look at Kurama’s and Hiei’s back stories in order to give them a proper sendoff, a deeper dive into Demon World politics, and the answer to where Yusuke’s life will go in the future. This is a great arc that gets way more hate than it deserves, and its final episode even goes so far as to enhance an otherwise lackluster manga conclusion. The only area where it truly lacks in comparison to previous arcs is that it’s less creative with its battle sequences, though it’s hardly mediocre in that regard either.
Speaking of which, the fights throughout this series are some of the best that long-form shōnen has to offer. Much like Hunter x Hunter, Togashi sets up an extremely flexible power system. Humans have spirit energy, demons have demon energy, and you can do pretty much whatever you want with either of these, inviting a boundless level of creativity in designing different characters and fighting styles. Some lean towards the complex and intriguing like with Game Master’s video game realm and Kaito’s language-based control schemes, while others are pretty basic in concept but endlessly engaging like Jinn’s high-flying wind manipulation and Kurama’s control of plants, and some reach a state of simple jaw-dropping amazement like whenever Hiei pulls out the Dragon of the Darkness Flame as a finisher. And, of course, these powers and fights are backed by impressive animation and ambitious cinematography, sporting the early work of big-name industry figures such as Akiyuki Shinbo, best known for his many projects with Studio Shaft.
The sheer brutality of these fight scenes is also part of their appeal. When it comes to visceral punch-ups and gruesome deaths, Yū Yū Hakusho goes surprisingly hard. There’s just something so tangibly satisfying about seeing disembodied ghosts bite off someone’s torso, and the meaty grit of the sound design further amplifies the most impacting moments to truly gratifying effect. While we’re on the subject of sound, the soundtrack remains as invigorating and iconic as ever. It does certainly lack a bit in variety up until Chapter Black, but the tracks that it does have are strong enough to carry entire scenes by themselves. When that descending piano line kicks in, you know you’re in for a truly epic beatdown.
In terms of the broad idea of a Shonen Jump battle anime, Yū Yū Hakusho is the first that comes to my mind as the definitive example of this kind of story. The focus on Yusuke’s development into a more complete human being, the simple yet engaging way in which it constructs its fantasy world, and the raw excitement that its fight sequences inspire all come together to craft a straightforward, yet endlessly enjoyable story. I could certainly nitpick a few areas where it feels dragged out, and some of its humor definitely does not age well, but its core strengths are so solid that they more than make up for any potential faults. It is truly deserving of its title as a classic.
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