Late to the Party: Yu Yu Hakusho is Everything

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I started watching Yu Yu Hakusho on VRV, two months ago, partially because of the impending split with Funimation, but most because of @BlackGirlsAnime‘s deep and ceaseless love of the anime/manga– you should be following her. Foolishly, I thought I could marathon 112 episodes in 3-4 weeks before VRV lost the rights to the anime– don’t worry, every episode is on Hulu, now. Two months later, I’m halfway through the anime… and loving it.

The motivation for writing this piece came when I realized how little credit I have given to Yu Yu Hakusho, and how much it deserves– basically, I’ve spent years heaping all the praise on Dragon Ball Z for creating most of the shōnen archetypes and tropes. I know I’m about two decades behind but I would like to talk about why Yu Yu Hakusho is great and why it’s so important. I will draw some (loose) comparisons to subsequent manga/anime.

Written and illustrated by Yoshihiro Togashi, Yu Yu Hakusho debuted in November 1990 in Shueiesha’s Weekly Shōnen Jump. It follows the adventures of 14 year old Yusuke Urameshi who gives his life to save a little girl from getting run over. He’s revived by Koenma, prince of the spirit realm, who deems him good Spirit Detective material.

Yusuke wastes no time delving into the business of spirit detectives. Along his foray into the world of yokai, he is joined by longtime high school rival Kuwabara, and the demons Hiei and Kuruma, the four form bonds that transcend the human, demon, and spirit realms.

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**Warning: Mild SPOILERS AHEAD.**

One thing I love about Yu Yu Hakusho, and this was pointed out to me by someone else, is how it displays positive male-male relationships and rivalries. Hiei, Kuruma, Kuwabara, and Yusuke dedicate substantial amounts of time to be their training, each is in their own pursuit of strength and skills, this is just as it is in many shōnen anime. What separates Yu Yu Hakusho is the degree to which the main character support and nurture the talents of their peers. Prior to the Dark Tournament arc, the four warriors come together and from then on, they function as a group– each member is as critical to their total success as the next. They are a unit. There isn’t a Goku or a Luffy or a Naruto/Sasuke who run so far ahead of the pack, that the conclusion of each arc depends solely on their might. Yu Yu Hakusho is about teamwork, plain and simple.

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I want to pair Yu Yu Hakusho with Dragon Ball Z for a moment because both maintain a massive influence over Shonen manga, the highest grossing and arguably most recognized anime genre in Japan and overseas. Both aired during the same era:

Yu Yu Hakusho: aired from November 1990 until July 1994.

Dragon Ball Z: aired from April 1989 until January 31, 1996.

Both series draw heavy inspiration from Buddhist fables, Hakusho more from the occult, though through their shared inspiration, they also share characters modeled from the same Buddhist deity, Yama.

More importantly, both series revolve around young heroes from humble backgrounds who ascend to extraordinary levels of physical strength. Dragon Ball is dominated by muscle freaks who look like they live at the gym. The outcome of any Dragon Ball fight is usually determined by the sheer amount of ki (energy) a character possess– this means that we leave some of the well known Dragon Ball characters in dust, fairly quickly. If Dragon Ball Z was a band, Goku would be the front man the people paid to see– think Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones), Micheal Jackson (Jackson 5), Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child). Whoever joins him in a fight usually serving to demonstrate how necessary Goku is to their survival. This isn’t the case with Yu Yu Hakusho, which features smaller, more unisex heroes working in a very collaborative effort. The moment I realized it wasn’t just a show about pummeling another brawn baddie came with Master Genkai’s passing. Using Togoro, a former ally, who in a mad quest for power relinquishes his humanity to transition into an ageless demon, as a cautionary tale, Genkai warns:

“Listen to me Yusuke. Everyone must fight against time… he ran away from that fight. He threw away his pride, his soul, and his friends… don’t make that mistake, Yusuke. You are not alone, don’t forget who you’ve become strong for.”

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None of this is to disparage the Dragon Ball franchise, which I love and is the very thing that got me into anime in the first place, but to say that watching Yu Yu Hakusho has given me a greater understanding of some of my favorite anime that developed in its wake like Naruto, Hunter x Hunter, One Piece, Bleach, and Inu-Yasha.

Follow along as I make (loose) comparisons.

  • Writer & illustrator Yoshihiro Togashi would go on to create and helm the massively successful and influential Hunter x Hunter, featuring a protagonist (Gon) with wielding a fishing rod as a weapon and tool of spiritual divination. We meet a proto-version of his character in the much less likeable Ura Urashima, during the underworld tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho.
  • Before the brooding, raven haired Uchiha Sasuke arrived on the scene in Kishimoto Masashi’s Naruto, there was the demon, Hiei. Masashi has openly stated his affinity for Yu Yu Hakusho and stated that it was an inspiration for Naruto.
  • In 1994, Shōnen Jump premiered Rurouni Kenshina manga about a wandering ronin called , who has left a life of death behind him in search of redemption. Himura Kenshin is a soft spoken, red haired warrior with a cross shape scar across his face. Sound familiar? I don’t know if this was intended, but seeing as how both appear in the same publication, there’s definite grounds for probing.
  • Inuyasha debuted in 1996 through Weekly Shōnen Sunday. It featured a half human/half demon protagonist with a familiar likeness. Though both Kuruma and Inuyasha borrow from the same occult mythology, it can’t be denied that Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha and Sesshomaru bears a striking resemblance to Kuruma’s Demon Fox Form.
  • Kurapika, a main protagonist in Hunter x Hunter, Yoshihiro Togoshi’s massively successful follow-up, is said to be heavily inspired by Kuruma. Both are boy prodigies, both are androgynous, both are exceptionally intelligent, and soft spoken. Kurapika wields a magically imbued chain, whereas Kuruma wields a rose whip.
  • Kuruma is also the name of the Nail Tailed Demon Fox in Naruto. This is said to be a nod to Yu Yu Hakusho.

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Conclussion:

When paired with some of its modern successors, Yu Yu Hakusho’s animation may feel dated– more so in seasons 1 & 2. It may feel a bit like going back to the fundamentals for younger anime fans, but I can’t stress how worth a watch it is. This is an anime that leaves you feeling good. Think of it like listening to your favorite band’s favorite band. Neither is Yu Yu Hakusho a case of static characters. Throughout each arc, we see each character pressed and forced to make tough decisions. Often, they must put aside their personal well-being in favor of the survival of the group.

If you’re looking for a show to binge, this winter, look no further than Yu Yu Hakusho.

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