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Author’s note: This review is based on the American dub of the series, so keep that in mind when reading it.
Very few old-school anime series have aged as well as Yu Yu Hakusho. The first major creation of mangaka Yoshihiro Togashi, mostly known for his work with another great franchise, Hunter X Hunter, Yu Yu Hakusho was published in the early 90s and it has built a massive fanbase with both the manga and anime and for good reason: it’s as good as the legends say it is.
I watched Yu Yu Hakusho back in my childhood and I remember it fondly, but, barring a few key moments from the series, I had forgotten most of it. So I decided to give it another chance now as an adult and see what I had forgotten. To see what key moments I see now that I may have missed as a kid and if my perception of the story has changed. And it did… for the better.
This is a story about the good and bad of humanity, about the value of honest emotion, about finding a reason to fight and committing all the way when something is important to you. It’s a story that has resonated with millions of people and still does to this very day thanks to the adventures of protagonists Yusuke Urameshi, Kazuma Kuwabara, Kurama, and Hiei.
“It’s time you bit the bullet and started caring about something with all your heart and energy. But you can’t care about it if you’re always holding yourself back in case it doesn’t work out. Concentrate on what’s important and then commit to it all the way.”Genkai.
So, this is the first article in a series in which I will review all four arcs of the franchise, let’s begin with the first one: the Spirit Detective Saga. The moment where it all began.
And it began with a death…
“Shut up! Let go of me would ya? Damn you! You think you could just back out because you’re scared? I’m not gonna leave. Not until he comes out of there to fight me. I’m gonna beat you down you punk. Who do you think you are? Who am I gonna fight? Who am I gonna fight? You’re supposed to be here… For me.”Kazuma Kuwabara.
For people that don’t know the plot, Yusuke Urameshi is a fourteen-year-old Japanese student that has a problem with authority and a messed-up family structure due to his single mom’s drinking. His father is nowhere to be found and he spends most of his time skipping class, getting into fights, and causing trouble for himself and others around him. His only real bond is his childhood friend (and romantic interest) Keiko Yukimura and fighting rival Kazuma Kuwabara.
Everything changes when Yusuke saves a kid that was playing carelessly in the street and was almost hit by a car, taking the former’s life instead. Yusuke realizes that he is a ghost now and the Grim Reaper, a young woman named Botan, lets him know that his death happened way before it was planned and that no one was expecting this kind of act from him. But as he witnesses his own funeral, we get to see the possibilities of him coming back to life, and the events of Yu Yu Hakusho are set in motion.
To call the Spirit Detective portion of Yu Yu Hakusho a saga or an arc is actually inaccurate on my part because it really isn’t. While Togashi would develop further arcs in a more logical and better-rounded storyline, this portion of the show (and the manga, for that matter) is a series of storylines that helps us understand our main character, his supporting cast, and the world he is living in a lot better.
For example, in the very first episode, we understand who Yusuke is through his actions and those of others, we get a glimpse of the two major players in the show, Keiko and Kuwabara, and we learn through Botan about the mechanics of Spirit World and the afterlife. We get Yusuke’s death, the touching scene of his funeral, and of course Togashi’s genius ability to mix humor with more serious and emotional story elements.
All of this in just one episode.
This is not to say that this part of the story is perfect by any means. When compared to the likes of arcs such as the Dark Tournament, Chapter Black, or even Three Kings with all its flaws and imperfections. You can tell that during the Spirit Detective portion of the show they are still trying to find their pace and style, which hasn’t reached the philosophical, character-driven, and subversive approach to storytelling Yu Yu Hakusho would come to be known for.
Instead, we get a lot of smaller arcs that serve the purpose of not only entertaining (the first and most important priority for any storyteller), but also expanding on the world, the characters, and the types of adventures Yusuke is going through. We first get his return to the living, which involves the input of his friends, such as Keiko and Kuwabara. We get an entire episode to highlight Kuwabara’s spiritual awareness and his commitment and code as a man to help his friends against a corrupt teacher, highlighting Kazuma’s core values, which will be important to his character later on. We also get the introduction of characters such as Kurama, Hiei, and Genkai, who are all going to play enormous roles in the story moving forward.
One of the biggest strengths of Togashi over the years in his career has been his handling of characters and how they develop, which is at display in Yu Yu Hakusho from the very beginning. We understand why Yusuke is the way he is and how he can’t commit to anything because he has never felt valued by anybody, which is something Genkai, later on, chastises him for during their training together. We understand that Kuwabara might be a bit of an oaf, but he means well and he is willing to go the extra mile for his friends and those that mean a lot to him, which is highlighted in the aforementioned character-driven episode and is also shown during the Maze Castle episodes and when saving his soon-to-be beloved, Yukina.
Togashi understands that characters need to have a lot of layers and this is something that is shown throughout the Spirit Detective part of the show to get us use to the coming greatness of future sagas: Yusuke is a lot more than a delinquent with a bad streak, Kuwabara is a lot more than an oaf that gets beaten by Yusuke on a regular basis, Kurama might be the most complex of the main characters in terms of who he was in his past life as a demon and his current life with his human mother and Hiei might put on a good front as your typical lonesome badass, but his willingness to go save his sister Yukina tells a very different story.
All of this makes these short, episodic arcs a lot more interesting and enjoyable because they don’t rely too much on action. Sure, once we reach Maze Castle, the gang is fully formed and we get a lot more of them as fighters and team players, but even those situations allow us to see that they can’t win just through sheer brute force, which is highlighted by the confrontations of Kurama and Kuwabara.
By the way, the iconic quartet of Yusuke, Kurama, Hiei, and Kuwabara starts around the Maze Castle part and while we are going to see them at their peak during the Dark Tournament, this is a very good beginning. Hiei and Kuwabara’s antics are pure comedy gold, Yusuke and Kuwabara’s brotherhood and care for each other are at full display during their respective battles, and Kurama’s cunningness and caring nature is also shown. They are a great team because they are all main character material and this multilayered approach to them as individuals allows for much more satisfying interactions.
Yusuke breaks down at moments of high pressure, Kuwabara sometimes gets scared, Kurama is intelligent but sometimes struggles with the challenges he has and Hiei needs others more than he is willing to admit, thus giving us a team that is very capable and exciting to see, but who are also struggling and are often challenged, which is delightful to see.
“Well, it doesn’t make sense rescuing your mom so she can spend her whole life mourning the death of her son!”Yusuke to Kurama with the Forlorn Hope.
It’s also interesting, as someone who’s been familiar with these characters since his childhood, to see how different the beginnings of Kurama and Hiei are in the series. Kurama starts as fans of the series know him as: smart, cunning, and elegant and while he has a cutthroat streak to him, as Hiei mentions during Maze Castle, he is also very kind and willing to do whatever it takes for his loved ones, such as giving his life to the Forlorn Hope to save his human mother.
Hiei, on the other hand, is an obvious example of Togashi changing directions with a character. The first storyline shows Hiei as your run-of-the-mill demon that is only there to cause trouble for Yusuke and his friends. He is not very interesting and it’s very telling that his demon form, with multiple eyes in his body, is not used ever again and Togashi in future arcs turns him into a fire-based demon with a more developed personality. It sticks out as a sore thumb when looking back at this series, knowing what is going to happen later on, but I don’t think it fits quite well even if you don’t know anything about future plots.
The fight scenes are serviceable, but I also think that this is something that Togashi (and, therefore, the anime) was still developing as a creator. There are some good moments like Kuwabara discovering his Spirit Sword, Yusuke fighting Suzaku, Kuwabara’s creativity and willingness to give his life against the Saint Beast he faced, Yusuke and Kuwabara’s team-up against the Toguro brothers and Hiei’s badass resolution to his battle in Maze Castle, but I think the series was still in this weird mix of paranormal adventures and humor without yet hitting its stride.
This is very telling when you read the manga: Togashi wrote a lot more stories of Yusuke’s adventures as a Spirit Detective and many of them were not adapted to the anime, which, in a way, makes the adaptation feel a bit more rushed in some areas, such as Genkai’s training or how we go from Yusuke coming back to life to his confrontation with the Toguro brothers and the start of the Dark Tournament. It’s a bit rushed in that regard.
I’m also not a fan of how the fight between Yusuke and Rando was resolved as our hero relied a lot more on luck than what I would have wanted. I get it, sometimes dumb luck plays a role, but considering how Rando was overpowering Yusuke, the end result was not very pleasing and satisfying.
The Spirit Detective part of Yu Yu Hakusho has its flaws and is definitely the portion of the show that feels a bit disjointed in terms of style because it’s very clear that Togashi was still trying to find his voice and the right direction to take. Having said that, part of what makes this part of the story and the whole anime so endearing and valuable to its fans is the characters and how they feel, how they think, and how they have to overcome the odds by relying on others and believing in themselves. This is something that has been done a lot in manga and anime, but here it is done in a very human and vulnerable manner, which is something that Genkai highlights in her speech to Yusuke during their training together.
The strength of the show lies in breaking shonen conventions while staying true to its core values in a fascinating paradox and this section of the show does a good job of explaining the characters and the world we’re in while also keeping things interesting. And as things progress, we get more and more invested in this group of people that want, feel and think in a very human manner.
Yu Yu Hakusho’s first saga is not perfect, by any means. It lacks an overarching direction, the episodic nature is rapidly forgotten after a couple of chapters and you can tell that the story is still finding its voice, but what it has in terms of characters, potential, and delivery in key moments is definitely there, making it a very enjoyable first part of the series.
And to think we have the Dark Tournament coming up. Things are about to get really interesting.