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Author’s note: Like the previous reviews in our Yu Yu Hakusho series, it is based in the English dub version of the anime.
I love Rock and Metal music. Besides comics, manga, anime and other topics that I cover in Nerdgenic, music is another big passion of mine. And a common situation in music, particularly in the Metal genre, is when an artist makes an album that becomes a major hit and the next step is to make a follow-up that is of the same style and approach, but artistic curiosity and ambition commands that the artist to push the envelope and offer fans something different.
That is the exact situation that author Yoshihiro Togashi found himself in when writing Chapter Black, the most ambitious Yu Yu Hakusho arc in the entire series.
The previous arc, the Dark Tournament, has been a massive success for Togashi and Yu Yu Hakusho as a whole in both a creative and commercial sense. It was a hit in every sense of the word and it has been widely regarded ever since as the best arc in the series, but the author didn’t want to rehash already charted territory and decided to go for something a lot darker and more experimental. This is how the Chapter Black arc came to be and how some of the seeds of what Togashi would end up doing with his other major series, Hunter X Hunter, were sown here.
Chapter Black is dark, disturbing at times, unconventional and definitely brilliant, even if it has some structural issues that were caused by the author’s state of mind at the time of the writing process. But overall, it is a very exciting arc that offers a lot of interesting elements and also pushes Yu Yu Hakusho into a much more unique and eerie atmosphere that traditional shonen anime series don’t go for.
Yu Yu Hakusho: Chapter Black Saga – The Premise
A few months after the events of the Dark Tournament, Yusuke and his friends are having a quiet life, but that changes when Shinobu Sensui, the former Spirit Detective, gathers a group of psychics to break the barrier that separates the human world from the demon one and that sets a lot of events in motion, including them kidnapping Kuwabara so he can use his new-found power, the Dimension Sword, to break said barrier.
Yusuke and his friends have to deal with the threat of the psychics, different levels of demons slowly creeping into the human world and the ever-present threat of Sensui, who proves to be an even more powerful foe than Toguro was.
Changing The Approach
The summary of Chapter Black is so simple and straightforward that it could deceive people into thinking that this is just another shonen storyline by the numbers. But if anything, this arc represents the exact moment that Togashi, despite going through some turmoil in his life at the time, found his style of writing that would define his work with Hunter X Hunter.
See, this arc represents breaking away from the conventional shonen tropes: a new rival shows up, more powerful than the previous one, the main character gets stronger and everything is well and good. And while some of those elements are definitely present in Chapter Black, the execution is a considerable departure from what traditional anime/manga was doing at the time, at least in the mainstream.
Unlike the Dark Tournament, which was a battle-centric arc, Chapter Black is a lot more strategic and complex in terms of how it moves the story forward. In the previous saga, Yusuke and his friends knew that they only needed to beat the opposition in each round and everything would be fine–this time around, they can’t overpower the enemy because the enemy is not playing by those rules.
Sensui is a very powerful enemy, but he doesn’t rely soley on his brawns and focuses on putting our heroes through ordeals where their minds and morals are challenged. Take into account that there are battles in Chapter Black, but they are a lot more strategic, such as Sniper vs. Yusuke or the Amanuma videogame situation, or more of a moral challenge, such as Yusuke having to choose on whether to kill the Doctor or not and Kurama’s dilemma against Amanuma.
Here in Chapter Black, Togashi decides to push the envelope with the concept of the territory, an ability that psychics have to exert their powers, while also not relying on the same old trope of just offering stronger rivals. In this arc, our heroes are challenged intellectually and they have to act according to that, which is something that Genkai already foreshadows in the first couple of episodes.
This leads to a lot more elaborate situations, such as the fight between Yusuke and Sniper. If it was a simple, Dark Tournament style battle, Yusuke would probably had won with ease or at least in a convincing manner, but Sniper manages to set up the ideal scenario to benefit him and takes advantage of his foe’s context so he can take control. The end result is our protagonist being hunted down like a wild animal and Hiei having to rescue him–if it wasn’t for Hiei, Sniper would have killed Yusuke because he was smarter and more strategic.
It is a fascinating concept that Togashi would expand upon with his Hunter X Hunter series: not relying just on physical power, but also on how that power is used and how intellect and planning can level the playing field for weaker enemies. Perhaps that is why Kurama, the most intellectual and strategic out of the main cast, got to shine so much in the latter half of the series (although more on that later).
There are moments where Chapter Black feels like a puzzle that the characters are trying to figure out, but they were not ready for. It’s an intriguing concept for an arc and while I think that Togashi misses the mark in few key spots (something I will elaborate on in the following section), the sense of experimentation and change is very exciting and you can feel the series growing and developing into something a lot more complex.
I love the Dark Tournament and is is my personal favorite arc of the series, but there is an element of originality and unconventionality in this saga that is very compelling. But not everything is perfect.
Simple Solutions To Complex Problems
There are a lot of themes in Chapter Black: the responsibility and legacy of being the Spirit Detective in charge of the balance of the spirit, human and demon world (direct contrast between Yusuke and Sensui’s philosophies of life), how far you are willing to go to do what you deem as right and just, the best and worst of humanity and the fact that you can’t solve every issue through mere physical violence. That is all well and good… but then Togashi failed to stick the landing.
I understand why Togashi never fully realized the potential of this arc: it was his first time trying something very ambitious in his manga and he was going through a lot of health issues, both physically and mentally, that were taking a huge toll on him and I have a lot of respect for enduring all of that. Having said that, I can only review and analyze the story for what it is and not for what it could have been, so this is what I have to work with.
During the entire arc we are told, both directly and indirectly, that you can’t fix everything through just overpowering your opposition, but that is exactly how a lot of problems are solved. Kuwabara saves his friends from Seaman by unlocking a much more powerful sword, Hiei simply stabs Sniper when things got difficult for Yusuke and Yusuke himself beats Sensui in the final act by overpowering him with his new demon form (more on that later).
While Kurama’s resolutions with Amanuma and Elder Toguro were disturbing, powerful and impactful due to how shocking they are, the vast majority of the arc’s resolutions don’t fit the gravitas and stakes of the storyline. A good example of this is Doctor pushing Yusuke to kill him when he has never taken a human life and yet we get a copout by Genkai, only making the theme of the arc a lot less compelling.
Sensui’s entire point is humanity’s willingness to commit awful acts and while he works as a moral and intellectual challenge to our heroes, he is also a walking hypocrisy because he has committed heinous acts as well, but that is fine because he is the antagonist–he is supposed to be morally bankrupt, especially when you consider that his whole goal is to eradicate humanity. But when he asks the heroes, particularly Yusuke, how is he going to fix these situations, we never get a proper answer, whether it’s vocally or through actions–everything is fixed because the protagonist got a power-up, which seems anathema to the arc’s core themes.
There are a lot of great concepts and ideas at display here, but Togashi’s state of mind at the time made it understandably difficult for them to be executed at their full potential. For example, Kuwabara is mostly a plot device for the vast majority of the arc due to his new powers being able to break the barrier and even though he ends up doing it, the consequences are never truly felt and he never does something meaningful to the plot beyond inspiring Seaman to become a good guy.
This is something that can be expanded upon with Hiei and Kurama. All three of them are the main guys along with Yusuke, but this arc slowly turns into the Yusuke Urameshi show. Sure, he is the protagonist and he is going to be more important, but the Dark Tournament did this a lot better by giving all four main characters a lot of the spotlight, even if Yusuke was the main man. Here you have Kuwabara being mostly a plot device, Hiei not appearing for almost two thirds of the arc and Kurama becoming very prominent in the final third, only to decrease in importance once more when they reach Sensui. It feels so uneven and unfair to these characters.
Speaking of Sensui…
Sensui is a great villain. I like his backstory, I like his motivation and I like the fact that he adds an element of darksome complexity to the series. Toguro is probably the definitive Yu Yu Hakusho villain, but there is a disturbing element to Sensui that makes him fit so well with this arc. He feels dangerous and unbalanced, making him a very capable and unpredictable enemy.
The thing is that everything got ruined, at least from my perspective, when the seven personalities thing was introduced. I don’t have a problem with a villain with several different personalities, I even think it could be really cool, but even though it was foreshadowed with a few subtle elements throughout the arc (hell, even the anime version has it foreshadowed with Sensui’s seven shadows in the opening), there was too little mention of it to justify it by the time it’s fully presented in the third act during his fight with Yusuke.
It is also even more annoying when you consider that we never fully saw Sensui’s seven personalities on display. We only hear about them through exposition, making the whole point very redundant. Why not make it three or four personalities, then? If you are not going to expand upon it, might as well just leave it at that.
All of this does Sensui a disservice because he was a great foil to our heroes and I enjoyed how he managed to challenge the whole series’ worldview until that point. If you have been following the show until that point, Sensui’s original assessment of “humans good, demons bad” seems valid, but he now adds a more complex view of the world and this makes Yu Yu Hakusho a much richer, philosophical story.
He is a great villain that, with a few tweaks here and there, could have been one of the best in anime history, but the final resolution, plus his seven personalities plot twist, didn’t do him any favors.
And speaking about that final resolution…
Yusuke’s Demon Heritage
I’m going to be straightforward here: I don’t like Yusuke’s demon heritage plot twist. I do like how it allows him to have that experience in the following arc, but as a resolution for Chapter Black… I’m not a fan of it.
There has been subtle foreshadowing of his demon heritage throughout the series, such as the phoenix energy coming out of him during his battle with Toguro in the Dark Tournament, but, much like Sensui’s personalities, that is not enough. And like I said before, a complex, ambitious arc about relying on strategy and pushing the moral envelope is resolved by the main character simply becoming stronger than the enemy in typical Dragon Ball fashion. I love Dragon Ball, but I expect more from Yu Yu Hakusho and Togashi in terms of storytelling.
It feels like a cheap copout and it undermines Yusuke’s death and the pain the Kuwabara, Hiei and Kurama went through. I felt that the moments after his death at the hands of Sensui were beautiful and it would have been amazing for the series to end with the other three avenging his death by defeating Sensui, but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. At the end of the day, the resolution didn’t live up to what we saw until that point in the arc.
His demon form does set up the following arc, Three Kings, quite well, but it doesn’t give Chapter Black the ending it deserved. If anything, it made things a lot more bittersweet and you can see the storytelling in the series starting to decline once Sensui shot Yusuke with that gun, to me that has always been the pivotal moment where the show’s quality started to be affected.
Chapter Black is an ambitious arc, albeit a flawed one. It has a lot of rich storytelling methods, complex themes and it breaks away from a lot of popular shonen tropes. It tries to push the genre forward while keeping things entertaining. There are a lot of great moments and its definitely enjoyable, but it fails to stick the landing in some key moments.
Overall, there is an element of tragedy with the Yu Yu Hakusho and we are going to discuss it even further with the Three Kings arc. A spectacular series whose final fate was decided by a lot of external factors that affected the story greatly, leaving an element of frustration for a lot of us fans.
This arc is a great example of excellent ideas being executed in a less than stellar manner, which is a bit of a shame on a lot of different levels. But we are going to have a much clearer understanding of that with the final arc: Three Kings.