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Author’s note: This review covers the English dub version of the Dark Tournament arc, in case there’s any doubts with some dialogues, terms and other things of that ilk.

There are certain portions in every story that establish a movie, a book, a franchise or, in this case, an anime series as one of the upper echelons of their respective industries. There are those moments where you know the story is reaching a particular peak and its something that stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Those are the best types of stories: the ones that stay with you after you are done and whose memories are enjoyed and rejoiced for so many years afterwards.

Yu Yu Hakusho’s Dark Tournament is that kind of story: arguably the franchise’s peak and one of author Yoshihiro Togashi’s many different creative highs. It has been widely regarded as one of the finest arcs in Shonen anime and I can preface this review by stating that it hasn’t been overhyped or exaggerated–it is that good and is worthy of that legacy.

Epic in scale, compelling and dramatic in terms of stakes and with a powerful message about strong bonds with your loved ones and cherishing them, the Dark Tournament is one of those storylines that show how great anime can be and the lessons you can take from them. But how so? Let’s find out.

“Don’t you think I wanted to use my power and win this thing and go home? Of course. I just didn’t know how to reach it. And now I’m gonna have to live with that.”

Yusuke Urameshi.

Yu Yu Hakusho: The Dark Tournament Saga – The premise

Two characters from the Yu Yu Hakusho: Dark Tournament Arc

“I know these guys are cheating, I know you’re angry and, heck, I know what happens if we lose. But if you and Hiei go on some tirade, you’d be just like them. Let’s win this thing clean. Like men.”

Kazuma Kuwabara to Yusuke in the middle of the tournament.

Our heroes Yusuke Urameshi and Kazuma Kuwabara rescued the young demon girl Yukina from a corrupt organization, defeating the powerful Toguro brothers with a powerful combined attack. But what they didn’t know is that the brothers rigged the fight along with a man they had on the inside, a businessman called Sakyo, in order to get a lot of money from betting on the tournament.

A few days later, when Yusuke is hanging out with his friend and love interest, Keiko, he realizes that he is being stalked by the younger Toguro and they proceed to go to a parking lot where the latter says that he only fought him and Kuwabara at just 20% of his power. Yusuke starts panicking and Toguro does a powerful display of his 60%, destroying the parking lot and leaving our hero on the edge of a breakdown.

Toguro ends this conversation by stating that he and Kuwabara must participate in this year’s Dark Tournament as special guests, a competition where the most powerful demons fight to get a wish granted. Hiei and Kurama, two demon allies of Yusuke’s, are also invited. And Toguro points out that if they don’t show up or don’t make it to the finals, he is going to kill every single person our four heroes know.

This is the stage for the Dark Tournament and the four of them train for months before heading to an island where the event is taking place. They have to fight and they have to win… or death awaits them.

What Makes The Dark Tournament So Great?

4 characters from Yu Yu Hakusho Dark Tournament Arc

Roto: “You believe in mercy, don’t you?”

Kurama: “No.”

One of the key aspects that make the Dark Tournament arc so compelling, especially when compared to other tournaments in Shonen anime and manga as a whole, is the level of the stakes and risk at hand. In the vast majority of tournaments you have seen in manga and anime, there are usually no major risks, you can try next time if you don’t win and you choose to participate or not in the competition.

The heroes of Yu Yu Hakusho don’t have those luxuries here.

This is a competition that is do or die for our protagonists and their need to get stronger doesn’t come from a place of wanting to better themselves, but rather to win and survive. There is a level of urgency and despair in the way they go about things, especially when you consider how the corrupt committee tries to stop them from winning their rounds and how Toguro, along with his brother and teammates Karasu and Bui, are constantly shown as this incredible wall that they cannot defeat, looming over them during the entirety of the arc.

A nice touch to the dramatic, almost hopeless feel of the arc is the fact that the vast majority of the audience in the stadium are demons. They hate Yusuke and Kuwabara for being humans (Yusuke especially because of his reputation as Spirit Detective) and they hate Hiei and Kurama for “betraying” their kind to side with the other two. They are constantly booed and the demons relish in their suffering, adding this “us vs. the world” mentality and ambiance to what was already a complicated situation for our heroes.

I’m not making any huge revelations when I say that Togashi is a great character writer, but I think the Dark Tournament also highlights how talented he is when it comes to creating characters and giving them a kind of life and spark that makes them stand out, even if they don’t have a long run in the story.

Let’s take for example the character of Chu, who fights Yusuke in one of the early rounds of the Dark Tournament. You take his design, his mannerisms, his fighting style and the way he goes about things and he could very well be a main character in this anime or many others of a similar style. Same can be said with another rival Yusuke faces: Jin, the Wind Master, whose happy-go-lucky attitude and friendly battle with the Spirit Detective makes him a very compelling character for the audience.

You also have the tragedy of Doctor Ichigaki manipulating a group of martial artists so they can sacrifice their own free will to keep his beloved master alive, highlighting how Yusuke and his friends are not handed easy choices–it’s not just about winning each round, but also keeping their own moral codes and not becoming just like the demons they are facing, like Kuwabara mentions. And there are demons not just in terms of race as Sakyo, the rest of the owners of the teams are millionaire humans that take great pleasure in the brutalities on display and have no problem manipulating things to make everything a lot more difficult for our heroes.

Togashi is a master in that regard, constantly leveling up the tension while allowing for great character moments. The battle against Team Ichigaki highlights how our guys need to come up with a solution and it ends with Kuwabara sacrificing himself and Genkai giving the martial artists a key blow. You see characters of the team, such as Kurama and Kuwabara, being on the ropes and having to push themselves in order to get the necessary victories.

Yasuke defeating a character in the Dark Tournament Arc.

It’s a bit of a tonal shift from the Spirit Detective portion of the show in the sense that it has some of the classic Shonen tropes and traits in terms of being a lot more battle-centric, but is elevated by the great character writing, the overarching theme of needing others to win and how Togashi never makes things extremely serious, since there are moments of humor and positive interactions between the characters.

This is one of the strong characteristics of the Dark Tournament and Yu Yu Hakusho as a whole: the characters. Yusuke, Kuwabara, Kurama and Hiei are some of the strongest and most compelling groups in the history of anime and I’m not the first to say this. They could all be the main character of their own story, which is writing at its best because it shows that they are fully-fleshed, interesting individuals with their own ideals, desires and perceptions of the events taking place, thus resulting in a lot of engaging interactions between them and with the rest of the cast.

Add to that equation the likes of Genkai, Koenma, Botan, Keiko, Yukina and many more and you have moments between the fights that are just as interesting as those conflicts, especially as you get closer to the climax. You see Genkai’s relationship with Yusuke evolve and his cycle with Toguro coming to a close. You see Kuwabara getting closer to Yukina. You see Hiei slowly opening up to others. There is all that and a lot more, which makes this tournament an experience that has a lasting impact on these characters and who they are.

The value of an action-based story is shown in the moments where there are no battles and Yu Yu Hakusho has always excelled in that particular regard, with the Dark Tournament being a particular highlight.

Characters from Yu Yu Hakusho fighting during the Dark Tournament Saga.

The fights, due to everything I have mentioned before, are exciting and very well-done. This is because there is a lot of stakes in every single one of these conflicts while Togashi makes sure to create rivals that are interesting and layered, thus making every battle feel personal and engaging.

Let’s take for example the battle between Kurama and Toya. After Toya’s teammate sacrificed his life to give his friends a chance to defeat Kurama, the former says he is going to avenge his fallen comrade and later on elaborates that their wish is to get a place they can call home. Toya is not made out to be some diabolical demon that just wants to kill people or gain world domination; him and his friends just want freedom and tranquility, which is something that Kurama, being also cold, analytical and eager to have his own kind of freedom, can relate to.

Togashi’s story has a lot of different contrasts which gives the battles a certain edge. When Kuwabara faces the likes of Risho or Elder Toguro, they are not meant to be relatable to Kazuma: they are meant to highlight their lack of empathy and lack of humanity while also highlighting Kuwabara’s own willingness to fight and die for those dear to him.

So by the time you reach the finals with Team Toguro, you feel that you have gone through a journey and the definitive confrontations feels earned and massive. This is because everything has been leading up to that battle, but also because you know our heroes have had to overcome a lot of ordeals to get there, thus making the conclusion a lot more satisfying.

Now I would like to focus a bit on each character and how their stories went during this arc because there is a lot to explore in that regard.

Hiei

Various images of Hiei's battles during the Dark Tournament arc.

“Detective, don’t waste your time trying to change their minds. Fight by their meaningless rules, and you will be pulled down with them. THERE’S ONLY ONE REAL LAW OF THE DARK TOURNAMENT: THE STRONGEST MAN PREVAILS!”

Hiei

The character arc Hiei goes through in the Dark Tournament is the least notorious and least subtle out of the four main characters, but is also one of the most interesting because it relies more on details and gestures.

Hiei started out as a throwaway character that Togashi wasn’t planning on using, but as he changed his mind, he altered him from his demon-based form to a more fire-based warrior. This is important because part of his character arc relies on his power and the belief that he has in it, which is highlighted by his attempt at mastering a powerful and forbidden technique, the Dragon of the Darkness Flame.

The fact that Hiei manages to even summon the dragon is something that a lot of people are in awe of, but it takes a toll on him and part of his journey is learning to trust others as he recovers. For example, there is a moment in the story where Team Urameshi is being cheated by the committee and Hiei attempts to break free from his prison and start killing people, but once an injured Kuwabara mentions that he is going to step in and win this round legally, Hiei actually obliges, even if he maintains his tough guy act–he could have ignored Kuwabara’s initiative and went on a rampage, but he decided to trust the one person on the team he dislikes the most.

The final arc of the show gives a lot more clarity to Hiei’s past, who he is and why he is the way he is, which is important to point out because he is a character that struggles greatly with bonding with people, but the Dark Tournament plays a major role in him getting closer to other people and we also get to have him interact with his sister Yukina, despite Hiei’s difficulty to tell her that they are family.

Of course, he is also really badass when fighting in the tournament and his fight with Bui in the finals, especially when using the Dragon of the Darkness Flame, is one of the highlights of the show in terms of animation. He’s probably the most dominating fighter out of Team Urameshi and he is also one of the most cool to see.

I do wish we could have seen more of Hiei in the tournament and I do wish he had more obvious character moments, but the fact he lost to Kuwabara in rock, paper, scissors is one of my all-time favorite moments in anime history. There, I said it.

Kurama

Kurama fighting a character in the Dark Tournament.

Karasu: “You flatter me, but we’re still not equals.”

Yoko Kurama: “Rest assured, Karasu, I wholly agree.”

Kurama is one of the most complex characters Togashi has ever created. A legendary demon thief, he was given a second chance in life when he escaped Demon World and took the body of a baby that had just been born, growing up as a normal boy with a loving mother. His time in this human body, along with the beautiful childhood that he enjoyed, combined with his calculative, ruthless nature with a more caring and compassionate view of the world. This duality, this massive contrast between the powerful bandit Yoko Kurama and the soft-spoken, emphatic teenager Shuichi Minamino, is the core of his character arc in the Dark Tournament.

The more the tournament advances, the more Kurama loses confidence in himself. He starts very similarly to how we know him until this point in the show: smart, a great strategist and usually the level-headed presence of the team. But the arrival of Karasu is what really starts screwing up Kurama’s mental state and makes him doubt himself.

Karasu is one of the members of Team Toguro and he develops a weird fascination with Kurama, which has some disturbing similarities with how sexual predators behave. Not only is our hero being disturbed by this, but he also knows that he is weaker than Karasu and the latter knows that, constantly taunting him and provoking him. Never before or after in the series do we see Kurama being so agitated by a confrontation as he constantly tries to find a way to overcome this battle.

This is where the return of his former demon self, Yoko Kurama, happens. After a battle that makes him go back to his demon form (which is also one of the best character transformations in the history of anime), Kurama realizes that he might need to become Yoko against Karasu in order to have a chance of winning. But this is where things get interesting: there is a vast difference between his Yoko side and his Shuichi side.

Kurama uses his Yoko transformation during the Dark Tournament arc.

Yoko believes that Shuichi is weak because he is human and Shuichi believes that Yoko is just his past, and not who he is anymore. Resorting to turning into Yoko then feels like a betrayal to Kurama and an acceptance that he is not strong enough to beat Karasu on his own, which is a theme that we see throughout the story: the main characters having to go beyond their limits, but also having to believe that they are not enough as they are.

This makes the battle between Kurama and Karasu all the more engaging, but also one of the most interesting in the series, especially when compared to the other three in the finals. Younger Toguro and Yusuke already have a long history between them by the end of the arc, Hiei and Bui is just straight up business and Kuwabara and Elder Toguro becomes more personal as the battle progresses, but Karasu feels to Kurama as the constant reminder that his human side is not enough. That there is something fundamentally weak about his humanity as if that is holding him back.

And that makes the fight between these two characters all the more engaging.

Even relying on his demon form is not enough as time runs out and Kurama has to make a notorious sacrifice in order to win at the last second, highlighting how strong and cunning Karasu is, but also the lengths Kurama is willing to go in order to win and help his friends–something Yoko Kurama wouldn’t have done. It is a testament to his abilities and selfless nature, complemented by his great intelligence.

The inner conflict that Kurama has throughout the series is one of the best things about Yu Yu Hakusho and it has some of Togashi’s best writing, with the Dark Tournament being a particular highlight for everybody’s favorite fox demon (yes, deal with it, Inuyasha and Naruto fans).

Kazuma Kuwabara

Kazuma Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho

“A mulberry is a tree, Kuwabara is a man. And I’ll prove it. We all have to die when our time comes, but if we do our duty we don’t have regrets, so taste a little piece of my sword, Toguro!

Kazuma Kuwabara

The four main characters of Yu Yu Hakusho are some of Togashi’s finest creations, but Kuwabara is a very particular success story in the sense that the author managed to make a straight up good guy with a lot of heart and kindness, making him extremely compelling and easy to root for. In a day and age where people only seem to relate and care for cold, broken characters, Kuwabara is a breath of fresh air.

However, this is not to say that Togashi always had the best use for the character (a trend that would only get worse in the coming arcs). Kuwabara is mostly used to help some key rivals in the tournament look good, often being the one defeated to even the score and up the dramatic feel of each round. This I feel was the wrong choice as it makes Kuwabara look worse and it takes a bit of surprise out of the story as the other character that usually loses is Kurama, but only after giving his all in heroic fashion. Kazuma usually gets the short end of the stick.

Another thing I will never understand, and I will elaborate more on that with future reviews, is why Kuwabara never trained with Genkai. It seemed like a logical progression for the Dark Tournament and also for what happened later on in the series. Sure, Kurama did a good job training Kuwabara, but even he would admit that Genkai could have made a bigger difference, just like he did with Yusuke. A lot of people argue that Kazuma doesn’t get a lot of victories in the show because he’s the weakest of the team, but I often thought that was mostly out of plot convenience rather than actual in-world logic.

One argument I would give in Togashi’s favor, at least when it comes to the way he handled Kuwabara in this arc, is the fact that he sometimes makes dumb decisions in the rounds that end up costing him, all of this make his victories all the more satisfying. When you see him pulling out a key victory against Risho to get his team to the next round, after being massively injured, you feel happy for him and you want him to end up with Yukina, who was key in motivating him during that battle.

The fight against Elder Toguro is of course one of Kuwabara’s greatest moments and a testament to his character. He’s terrified at the prospect of facing him due to the fact that he knows there is a very good chance he could die. Elder Toguro is everything Kuwabara is not: callous, evil, cruel, sadistic and lacking any sort of moral compass or empathy. It’s a fascinating contrast in the sense that you have the most demonic member of one team facing off against the most human of the other team. And while the fight isn’t the greatest, it highlights Kuwabara’s creativity and capacity to adapt in the heat of the battle, serving as a big win for him and his team when his own friends had doubts about him.

He is the heart of Team Urameshi and a key cog that makes the whole story work. Yusuke is finding himself throughout the series, Kurama is struggling with his identity crisis and Hiei is slowly learning to bond with people–Kuwabara knows who he is and finds strength in others, but his journey is all about himself. He is the sole, untrained human in a tournament of powerful demons and he takes a very good account of himself.

His arc is all about overcoming his own doubts and fears while staying true to his moral code and his empathy, which is something that he showed against Team Ichigaki, Risho and Elder Toguro. It’s definitely a Rocky-esque kind of journey: you want the big oaf to win the fight and get the girl, which is something very difficult to do with such a straightforward character as Kuwabara.

He is definitely one of the high points of the Dark Tournament.

Yusuke Urameshi

Yusuke Urameshi from the Yu Yu Hakusho Dark Tournament Arc

“Shut up! What good does that do!? He’s already dead! I can’t say anything to him now! Is that so hard to get!? I’m just like everybody else with power. I don’t do anything to help.”

Yusuke Urameshi.

Yusuke is our main protagonist and the main focus of this arc, along with Younger Toguro. In a way, Yusuke’s character arc here ends a lot of the themes that started with his death in the first episode: his incapacity to express his emotion, his lack of proper connections with those he cares about and isolating himself as a way to defy authority. It’s only through surpassing these shortcomings that Yusuke manages to surpass Toguro in the final battle.

The English dub makes a good comment through Yusuke that, in a way, admired Toguro. He admired his strength and how no one could boss him around, which does reflect how Yusuke lived before his death. But he has learned since the beginning of the show what Toguro never learned: that he needs others, that he needs to accept his emotions and that he needs to fight for something and someone beyond his own desire of strength.

His character arc is the heart of the Dark Tournament: a young man finding strength in those that mean a lot to him. The possible death of his loved ones, the death of Genkai and the “murder” of Kuwabara… all of this clears Yusuke’s mind and allows him to fight at full strength as his spirit energy is directly connected with his emotions. The moment he managed to break through that barrier, he managed to find his strength–he managed to find himself.

Characters fighting in the Yu Yu Hakusho Dark Tournament.

“Alright, I’m kicking your ass out of principle.”

Yusuke

Yusuke also has some of the best fights in the tournament, such as the aforementioned ones against Chu and Jin, but he also gets to be the one with the most improvement as the story progresses. The birth of his spirit animal, Pu, the trial of the Spirit Orb, the death of Genkai at the end of Toguro and many other things are different things that make Yusuke better and allow him to rise to the challenge that is the final battle of the Dark Tournament.

He is not your typical Shonen protagonist; he is not an eternal optimist, he is not extremely innocent and he is not the best when it comes to expressing what he feels to people. But that is part of what makes him such a compelling protagonist: the fact that you can see his growth and his flaws throughout the series. Yusuke feels real and feels like someone that just wants to do the right thing, but struggles with making the right decisions and that is very powerful.

That is very human.

The trial of the Spirit Orb is particularly unsettling and painful to watch due to how the voice acting and the animation highlight Yusuke’s suffering, but the key moment is when Genkai removes the Orb and our protagonist demands her to bring it back. It’s a testament to his determination and will to win, allowing him to overcome the odds and reach heights he never saw possible before that.

Yusuke has a lot of development and great moments in the show, but the death of Genkai (who I always thought should have stayed dead) was a particular poignant scene as he has to deal with grief, with loss and with a lot of sadness. As we have seen in the anime until this point, Yusuke never had a father figure as his dad bailed on him and his mother had a lot of issues on her own, so Genkai was the motherly figure he never had, making her loss all the more painful and real to both Yusuke and the audience as well.

Yusuke holding Genkai after her death.

One of Togashi’s main strengths with the character of Yusuke is that he’s always made sure to challenge him and make him grow. Every arc shows him learning something new and something different, turning him into a better young man and as the audience we can sense and notice that growth, which makes watching his journey all the more compelling.

Toguro

Toguro from the Yu Yu Hakusho anime. He's seen talking to a young woman in this image.

“No, Genkai but it would have been a beautiful life.”

Toguro

Younger Toguro is the main antagonist of the Dark Tournament, the reigning champion of the competition and the big, insurmountable wall that Yusuke and his friends have to overcome. From the moment that the tournament begins, Toguro is this monumental force of nature that strikes genuine fear and impotence into the hearts of everybody near him. It’s a powerful trait for an antagonist, but its what Togashi does with Toguro’s multiple layers and backstory that take him to the leagues of the best villains in anime history.

As we discover during the third act of the arc, Toguro was with Genkai running a dojo and tragedy struck when a demon killed all of their students. Toguro was hurt by grief and traumatized, resulting in him killing that demon in the Dark Tournament finals and getting a wish granted to turn him into a powerful demon that couldn’t age, which was something that Genkai rejected, leading to them going their separate ways.

What is really tragic about the character of Toguro was the lack of direction his life took as he didn’t know how to cope with the tragedy of losing his pupils. Killing that demon brought him no peace and becoming a forever young demon himself only deepened the darkness within himself. He is a man that has such a low opinion of himself that he took this road as a way to not cope with his emotions as he felt that this was the correct path to punish himself for failing his students.

The character of Genkai only makes Toguro’s story all the more tragic. She had to grow old without the man she loved and that man had to live an aimless life without a clear direction or focus, only hoping to one day find the person that could defeat him fair and square in battle.

This is when Yusuke comes along. Toguro is a dark parallel of Yusuke: he is that version of himself that couldn’t accept his emotions, that couldn’t cope with his grief and who couldn’t accept that people come and go in life. The way Yusuke reacts to grief and loss in the arc is a direct contrast to Toguro’s: our protagonist finds strength and will to fight to honor his fallen loved ones while the antagonist can’t move on from his pain and self-loathing. It’s a perfect metaphor that explains how both the main character and the villain can have similar abilities or similar levels of power, but what sets them apart is how they cope with adversity.

Toguro slowly becomes more human during the Dark Tournament and in the final battle with Yusuke he is constantly trying to find ways for the latter to reach his full potential. This is why he fake kills Kuwabara. This is why he threatens to kill everybody in the stadium. In a way, he had a death wish and wanted Yusuke to defeat him–to prove that he was wrong and that he made the wrong decision so many years ago.

He is in an antagonist that serves both as a direct challenge, but also as a dark reflection of the main character and what he represents. And when it comes to his ending… that is some of Togashi’s finest writing. Toguro willingly going to hell to pay for his sins and saying his final words to Genkai is something extremely powerful and emotional, especially when you consider that the hell he is heading to has an entrance shaped like his old dojo and that implies that his punishment is reliving the death of his students over and over again.

Toguro is one of the biggest and greatest villains in anime history and for a good reason as his mixture of raw power, cool demeanor and multiple layers of complexity make him a fascinating character in many different levels.

Conclusion

Many Yu Yu Hakusho characters from the Dark Tournament arc.

“Everyone has to fight with time to find their place before their inevitable death. Toguro… he ran away from that fight. Don’t you ever do the same. No human is ever a one man show. Every decision that you make will affect the countless people who care about you.”

Genkai

The Dark Tournament is one of the creative peaks of both Togashi and the entire Yu Yu Hakusho franchise. It is exciting, compelling, well-balanced and offers a lot of great moments for a wide variety of characters. It is one of those anime arcs that have lived up to the hype and are justifiably worshipped to this very day.

It is a wonderful story about teamwork, about unity and about overcoming grief, pain and loss in a way that is necessary for the human soul. It has a lot of great battles and conflicts, but above all else, it has a lot of great characters that suffer, feel and love like any of us. And that is something that makes a story like this totally timeless.

An absolute, definitive classic.