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“You’re wrong, you know? I don’t want to destroy the world, on the contrary; I like flowers, and trees, insects and animals. The only thing I hate is all human beings.”
Manga author Yoshihiro Togashi is known for his work with the acclaimed series Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter, his storytelling abilities, his complex moral topics, and ambitious characters, with all of these elements combined in today’s protagonist, Shinobu Sensui. He is the main antagonist of the third Yu Yu Hakusho arc, Chapter Black, and serves as a game-changer for the series as a whole.
The entire Chapter Black arc served as the moment that Togashi gained an even greater sense of identity as an author and started to push the boundaries of shonen manga, which is something he would do with far greater success with his next series, Hunter X Hunter, but there are a lot of positive things to take from this saga and Sensui is one of those.
Calculative, mentally broken, filled with despair, and redefining the world of Yu Yu Hakusho, Sensui is one of the most interesting and complex antagonists in modern fiction and a character that probably propelled Togashi to go further beyond as an author. Today we’re going to explore his character and what makes him work.
Prior to our protagonist, Yusuke Urameshi, was the world’s Spirit Detective, Prince Koenma had given that role a few years ago to a man named Shinobu Sensui. As a kid, he had shown a lot of latent talent for the use of his spirit energy and demons were drawn to him, which led to young Sensui having to kill those creatures.
Sensui showed a lot of promise as a Spirit Detective and was quite effective in his job, having no qualms about taking their lives because he thought that demons were bad and humans were good, so it was his job to protect them from what he considered to be “evil incarnate”. And even though he managed to form a bond with a demon called Itsuki, which would end up becoming his ally, his views on the matter remained as they were.
Then, Shinobu was sent to deal with a powerful elite called the Black Black Club and found them indulging in a ritual called Feast of Human Vices, which involved murdering, torturing, and violating demons. Sensui snapped, losing his mental sanity which resulted in him killing everybody in sight, which led to his reply to Itsuki when he was found:
Traumatized by this event, Sensui ends up with seven different personalities in his head to cope with the actions he just committed and quits his job as Spirit Detective, leading to his disappearance for years. After witnessing and watching the Chapter Black Tape, which legend says has all the worst acts committed by humanity, Sensui decides that humans can’t go on anymore.
He appears in the Chapter Black arc for the first time, now wanting to destroy the barrier that separates Demon World from the Human World and let chaos ensue to punish the humanity he once defended and now viewed as true evil.
Sensui is a fascinating antagonist, albeit one that never fulfilled his potential. As I mentioned in my Chapter Black review, Sensui’s seven personalities and the resolution of the final battle were not executed very well, which leads to his character perhaps not always getting a lot of plaudits on a broader scale in the manga and anime community, but there is a lot to praise Togashi for when it comes to Shinobu.
First of all, he is not here to be evil just for the sake of being evil, but he actually believes that what he is doing is right. His worldview went from black and white to white and black: he now thought that humans deserved to be eliminated and demons had to be protected. The fact that the only actual demon with relevance in this arc’s plot is Itsuki, and he was with Sensui from the very beginning says a lot about the themes Togashi was going for about humanity’s inner darkness.
In that regard, Sensui is the embodiment of the Chapter Black arc: he represents the worst of humanity and also our weaknesses as his mind, with its binary moral compass, couldn’t cope with the tragedies he witnessed that night at the Black Black Club. He was, despite being used to murder demons, very innocent in his own way and, in the manga, Itsuki compared his descent into the dark to a young girl that ends up doing adult films for her wicked satisfaction, taking huge pleasure in that. It’s messed up stuff and it works as a great contrast with the moral grandstanding that Sensui does during the entire arc, highlighting his own hypocrisy.
If there is one thing that Togashi has always succeeded at is writing psychopaths and mental breakdowns, which is something he has done several times in Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter. Shinobu Sensui might be his first actual character to do this, and there is a very strong tragic element because this is a man that wanted to do good, but his philosophical views were way too rigid to understand moral shades of gray and that led to his downfall.
There is also the element of guilt, and he explains how he wanted to die in the Demon World as he saw it as befitting of everything he had done, plus his own desire to be reborn as one of the races he dedicated most of his life to killing. It is very powerful stuff and it fuels his drive to fight Yusuke and his friends and break the barrier.
Shinobu Sensui as the game-changer
One of the most important Sensui did to the Yu Yu Hakusho series, particularly in the manga due to the different ending that it has, is changing the entire landscape we got to know until that point from a moral perspective.
Sensui was the first in the series to highlight that demons were not all bad. Sure, Kurama was good, but he was in a human body and we saw how sadistic he could be as Yoko Kurama. Hiei had great character development in the Dark Tournament, but he was still restrained by Koenma because they didn’t fully trust him. There wasn’t a lot of evidence about the goodness of demons out there and Sensui shows up, highlighting how messed up the Spirit World was with their treatment of demons.
By the end of the manga, we find out that Koenma’s father, the man in charge of Spirit World, had been brainwashing lower-class demons so they could cause havoc in the Human World and put an end to them, thus establishing their organization as the good guys. This highlights Sensui’s worldwide challenge of the Spirit World as valid since it shows how demons were not always getting the best treatment.
Of course, we have seen evil demons until that point of the story, so, in a way, it only highlighted how wrong his philosophy was. The entire Yu Yu Hakusho series shows how there are good and bad people in every single area of this fictional universe, which goes against Sensui’s perspective that there is only one good side and one bad side.
It also served to contrast and compare with Yusuke himself, how different they are and challenging our protagonist’s views of the world, the way he carried himself, and a lot more. They are direct opposites and is a great way to contrast how different they truly are.
His Seven Personalities
The element of Sensui’s seven personalities is a very interesting idea that was simply poorly executed. By that time in the manga, Togashi was mentally checking out from the story due to a lot of different issues and he wasn’t as committed to the project, which led to a lot of elements in Yu Yu Hakusho to feel as poorly executed.
In that regard, his seven personalities show up way too late in the story and there is no room to develop them. We see them properly introduced in the final third of the arc when he is fighting Yusuke, and we don’t even get to see all seven. Therefore, it is a very cool idea, one that is not done very often in stories, but that was executed in the best possible manner.
In a way, it makes things more complicated for the story in the final act of the story and it doesn’t add much, which is a shame.
As mentioned earlier, Itsuki is the demon that befriended Sensui before his fall from grace and the bond continued long after because the former enjoyed the latter’s conversion to the dark and his more atrocious actions. Itsuki downright says to Kurama, Kuwabara, and Hiei that he sees Shinobu as his lover, which shows how they are much more than just friends.
Beyond the romantic angle, there is a twisted element to Itsuki as a character that elevates Sensui’s at the same time. He loves Shinobu but has no qualms about seeing him go insane because he enjoys his corruption and new-found depravity towards humans, enabling him to do whatever he wants.
There is this element of manipulation and control that Itsuki displays that shows how Sensui while following his own goal, is not 100% free. Itsuki is enabling him, even if it’s not the best for Sensui, simply because he takes pleasure in this. It is very dangerous, considering the power that the former Spirit Detective has, and also very realistic as there are people that will manipulate you for their own gain.
Itsuki is his own kind of psychopath and works very well to give further depth and complexity to the character of Shinobu Sensui.
I mentioned in the Chapter Black review that I wouldn’t say I liked how the final act of the arc played out. Yusuke got a power-up that wasn’t very well-developed, Sensui all of a sudden had a terminal disease that didn’t much to improve the plot and it was all concluded in a final battle a la Dragon Ball Z, which goes against a lot of the themes that were explored in the arc.
However, I think the death of Sensui was both good and bad. Good in the sense that he died in Demon World in peace, with a feeling of achievement because he managed to accomplish his goal and felt that he atoned for his sins. On the other hand, I thought it was bad because he was portrayed as very sympathetic and there was no build-up to that. There is no argument for Yusuke and the others to view him as a tragic figure after everything he did.
I have this theory that Togashi wanted to try once again and did so in Hunter X Hunter with the resolution of the character of Meruem, albeit with much better writing and a few tweaks, but that is more of a personal opinion of mine.
Shinobu Sensui is one of the most complicated and interesting antagonists in manga and anime, even if the final resolution he had could have been done with better execution. Regardless, his motivations, fall from grace, determination, psychology, and influence in the series cannot be understated.
He was a character that added a lot to Yu Yu Hakusho and it also gave Togashi an example of what he could do if he went further beyond his antagonists. And the results are there for all to see.