For many of us, our first anime was probably DragonballZ, Pokemon, or Sailor Moon. Maybe Voltron if you’re old enough. Or Speed Racer if you’re really old enough.
But for myself, and many in my older-millennial generation, the first anime where we knew anime was genuinely, honestly, going to be a real thing, was YuYu Hakusho. It rode those DBZ coattails to get greenlit to be sure, but it is a completely different show and far superior in generally every regard.
It’s true that the show kind of fell back on the tournament fighter style a bit heavily once the second half of the series kicks in, but there are elements here that make it stand out amongst all others. It is my favorite non-apologetic man-drama. Let’s do it!
And yes, today we’re using the dub terms almost elusively. Deal with it! There’s a good reason, I’ll get to it. Put on your 4:3 vision, kiddies!
A Unique Gunshot
Kicking off the start of the series we had a dynamic that was pretty unique. Yusuke Urameshi, delinquent student, dies saving a toddler from a car accident. He’s not supposed to be dead!
The Spirit World is not prepared for this. With Yusuke’s background, no one could have predicted he would give his life to save an innocent. Remarkably, this little quirk of the series premise would go on to become a defining trait for Yusuke.
So, Koenma, lord of the Spirit World, is giving Yusuke a second chance. Heaven’s all filled up of course, so Yusuke will have to take part in a trial to get back to the mortal world. But Yusuke doesn’t really care. And, whereas the first episode of a shonen tournament fighter almost demands flashy fight sequences, here we get neither. We get a 14 year old kid wandering his life after his departure. And, true, some people are glad he’s gone, it is those who lose their composure at his wake that convince him to give life a second chance. Those are the dramatic climaxes of this first episode of an action cartoon. A principal voicing his regret at failing a promising student, a rival who weeps for his fallen foe (getting a little Takeda-Uesugi on us here). No fight sequences. No explosions. No demons.
In all the first arc is very much like this. We spend a good half dozen episodes following Yusuke’s trial to become mortal again.
And then the real reason. Koenma is looking to hire Yusuke to be his “Spirit Detective”. It will be his job to handle tasks of spirits and demons meddling in the Human world.
We’ll eventually learn that, while the Spirit World is large and seemingly ubiquitous (and excessively powerful), it is just one of many powers. It just so happens that it is a benevolent entity towards Humans in a realm that mostly regards them as collateral damage.
So there’s our premise, Batman meets the exorcist. He even gets a bunch of handy gadgets, “training wheels” for his own spirit based powers.
I am of the opinion that the first two arcs, the Three Relics and Rando arcs, were the strongest of the show. They were different from the DBZ-styled “I’m a badass, you’re a badass, let’s badass this out” premise that would later come to dominate the series. It’s why I kind of liked the Three Kings arc, as well, because it featured our heroes solving conflicts with more than their fists.
True, the detective cases almost always resorted to fisticuffs like an episode of Star Trek, but there was some genuine braininess behind the fights. And to this day no series has ever quite captured the subtle complexity of the breadth of YuYu Hakusho’s world of mysticism and magic.
Shifting to Fighter
I personally find the Dark Tournament the weakest aspect of the series. I know I’m in the minority here, that’s probably where most of the more memorable scenes come from, but the depth I felt was…lacking. I actually lost interest in the show around this time at its original air and didn’t start watching again until I caught an episode of the Sensui arc.
This change had indeed come before. We could probably argue the Rando arc was the first precursor, literally a tournament, and the Saint Beasts were mostly a linear path. That dynamic encounter stuff from the Three Relics was long since put at the wayside.
But what kept those two stories afloat, for me, is that this is when Yusuke’s forming the band, as it were. There’s great character dynamics that either break the established pattern or have the fresh scent of intrigue at their execution.
The Yukina Retrieval tried its hand at this and didn’t exactly work out, and the Dark Tournament just kind of accepted the format as a ritual. Though I did get over it for the next segment.
As a note I am more charitable to the Dark Tournament these days, it still did give us interesting characters, it was really just that fashion show aisle of them that I still don’t particularly care for.
Shifting to Politics
I kind of liked the Sensui arc. It wasn’t the best the show had to offer but it did seem to be analyzing some of the preconceptions about the series in new ways. We got into the history of the spirit detectives and acknowledged the horror of the Human world. As Commander Adama said, “Why were we worth saving?” And the series retread its roots with the new “Supers” and their unique powers which required more than a fist (…usually, required more than a fist).
But the real second wind, to me, was the Three Kings.
After Yusuke becomes a demon, the show shifts in a way that completely saved what could have been a dry petering out before an inglorious anti-climax. It was more than just powering Yusuke up and unlocking a new tier of fighters. It drew our heroes into the realm of politics. And it acknowledged that TIME EXISTS for Kuwabara.
And again, we had that depth to YYH’s world. Mukuro’s nation, with her 77 retainers, “It’s just a number I like”. Yomi and his forces bent on Unification, demon, spirit, and human worlds, which is ambition far beyond anything we’ve seen until now. The exposure of the Spirit Realm’s true power in the Sensui arc and subsequently the reveal of the other major powers, it was an incredibly rich world that grew much more complex, with its own unique version of “order”.
Raizen was an excellent dramatic tool. A spiritual demon, now that I did not see coming, even out of anime. He promised never to consume a Human until he met his love again, but she was too enlightened, and never reincarnated. Hot damn. And you know that guy was LOOKING. But mostly, he played this bitter note to Yusuke’s journey. Raizen WAS a hero. He was a good person who, honestly, the Spirit World should probably have allied with years ago. A demon who supported the protection of Human beings? Come on.
He did everything right. And it killed him. Not a blaze of glory, that we could honor. That would be FOR something. Just a martyr to his one-man cause. No allies, even his retainers served him in word but not fully in deed. His friends left, the spirit world seemed to not want to deal with him. It wasn’t just up to Yusuke to catch up to his forebearer and his rivals, but he LITERALLY had to surpass them, or a ditch with a growling stomach awaited.
In all, The Three Kings let the series go out on a high note. It’s one of the strongest arcs, and you could even argue the strongest, testing our morally greyed heroes (Yusuke, Kurama, and Hiei of course having very different shades of grey) to see if they could cling to that aspect of them that kept them good.
“It’s Amazing, Isn’t It? How People Change.”
But the series’ greatest strength has to be its characters. They are lovable and complex, even the dumb characters are not SIMPLY crafted. Yusuke, for example, is dumb as a brick, but he has complex shades to him. And this goes way beyond the whole “heart of gold” thing, we’ll learn that children are his hot button. Yusuke couldn’t give a fuck if anonymous innocent women are being eaten, but bring children into the mix and its a whole different ball game. And we see this subtle shift in his character after he becomes a demon. As is pointed out to us, we now see Yusuke talking with demon servants of Raizen about how they simply need to eat to survive. Eating, of course, meaning human beings. But he still has that weakness for children, as he doesn’t even try to hurt the two attacking him earlier that day.
So often in fiction we deal with…well…the Goku effect. “This character is dumb, therefore he is straightforward”. This has always been one of Naruto’s big problems as a character. YYH gracefully avoids this trap. Just because someone is -dumb- doesn’t mean they can’t be -conflicted-, or contradictory in their approaches to the drama at hand.
And just because someone is -bad- doesn’t mean they only respond to force. Hiei would eventually earn Makuro’s respect (and probably love) not by being stronger, but by connecting to her emotionally. She might have been evil, but she wasn’t a dumb cardboard cutout.
And you could say “Well that means Makuro wasn’t all bad”…the careless disregard she showed for her minion’s lives (sending hundreds to die at Hiei’s hand just to prove a point) and her amusement at Hiei’s loyalty to friends would suggest otherwise. Tragic backstories do not a hero make. And that was the beauty of this series. It certainly held an…affection for the nefarious characters who populated the screen, but it was able to convey that bad people have reasons, too.
Kurama has always been one of my favorite characters. His depth made him very interesting. His redemption was another of these “well kind of” affairs. While he was sided with the Human world because of his Human connections, the guy was absolutely ruthless. This affection became solidified when Yomi was brought into the mix. Just that lovely scene where they reveal it was Kurama who tried to have Yomi killed those centuries ago, and the calm way both men regard each other made them such wonderfully believable people.
NTSS NTSS DUBDUBDUB
Call me crazy, but I love the era of dubbing that YYH comes from.
No really. I do. It was a no rules, no expectations kind of era. By this age distributors knew enough that the Gigantor/Speed Racer kind of lip sync just was not going to cut it, but what then? There’s been a lot more freedom in recent years of letting the actors work as they wish (or is there?), especially with the ability to digitally edit the original animations to sync to English. Of course that’s only employed for the biggest and highest revenue series.
In general, the whole Sub v. Dub argument isn’t even worth commenting on for me. Each has strengths and weaknesses. And each fulfills its purpose. Without dubs, there would have been no boom, and while I personally pretty much always pick subs given the option, (sometimes even just for fun, like the Japanese dub of My Little Pony, where Twilight Sparkle is a condescending prick most of the time), there are a choice few series where I prefer to watch dubs, mostly from those series ten years ago or so.
The late 90s began this period of “no holds barred”. Anime was a rising industry and there were still rules to be hammered out by trial and error. So with its goofy accents, its sometimes hammy performances and sometimes oddly specific ones, YYH hits this wonderful era where the dub is a joy to listen to. It’s just so…innocent.
By now, the fan backlash against localization has sunk in, and what was a unique test of a VA’s skill has become common practice. There are more-or-less rules regarding the translating of names, honorifics, and the like that make that studio flare less noticeable. Even the talent is rarely studio exclusive these days. In all dubs have kind of become more…conventional. That early Millenium period where they were recognizable to our ears now, yet still with an alien feel, is really a magical place that I doubt we’ll replicate again. And this kind of dubbing is part of what endears YYH as a series to me. It’s not necessarily superior, just unique and almost a stamp of an artisan labeling their work, rather than a methodically produced assembly line like we get today. A manufactured sword might be stronger and more mathematically precise, but a hand crafted just has that soul imbued to it, and I feel the same way here.
So that’s why I’m using the dub terms here. It’s a tribute to this special aspect.
The Best of the Elements
All the praise in the world can’t spin YYH as anything other than a testosterone driven butt kicking fighter. But I hope I’ve illustrated some of the things they did that really put the series above and beyond the call for shows of its type.
Unlike…certain other shows…YYH put its best foot forward. It took the idea of the disgruntled teenager and embraced his flaws. At no point do we ever really get the feeling that Yusuke is “in the right” regarding his complete disregard for his school life. So typically, we either handwave those things away, or “excuse” them as a byproduct of the superpowered hero. We also don’t really get the sense that Yusuke is a special snowflake for us to emulate.
To my mind, Yusuke has always been a character about VALUE. That even those that society has cast aside, indeed even failed, are still intrinsically worthwhile. Yusuke isn’t portrayed as BETTER than his society because he values human life or whatever nonsense you might find in, say, Naruto. He is, rather, a symbol that even this person we’d regard as some kind of street punk has basic human decency about him.
His unique characteristics certainly make him a hero. But not because he -deserves- to be, if that makes sense.
Let’s run with the Naruto thing. Naruto’s world is jaded and he spends the series trying to thrive in it in his own way because “his ninja way” will be proven superior and save the earth, yadda yadda. The elders around him might have shared that optimism once, but they have grown accustomed to treachery and death (Let’s leave aside the one character who acts like a REAL fucking ninja is generally disliked by the fans of the series). Naruto is the hero because he embodies “the right way”. His optimism and determination and forgiving heart are what make him the person we follow instead of Kakashi or Sasuke.
Now don’t misunderstand, those are heroic qualities. But Yusuke is different in that he never adapts to the world he is protecting. It’s more “He’s not the hero we deserve, but he’s the one we’re stuck with”. That’s just the best way I can explain this point, I’m afraid.
In this and all the other ways, YuYu Hakusho tried to do more than just be the sum of fighter tropes. It bent and spun the established rules to become something truly unique.
Even Batman Approves
This is the only “classic” series appearing in the Top 10, but it deserves its spot well. It is a rare show that holds its own even today, so many of those old favorites, to new viewers, simply have to be explained away with “You had to be there”. But YuYu Hakusho still holds its own. Dated effects and stillframes, sure. With cheesy acting and sometimes laughable censorship. But a timeless piece nonetheless.
This is the last of the “balancing” slots. Until today, I’ve been using weights for things such as age of a series, genre of a series, other little things to help the bottom six jockey for position. It was a way to keep my favorites on the lists, yet still add some weight to artistic worthiness (the primary reason Death Note was featured where it was/at all).
Today that’s over. The Top 4 will be raw, ladybits emotion and nothing else driving my love for them.
I’ve been talking about it for years. And now it’s time to put up or shut up. Now we tackle the world of magical girls and lesbians. No, not those ones. Those ones are later.