By Keith Reid-Cleveland
If you’re in your twenties or thirties and grew up on anime, chances are you’re familiar with Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho. More than 20 years since its original release, it continues to remain a fan-favorite series packed with relatable character arcs and expertly-choreographed fight scenes.
Yu Yu Hakusho follows the adventures of teenager Yusuke Urameshi, who is brought back from the dead to fight hordes of dangerous demons and protect the living world. But this series isn’t just another action or supernatural anime. A series that wears its heart on its sleeve, Yu Yu Hakusho offers viewers a close examination of grief and trauma through engaging characters and experiences.
From the very first episode of Yu Yu Hakusho, viewers are acquainted with the concept of grief, when Yusuke sacrifices himself to save a child from being hit by a car. He spends the next five episodes as a ghost, watching his loved ones reel from his death — including an extremely emotional scene where his rival and best friend Kazuma Kuwabara barges into Yusuke’s funeral in complete denial of his death.
For anyone who’s ever doubted how much they mean to those around them, this scene was utterly palpable. And for a kid watching late night anime, it was almost revelatory.
Watching these characters did so much more in minutes than a complicated origin story would’ve in an hour, bringing tears to your eyes and a true introduction to the show’s core themes. As Yu Yu Hakusho continues, we meet the rest of Team Urameshi, each with their own emotional baggage.
Yusuke is a misunderstood latchkey kid with an alcoholic single mother and teachers who hate him so much that they literally threaten him with violence when no one is looking. Kuwabara is a kind-hearted soul who’s loyal to a fault and constantly getting into fights. Hiei is revealed to be a demon orphan with a heart frozen in ice and a thirst to obliterate every opponent before him to prove his superiority. Kurama is a gentle genius carrying the heavy burden of the secret that he’s actually one of the most dangerous and notorious demons in all of existence.
OK, so some of those might not seem relatable on the surface, but they serve as jumping-off points for the healing that comes from suffering trauma. The members of Team Urameshi lift each other up, and the entire series presses on this lesson. We all experience grief, but it’s a strong support system that helps us move forward.
Trauma after trauma
Once it was established that confronting trauma was going to play a major role in the progression of Yu Yu Hakusho, there needed to be a way to keep it as a constant. As a result, the members of Team Urameshi either died or came within an inch of dying on multiple occasions. Fortunately, the characters always come out of this experience stronger than before.
When Yusuke finally inherited the powerful Spirit Wave technique from his sensei, Genkai, he came so close to dying a brutal death that his master almost cut the ritual short. When he demanded she let him see it through, she walked off to prematurely mourn her favorite dimwit’s forthcoming death. Despite the pressure and impending doom, Yusuke was able to reach a new height of power.
Similarly, when Yusuke’s master Genkai is killed by Toguro, he gives into his emotions and truly grieves for her. He sends her off with a massive shot of his spirit gun into the heavens. The name of this episode? “Overcoming Grief.”
There are two more deaths throughout the series that serve as powerful catalysts for Yusuke. The first is the death of Kuwabara at the hands of Toguro, which allowed Yusuke to finally reach the depths of power Toguro had been trying to get him to access since they first met. The loss of his closest friend came almost immediately after Genkai’s death. It was such a powerful motivator that it changed the entire trajectory of Yusuke’s and Toguro’s fight.
Now, the impact of this moment was arguably lessened when it’s later revealed that Toguro intentionally missed landing a fatal blow on Kuwabara. He only wanted it to appear deadly to push Yusuke to the edge. But we all breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Kuwabara wasn’t taken off the board for good.
The next death that played a pivotal role in the series occured when the tables were turned and Yusuke was killed by Sensui, a former spirit detective gone rogue. This death weighed heavily on the shoulders of Hiei, Kurama and Kuwabara, who had to helplessly watch it happen. In fact, it weighed on them so much that the three decided to chase after Sensui into the demon world. It was a heroic charge for the ages.
Along the way, the team reached new, untapped levels of power in an effort to avenge their fallen friend. For a brief moment, Hiei, Kuwabara and Kurama obtain the strength levels of A-class demons. This also technically made Kuwabara the strongest pure-blood human in existence.
It’s this regular presence of death that keeps the series’ stakes high, and gives each character a chance to put their emotions in the spotlight. Each of them take recurring trauma and turn it into positivity.
Villains never learn
While the heroes of Yu Yu Hakusho may have learned to grow from their trauma, the villains don’t exactly process grief in the right way.
Due to his obsession with becoming stronger, Toguro dealt out more than his fair share of pain and death in his time, most notably to his older brother and Genkai. After he falls at the hands of Yusuke, Toguro ends up in the demon world and is faced with severe, eternal punishment.
Given his insight into Toguro’s troubled past and motivations, Koenma was willing to commute his sentence and show some form of leniency. Determined to continue to walk alone, Toguro elected to serve the most severe sentence he could think of — being tortured in Hell for 10,000 years.
There’s also Sensui, who serves as a pointed example of how someone good can be completely transformed and consumed by evil. With no one to turn to, his grief became rage and enveloped his being.
The former spirit detective was a prodigy, but when he learns that the conflict between humans and demons isn’t as clear cut as he was told, his entire world turns upside down. Not all demons need to be decimated, and not all humans are innocent bystanders.
This revelation sent him so far over the edge that he murdered everyone in sight — demon and human alike — developing a mental illness that split his personality into seven directions as a means of coping with what he’d done.
It’s this juxtaposition between the heroes and villains of Yu Yu Hakusho that truly drives home the show’s context. For some, trauma and grief lead to isolation and desperation. This turns to rage. For others, it’s a chance to take all of our emotion, all of our sadness, and push forward to greater strength and new beginnings.
The series does this all in nigh perfect fashion, delivering us proof that we all need each other to survive, especially in our darkest moments. That idea is at the core of Yu Yu Hakusho, a series that continues to resonate with audiences decades after its broadcast.
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