EDITOR’S NOTE: What Are You Watching? is a feature series that dives deep into why we love the anime we love. You told us what you were watching, and now we’ll dig into why.
By Kathleen Townsend
Shounen is my favorite genre. Hands down. The reason? Yu Yu Hakusho.
As a kid, I watched the same anime that marked many ’90s kids growing-up years. Things like Sailor Moon, Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z were on TV frequently, but it wasn’t until high school that I truly became a fan of anime.
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Before this, I liked anime. But Yu Yu Hakusho was the first anime that I loved.
Oh, the plot
Yu Yu Hakusho is the story of Yusuke Urameshi, a teenager who gets hit by a car while trying to save a young boy who ran out into traffic. Only, there’s no place for him in the afterlife since no one ever expected the class-cutting, angry-at-the-world delinquent to ever do something so selfless.
If he plays his cards right, Yusuke can have a second chance.
And that’s just the first few episodes. The world around Yusuke grows as he becomes more involved with Botan and other characters. Soon, Yusuke finds himself working as a Spirit Detective, tasked with protecting our world from demons and bad guys who slip in from the Demon World, which is no easy task.
The storytelling changes and evolves as the anime continues. Smaller villains are taken care of in more detective-esque arcs before moving into sagas featuring larger villains whose actions come with much higher stakes and more wide-sweeping consequences. After that, the storytelling evolves once more, this time becoming more of a series of fights over ideological differences against demons and humans.
The best characters
What makes Yu Yu Hakusho so memorable even 25 years after its debut? Well, tons of things. But, chief among those are the characters.
These aren’t simply protagonists who live for the next fight. Everyone from Yusuke, our main character, to the nameless minor villains feel like real people with motivations, worries and complex reasons behind their actions.
Training montages and figuring out ways to level-up aren’t always shown. Here, it isn’t really the getting stronger part that’s important. It’s the reasons why that matter most. The anime isn’t afraid to take whole episodes just to follow characters around on their daily lives.
The moments between fights in the Dark Tournament arc are just as important as the battles themselves. These all humanize the cast, leaving them room to just be people trying to stay true to their convictions instead of infallible heroes.
Yusuke and Kuwabara feel like real teenagers in dress, attitude and actions. Kuwabara skips out on world-saving villain fighting to go to a concert with friends. Yusuke has a moment of honest anger and frustration that, no matter what he does, how many times he saves the world, or how strong his opponents are, there is always another, stronger villain waiting in the wings.
Kurama, taking a break from his scheming, chats with his mother via cell phone from the barren wastelands of Demon World. And Botan, the literal grim reaper, mourns the loss of someone she considered a friend.
But it isn’t just the main cast who are treated this way. Even minor characters have surprisingly poignant moments, showing insight into their motivations and the basic humanness that could be so easy to overlook.
Style and substance
The visual and sound design is just as unique and memorable as the rest of the anime.
On one hand, characters all wear very realistic clothing–things that actual human teenagers from the ’90s might wear. Yet, stylization is used prolifically throughout the 112-episode anime. Deep shadows are cast over characters. Colors palettes are swapped for more outlandish or otherworldly ones. Characters are drawn off-model when huge, bombastic attacks are launched, showing movement and speed in increasingly clever ways.
The music and sound effects are iconic as well, with plenty of synth throughout. The usual sounds of heavy punches and the like are stylized and sting. Yu Yu Hakusho is unlike anything of the time or even now, and it undoubtedly works.
Needless to say, this isn’t always your typical shounen anime, nor a typical story about superheroes, nor a typical story involving the supernatural and folkloric aspects.
As the characters grow and change, so do their opponents. The things they fight for and against morph from simple saving-the-day detective work to fighting for beliefs and ideals against opponents who, once upon a time, were really no different than Yusuke himself.
That’s why Yu Yu Hakusho has remained so incredibly poignant to so many who’ve watched it. It isn’t simply an anime only about heroes fighting off bad guys for the good of the world. It’s an anime about regular people who sometimes just want to spend time with friends and who grow frustrated and angry that, no matter how hard they try and how much they’ve grown, the next obstacle appears even more insurmountable than the last.
These characters change as they grow older and experience new, different things. And working with the grim reaper alongside a couple of demons, all while being trained by a psychic, sure is one way to gain new experience.
By the end of the series, none of Yu Yu Hakusho’s characters are the same people as they were when we first met them. So, if watching characters grow is what you’re looking for, you’ve certainly come to the right place.
“Hero-like” isn’t exactly any of these guy’s main traits at first. Yusuke is a general thug with a chip on his shoulder and a blatant disregard for authority figures when we first meet him. Kuwabara gets into street fights as Yusuke’s rival. Kurama is still knee-deep in banditry, and Hiei wants to enslave the human race with a magic sword.
Though all starting out somewhat directionless, each character grows tremendously. By the end, Hiei always shows up when his friends need him the most—not because he always believes in the never-ending struggle of saving the world, but because they’re people he’s come to respect and care for.
And Yusuke’s real power only shines when he’s fighting for something with all his heart—namely his friends—versus the everyday street brawling he’s known for in the human world.
None of them are perfect. Hiei never outright tells Yukina they’re siblings. Kurama’s mother still doesn’t have any idea about his past or demon world, despite his own closure. Yusuke doesn’t always win every battle no matter how many power-ups or new moves he gets.
But they try. They keep going, even when it’s hard, as they walk the long path to adulthood.
Yu Yu Hakusho has left its impact on me just as much as anyone.
Watching Yu Yu Hakusho was a strange moment of clarity. For the first time, I knew what I wanted to do as a career other than a vague “something with writing or editing.” I wanted to edit manga and light novels. I wanted to help bring stories like Yu Yu Hakusho to other people at a time before seasonal anime brought many to bookstores to buy.
Without Yu Yu Hakusho, I can’t say if I would have walked the same path career-wise. It might sound a bit overly dramatic, but it’s true. I don’t know if I would be writing about anime or editing light novels like I am today. Without Yu Yu Hakusho, I’d be a different person, living a similar, but definitely different life.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what Yu Yu Hakusho is all about or thought, “Gee, there’s so much anime I want to watch, and I’m not sure I have the time to sink into another 100+ episode show,” take the plunge.
Just try it. You won’t be disappointed.
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