Life and Death in Yu☆Yu☆Hakusho

~ an essay on the anime Yu Yu Hakusho (1992–1995).

Four Good Boys

Yu☆Yu☆Hakusho is a story about life and death, humanity and spirituality, the occasional beauty of violence and the longs arcs one must traverse to find peace. Yu is also a pretty concisely packed shonen battle anime, with a full 1990s aesthetic and style, so clearly inspired by Dragon Ball and others of the genre. Beginning with the death of the main character to introduce him to life after life, the story shifts early from comedic occult detective work into crafty and fun supernatural martial arts showdowns against spooky monsters and gangster demons. Manga author Yoshihiro Togashi, a fan of the occult and the horror genre, began the adventure with no particular end in mind, only the characters and the lore of a universe of demons and ghosts and the parallel realms housing such rogue spirits. The worldbuilding is tremendous, and subtly effective throughout the series’ four main arcs ~ there is an afterlife, an interconnected Human World x Spirit World x Demon World, and conflicting factions of demons and potential portals to and from them all. The job of a ‘spirit detective’, as our main protagonist Yusuke Urameshi soon becomes, is to be a protector of the living world against the dark forces underneath…

Yu Yu Hakusho Emotional Soundtracks(With Rainy Mood)
The four good boys

But what I love most about Yu — and what unconsciously brought me back to the series all these years later, after watching only bits and pieces of its run as a kid on Toonami circa 2002ish — are the characters. After the introductory Spirit Detective Saga, the cast settles into regularity as a wholesome foursome of teen bros, with a great supporting cast of kooky guides, stern mentors, affable romantic interests.

Botan ~ lovable guide babe, introduces Yusuke and the audience to the wild world of “Spirit World”
Koenma ~ the baby boss — “You don’t seem to have a chance Yusuke… But that’s not the point! Just get up and attack him! It’s your job!!”
Keiko ~ The girl back home, Yusuke’s childhood friend ~ “Out of all his opponents, she’s the only who beats him every time.”
Genkai ~ the mentor ~ “I for one never had an urge to create a purpose for my abilities. No heroics crap. As long as I pass it on, I have no ridiculous regrets.”

Yusuke, Kuwabara, Kurama and Hiei make up the main four, the lead navigators of the narrative run, the beating hearts of the series. Each brings their own archetypal perspective as fighters, humans and demons both, with a good mix of comedic and edgelordian tropes to be had among them. But more than that, it is the believability and power of their interrelationships, and their sheer collective likeability across the board, that is most magnetic and likely to keep one watching.

Yusuke and Kuwabara’s relationship is the original spark, and the most endearing. Yusuke is the existentially-minded bad boy with a secret soft side. It is his selfless act to save a child from getting hit by a car, trading places with him in the heat of the moment, which kicks off the adventure. Kuwabara — the ultimate anime manifestation of a “himbo” — is the striving ruffian under Yusuke’s shadow, peerlessly resolved to pick fights with him out of a barely hidden desire to befriend him. A pair of middle school delinquent dumb guys with hearts of gold, habitual underthinkers who nevertheless grasp the concept of respect, honor, morality — we immediately love ‘em! Each handles their battles with grit and determination, and generally, more dire patterns of late-stage reversals and comebacks against seemingly overmatched odds.

I don’t hit girls.
I’ll fight her.
What??
She’s in our way and challenging us to a fight. I don’t care if she’s a girl or a baby or somebody grandma, I’ll still knock her out!

~ Kuwabara and Yusuke {Yusuke’s hands are rated E, for Everyone}

With the demons Kurama and Hiei come more complex, chaotic characterizations, and the more robust resulting entertainments and inner developments as the series progresses and as the group grows closer in trust and companionship. Kurama {my favorite character in the series} represents in part the capacity for profound grace and beauty within one of demonkind. A pretty boy master strategist who uses a rose whip as his primary tool within combat, Kurama wins with indirect means, often through cunning or bloodless misdirection, generally with a dose of poeticism to the endeavor. Kurama at heart is a kind being, with a more humane moral code than most of his brethren, carrying a healthy appreciation of the beauteous nature of the world, in the light and in the dark. Hiei, on the other hand, favors raw power and resembles an anti-hero, natured by shadows and secrets, who craves battle and victory, who only begrudgingly does the right thing when pressured by the right forces. The short but swift “Flying Shadow” {飛影} does have his own code, his own complex sense of nobleness. Kurama and Hiei’s battles are typically more visceral, engaging spectacles to witness.

Cunning and ruthless, he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants.” ~ Kurama on Hiei
Do you know why I chose Kurama to be my partner? To avoid fighting him myself.” ~ Hiei on Kurama

Each of the four fight for their own reasons, and with any good battle shonen — each fights with their heart, impassioned by battle and by its implications for more than just themselves (even Hiei eventually!) Kuwabara fights for his friends, to protect them and more generally, all innocents — especially cute girls! Along the way, he actually shatters the illusions of toxic masculinity, more fully embracing his inherent yearning for companionship and sincere relationship-building with his bros. Selfless and always willing to take a hit for others, even to the point of sacrificing himself, sometimes rather ignorantly — Kuwabara is the king of wearing your heart on your sleeve, as loud and proud as you can. ~ “When men do what they’re supposed to do, it’s not always about what they want.”

There’s nothing wrong with guys needin’ each other…” ~ Kuwabara {destroying toxic masculinity in the early 90s}
“I know I’m close to the perfect strategy… for kicking ass.” ~ Yusuke

It is Kurama and Hiei that compellingly counter one another in their worldviews. Hiei: “This is a kill or be killed world.” Kurama: “Why do you think that is?” ~ Hiei wants to win, Kurama wants to understand. Theirs is a dichotomy of moral force, a polarized battle between aggression and patience, and one that slowly but surely converges as their pasts and upbringings are revealed. Kurama, an ancient demonic fox, former thief and leader of a ruthless band of rogues, now transformed into human childhood and carrying an indestructible bond with his adoptive human mother, is motivated by an entirely different environmental context than any of his prior demonhood would indicate. Just as his second life’s humanized rearing reveals his current disposition, so too does Hiei’s. As an abandoned child forced to kill his way to autonomy and freedom and survival, he is cold and unfeeling for good reason. Their disparate personalities are earned from their relative backgrounds; the true delight comes in seeing them come together alongside each other, Yusuke, and Kuwabara, to fight the good fight.

~ “It’s true that I am not as strong as before. But now I have certain priorities to protect…” ~ Kurama
“For my entire life, I have never experienced the joy of being loved. I’ve had to endure being despised and deserted by my own people. And like you, I’ve tried to purge by pain in blood. … After all, we’re both capable of expressing ourselves through our violence.” ~ Hiei
“It’s not hatred. It’s belonging. You just want to belong to something. You know in your heart I’m right, Hiei. Admit it!” ~ Mukuro to Hiei

Yusuke’s life, more than any other character in the series, and rightfully so as the protagonist, is the most in flux. His journey is the most uncertain, his worldview the most ill-defined and akin to change. As he grows in power, surpassing all three of his companions, and eventually each of the principal villains, he only gradually discovers why it is he fights. Fatherless and with a lovably deadbeat mother harboring him in a less-than-ideal home life, Yusuke is a lost boy. He grows into a man through his bouts of violence in arenas, and moreso through his taking on of the responsibilities of those around him, even to the point of protecting the entire living world itself. The sage Genkai becomes like a father to him through her unforgiving trainings. Notably, our spirit detective x martial artist x bastard bad boy is respected by the top tier demons in the ‘Three Kings Saga’ most of all not because he is strong — but because he lacks a cogent philosophy, or pathology, to be judged or critiqued, with its flaws and half-hearted rationalizations; Yusuke, in the unconscious wisdom of aimless boyhood, or via ancestral connectedness to his royal demon blood, appreciates the art of battle for its own sake — he fights for the joy of the fight, the competition and mettle-making and the honor of martial reciprocation with a worthy foe. Yusuke’s ‘impetuous spirit’ as ancient demon Yomi calls it, is exotic and rare, especially from such a young human being, and therefore attractive to them and their battle-hardened, nigh immortal natures.

Yusuke’s fight eventually ends where it began, as a fight for life and for friends — and for love. In Keiko, who was there at the beginning and the end, he finally sees her as she always was — a home to go back to.

I know that you need to fight. But if you die, I swear I’ll kill you.” ~ Keiko Yukimura to Yusuke

Tricks, items and techniques, a serial sandbox

In watching/reading both Yuu and Hunter x Hunter, Togashi’s other renowned work, one comes to see that this author loves his games, his toys, his techniques, and most of all — rules. Yu is full of them — as many battle anime are — and the format of the show services them well. ‘Spirit energy’ (‘Nen’ is its more complex counterpart in HxH) sets a stage of evolving power levels and continuous revelations as our fearsome foursome grows; dark items of power, complete with demonic curses and prices to pay in using them — used sparingly — create unique opportunities to mix up the fighting. This loot works not unlike it does in video games, as a shiny new thing, aesthetically-pleasing and chaotically powerful and instantly on display for utility. But more than the techs or the toys, it is Togashi’s in-universe *rules* that dominate many conflicts within the series — accounting for everything from the number of times Yusuke’s spirit gun can be used in a day, to the many competitions and tournaments within the world, to the inner workings of crime orgs and their betting maths, to the level of spirit power or psychological fracturing Toguro or Sensui are willing to reveal to our heroes in the eleventh hours of their respective final fights… These rules and techniques and items, sometimes complex, always interesting, undergird the back-and-forth playing of the martial artistry, the hallmark of a battle anime.

~ Kurama creates “The Sinning Tree” ~ It is then that Kurama uses his Rose Whip to reveal that Elder Toguro had not only survived the Dark Tournament but was eaten by Gourmet and then took over his body. Being incensed by the truth known that he was rather riddled with disappointment and shame in that Yoko Kurama wouldn’t have hesitated to have killed, or at least, broke someone for the advantage, even a child, Kurama then uses a smokescreen to not only hide the fact that he had planted the seed of the Sinning Tree on Gourmet (Elder Toguro), but also as a way of spurring the growth of this particular plant.
Yusuke’s “spirit gun

~

Sometimes, the wieldable artifacts Togashi creates, material or immaterial, can even be used to convey their own humanistic or spiritual truths in an offbeat way, such as with the conception of a ‘Spirit Beast’. As a reflection of one’s inner self in the form of a bestial manifestation, there is a great moment midway through the series as Genkai provides Yusuke with his final lesson, in which this metaphor plays beautifully. When he is near death, literally in a dark cave alone and in pain, the limits of his spiritual energy sapped after trying to absorb his mentor’s immense power, Yusuke has a moment with his cute little spirit beast, Pu ~ Feeling all of his pain and fatigue and sadness through their illimitable connection, it limps over to try to bring him some water to ease his passing. At the same time, in viewing his pet, this strange outer self, in such suffering — even while he simultaneously has embraced his own body’s death — Yusuke is urged to save this thing, in effect, to save himself. I thought the multi-episode-spanning scene extraordinary in how it portrays a very human truth: We will go to the greatest lengths to save others, but not necessarily ourselves. We may only be able to tap the limitless potential for self-love when it is externalized into a being we can view from outside. This is the message that Togashi’s cute little spirit beast manages to proffer.

Yusuke’s spirit beast, Pu
Yu Yu Hakusho – Legendary Bandit Yoko Kurama ep047 (Yusuke saves Puu)

Regarding the format of the series, starting as a serial detective story, Yu does case-by-case adventures for a while, each with their own themes and underlying messages. Toned as comedy noir, this initially allows for an exploration of a wide array of narratives to be had, including an opening of avenues to a rogues gallery of opposition for Yusuke to face off against — including Kurama and Hiei. Togashi seems to love subverting audience expectations in fun ways: Yusuke’s compulsory lucky dumb guy strats win the day over and over, the grim reaper is a cute girl, the prince of the underworld is a silly little baby with a bipper, the villains-to-friends trope is used throughout the series … with demons. In the first arc, the squad even conquers a Castlevania-esque gothic dungeon keep together, like a party of Dungeons & Dragons adventurers dodging traps and plowing over mini-bosses with JoJo-styled outwits. {Yusuke = Fighter, Kuwabara = Paladin, Hiei = Rogue, Kurama = Druid ?}.

With the onset of ‘The Dark Tournament’ saga in the show’s second season, Yu shifts fully to a battle anime. Distilled violence in the form of showdown after showdown, 1v1 cage-matches commence between our favored boys and their varied villainous foes. The tournament format synthesizes what is best about the show — the fights and the character’s bombastic behavior during those fights. It also simplifies the conflicts, introducing philosophy in mid-battle convos revealing our hero’s perspectives and the villain’s essential malevolence, or lack thereof.

“Fighting year-round is the best way to quickly raise your fighting abilities.” ~ Hiei
“Any prize worth having usually involves taking a risk.” ~ Kurama
“The ability to fear your enemy is one of your strengths. It allows you to reach your potential.”
~ Toguro to Yusuke

Not unlike in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (another of Togashi’s influences) the fights in Yu play out with a consistent stream of satisfying ingenuity. Yusuke, Kuwabara, Kurama and Hiei all (usually) win, of course, as our heroes — but how they do it, and the style in which they do it, is always a treat to watch. Moreover, Togashi sets the stage for every fight as an especially dire circumstance — even when we know so many more lie ahead, every one likely to be more power-laden or dangerous than the last. In The Dark Tournament, as in later arcs, every fight is the most difficult fight our heroes have ever faced. This is no small feat, working to keep the tension high over the 112 episode run.

The ‘knife-edge death match’ ~ Episode 32 ~ https://youtu.be/51176vDUucE ~ “You know, this whole life or death thing… I’m really starting to like it. Never any pleasure in playing if it ain’t for keeps.” ~ Yusuke and Australian fighter in dark tournament, the ‘knife-edge duel’ // “This is no longer a fight between two guys. This is the stuff legends are made of.” ~ Kuwabara
Yusuke pummels Chu, the Aussie brawler
“Only a fool depends upon arms and legs for victory.” ~ Kurama and his luscious red hair controlling his rose vine whip for the dub

~

Though The Dark Tournament saga is the series’ longest arc and perhaps best known — mostly due to its principal villain, the terrifying Toguro — the remaining two arcs compel the story into more intriguing territory. The Chapter Black saga, featuring a rogue spirit detective-turned-master villain, Shinobu Sensui, Yusuke’s predecessor, questions the worthiness of humanity. Sensui, corrupted by the sights and sounds of his detective work under Koenma in decades past, marshals a gallery of fellow nihilist soldiers, humans and demons both, in order to connect Demon World to Human World and bring about an apocalyptic extinction. A classical vision for an evil mastermind (who also himself breaks his psychosis into separate ‘humane’ and ‘demonic’ sides, so as to parse his trauma, justify his newfound brutality), Sensui’s saga mostly works as a gauntlet of dark ‘fun & games’ for our expanded cast of heroes to march through, in increasingly varied environs ~ psycho-doctor takes over a hospital using bugs to kill and corrupt, a baby Poseidon psychic tries to bridge into dark worlds, a cold-blooded spirit sniper haunts the forest outside of the city, The Goblin City video game battles {precursor resembling The Greed Island arc in HxH}.

Sensui’s seven
Sensui’s kickboxing style

The final arc to close out the series, the ‘Three Kings Saga’, is a satisfying denouement for our major characters, with a return to familiar but rewarding territory — a massive, high-stakes martial arts tournament. This time, it is for the fate of Demon World, which has its own factions and politics and underlying currents of motivation from out of its stalemated leadership, in Yomi, Mukuro, and Raizen. This saga provides fruitful grounds for explorations of the inner psyche of Yusuke, Kurama and Hiei, including a delving of the latter two’s tenebrous past lives. Each of this trio (with Kuwabara back home preparing for college entrance exams) allies themselves with their respective demon kings and progresses through their own personal conflicts before the tournament dawns.

To me, the Demon Tournament, originated by Yusuke as the best possible way to democratize the succession path and resolve the intractable conflicting between the kings of Demon World, is the perfect way to end things. For the show and for demonkind and for Yusuke’s final evolution as a character, the idea and execution of the tournament provides the perfect solution to all three: 1) Gives the audience a final showdown between all of the most powerful beings in the YYH universe; 2) Allows for demon politics to resolve in what they love most, even more than the aspiration to rule — violence — in the testing of their prowess against one another in near-mortal combat; 3) Provides the psychological foundations for Yusuke to realize what is really important to him.

“May the best destiny win, Mr. Urameshi.” ~ Yomi

“Democracy with fists!”

Life and Death

Looking back, the first few episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho provide what is perhaps the most profound humanist notion within the whole series. After Yusuke is killed and becomes a ghost, still able to travel around the material world and see the people that were in his world and their reactions to his newfound absence, there is a necessary reckoning to the existential restlessness he felt in his life just previous. In a It’s A Wonderful Life-style, Yusuke only learns of the value of his life and what people like his mother, Kuwabara, Keiko really thought about him — how much they loved him — after he has left theirs.

Before Yusuke can take any actions, at the behest of Botan and Koenma in Spirit World who must harbor his immaterial soul’s passage one way or another, just like Jimmy Stewart, he must decide if he wants to continue living.

Togashi’s core theme is conveyed within this mini-arc of Yusuke dying and returning to life only after wrestling with the implications of his inner purpose, and his interrelationships with the people around him. It is this: A human being is full of spiritual energy. Yes, it is used to determine one’s martial fighting prowess, like the ‘power level’ in Dragon Ball Z or the ‘spiritual pressure’ in Bleach or the ‘chakra’ in Naruto, or the ‘Nen’ one wields in Hunter x Hunter. However, more than that, spiritual energy represents one’s awareness of life and death, and how precious the threshold is between them. In the world of Yu, Yusuke, or any that go through a near-death experience, become attuned to the spirit realm, capable of seeing demons and their doings within the material world, as well as the aforementioned significance of the connections between human beings. Kuwabara and his sister actually see this naturally, born with gifts to sight the spirits infused within their surroundings. The most important factor in this metaphysical equation, that one comes to see over the course of the series, is the interdependent nature of spiritual energy concerning the people in your life around you.

Genkai, Yusuke’s dauntless mentor and the most powerful psychic master in the world, consolidates this directive over and over again in her training and journeying alongside our four good boys, and namely through her heir apparent in Yusuke.

No human being is a one-man show. Every decision that you make will affect the countless people who care about you. Do you understand? You can’t be a cocky kid anymore… You have… to…” ~ Genkai’s final words

Her core message to Yusuke amounts to: You need to commit to something. You need to grow up and bear some responsibility. Start acting with conviction, no longer holding anything back for fear of failure.

Or fear of death. We learn eventually that Genkai’s words are partially self-directed as well. We meet her in the first saga of the series, after Yusuke is ordered by Koenma as a spirit detective to investigate, and hopefully win, the competition that the mysterious psychic master is putting on to determine who will take up the mantle of their powers. Genkai, now aged and near to death but still able to train an apprentice, wishes to pass on her considerable power before she goes. At first, she is amoral about this passage, uncaring what type of person might win the competition. But through her interactions with the ‘heroic’ Yusuke and his band of merry fighters-for-good, she comes to understand her great responsibility and loosens from her jaded cynicism that was borne from her betrayal at the hands of Toguro years before… She comes to be thankful for her meeting Yusuke — and vitally, for his winning her little competition so as to gain her powers himself, not letting them fall into the hands of a more sinister being.

“Everyone has to fight with time to find their place before their inevitable death.”

The villains in Yu exemplify the power and meaningfulness of this threshold — between life and death — perhaps better than the heroes. Toguro sets an iconically imposing figure within the pantheon of villainy in manga and anime; his displays of strength and of quiet, commanding control and cruelty make us fear for Yusuke and Kuwabara in their eventual face-off. The whole Dark Tournament saga — the longest section of the series — is meant to generate hype for Toguro and Yusuke’s eventual fight at its conclusion. Alongside their previous bouts — where neither releases all — it does so splendidly, by displaying Toguro’s overt philosophical slant: Power is everything, and must be sought after in place of all else, so as to squeeze every drop of potential within a Man.

However, Toguro’s underlying motive in grooming Yusuke, and in betraying Genkai, is much more profound, and sad. Toguro in the end with full power unleashed upon Yusuke in the championship round of the Dark Tourney, we see his real wish revealed — for a final foe. Like an immortal given too long a duration and succumbed to the tedium of changelessness, Toguro desires defeat, he wants his own death more than any other’s. Like the ancient samurai, his ultimate code lies in defeat against a greater warrior; his latent core of humanity is revealed that this death wish also has to do with atonement for his abandoning and killing of Genkai.

“You really are a big-hearted fool.” ~ Genkai to Toguro

What Togashi does best with his villains is to layer their mystery initially in a seemingly impenetrable shroud of calmness and coolness, demeanors of easy confidence that do not crack and therefore appear to us as necessarily, absolutely wicked. Toguro embodies this more than any other, as his image as such is given the most time to marinate and develop. But the same goes for Sensui and Yomi, and Mukuro and even Raizen, Yusuke’s ancestral father and Demon king.

Sensui, the former spirit detective now disillusioned, plans to use the sins of humanity as a weapon to destroy it; he does so out of despair, and out of guilt, as a former trooper to his own species’ affairs that he can no longer see as anything except corrupt. His vision sees humanity as more akin to demons than we’d like to admit, and his mission becomes about the worthiness of the entire human race and its failed potential to ever be something more than killers and pathological pursuers of power and control.

“Now is the time to settle the question: should human beings live or die?” ~ Sensui // “Something in him fractured… he became obsessed with the Chapter Black Tape… he came to question the sanctity of the human race. Now he wants the life of every human, to repent for their collective sins.”
~ We humans can justify anything. That’s how our corruption begins. That’s why I like demons. They make no excuses. They accept their wickedness. Just as you will, in time… ~ Sensui to Yusuke
“You can’t save the damned. Because Sensui must follow his soul’s true course. Pour ink on a white sheet and it will spread and taint… Purity is worth the world. And worth it ending.” ~ Itsuki

In the end of Chapter Black, though we see that while Sensui’s grand villainous vision both repels and partially resonates with us, he is really seeking something similar to Toguro — a noble death at the hands of a worthy foe, and a place to rest his restless, fraying psyche.

In Yusuke’s fight against Yomi in the final saga, the existential crisis he was in the midst of in episode 1 returns — why am I alive? After his long journey of fights against godlike martial artists and demon-empowered masterminds, he returns to a crisis of faith in himself, in what all of the fighting was even for. Just as Kurama and Hiei experience in their own ways, in their own tournament fighting in previous episodes, the realizations come only when faced with finality, with death, with the end.

With grand-grandfather Raizen’s voice in the back of his head, Yusuke finally comes to grasp the obvious — he has a reason to live in Keiko, in Kuwabara and Genkai and all of his companions he has journeyed alongside for the whole of the series. There are people that care about him. They were the reason he came back to the world of the living in the first place. They are the reason he has fought all this way, and became as powerful as he has. ~ They are the reason why this little early 90s battle shonen is as loved as it it.

Tell her how you feel. She’s the best thing you got… Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We’re both jerks for love.” ~ Raizen and Yusuke

The yearning for life and death within Yu Yu Hakusho, at-times subtle and only in the details and other times bombastically displayed in the clashing fists and energies of mortal combat, is what makes the series. With loveable characters captured, great and small, archetypal and subverting, Togashi crafts a fun-first journey amidst spirits, demons and humanity. I can say, after returning all these years later, is it one of my favorite anime and everyone should find the time to watch it. ~

“That’s the one bad thing about sunsets, they make you think too much.” ~ Keiko

😊 ~ Yu Yu Hakusho opening ~ 😊
Yu Yu outro 4