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"Yu Yu Hakusho": Two Worlds, But One Great Series

by on May 20, 2009

Yusuke Urameshi was your average middle school delinquent, getting into fights, slacking off even when not skipping school, and breaking the dress code. His teachers thought him a textbook punk.

But one day, to the astonishment of all who knew him, he saved a little boy from a speeding car—and died. But Spirit World—the bureaucracy that runs the afterlife and oversees the containment of the supernatural elements in the human world—was simply unprepared for his early arrival, and so gave him the opportunity to return to life. After several trials, Yusuke reclaimed his life in exchange for becoming the human world’s new Spirit Detective, to use new allies and his ever-budding powers to protect humanity from demons and other supernatural parties.

Yu Yu Hakusho was one of the first titles licensed by FUNimation. Originally running on Japanese TV from 1992 until 1995, it hit American shores on Adult Swim and Toonami in 2002. It is by far one of the most popular titles for American boys of my generation, and age has only sweetened my appreciation for it. The jokes of FUNimation’s salty ‘n spicy English dub script make more sense now, for instance. I can also more fully appreciate the fluidity of the series’ many fights.

Yu Yu Hakusho‘s scripts were some of FUNimation’s first “faithful” scripts (as opposed to their work at the time on the Dragonball franchise). I will still enclose “faithful” in quotation marks because, though faithful to the series’ spirit, the adapters do tend to spice up the dialogue with swearing and more adult jokes. Luckily, Yu Yu is flexible enough to snap from comedy to blood ‘n guts, and from gore to romance, on the turn of a dime, so changes by the English writing team do not automatically ruin the experience.

When it comes to casting FUNimation is king. ADR director Justin Cook himself is the “shoot now, think later” Urameshi, and as the series builds and the character evolves, Cook’s characterization crackles to life. By the middle of season one, he lets us see that Yusuke cannot be easily classified as a “delinquent” at heart.

The supporting cast is quite carefully chosen. Chris Sabat plays Kuwabara, Yusuke’s arch-rival turned best friend, as a gentle soul, despite his self-bestowed title as their middle school’s baddest dude. Sabat performs within a very small vocal range—essentially he deploys a raspier version of his already raspy Vegeta voice—but by the middle of the first season he settles into the role. Kuwabara has quite a few emotional scenes, and I can’t but wonder what he would have sounded like with a more natural voice. But Sabat knocks Kuwabara’s often silly speeches about love and honor right out of the park, and he is especially memorable in scenes where Kuwabara’s gentle giant performs opposite his love interest (Jessica Dismuke’s Yukina).

Then there’s Hiei—a villain turned anti-hero. Hiei’s past and true motives are played quite close to the chest throughout the first three seasons, and in retrospect his “not-really-a-friend” status with the rest of the gang and his being forced to live within a certain section of human world make it odd that he should continue to appear in the show after the conclusion of his initial arc. (Perhaps creator Yoshihiro Togashi was pressured by editors to bring him back because of his popularity.) Whatever the reason, Chuck Huber brings a subtle and personal tone to the often quick-to-kill Hiei, crafting a strong relationship between the character and the audience. His art is such that Hiei, a character who isn’t particularly cheerful or expressive, becomes transparent to the viewer. You get twice as much out of Hiei’s scenes: you are entertained by the character that the other characters know, and by the character you understand and empathize with.

The final of the series’ four leads is the demon thief Yoko Kurama, a fox apparition who was injured in a botched robbery. To preserve his life, Kurama merged his soul with that of a young human baby. Growing up as this boy, Kurama came to have attachments to the human world, and he meets and befriends Yusuke when he risks his life to steal a Spirit World artifact he believes will heal his ill mother. (This, by the way, gives him a better reason than Hiei for remaining a part of the regular cast.) John Burgmeier pulls double duty as Kurama, switching between a kind and quiet boy and a cool and calculating fighter. (The latter side gets more accent when Kurama’s fox demon form is unleashed upon his foes.) These two halves actually have separate existences, and will exchange words about protecting their “mother,” and will influence each other. This is never brought up explicitly, but it is nevertheless audible in Burgmeier’s performance.

Each of the four leads is multi-faceted. Yusuke is the supposed slacker out only to cause trouble, but is in truth a young man who doesn’t know where he is going in life. Kuwabara is the punk who will never amount to anything in his teachers’ eyes, but to his friends he is loyal and trustworthy. Hiei is by his own admission a dangerous demon, but is secretly a loving big brother. And Kurama is a loving son with a grim past behind his bright future.

The series is composed of a number of stories and arcs, ranging from confrontations with a mad physician who has infected an entire hospital with a supernatural virus to a civil war in the Demon World. But by the end of the show each of the four leads will have been brought to a decisive choice.

The point of culmination comes in the final half of the fourth season, as Hiei and Kurama feel the pull of the past. Kurama finds he must choose between his lives as Yoko Kurama, a powerful and influential demon, and as Shuichi Minamino, a middle-school boy genius with human friends and family. Hiei must also choose: Will he be an agent of chaos, or, in a continuing act of self-abnegation, will he maintain the peace? With Yusuke, they will take sides in a war between three demon kings without knowing where their conflicting paths will take them.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kuwabara—who had played sidekick to Yusuke—chooses to abandon the fight against the supernatural. His presence, though, is still felt by both the characters and the audience. There is, for instance, the moment—which pulled tears of manliness from me—when in the middle of a battle Kurama hallucinates hearing a cheering Kuwabara by his side. It’s a powerful scene, well augmented by Yusuke Honma’s musical score. That score, by the way, is strong throughout, and the series simply wouldn’t be the same without it and the audible taste it adds to the series’ flavorful designs.

I don’t have the technical training to describe or analyze its visuals, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them. The series’ backgrounds are not always eye-popping, but they often give you something new to catch on subsequent viewings. (This is especially so with the insane number of demons in the crowds at the tournaments). The demon and human worlds get different stylings, and yet they are still consistent with each other. This season also provides a pretty neat selection of fights, with each character getting their own style. The show is a product of the nineties, and allowances have to be made for the economies of the day, especially with the plant life and terrain of the demon world. But it has enough color and personality to win the viewer’s appreciation.

As of late, FUNimation has chosen some cheap packaging tactics. Each thin pack holds two discs with reversible covers. These discs are just repackaged versions of previous releases, with no changes even to the menus and trailers. Even more disheartening is the lack of extras that were available on the final disc of the original Yu Yu Hakusho single disc release, which included five audio commentaries with the cast and crew that were both informative and fun. I highly recommend you hunt down a copy of the out-of-print Yu Yu Hakusho Volume 32: Yusuke Rediscovered, as the extras are worth it. The season sets contain the usual trailers, static menu character profiles, and clean opening and ending songs. Still, the prices are an improvement, recycled menus and the usual text character biographies notwithstanding.

Yu Yu Hakusho is rated TV-PG by FUNimation and contains both mild nudity and violence of the beheading kind. While innards are not explicitly animated, there will be blood on the screen. If the past fourteen paragraphs haven’t spelled it out in tall, neon-bright letters: This release is absolutely recommended for both newcomers to Japanese animation and old-timey fans.

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