This article contains spoilers for the end of Yu Yu Hakusho, particularly Yusuke’s character arc.
The Ordinary World
It’s been fifteen years since I first saw Yu Yu Hakusho, I remember it was announced as a new Funimation project along with Blue Gender, prior to then to my knowledge Funimation had Dragon Ball Z and Fruits Baskets and based on the description on the website I was excited for Blue Gender but I couldn’t quite figure out what Yu Yu Hakusho was even about. Blue Gender had the detailed, serious looking art style of 80’s and 90’s science fiction anime like Akira or Ninja Scroll or (shudder) obscure terrifying shit like Biohunter. The pitch for Yu Yu made it sound like X-Files but more confusing. Within a year the show premiered on Adult Swim and while Blue Gender turned out to be not very interesting to me (I still haven’t gone back to it, I probably should) Yu Yu was instantly a story I understood and connected with. An angry middle school kid, misunderstood teachers, single mom who only had so much attention to give dies and comes back to life with super powers and learns martial arts. I was a lot more privileged that Yusuke but 13 year olds don’t see it that way. Over the next three years I watched it weekly and stopped a little more than halfway through the series at the end of the Dark Tournament arc. Four years after that I’d resume where I left off in college. It was a pleasantly surprised that Yu Yu Hakusho was even better to my eyes at 20 than at 13, I was able to notice just how well paced and concise the show is and compared to its peers in the shounen fighting anime subgenre. it never wasted your time; there was no filler, anything that wasn’t plot was genuine character development of a core cast that was cemented by 20 something episodes in. Yu Yu Hakusho isn’t an epic, it’s not very long and the scale of the adventures don’t feel larger than they need to be; ostensibly the human world is always at stake but the dialogue doesn’t remind us of this by telling the audience that the world could end with clunky exposition every episode instead the threat the bad guys pose to the mere mortal characters is shown directly by giving Keiko and Shizuru subplots that demonstrate the danger allowing the audience to build an emotional context for the fighting. The core emotional stakes of every battle gives the somewhat gimmicky trope of everyone having named special attacks and yelling them out like they’re playing a video game seem less out of place or distracting. I’ve watched the entire show through three times now and I could only name a small handful of the named attacks.
The Call to Adventure
The reason I want to write about Yu Yu Hakusho now is to point out an observation I made on my most recent viewing of the series. When my wife confessed she hadn’t seen anything past the Dark Tournament arc we ended up rewatching the whole show again over the course of six months or so. Just Like in college Yu Yu held up as being better than I remember and my main issues with the show now were missed opportunities. Although my favorite character will always and forever be the Kuwabara, Yusuke arc over the entire series is noticeable and his incremental changes from arc to arc help give the show momentum and the sense of time passing. Yusuke is structurally the hero of the anime, he is the one who is the fish out of water, the hero who passes from the ordinary world into the world of adventure, he has mentors, magic gifts, allies who challenge and aid him, and when the time arrives he sacrifices himself for others when he is needed most and undergoes the apotheosis, the moment of change from and he returns to the ordinary world a changed person. Yusuke does this cycle four times and each time one more turn is marked by Yusuke both growing as a person and his further detachment from the world he once inhabited.
All hero stories about personal change, most of the time it’s the personal change from childhood to adulthood but this is just a common template because so many people all over the world and through history can relate to this transition, but at a deeper level the hero’s journey is the story of becoming who you are and changing your character and behavior to fit the new moral requirements of being an adult or a new type of person. Yusuke literally dies and is reborn as a new person twice but doesn’t really become who he is until he comes home to his friends on the beach in the last episode. So who was Yusuke all along? Was he Yusuke the spirit detective, Yusuke the great martial artist, or Yusuke the fierce demon Mazuku? None of them were the real Yusuke, they were all “stages on life’s way”, false identities that only express a single aspect of his inner life, they exist in his life to be overcome not embraced. The real villain Yusuke has to defeat are these phantom personas necessary to overcome external threats but leave him incomplete as a person. Yusuke is not really resurrected when he returns to his body at the end of the first arc he is resurrected when he returns from the inner struggle of combating the illusion that “he” exists outside of himself. That is one of the most pernicious illusions people fall for; that we need to “find yourself” in the external world, through the needs of others or the tasks we perform, it’s absurd to insist the locus of the human soul is anywhere else but within! Yusuke’s defeat at the end of the Three King’s arc is one of the greatest gifts he ever received. Once the hero becomes the king there is nowhere else to go but down and come to terms with his or her mortality and atone for their sins and face the cosmic justice impulse deep within humanity’s collective unconscious. If Yusuke had defeated Yomi and became the king of Demon World the story could go nowhere else but tragedy. The anime would need to cut abruptly and end in the afterglow of Yusuke’s coronation as king, because no future arc can take him further, he would need to lose his power and his kingship, undone like Oedipus or other tragedies.
The First Threshold: Death
The first story arc is an unintentional overture for the entire series. The world and even the afterlife all see Yusuke as a one dimensional punk kid; he looks scary, he doesn’t come from a “nice” family, he does poorly in school and by age 14 Yusuke has sadly grown into the person he was stereotyped into being. Outside projection and tough guy coping mechanisms are becoming a self fulfilling prophecy; he really does skip school, he lifts girls skirts, gets into fights with other street toughs, and is disrespectful to his elders. The poor kid needs a dad, coach, attentive teacher, or mentor to help him find direction for all the energy and emotional frustration he has locked inside. Without that wisdom he sees the world as his enemy, Keiko is oldest friend mothers him and he treats it as bitching, Kuwabara who will be his great friend is just some asshole he needs to punch out on the way home, and his principle Mr. Tanaka who has certainly seen dozens of kids like Yusuke in his career just wants him to attend school and talk with him but gets treated like any other judgmental adult. If Yusuke things the world has given up on him then he might as well give up on himself. If Yusuke had never been hit by the car he might have ended up exactly like spirit world and society assumed he would; selfish and antisocial having engaged in what Sartre calls “bad faith”, acting the part of an object or social role instead of taking up the burden of deciding who he is for himself.
The first arc is thematically tied to Yusuke realizing that he is missed and loved; he was the most important thing that ever happened to his mother, Mr. Tanaka would chastise the shit out of any corrupt teacher who spoke ill of him, Kuwabara needed him to help himself become a better fighter and beneath the (fucking awesome) tough guy pompadour was genuine affection, and Keiko’s “nagging” was coming from a deep well of lifelong friendship and love and was inconsolable at his wake. But these support networks do a lot more than just grieve, they over the course of that short arc keep vigil over his body, praying and waiting in the faith that he really was going to come back to them soon. The first cycle of Yusuke’s story plays out like an ancient hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell, he is called to adventure by his death, met the herald Botan, crossed the first threshold of spirit world receives a gift from the divine mentor Koenma, and has to master the rules of the spirit world to pass through the trials of convincing his friends to preserve his body, and in a moment of climax he sacrifices his golden egg to save Keiko believing it was worth staying dead to keep Keiko alive, then to be rewarded with a return to life and returns to the living world with the elixir of spirit energy awareness which is rolling seamlessly into the next arc of his time as a spirit detective.
The Final Threshold: Resurrection of the Soul
See that circular chart up there? Imagine it rolling on and on like a giant wheel carrying the hero, in this case Yusuke forward to the final end, every revolution meets new resistances and as he over the coming years gains greater mastery and further immersion in the world of adventure he feels more and more alienated from the world and life he and his friends worked so hard to give back to him. There are great scenes in the space between arcs where Yusuke is shown feeling more and more uncomfortable with being a teenager. The journey to the afterlife and his sequences of apotheosis has placed him suspended in an important final threshold for any archetypal hero; the choose between being the master of two world. He can stay in the spirit world, fight bad guys with ever increasing power levels or he can return home and sanctify himself from the mark of war and return with the elixir to better his old home. Yusuke never really made this choice at the end of the first arc, he did the opposite he made the choice to value Keiko’s life over his own resurrection and was saved deus ex machina from really living out the consequences of that choice. As spirit detective Yusuke might be alive but his soul is still “dead” in a state of psychic transmutation that only the true act of personal will can transport him to the other side. Yusuke needs to choose for himself what kind of life he wants to live. Its very important for his character arc that he was robbed of the responsibility of killing Sensui, Raizen and beating Yomi. No amount of fighting stronger demons deeper in into the cave would replace the existential dread that Yusuke feels at the prospect of really choosing his life. None of the villains are his real nemesis, instead they are all increasingly adjacent to the true shadow of his soul; will he make peace with the world or will he be the kind of person he would have been without the car accident but with super powers. These are all means to an end, pointing him to the truth; There is no Yusuke deep in Demon World or deep in his past, Yusuke is wherever he is, and he knows that his real duty is to be himself and stay loyal to those who were loyal to him. Its so important that Yusuke leaves the story for two years, the time passing off screen. The only thing left for him to do is to state his intentions, speak himself back to life with the ancient power of the logos, the power Yahweh used to bring the world into existence when he says to Keiko “I don’t want you to wait either.”
This is the final conclusion for his character, the hero deciding to share his boon, his mythic elixir with loved ones at home. Showing the audience the entire time that every arc in a serialized story moves the core character story forward, showing real change instead of a suspended state of childhood and working toward a concise timely conclusion is the antithesis of the negative stereotypes of shounen fighting anime but its mastery by Togashi is why I think its the best example of the genre and part of me is bummed I’ll never see another anime like this again.
Post Script: This was fairly fun to write and at the very least I want to do a follow up for Keiko and the female characters in general. Yu Yu Hakusho isn’t a stellar example of including female characters in this kind of genre but its far from some of the worst offenders. The issue with Keiko and the girls in general is that more wasn’t done with them given that Togashi knew enough to give them subplots it would have been nice by the second half of the series to integrate them more into the magic of the world. Considering the series ends with both Yusuke’s arc and Keiko’s being fulfilled in spiritual marriage it would be fun to plot her arc parallel to Yusuke’s.