Kazuma Kuwabara wants what any high school student would want: to enjoy his time with his friends, manage his studies, get into a good university, and beat the strongest kid in his school in a fist fight. He has challenged the short and skinny punk Yusuke Urameshi to fights more times than he can remember with only bruises to show for it. Dedicated in his delinquency, he would pick a fight with his rival as many times as it would take to defeat him. Urameshi, on the other hand, is mostly indifferent towards him and this one-sided rivalry. In fact, he cares so little about it that he went ahead and died in the very first chapter of Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho. Kuwabara could never defeat him in life and it seems like he won’t get another chance in his quest for street fighting glory. However, Kuwabara isn’t the main character of this manga. His dead rival, Yusuke Urameshi, is.
Yusuke puzzled heaven and hell when he died saving a kid from being run over by a car. Botan, the broom flying shinigami assigned to him, explains to his surprisingly indifferent ghost that nobody on the other side expected him to do a good deed in his final hour as he spent most of his life skipping school, fighting, drinking, smoking, and gambling. The impatient Urameshi just wants to be taken to hell as he feels nobody will miss him anyway. Instead, Botan ushers him to his funeral where he’s surprised by his mom and friend Keiko crying over him. One of his teachers who would always try to see the good in him also makes an appearance to lament his death. And even Kuwabara storms into his funeral to pick a fight with his corpse for dying before he could defeat him. It seems like Yusuke’s passage through life wasn’t as unnoticed as he thought. Since the afterlife bureaucrats don’t know what to do with him, they offer Yusuke a second chance at life if he takes a test to resurrect as a Spirit Detective.
Yu Yu Hakusho seems to be one of the most complicated titles to translate from Japanese, some sort of pun about a white book and ghosts. One of its official translations just calls it “Ghost Files” and judging by how the manga starts it would seem accurate. The first handful of chapters are indeed filled by X-Files like stories in which Yusuke is solving different supernatural cases. It seems like Yoshihiro Togashi was still trying to decide what kind of manga he was drawing. However, around chapter 20 a group known as “The Deadly Trio” is introduced as the main villains of that arc. While Goki, a mean beefed stereotypical demon is quite forgettable, the other two characters would go on to form the core group of the manga along with Yusuke and Kuwabara as part of some sort of demon rehabilitation program to make up for their misdeeds. One of these demons is Hiei, an unfriendly and incredibly strong yokai who draws power from his third eye, wields a sword, and summons the fires of hell to fight his foes. The other is Kurama, a fox spirit who uses demonic plants as weapons and comes to Earth incarnated in a human baby, stealing his body.
As you experience Yu Yu Hakusho, you might think that a lot of the elements in this story will lead you into your average shonen manga plotlines where new and stronger foes present themselves as a menace to the world one after the other (Is Dragon Ball ever going to end?), and yes there is that. However, one of the strongest aspects of this manga is how charismatic its characters are, even the villains. Reading this series you find yourself feeling empathy for them, or at least understanding somewhat where they are coming from. Hiei initially seems as evil as any villain, but in spite of being a vicious and unforgiving yokai when it comes to fighting, he’s trying to rescue his kidnapped sister who isn’t even aware they are related. Kurama, incarnated as a human child, only allied himself with Hiei and Goki in order to obtain an artifact that could help save his human mother who he grew fond of in spite of being a demon.
Yu Yu Hakusho’s greatest saga is The Dark Tournament Arc. Shonen tournaments can be quite repetitive. It’s an easy way to get all the characters to fight one after the other without the need for too much plot development, as we see happen so often in battle manga from classics like Dragon Ball to newer series like Jujutsu Kaisen. However, in this manga, the Dark Tournament Arc is where you get the most interesting storylines. They get the invitation to this tournament from a foe they had already defeated, the not so stereotypically beefed demon Toguro (you will remember him). Toguro shows up out of nowhere one day and demonstrates he could easily collapse an entire building on top of Yusuke claiming he only used 20% of his power when they previously fought. He then gives the spirit detective the choice of being killed right there or fighting for his life in the dark tournament alongside Kuwabara. Reinforced by a mysterious masked woman, Kurama and Hiei form the Urameshi Team and take off to some remote island to battle all sorts of nightmarish creatures to the death. There has never been a tournament arc like this in manga. The fights are actually scary to follow and you feel like the protagonists could end up dead any time. Even though Yoshihiro Togashi’s next, and arguably more popular, series Hunter × Hunter was introduced by one very long tournament arc, not even Togashi himself could top what he created here.
Sensui, another great villain in the series, is a former spiritual detective who, while on duty, found out the darkest sides of humanity. You know, things like enslaving people for profit, trafficking yokais and organizing death matches just for their own viewing pleasure. Instead of just being appalled and carrying on with his duties, Yusuke’s predecessor decides that maybe opening a portal between the demon world to quite literally unleash hell on humans would be a great idea. Togashi is great at writing characters like that who blur the boundaries between good and evil. Villains turn into heroes and heroes might just turn into villains. In the last arc in the series it’s actually quite difficult to determine whether the antagonists are even really villains as the series has an abrupt and controversial ending.
Yu Yu Hakusho is in all the best ways a true 90s shonen. It carries that yankee punk energy that was so popular in that era like no other shonen ever did. Juvenile delinquents just had a different kind of aesthetics back then. Take, for example, a more recent series like Tokyo Revengers where the characters, in spite of being street punks, look more like they would fit right in in Tokyo’s fashion week. In the 80s and 90s, the bad boy attitude had a face to go with it. It might be a weird manga to get into if you never read anything from that era as Togashi’s drawings can be a bit rough, especially in the first few volumes, and the story doesn’t seem to flow exactly like your average shonen manga would, but bear with it. In it’s less than five year run and 175 chapters, Yu Yu Hakusho will take you places longer running series couldn’t with three times the page count.
The live-action adaptation is just around the corner. After the fiasco that was the Cowboy Bebop’s Netflix adaptation, the One Piece live action caught everyone off guard as it miraculously managed to please both fans and people who had never read the manga. I am hoping the Yu Yu Hakusho will keep that new trend of actually good adaptations going, but whether it is good or bad, if you’ve read this far you should take this opportunity to visit one of the best and most unique shonen manga of all time.