When you ask anime fans what their favorite series are, chances are you'll hear Yoshihiro Togashi's Yu Yu Hakusho among their many responses. Capturing a zeitgeist in both Japan and the United States, there are many reasons why this series stands on the top.
In celebration of the series' 25th Anniversary, and the new OVA special releasing in Japan later this year, now is as good of a time as any to detail exactly why Yu Yu Hakusho is so fondly remembered as one of the big anime classics.
There are a ton of action anime being produced every day, yet fans still long for more Yu Yu Hakusho because it so perfectly nails everything an action anime series needs to succeed.
Read on to find out why exactly Yu Yu Hakusho is one of the best action anime of all time, and why it's still hard to dethrone 25 years after its initial release.
It Has a Great Hook
Yu Yu Hakusho's got one of the most compelling hooks in all of action anime. Starting off by killing its main character Yusuke when he saves a child from an accident, the first few episodes of the series don't feel like a traditional "action" anime.
Yusuke wanders as a roaming spirit for quite a while as he attempts to bring himself to life, so fans are allowed an easier and gentler introduction into how the Spirit World works. Then once it gets its hook in you, it drops a frown bomb with a soul-crushing funeral that sparks Yusuke into believing his life truly has worth.
After passing a series of tests, Yusuke is allowed to return to the living world but with a few caveats. With the gained ability to see spirits and demons, Yusuke is given the title of "Underworld Detective" and must solve various cases of spirits running amok in the living world. From there, it's on.prevnext
Yusuke is a Strong Main Character
Just as how his introduction is different from many other action anime protagonists, Yusuke is a strong main character worthy of the series' highly emotional first arc.
In one of his very first actions, Yusuke is already presented as a kid who wouldn't immediately jump into danger for no reason (as he hesitates slightly when saving the child) but does so anyway.
He begins the series much like many other high school delinquents in anime, but as the show progresses fans learn that Yusuke's had to deal with a terrible upbringing with an alcoholic mom and absentee dad, terrible teachers literally out to get him, and although he talks spicy, Yusuke is just a kind boy who wants friends.
It explains his closeness with his "girlfriend" Keiko, his eventual teacher/pupil relationship with Genkai, and even stranger teacher/pupil relationship he winds up having with series villains Toguro and Sensui. The series needed a strong emotional core to hold everything together, and it has just that in Yusuke Urameshi.prevnext
Yusuke Has Great Allies
But an action anime series is more about the ensemble cast than main character, so without a strong ancillary cast Yu Yu Hakusho would fall apart. Balancing out Yusuke's strengths comes with new friends and allies with equally strong presences.
Like any good action anime, Yusuke ends up befriending many of his early foes and becomes friendly rivals with each of them. First comes Kuwabara Kazuma, a fellow delinquent with a kind heart and code of honor, who ends up hilariously helping out a dead Yusuke against his will and grows closer to him as a result.
The same goes for demons turned buddies Kurama and Hiei, who initially serve as foes (with Hiei being outright villainous and Kurama wanting to save his human mother) but their transition into the full crew is done with a heavier hand as they form a working relationship until the events of the Dark Tournament bring them closer together for real later in the series.
Each character in this core group has their own sets of desires and motivations outside of Yusuke's influence, so when they have their individual battles (which action series often dedicate much time to) it's easier to root for them when Yusuke isn't directly involved.prevnext
The Series Has Great Villains
Even if Yu Yu Hakusho just had a strong main character and strong secondary characters, it wouldn't be as well known as it is today without a strong roster of villains.
Although some are admittedly more forgettable than others such as Sensui's Seven Psychics, Mukuro and Yomi in the Demon World Tournament Arc, or even Rando, the series still has strength in its portrayals of its two core antagonists: Toguro and Sensui.
The both of them are positioned as the series' villains, but their actions make them more of an antagonist as their goals often clash with Yusuke's. Toguro, for example, once sold his humanity to become an all powerful demon and is forever in search of a challenging fight that would put him at peace.
Sensui was a former Spirit Detective who, through a bloody and disturbing discovery, finds out the "world" has been lying to him and seeks to eliminate what he sees as the true threat. The good-hearted, yet slightly dark nature of Yusuke comes into play with both of these mean wonderfully as the clashing ideologies (along with the clash of powers) make for great action scenes when fans see just how many parallels each of these characters share.
Genkai wraps the strength of the secondary characters well in the series with "Everyone has to fight with time to find their place before their inevitable death...no human is ever a one-man show. Every decision you make will effect the countless people who care about you."prevnext
It's Got Strong Animation Too
Even with strong characters, strong secondary characters, and strong antagonists, an action anime would not be worth its salt without equally strong action animation. The series has this in spades. While it admittedly does have some repeat frames and scenes (which is especially noticeable when you see the same demon reaction shot during the Dark Tournament for the 40th time), it's clean when it's important.
Studio Pierrot's staff wasn't afraid to get to get dirty with perspectives or character models during fights. This meant that each punch, each blast of Yusuke's Spirit Gun is imbued with a ton of personality. Adding to the emotional weight of Yusuke's battles, the animation works in tandem with Togashi's already strong story and character design by playing with the lighting of each scene. The lighting emphasizes the roughness of each hit, and makes villains like Toguro look far more disgusting when lit in just the right way.
Because Yusuke's treated seriously, but the staff isn't afraid to knock him down a peg in the presentation, each battle carries a new appreciation of Yusuke taking devastating hits without losing any of his coolness factor either.prevnext
Strong in Many Languages
Anime fans in the United States are stuck in a constant battle of "subs versus dubs," and this argument has only gotten more complicated as the medium has become available to an even wider array of fans than ever before.
But Yu Yu Hakusho has never been part of this argument. Both language presentations are held in high regard with fans as they point to the series' English dub and Japanese sub as some of the highest quality in the medium.
Both Nozumu Sasaki and Justin Cook provide excellent performances for Yusuke, and the subtle and not-so subtle differences in their portrayals of Yusuke makes the series worth revisiting a second time just so you can hear how Yusuke changes between the presentations.
This isn't even factoring in every other actor's performances, or the pleasurable sound design of the series. Body morphing sounds appropriately gross, punches have a hearty sound, and it's got a rocking opening and ending theme that gets fully translated into English in the dub. Matsuko Mawatari's "Smile Bomb" sounds great in many languages. This is before even factoring in all of the other languages the series has been translated into!prevnext
It Still Holds Up
As with many anime released around the same time, it's easy to look back on Yu Yu Hakusho with nostalgia goggles and elevate beyond its true product. Looking back on many anime in this time often reveals poor pacing, poor editing, or something you just didn't notice before.
But a truly great action anime can withstand these criticisms and still be an entertaining experience throughout. Yu Yu Hakusho admittedly has some of the same problems as its action compatriots, as no series is truly "perfect," but because it has those strong characters, emotional core, and presentation, it "holds up."
Yoshihiro Togashi's original manga ends a bit abruptly as Togashi was dealing with health and exhaustion issues toward the end of the series' run. But Studio Pierrot avoids this pitfall by giving their own take on the series' finale. It just feels more fulfilling as a result.
Once the series gets its strong hook in you at the start, it doesn't really let go until the series' end. Every episode begs the viewer to watch the next immediately after, and "holds up" even after all these years. The episodes still have that staying and drawing power that they had way back when.
It's hard to find an action series that still keeps you gripped like this for over 100 episodes, so it's always a good decision to go back to Yu Yu Hakusho as much as you possibly can.prev