WORLDWIDE FANTASY MONTH #5: Yu Yu Hakusho, by Noriyuki Abe (1992)

Type of Media: Animation

When Yu Yu Hakusho begins the main character, 14-year-old punk Yusuke Urameshi, is dead. Having thrown himself in front of a car to save a little kid’s life, Yusuke is now a ghost and ready to move on to the Spirit World. The trouble is, given his track record of getting into fights and skipping school, no one in the Spirit World expected him to do something so selfless so they haven’t prepared a place for him yet. Yusuke gets a second shot at life, but with a catch. His trip to the Spirit World awakens spiritual powers in him, and the prince of the Spirit World Koenma wants him to use those powers to solve supernatural crimes as a Spirit Detective.

With a title like Spirit Detective you’d think that Yusuke would be like a Japanese version of Nick Burkhardt from Grimm, but Yu Yu Hakusho isn’t a supernatural crime drama show. Yusuke acts more like a Spirit SWAT Officer than a detective, relying on his toughness and cunning more than any skill with deduction or investigation. No, Yu Yu Hakusho is an action anime, and it’s one of the best. Fights are frequent and well-animated, spiced up with variety in both the situations the characters are in and the powers of the antagonists. 

Yusuke and the allies he comes to rely on become more powerful over the course of the series, but don’t ever hit that Dragon Ball Z level of “oh-come-on-now-this-is-just-ridiculous”. While they grow in strength they also develop as characters, with Yusuke coming out of the spiky shell he formed during his rough childhood, and his teammates, two of whom are demons, turn from their selfish and vengeful ways and learn to accept themselves. There’s a surprising amount of backstory given to one-off villains and minor characters as well, giving the sense that everyone in the world of Yu Yu Hakusho has had a set of individual experiences that shape their personalities.

Westerners may look at Yu Yu Hakusho and think all of its detailed and colorful world just came from an exceptionally creative mind, but its world and many of its characters are actually heavily based on East Asian religion and mythology. The Four Saint Beasts, the big bads of the first season, are based on the Four Guardian Spirits of Kyoto, which are themselves based on the Four Symbols of Chinese mythology that represent the cardinal directions. The Spirit World is the Shinto land of the dead Reikai, complete with the Styx-like Sanzu River running through it. Yu Yu Hakusho’s vision of the afterlife, run like a government bureaucracy with titles, overworked assistants, and demons running around with paperwork like an old-timey vision of a stock exchange, is inspired by the highly structured cosmology of Chinese Buddhism. 

That structure seems to inform Yu Yu Hakusho’s morality as well, with Yusuke, as a Spirit Detective working for the leaders of the Spirit World, keeping the order between the world of humans, the world of spirits, and the world of demons. In this case order generally translates to separation, as the ruler of the Spirit World King Enma tends to not like the different worlds mixing. Human villains are often fascinated by the special powers demons have and are drawn to the violence of the demon world, while demon villains like how most humans are easy to kill or manipulate and try to invade. Ironically, though, the protagonists are a group of beings that largely get their power by being a mixture of at least two of the different worlds. Like a lot of gritty crime shows, the system turns a blind eye to things that violate the order as long as it results in a greater order being maintained.

If you’re a fan of action anime or martial arts movies, Yu Yu Hakusho is an easy recommendation. Likewise, if you’re interested in Chinese and Japanese mythology and you’d like to see a more pop culture representation of it, Yu Yu Hakusho can act as a small primer. Just be sure to watch the subtitled version, as the dub (although quite good) changes a lot of the names for Western audiences.