When Reality Meets Nostalgia: Rewatching ‘Yu Yu Hakusho’ in 2018

Lucas DeRuyter
TV Anime
TV Anime

If you were an anime fan during the ’90s and early 2000s, there were a handful of programs you absolutely had to watch. Dragon Ball Z dominated casual discussions, Cowboy Bebop was nothing short of a masterpiece, Neon Genesis Evangelion was a beautiful mess, and then there was Yu Yu Hakusho.

Created by luminary Yoshihiro Togashi, Yu Yu Hakusho is the pinnacle shōnen anime of this era. Following the exploits of Yusuke Urameshi after his unexpected death, the anime masterfully combines supernatural action with profoundly relatable drama.

Yu Yu Hakusho revels in its early to mid-’90s aesthetic and sensibilities. This series, the first love of many anime fans, was instrumental in the medium gaining popularity outside of Japan. Since 2018 marks the anime’s 25th anniversary — and with a new OVA coming soon to the Blu-ray box set — I decided now was the perfect time to revisit my favorite childhood anime to see if it stands the test of time.

A Weepy, Nostalgia-Filled Rewatch

It’s leagues ahead of most of its contemporary counterparts.

Even without rose-colored glasses, it’s clear that Yu Yu Hakusho is an exceptionally well-made anime. The art and animation are refreshingly fluid, with characters bending and stretching to denote the power behind their attacks and the intensity of their emotions. Little touches — like a character’s hair being slightly messy after just getting out of bed or working out — demonstrate the amount of passion that went into animating this series.

Anime characters from other shows rarely see even slight design changes. Goku’s hair always stays in the same shape and many Naruto characters only wear one of a few outfits. So, it’s great to see a character’s appearance change throughout the day in episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho.

And it’s not just the characters, the anime itself perfectly channels the look and energy of the ’90s and early ’00s. The distinct, casual outfits worn by each character at various points in the series perfectly match the grungy and slightly out-there aesthetic of the time. Phrases like “as if” and “word” pop up regularly, further immersing viewers in the attitude and sass of this bygone era.

When I was younger, these tiny details made the show feel like it was happening in the real world outside my window. Watching it now, it’s hard not to think it would’ve been easier to live my young adult life back then. Things seemed so much brighter and more fun than the world of today. Yusuke’s arc, which sees him come to accept his loss in the Demon World Tournament, seems especially timely as he realizes that he’s worthy of the love and respect of those closest to him.

Struggling With Dated Politics

Time makes fools of us all.

While the animation and story of Yu Yu Hakusho stand the test of time, a sizeable number of its jokes do not. There are one-off lines belittling transgender characters and off-color jokes where characters overreact to others questioning their heterosexuality.

Some might try to argue that these elements are just a product of the time, but that doesn’t excuse this blatant transphobia and homophobia whatsoever. It’s genuinely uncomfortable and upsetting to see Kuwabara lash out at the mere idea that he could be dating Kurama, or for Yusuke to stop mid fight to insult his opponent, Miyuki, for being transgender.

These jokes flew over my head as a kid. Even if I’d noticed, I doubt I had the perspective and social awareness to understand why these remarks are so hurtful to so many people. While my memories of Yu Yu Hakushoi are fond ones, these random cringeworthy, derogatory remarks marred the series in my eyes. I can’t even imagine how hurtful they’d be to an LGBT person who just wants to watch some classic anime.

Although series creator Yoshihiro Togashi would later go on to create a more progressive trans character in Hunter x Hunter, these elements of Yu Yu Hakusho are simply insulting to already marginalized groups of people and impossible to forgive or overlook.

Rewatch Revelations

Many have tried but few have ever reached these heights.

Rewatching Yu Yu Hakusho was a blast but it also instilled a bit of cynicism in me. So many shōnen anime — like Naruto, Bleach, My Hero Academia, and Black Clover — follow a kind and misunderstood boy who gains special powers and goes on a journey to become stronger and overcome his insecurities. While each of those series is appealing in their own way, none of them really match the caliber of Yu Yu Hakusho. I found myself wishing these newer shows were doing more to deviate from the formula Yu Yu Hakusho perfected.

Despite how exceptional it is, Yu Yu Hakusho isn’t flawless. It’s trapped in a time of bigotry. However, it reminded me of the potential of anime, and how it can improve. Now, thanks to Yu Yu Hakusho, I want to watch the best and most experimental of other genres of anime. The series’ strange and quirky nature, reminded me of why I love the medium. Rewatching Yu Yu Hakusho made me fall in love with how goofy and intense anime can be, and now all I want to do is find other anime that make me feel the same way.

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Lucas DeRuyter
University of Wisconsin Madison graduate with a deep interest in media, writing, and storytelling.