Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 8th 2011
Yu Yu Hakusho
Blu-ray - Season 1 Box Set
Yusuke Urameshi is dead. Not kinda dead; stone-cold, floating-in-the-air-as-a-ghost dead. He got that way by trying to save a kid from becoming bumper-burger on a busy byway. The kid lived; he didn't. Lucky for Yusuke, the afterworld didn't plan on him playing the hero—after all, who expects the meanest delinquent in the city to die for a little kid? That means he still has a chance to come back to life...if he can keep his body from becoming cremated bacon and pass a trial set up by the ruler of the underworld. If he does that, everything'll go back to normal. Unless, of course, the ruler of the underworld then decides that Yusuke should return the favor by fighting demonic criminals as a so-called Spirit Detective. What's a delinquent got to do to get a break? Why win, of course.
Viewers familiar with its later stages know that Yu Yu Hakusho is one of the better tournament fighting series out there, but to be honest it's hard to see at first. Not because the show gets off to a slow start—its very best episodes are its first—but because there are no tournaments. Instead of Dragonball Z with ghosts, Yu Yu Hakusho starts off more like a more violent It's a Wonderful Life, with cheerful lady reaper Botan playing Clarence to Yusuke's irritable George Bailey. Like George, Yusuke initially believes he's better off dead, and like George must adjust his thinking when he sees what his life meant to the people who mean the most to him. In truth, it's no more original than DBZ's pummel n' power-up formula, but it proves highly effective. It's an efficient, sentimental set-up that allows for the quick establishment of Yusuke's basic character (a blustery bad dude with a buried heart of gold) and has no shortage of shameless emotional appeals built upon hoary but potent truths: no one is expendable to those who love them; even bad mothers are still mothers. Don't be surprised if you find yourself getting a little misty-eyed, particularly during Yusuke's wake.
The show coasts on its Wonderful Life premise for several episodes, exploiting Yusuke's relations with the living, putting him in situations where he must help people while unable to communicate, and getting in a couple of good punches with his attempts to enlist valiant girlfriend Keiko in bringing him back to life. These are good episodes, but eventually Yusuke has to come back to life, and when he does the series seems at a loss as to where to go. A short arc about three demon thieves gives Yusuke supernatural powers, Otherworld responsibilities, and a set of seven "Spirit Detective Tools," of which we only see two or three before they disappear from the series forever. The show is obviously floundering, casting about for some justification for its continued existence. It finds it in the fights. They're a series of consecutive bouts, one with each of the demon thieves, rigorously arranged in order of difficulty. One fight, with future regular Kurama, abandons fighting in favor of corn (good corn, mind you), but the structure is unmistakable. The series has found its crutch: tournaments.
The next arc fully embraces the series' tournament leanings, throwing Yusuke into a martial-arts tournament to decide who will inherit a grumpy granny's sure-death spiritual fighting technique. The next arc, involving four powerful beasts in a sealed-off castle, backs away again but retains the serial one-on-one fight structure. The final arc feeds straight into the Dark Tournament arc, a monstrous lump of pure tourney goodness that will consume the entirety of the next box, plus some. It's all very derivative—you know that allies will be added to flesh out Yusuke's "team," that Yusuke will end up fighting the strongest baddie, and that any fight that begins well will end badly and vice versa. No one who is obscured by a cloud of dust is ever defeated, and no matter how ragged they are the good guys always have one more level of power left to tap. As derivation goes, though, it's pretty good stuff. The series has a knack for setting up matches that seem hopeless, and for creating villains that you really, really want to see die. There's an evil, chatty bird in the four beasts arc that I would have killed with my bare hands had it only been possible. The fights can also surprise with their brevity, or their brutality, and the series isn't averse to working in an emotional thread from an earlier arc or giving Yusuke a taste of defeat.
It also has a decent eye for violence, combining straightforward scoring, arty flourishes, and lots cool poses for its progressively battered protagonists to cover for its less than stellar budget. Its vision of the afterlife as an enormous bureaucracy manned by goofy demon paper-pushers slaving beneath the iron fist of an irresponsible toddler introduces a fruitful vein of humor, and soon-to-be-veteran shonen director Noriyuki Abe keeps the mix of humor, drama, and fist-to-the-gut action well-balanced and even better-paced. The fights are neither so long than they irritate nor so short that they lack substance; they're Goldilocks fights: just right. The series' animation technique could be rightfully criticized for being primitive, as could the periodically variable art, but given the show's length, age, and budget, both are excusable. If you're a curmudgeon like myself, you may even prefer their rough edges and too-human mistakes to the unnaturally perfect control afforded by modern technologies.
Even curmudgeons will have to agree, though, that putting Yu Yu Hakusho's low-fi visuals on a hi-fi Blu-ray is kind of a waste. Videophiles will appreciate the clarity, but it doesn't really add anything new to the series. And there aren't any cool new extras to attract more casual buyers. It doesn't have a new dub either, though Funimation's original dub is so fun, who'd want one? Yu Yu Hakusho hails from the era when Funimation's dubs were full of piss and vinegar and insane re-writes. The English dialogue barely resembles the original in many places, which makes the fact that it faithfully preserves the characters as well as the meaning of most scenes pretty impressive. The flagrant lack of fidelity frees the dialogue up to be as salty and witty as it wants, which is pretty salty and witty. Even the dubbed songs, both of them vintage pop (check out those disco grooves!), are good. The actors don't always come across well during highly emotional scenes, but they are matched carefully to their roles and do a fine job of sounding cartoony without turning their characters into cartoons.
Even after it evens out, Yu Yu Hakusho's turn away from ghostly drama towards straight tournament bashing is a letdown. Just not enough of one to hurt...or at least, not too bad. Yu Yu Hakusho may not be as unconventional as it first seems, but it's still a well-tuned action machine: honest, unpretentious, and stripped of all the convoluted political BS that clogs so many of its peers. And that ain't bad.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Shonen fighting with heart and humor and no shortage of broken faces. Strong beginning and a strong cast, ladies included.
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