Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 4th 2011
Yu Yu Hakusho
Blu-Ray - Season 3 (Anime Classics)
As the Dark Tournament finals progress, Hiei faces off against Bui, Team Toguro's tank, whose impenetrable armor of Yoki may just require Hiei to unleash the darkest secrets of his Dragon of the Darkness Flame. Next up is Kuwabara, his opponent the elder Toguro brother, an indestructible snake of a man who very clearly outclasses the one-time delinquent. And then it's time for Yusuke and Toguro to duke it out. Massive destruction is definitely on the menu.. Afterwards it's back to the Human World for some R&R. Or so it would be, if there weren't a trio of malevolent psychics waiting to abduct Yusuke. Their strange new powers are just the appetizer, though. A shadowy figure named Sensui is continuing the evil work of Tournament mastermind Sakyo and trying to open an enormous portal between the human and demon realms. It'll be human fritters all around if Yusuke and his friends can't stop him.
The beginning of this set finally finds us in the midst of the Dark Tournament finals. After battling mid-level demons for the last god knows how many episodes, Yusuke and his friends are at long last ready to brace the big bad guys. This is the long tournament arc's big payoff, and while it's nothing to change your mind about tournament series in general, it's good fun all around. Kurama got his fight out of the way last volume, so it's Hiei, Kuwabara and Yusuke himself who get to strut their stuff this time around. And as you'd expect, there are power-ups and dramatic reversals galore. Kuwabara gets the nastiest villain and the fewest supernatural aids, so his fight is perhaps the best, but the centerpiece is quite naturally Yusuke and Toguro's death-match. It has all of the scale, all of the brutality, and all of the shameless cool-mongering you could ask for in a final battle. The series takes its rubbery, stylized animation to ludicrous new levels, taking wild risks and breaking all kinds of rules about artistic consistency in the name of big, big action. In short, it's a darned good time.
And then the Tournament ends. Almost immediately the series cops out and then cops out again, draining the tournament of a great deal of its impact. And while the disappointment is fresh in our mouths, it dives right into the opening chapters of the Chapter Black saga. Chapter Black is among the series' better arcs, but it doesn't start out that way. The powers of the three psychics are a transparent device to introduce contrived rules and constraints, and again the conflict ends with a cop-out. For reasons unfathomable Noriyuki Abe would later remake this mini-arc during one of Bleach's stretches of filler, but unlike the Bleach version, this one actually does serve a purpose. Inside a psychic's territory Yusuke and friends must follow the psychic's rules, often forcing them to use their brains as much as their fists. That increases the variety of battles quite nicely, moving the series away from endless power-ups and macho mano-a-mano displays towards something with a little more imagination.
That holds true through the greater arc as well, but it isn't the only thing that makes Chapter Black good. Credit must go to Sensui as well. Villains make or break an action series, and Sensui definitely falls into the "make" category. Yusuke himself puts it best when he says that if Toguro was an opponent who threw fastballs, Sensui is one who throws knuckleballs. He's a tricky, slippery antagonist whose goal is not the defeat of his enemies but the completion of his plan—at any cost. He is a vicious and unprincipled fighter and a cruel and manipulative strategist, fuelled by a madness that is all too easy to understand, and even sympathize with. There are more twisted layers to him than most of Yusuke's previous opponents put together. While plenty hateful, none of them were particularly frightening. Sensui is frightening; all the more so because his bloodlust is born from his purity of heart.
If you are looking for Yu Yu Hakusho to completely discard its shonen trappings, forget it. Expanding horizons notwithstanding, the series is still working very much inside the boundaries of its genre. Chapter Black is a classic bad guy and followers vs. good guy and followers story, with Yusuke and his friends chewing their way through the ranks of Sensui's organization one one-on-one fight at a time. A good guy and a bad guy pair off, fight, and the good guy wins. Repeat until climax. Sensui's scheme is fairly involved, so the chain of fights isn't as straightforward as usual, and the stage is the entirety of Mushiyori City rather than a tournament ring, but the broad strokes of the story aren't much different than any previous arc. Likewise the particulars of each fight may vary—there are word games, video games, sniper fights, serial killer hunts, mazes, and straight-up fisticuffs—but the structure never does: the advantage is swapped a couple of times, the good guy gets beaten down, and then comes from behind for a narrow victory. Kudos to the show for mixing things up, and for putting nasty moral dilemmas into a couple of the fights (thank you Sensui), but overall this is still highly predictable stuff.
Abe and his crew are far more engaged here than they ever were during the long, long preliminary rounds of the Dark Tournament or even the shorter, more diverting arcs previous to it. Perhaps because the show itself is more engaging. The use of dark shadow and grotesquely detailed close-ups is particularly striking, as is the continued fondness for that peculiarly stretchy animation of Pierrot's. The settings continue to be a little boring (the audience at the Dark Tournament is often portrayed as a stadium full of multicolored paint blotches), but the character designs have steadily improved. Sensui's underlings are all quite distinctive, and Sensui himself owes much of his menace to his simple garb and unnaturally still, whipcord physique. Even the score has gotten a second lease on life, filling in the gaps between the series' signature musical themes with a nice mixture of 80s synthesizers and electric guitars. It's dated, yes, but still nice, and less repetitive than it was previous.
Funimation's dub is less of an advantage here than it was last volume. That isn't because its quality is decreasing. Indeed its strengths (spunky casting and hilarious writing) and weaknesses (inability to cope with strong emotions) remain basically the same. It's just that Chapter Black and the tournament finals are better suited to the simpler, more somber Japanese version than Funimation's lively "reversioning." Also, since the original is better, there is less room for the dub to improve on it. With the gap between the versions narrowing, it's not quite as easy to forgive the dub for the times when its wildly unfaithful script doesn't quite match up with the visuals or for the times when it flubs an emotional climax. Still, the dub's trash-talking humor is a real bonus ("Speak now before I forever put that pacifier ten inches down your throat!") and the adverse impacts are relatively few, so it's basically an even trade between the two. That may not be true for the next volume. Yu Yu Hakusho only gets better from here on in. Too bad there isn't that much of it left.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Recovers from its Dark Tournament slump with a solid final round before heading into the more adventurous Chapter Black; Sensui.
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