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The Fairy Tale of Inuyasha: 20 Years Later

by Christopher Inoa,

When we last left the world of InuYasha, the series' titular character and Kagome Higurashi, the now high school graduate from another world and reincarnation of his first true love Kikyō, are living happily together in feudal era Japan. Kagome decided to forgo her life in modern-day Tokyo to live alongside InuYasha and their friends, and the couple ended their epic journey together as husband and wife.

A little over a decade since their fairy tale ending, we will once again be given the opportunity to visit that parallel universe in Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon, a spin-off series premiering this weekend. Taking place years after the events of 2009's InuYasha: The Final Act, the series will follow the adventures of Moroha, the daughter of InuYasha and Kagome, and twin sisters Towa and Setsuna, the daughters of InuYasha's composed and calculating half-brother, Sesshomaru.

This new time-traveling action-adventure series not only starts on the 11th anniversary of The Final Act's first episode, but also close to the 20th anniversary of the original series debut in Japan. Originally premiered on Japan's YTV on October 16th, 2000, InuYasha, which ran for 167 episodes and spawned four theatrical releases, would become one of the biggest cultural events in anime fandom during the early days of the new century. Its success in both Japan and the United States is attributed to its creator's ability to appeal to audiences across cultures and genders, as well as its frequent placement on what would become an iconic programming block that helped introduce mature anime to an entire generation of American audiences.

The 2000 series follows Inuyasha, a half-man half-dog demon with a short temper and an extremely long sword, and Kagome, a teenage girl transported from her family's shrine in modern day to a parallel universe set in Japan's Sengoku period on her 15th birthday. Together along with their friends—Sango the demon slayer, Miroku the handsy monk, and Shippo the young fox demon—they search for shards of the Shikon Jewel: a mystical object of colossal power, whose fragments spread across Japan after Kagome accidentally shatters it with an arrow. Throughout their journey to restore the Jewel, the five unlikely allies overcome everything from demons, mercenaries, to their own rising hormones.

The series was the latest adaptation of a manga written and illustrated by the legendary Rumiko Takahashi. InuYasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale was the fourth and longest-running major work by Takahashi, its first chapter appearing in the pages of Weekly Shonen Sunday on November 13th, 1996. A commercial mangaka in both art and storytelling style, Takahashi—a graduate of the Gekiga Sonjuku, the manga school headed by Lone Wolf & Cub creator Kazuo Koike—is one of the most famous and commercially successful mangakas of the past forty years. In the past half-century of Japanese pop-culture, there are very few people who have contributed more to manga's (and by extension anime's) popularity in the United States than the woman known as “The Princess of Manga.”

Starting in the mid 1970's, Takahashi was an abnormal figure in the manga industry during the early parts of her career, as she did not follow a similar path to other mangaka of her gender. “She was unusual because she was a woman writing for a boys' magazine,” says Dr. Deborah Michelle Shamoon, author of Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls' Culture in Japan and an associate professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore, over email. “Nearly all women mangaka were writing for girls' magazines, mostly writing romance stories,” she said, “Takahashi never published in a girls' magazine.”

A prolific writer of both long and short running series, Takahashi was already viewed as a living legend by the mid 1990's, having produced two internationally renowned series: 1978's Urusei Yatsura and 1988's Ranma ½. Thanks to Viz Media acquiring the rights to distribute the series in the early 1990s, Ranma, which Shamoon says started as, “a parody of wuxia films,” was one of the first manga series to successfully cross over to the United States. Its anime adaptation appeared in video stores nationwide with colorful and appealing box art, which helped raise awareness of anime years before series like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z pushed the medium into the mainstream.

Work on InuYasha began while putting the finishing touches on Ranma ½, with this new series being slightly more serious and darker than the one that came before it. Takahashi was no stranger to writing dark or dramatic stories, but those were found in her shorter series like Mermaid Saga and Laughing Target. When asked about the direction she took with InuYasha in a June 2001 interview with Animerica, Takahashi gave a simple, direct answer, “I wanted to do something that was not a comedy.”

Inspiration for InuYasha came mainly from Japanese folklore, a common source of reference for Takahashi, who had been putting her own unique spin on familiar tropes and creatures found in those ancient stories since her earliest works. In her essay, “Yokai in the Database,” Shamoon notes that in an interview, Takahashi said she also took inspiration from the 1776 short story, “The Cauldron of Kibitsu,” by Veda Akinari. Shamoon traces elements of the story—which is about a noble woman who dies after being left with nothing by her selfish, disloyal husband only to return as a demon to haunt him and his mistress—to two of the major side characters found in InuYasha: Kikyō, Inuyasha's first love and the woman who trapped him in the sacred tree in the series opening moments, and Naraku, the series' main antagonist, who was once a normal human, but because of his unrequited affection for Kikyō, allows himself to be consumed by a horde of demons, his new found form manipulating the lovers to turn on each other for his own personal gain.

Inspiration would also come from her past works. The plot of InuYasha mirrors that of her 1983 short series Fire Tripper, which also focuses on a young woman who goes back in time and falls in love with a boy, taking him back with her to the present day. Shamoon also compares Inuyasha to Ranma, noting that while both “are very powerful,” their lack of emotional maturity cause them to “frequently fail or make mistakes, both because of the incompetence of the people around him and because of his own pride or ego.” Shamoon also notes that while both have tempers the size of fleas, they are both “essentially decent and lovable.”

InuYasha, like Ranma ½ before it, was a major hit in its country of origin. Shamon said that its popularity was due to both Takahashi's loyal audience and that the series managed to, “skillfully combine references to very well-known history and folklore in new and original ways, updating old themes for a modern audience.” With anime booming in the U.S, it only made sense that InuYasha, like Ranma, would make the journey to the United States, where it would end up having a much bigger impact on anime culture thanks to its decade-plus run on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

InuYasha's long tenure on Adult Swim started when Jason DeMarco and his team first laid eyes on the series during discussions with Viz Media over whether to place it in their lineup; they were instantly smitten by what they saw. “We immediately fell in love with it,” said the co-creator of Toonami, and current senior vice president and creative director on air for Adult Swim in a phone interview. A massive fan of Takahashi's work, DeMarco had previously tried to bring Ranma ½ to Toonami, but was unfortunately not successful. “It's one of my favorite series ever,” he said, “it's something we never were able to figure out, because, frankly, there's too much nudity.”

InuYasha allowed DeMarco to kill two demons with one swing of the sword. He would be able to showcase an anime based on a series by one of his favorite manga writers and Adult Swim, which was barely a year old at the time, would have a series that already had a large number of episodes in the tank, as other series, like Cowboy Bebop —and later Trigun and Samurai Champloo—were limited to just 26 episodes. Making its U.S debut on the final day of August 2002, the show worked better than he could ever have dreamed. Adult Swim would end up running all 167 episodes of the original series from 2002 to 2006, including all four feature films. Reruns of the series would continue to appear on Adult Swim until 2014, always performing consistently. “I would say, before Toonami came back and we started running newer stuff like Attack on Titan,” DeMarco said, “it's the anime that did the best on Adult Swim,”

InuYasha came to American televisions at the perfect time, as audiences who took notice of anime either because of Pokémon or Toonami were starved for more quality series. Adult Swim became the home viewers were searching for with the first airing of Cowboy Bebop in 2001 and subsequently InuYasha in 2002. It is impossible for anyone who has had even the slightest interest in anime throughout the 2000's to not have come into contact with InuYasha, whether in the background while doing papers or talking to people in chat rooms, or following every episode intently, patiently (or in my case impatiently) waiting for the moment when Inuyasha and his gang would finally kill the dastardly Naraku. “The fact that it was broadcast on a very popular network and frequently rerun helped pick up more casual fans,” Shamoon said. “Many of my former students who were young teens in the early 2000s told me they first became interested in anime from watching InuYasha.”

The series, along with Digimon, was one of the first anime to help popularize isekai in the U.S., leading to what would become the dominant anime genre in the coming years with Sword Art Online, Re:Zero and honestly too many others to mention. It is also one of the few series, along with Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, to attract mainstream attention. Megan Thee Stallion, Houston's hip-hop superstar and someone who has been very vocal about her love of anime in interviews and her music, told Crunchyroll earlier this year that one of her first anime experiences was watching InuYasha, with the dog-eared sad boy being one of her first anime crushes. Megan's affection for the series also highlights a notable aspect that has helped set it apart from all of the other major anime series of the early 2000s: InuYasha is one of the rare series, in any medium, that has found success with both male and female audiences, something that Takahashi has been able to pull off her entire career.

Even though she has consistently written for boys/men magazines, Takahashi has always had a large female following. “Takahashi just knows how to write male and female characters,” DeMarco said, using Kagome as an example. While the title of the show says Inuyasha, DeMarco argues that the series “is really Kagome's story, you start with her and you end with her...and she's given as much thought, and agency as Inuyasha, which is still something you don't see a lot in anime and manga.” Shamoon says that while many of Takahashi's works are boy-focused, all of her characters, both male and female, have an extraordinary amount of depth to their characters. “[The women are] not just a collection of moe or cute traits, but have some individuality.”

When InuYasha ended on a cliffhanger in 2004 as Sunrise had caught up with the still ongoing manga, many were disappointed, particularly those at Adult Swim. “We were bummed when it ended,” DeMarco said, “I'm always bummed when one of those shows that build such a narrative kinda craps out in the middle of it and you're kind of left wondering, 'is this gonna get finished?'” It was a question on the minds of anime fans around the world, until July 2009, when an issue of Weekly Shonen Sunday announced that a new series, The Final Act, would release that October, adapting the final chapters of Takahashi's epic.

However, while new episodes of InuYasha were finally released, they were not initially shown on Adult Swim. While Adult Swim once stood on its own as a place for mature anime series, there are now (legal) simulcasting, with new services popping up vying for anime content and subscribers' eyeballs. Episodes of The Final Act would air on Hulu a day after airing in Japan. It wasn't until a few years after the series concluded that DeMarco was able to finish what he started.

Toonami, much like Kikyo herself, had risen back from the dead in 2013. While looking for programs to place in the re-born Toonami lineup, DeMarco and his team immediately knew there was one series they had to make space for. “We said, 'well, we never finished InuYasha on Adult Swim, so why don't we finish it on Toonami?'” The Final Act aired on Toonami on November 15th, 2014. “I'm happy that we were able to do that, because now we can say that Adult Swim ran the entire series,” DeMarco said, “it was really nice to be able to close the door on InuYasha in a way that was respectful, because I do believe it's one of the better shonen that's ever been made.”

DeMarco is as excited as everyone else is for this new series, but he has learned from personal experience (FLCL) to be cautious about expanding on a story that already delivered a proper ending, “It's a tricky needle to thread.” It's still too early to tell whether Yashahime will follow in its parent series' footsteps and end up on Adult Swim or even if it will be any good. Spin-offs of popular properties have to contest with something the originals never had to: the burden of expectations. For an entire generation of anime fans, InuYasha is what made them fall in love with anime, or demonstrated that this wonderful medium is more than just male power fantasies and shows based on collective card games. Yashahime may not be “our” InuYasha, but it's been long enough now that it could be the kind of show our own kids (in my case nephews) will attach to, and yes, I do feel quite old for thinking that.

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