Content Warning: Fanservice, sexism, transphobia
Spoilers for Yu Yu Hakusho
With its superb dub and absolute banger of an opening song, Yu Yu Hakusho made its North American television debut in 2002, a whole 10 years after its initial release in Japan. In true battle shounen fashion, Yu Yu Hakusho embraces the fighter’s spirit and a taste for the ridiculously overpowered villain in arc after arc. However, these elements take their time getting fully established within the bones of the show, giving the viewer time to bond with the series’ gaggle of main characters.
It is this slew of characters that has kept me hooked on Yu Yu Hakusho for the past 18 years, in addition to the “fight your enemies head on and defeat them through raw power and sheer force of will” storyline that will always be a guilty pleasure of mine. Although these elements make it worth the rewatch even now, my love for this anime hasn’t completely obscured its flaws. Yu Yu Hakusho, unfortunately, overtly and subtly fails its female characters time and again.
In the very first moments of the pilot, the protagonist Urameshi Yusuke dies while saving a small child from being hit by a truck. As he floats above his own corpse, we are formally introduced to Yusuke, a 14-year-old delinquent who, while not dodging class or antagonizing his childhood friend Yukimura Keiko, seemingly lives only to fight. After briefly learning of Yusuke’s troubling life, the beloved blue-haired, pink-robed shinagami Botan explains that, due to a fluke, Yusuke has the option to return to the world of the living by completing several tasks — a feat that, though challenging, has him back in his body by episode five.
Yusuke is then appointed to the role of spirit detective and begins taking direct orders from Koenma, the toddler prince of the Underworld. In his new position, Yusuke must investigate suspicious spiritual activity and take out any misbehaving demons he encounters in the human world along the way. As tends to be the case in shounen anime, he forms a posse, including his childhood rival-turned-best-bro, Kuwabara Kazuma, who embodies the stereotypical gentle giant persona; Hiei, a standoffish demon with his own goals and priorities; and Kurama, an intelligent, gender-nonconforming kitsune recently reborn into a human body.
While Yu Yu Hakusho clearly establishes an all-male cohort as its main fighting characters, the female characters are still important and well-developed compared to those in other battle shounen, especially other series from the late 80s and early 90s. In addition to Botan and Keiko, Kuwabara’s sister, Shizuru, and Hiei’s sister, Yukina, join the team as well. Each of these characters has a distinct personality, rather than simply being “the feminine one” or “the tomboy one”: Botan is goofy, capable, and upbeat; Keiko is a responsible, caring, and plucky schoolgirl; Shizuru is a tough, no-nonsense sass-master; and Yukina is the embodiment of sweetness and light.While not necessarily the focus at any given point in the story, each make up an integral part of the crew and help keep the audience emotionally engaged throughout.
What’s nice about the female characters is, however, simultaneously frustrating: for all the show’s promise, it still falls into several instances of common “shounen bullshit.” It provides occasional fan service, including a scene in episode one, when Yusuke lifts Keiko’s skirt to give the viewer a panty shot, and in subsequent scenes where he inappropriately comments on her developing body.
Worse still, the narrative also fails in ways that are less immediately obvious than a panty shot. While in some cases YYH goes to great lengths to give us female powerhouses, the show ultimately falls short on this promise. Consider Yusuke’s mentor Master Genkai, an elderly woman who spent her life pushing her body to the limit in order to develop her impressive spiritual powers. Humans and demons alike respect and fear her, and Yusuke must battle against some of the world’s top supernatural fighters for the right to learn from her. The fact that she’s achieved such status in such a masculine arena makes her all the more satisfying as a character.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Master Genkai is not her sheer strength and notoriety, but her central role in the storyline, despite her being an elderly woman. All too often in media, female characters function merely as props, minor plot devices, or as vehicles for gratuitous fan service. Elderly female characters within the world of shounen anime are often additionally burdened with the duty of training a young, male protagonist so that he can achieve greatness. While the latter is true of Master Genkai to some degree, her past and her skill as a fighter add some variation to this tired trope. She has a rich history with fan-favorite villain Toguro, and it is her power, passed on to Yusuke, that is required to finally defeat him.
Not only do these details make this elderly woman an extremely important character, but Yusuke’s role in the Dark Tournament arc explicitly parallels Genkai’s. This parallel places Yusuke in the footsteps of his mentor and presents him with a crucial, character-defining moment: does he follow the path of his master, choosing to seek power only for the sake of protecting others, even while knowing it will lead to his eventual demise; or does he become an empty shell of a person, forever fighting solely for the sake of fighting, like the villain Toguro? Thus, not only does the storyline emphasize Master Genkai’s historical importance and great power, it also demonstrates that Yusuke following in this woman’s moral footsteps is the right and heroic thing to do. The fact that he can still be a strong fighter, still defeat this overpowered villain, is the cherry on top.
The centrality of an elderly woman to the plot of a battle shounen is powerful, and an element that has only strengthened my love for this anime over the years. However, the problem with Yu Yu Hakusho is that it offers the usual feeble gestures at gender equality that fall just short of a real embodiment of such values. The storytelling decision to relegate the main female powerhouse to the role of aged mentor, and not to make her the main character or even a main fighter, keeps her at an arm’s length — just far enough that the viewer can rest assured that powerful female fighters are not the norm nor the focus of a story worth telling.
At the same time, this distancing of Master Genkai’s character results in her backstory being told, not for its own sake, but for the sake of a male protagonist’s own character development. Her past is only relevant because Yusuke now faces a similar situation with her former partner. To add insult to injury, the plot takes this gendered trope a step further when Master Genkai quite literally passes on her power to Yusuke in order to help him win the Dark Tournament. Thus, the brilliance of Master Genkai’s character must be tempered by its execution; while she is so close to breaking through many of the usual gendered barriers found in media, the show stops just short of achieving these breakthroughs, opting to subtly reaffirm the usual tropes instead.
We see this process of othering again when another female powerhouse is introduced in the last arc of the series. Lord Mukuro, one of the three kings of the demon world, is powerful enough to have been locked in a three-way stalemate between two other, similarly powerful demons for thousands of years. She’s a badass. I mean, the woman can literally cut through space with her right arm. Unfortunately, and like Master Genkai, Lord Mukuro is presented as “other,” when she too dons a mask for a significant portion of time, shielding her gender presentation and acid-induced bodily disfigurement.
Additionally, both Master Genkai and Lord Mukuro are given peculiar, and self-undermining relationships to their own power. Unlike the male fighters, Master Genkai winds up losing her hard-earned spiritual powers, in one sense to old age, and in another sense to the male protagonist. Likewise, after losing in the final Demon World Tournament, it is revealed that Lord Mukuro’s powers depend upon her emotional state; she can fight at full strength when harboring hatred, but her power diminishes when she is at peace. The implication here is that her love for Hiei stripped her of her full fighting potential, costing her the championship. It is a tired reiteration of female power as coded in relational terms, malleable by the presence of men, connected to emotions, and undermined whenever male power feels threatened.
What is most frustrating about Yu Yu Hakusho is that it is so tremendously close to getting it right, but fails to deliver on substance, time and again. While not completely devoid of individuality, the “normal” female characters undergo no character development, nor do they engage in any fighting themselves. While unbelievably strong and central to the plot, the powerful female characters are rendered as aberrations, just beyond the story’s main focus, with power that is tenuous and ultimately answerable to men. If the bar for satisfactory female representation has been set, that bar is nowhere but on the ground.
This is all without getting into the series’ single trans character, a minor antagonist named Miyuki. While Yusuke says her gender has “nothing to do” with him beating her up, it’s hard not to come away with a sour taste when a cornerstone of their fight involves Yusuke feeling her up to “prove” her gender. Like the show’s portrayal of cis women, progressive lipservice is crushed by hurtful old narrative tropes and the odd, yet persistent, idea that feminism simply means men can hit women now, too.
Although we can’t count on Yu Yu Hakusho to give us the kind of substantive representation we may want, the series takes great pains to show how the male fighters still really, really need their female counterparts in order to grow. Yusuke must learn to tame his fighting impulses in order to make a life with Keiko. Hiei’s quest to find his estranged sister is his only reason for living. Kuwabara needs support from his sister to get into a good school and his romantic interest in Yukina helps him become a better fighter. Kurama only develops a humane side after bonding with his human mother.
This dependence of male character development upon female characters who have not themselves been fully-realized is doubly concerning when we take a broad analysis of the series’ major arcs and the moral lessons they imply. Again, Yu Yu Hakusho is so deliciously close to breaking some misogynistic barriers as each arc presents Yusuke with a potential version of himself if he were to embrace toxic masculine values. As Yusuke weeps over the loss of Master Genkai, he rejects the image of himself that resembles Toguro, who sold his soul for the sake of a good fight.
He then encounters Shinobu Sensui, and is invited to forsake others by seeing them in relativistic terms, no better than demons, and rejects this version of himself, too. Finally, Yusuke finds a potential image of himself reflected in both Toshin Raizen, his demon-king ancestor, and Kuroko Sanada, the first human Spirit Detective. These role models display a desire to cultivate life and make peace with the world, instead of always battling it. By the end of this arc, Yusuke finally comes to maturity by recognizing that he no longer needs to fight the world around him indiscriminately, but can instead fight for a life with the close friends he has made.
All in all, Yu Yu Hakusho presents the viewer with a metaphor for coming of age as a fiery kid in a world always just beyond your control. Yusuke’s story is thus deeply relatable, for it encapsulates a familiar trajectory that many of us follow in adolescence: battling a seemingly hostile and challenging world while negotiating our own terms for what constitutes a worthwhile life. Unfortunately, the end of Yusuke’s journey rings a tad hollow, if only because he has yet to learn how to relate to others beyond his own gender and penchant for fighting.
In failing to breathe real life into its female characters, the overarching moral lessons presented by this anime ultimately undermine themselves, presenting instead a solipsistic view of personal development. While some of the moral lessons learned may be worthwhile in and of themselves, they are grossly incomplete where things stand by the series’ end. However, as a diehard fan, I’m inclined to believe that by the final episode, Yusuke’s real story is only just beginning.