Yu Yu Hakusho, from its earliest form as a manga series in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, has always been a genre high-wire act. That’s no surprise considering its talented author, Yoshihiro Togashi, specializes in blended tones and subjects in his work; Level E is sci-fi and comedy, while Hunter x Hunter is a sprawling epic of martial arts adventure, familial trauma, and intricate fantasy. But Yu Yu Hakusho, which begins as a supernatural comedy with juvenile hijinks and morphs into a bare-knuckle action series full of grim horror, is the most prominent example of Togashi’s categorical collages. And the latest adaptation of it, a five-episode live-action Netflix series, is no different.
However, despite the odds, Netflix’s Yu Yu Hakusho mostly succeeds at weaving around several atmospheres. Coming hot off the heels of the success of One Piece, another cross-genre manga adaptation that mixed heart-on-your-sleeve emotion with outlandish pirate journeys, this probably doesn’t seem like much of a surprise. But Yu Yu Hakusho might be an even bigger challenge, considering how much has to be covered in the meager episode count. Luckily it sticks the landing in this regard.
The abridged plot attempts to hit all of the major beats — it centers around Yusuke Urameshi (Takumi Kitamura), a high school delinquent that few people seem to care for, including Yusuke himself. Yusuke gets hit by a truck while trying to save a young boy, and rather than die he’s offered the chance by the Spirit World to investigate uncanny crimes as a Spirit Detective. Though initially hesitant, Yusuke eventually decides to take on the role and — shadowed by his adorable, giggling guide, Botan — he dives into a conspiracy involving corrupt businessmen, monstrously powerful figures, and the Demon World.
It’s a hell of a lot to fit into five episodes, and the most unstable bits of the series involve a more perfunctory approach to what in the lengthy manga and anime was granted more detail. Those hoping to get an explanation about the whats and whys of the Human, Spirit, and Demon Worlds will have to settle for hints of brief exposition. The mythology here is rendered as little more than table scraps. Holding it together, though, is Yusuke, a character that’s the core of the series, as he personally embodies all of the genre-jumping that Yu Yu Hakusho has to offer. Where the series goes tonally tends to be where Yusuke is emotionally.
Though it steers away from the broad silliness found in the manga, Netflix’s Yu Yu Hakusho hones in on Yusuke’s sense of isolation. He’s very obviously a depressed young man, one who can’t seem to express himself in any way other than fighting. Conversations with everyone from his best friend, Keiko, to his mother prove troublesome to him, and he often resorts to insults or simply evading them. The only time he really seems to come alive is in the heat of combat with otherworldly forces — which, luckily, the show gives him a lot of chances to perform.
This back-and-forth between the silent, purposeless Yusuke and the explosive fantasy-action sequences (the action choreography in the series is quite good, especially in the first episode’s genuinely thrilling, blood-soaked climax) might imply a kind of whiplash effect on the audience. But just like Togashi’s manga, the show does a fine job of hammering home just how aimless Yusuke feels his existence is and how fighting is both a satisfying and warped extension of that.
This makes us question what, in many other series, would be more straightforward, as if Yusuke is trapped in his own escalating power fantasy. Is fighting all that he’s good at? All that he wants to do? All that he can do and will ever be able to do? Sure, those conflicts are exciting to watch, but they also manage to correlate with Yusuke’s existential tragedy. Yu Yu Hakusho is one of the few series of its kind to actually kinda make you feel bad for how fist-pumpingly cool the battles are.
The exploration between personal mood and jarring physical outlet is also explored with Kuwabara (Shuhei Uesugi), Yusuke’s former “rival” and perhaps the most beloved character in the entire franchise. On the outside, Kuwabara is all bravado and back-slapping bluster. But on the inside, his masculine confusion dominates him. He desires to be a “man,” whatever that term is supposed to mean in a world where you’re fighting mutating creatures to save Earth from another dimension.
Kuwabara, too, finds an escape in the scuffles he gets into, only to learn that his need for conflict puts his friends at risk. So how can he protect them? Get stronger? But that would mean engaging in more battles and, thus, putting even more people in harm’s way. Again, Yu Yu Hakusho has to balance fighting as triumph and fighting as doom, and though Netflix’s adaptation rushes through some of the emotional meat and world-building puzzle pieces, it does a more than adequate job at getting across its thematic conundrum.
There are plenty of battle series where a character “goes too far” or must reflect on why exactly they’re fighting in the first place. Few do it as consistently as Yu Yu Hakusho, though, darting from a spirited contest between super warriors into the psychological ramifications of pursuing such battles. One late-stage fight even ends with a villain pleading to be killed, not because he’s in so much pain but because his losses have caused him to feel useless. Yu Yu Hakusho excels at this because, as we come to realize, all of the characters deal with it. It is not something used for a particular bit of drama, but rather a fighter’s shared misery at the heart of every tonal shift.
Yu Yu Hakusho’s length does a disservice to some of its crucial moments — Younger Toguro, the enemy that serves as both final boss and troubling specter of a life devoted to fighting, is specifically underserved. That said, the Netflix adaptation manages to effectively capture the wild swings and the characters that represent them that have made the franchise so adored by fans for the past 33 years. Like Netflix’s One Piece, it will hopefully serve as the gateway into a wider story for newcomers and an invitation to check out the more complicated manga and anime. There’s a lot to love about Yusuke Urameshi, whether he’s brooding or brawling, no matter how long we get the chance to hang out with him.
Yu Yu Hakusho is now streaming on Netflix.