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Yu Yu Hakusho: A Manga's Transformation


"It's a straight up, pull no punches fighting anime" That's the first thing that you will see when you flip over a Funimation Yu Yu Hakusho DVD, and it's true. Yu Yu Hakusho is a head-on supernatural shonen fighting series, full of energy blasts and demon bashing. The show is renowned, often infamously, for it's almost total dependance on tournament-play. Of the 5 major story arcs, 3 of them are almost entirely composed of brutal death matches between our heroes and the denizens of demon world. 

This Tanuki repays an old man's
kindness by helping him die
happily. 
Interestingly, one of these 5 story arcs sticks out from the rest. The initial chapters of the series are completely devoid of any battle elements, instead favoring a detective-styled Bangsian fantasy story in which our future spirit detective helps and interacts with various supernatural entities. Yusuke helps a child come to terms with the immanent death of his dog, and helps an old man pass peacefully by with the help of a shape-shifting Tanuki, which transforms into the man's deceased grandson. 


Judging by those cases, it seems as though the rest of Yu Yu Hakusho would be based more on expansive Japanese lore, highlighting and expanding Japanese legends and the various types of Yokai. In the beginning of the series, we get introduced to the "other side" by a kimono-wearing spiritual escort. We see that the world of the dead is full of Oni who are under the rule of King Yemma, but unlike the folklore, the disastrous, brutish Oni are less concerned with punishing sinners and causing trouble, and are instead trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle of a giant bureaucratic mess. The Death God Yemma has left his toddler of a son in charge of the mountain of paperwork that comprises the business of death. Our hero is unable to properly die because the world of the dead simply isn't ready to place him anywhere; his unexpected death has tangled his spirit up in bureaucratic red tape. 

The possibilities in this kind of story are endless. The author can reference anything and everything from any culture's folklore and can subvert it with his own twists in order to make a truly unique universe. But strangely, despite it's beginnings that certainly hint to this kind of setup, Yu Yu Hakusho becomes an entirely different beast. It enters a tournament arc shortly after the conclusion of the Spirit Detective Arc, and it never looks back. It's at this point that people begin to chuckle at the name of the show (Poltergeist Report) and Yusuke's title as a "Spirit Detective", since the role he plays is more of a "Spirit Mercenary". 

Now I'm going to take a break here and reference what I feel is the closest thing that we will ever get to a Mangaka's tell-all exposé of the industry: Bakuman. In Bakuman, the main mangaka pair, Muto Ashirogi, writes a detective manga for a magazine that isn't known for that genre. Their ratings eventually suffer, and they are repeatedly reminded of their two options to avoid the cancellation of their series; They can either retool elements of the manga and pray for higher user ratings, or they can pander to the fans by transforming their detective manga into a battle manga. 

This is exactly what I believe happened to Yu Yu Hakusho. Because of it's low ratings, Togashi turned his Detective story into a supernatural battle manga. He ditched the Tanuki and other specific types of Yokai, he dropped magical items, the detective tools, the subversion of folklore, and pushed the series into the type of story arc that is known to raise ratings. Enter the Genkai Tournament. The chapters after the Genkai tournament must not have kept the same momentum, so Togashi spearheaded the series into the biggest, bloodiest tournament tournament that it ever sees, the Dark Tournament.

These tournaments are such a far-cry from what the series started out as, I can only assume that they are the result of a mid-series genre swap. Why else would a mangaka waste precious chapters on Yusuke's episodic encounters with non-violent spirits? It hardly the type of material that your average battle-manga-hungry reader would find satisfying, and Yusuke's endeavors to comfort a boy over his pet's death aren't story-building like, say, Luffy's efforts to rescue the Pirate Hunter Roronoa Zoro.

And then there is that egg that Yusuke was supposed to hatch. After a few years of feeding off of Yusuke's thoughts and actions, it was supposed to hatch into a monster that reflected the Karmic sum of those actions. I see this as a clear setup to have the school punk solve problems, do good deeds for the supernatural, and ultimately turn into a decent person. It's essentially a way to force Yusuke into solving a long line of cases, similar to how Conan continues to solve cases with the hope of discovering more about the Black Organization. Quiz time: How long has it been since Conan started his search? That kind of ambiguous motivation is exactly what keeps a long-running detective series alive, but Togashi abandons it at about the same time that he abandons the detective-styled setup.

Remember the cases that I mentioned earlier? Fans of the anime series probably had no idea what I was talking about; those chapters simply don't exist in the anime. I can only think of one reason for an anime adaptation to neglect several chapters worth of material, and that reason is that those chapters were unpopular. If the anime company predicted bad ratings for the material, there is no way that they would want to animate it, especially if it could be skipped as easily as the early Yu Yu Hakusho cases could be. 

Comments

  1. Never read the manga, though with the popularity of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, I'm not surprised Yu Yu Hakusho went the way it did.

    I haven't watched the anime in years. I still own the initial, DVD release from FUNimation, back when their subtitles were otaku-friendly. Ah, the good old days.

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