I haven’t been compelled to write a longform article in a while but watching Yu Yu Hakusho’s second season helped cure me of that. With classic anime from the 80s and 90s, it’s hard to tell whether something acclaimed or nostalgically remembered by fans is actually worth your time, especially in light of the sheer volume of it all. Committing to Yu Yu Hakusho, a long-running series spanning over 100 episodes, takes some convincing. Though I’ve found the series to be overall enjoyable, the second season – the Dark Tournament arc – is among the better shounen adaptations I’ve seen.
Yu Yu Hakusho is based on the manga of the same name by Yoshihiro Togashi. Togashi is perhaps now more famous for his Hunter X Hunter than he is for Hakusho, but this was the series that established his name and set him up financially. It’s also the first shounen manga adaptation by Studio Pierrot, who today stands as the shounen powerhouse of the industry. A lot of the biggest names in shounen anime started out on Hakusho and the show was very much a trendsetter for Pierrot’s and other studios’ later offerings in the genre. Yu Yu Hakusho is split up into four seasons corresponding to the manga’s four story arcs. Most of the seasons are around 25 episodes in length with the second season nearly twice that. Though “season” is something of a misnomer since Yu Yu Hakusho aired continuously with a minimum of breaks, there seems to have been behind-the-scenes changes for the second story arc that resulted in a product much more highly polished than the other arcs, likely because it was the fan favorite from the manga.
Yu Yu Hakusho’s first season, covering the Spirit Detective arc in the manga, starts off on a good foot. The set-up – delinquent Yusuke sacrifices his life to save a child about to be hit by a car, is given a second chance at life as long as he becomes a ‘spirit detective’ hunting down demonic criminals – sounds promising but sadly this wasn’t yet the Togashi who could make a satisfying crime thriller as he did in Hunter X Hunter’s Yorkshin. Most of the cases Yusuke is handed entail “defeat X number of incrementally stronger demon criminals”. Fights are as you would expect: Yusuke and his opponent grapple for power, the opponent momentarily gets the upper hand, but Yusuke pulls off a miraculous comeback victory that has little to do with strategy or character and more to do with arbitrary power-ups. What’s worse, the visual stylization that would characterize the franchise starting with season two is mostly absent, confined to a few stand-out episodes. The first arc presents no real challenge for Yusuke and co. and largely exists as a means to introduce the supporting cast of Kuwabara, Hiei, and Kurama.
By comparison, the second arc lets you know its greater ambition from the very first episode. Toguro, a minor antagonist from the first arc whom Yusuke had thought he had beaten but in reality had faked his defeat, approaches Yusuke and forces him to enter the Dark Tournament upon threat of death. The Dark Tournament is a contest funded by wealthy humans in contact with the Demon World where teams of five fight eachother in one-on-one battles. Victory is awarded either by a ten second KO or by the death of one’s opponent, so the stakes are extremely high for the participants. Toguro himself can modulate his strength, represented as his muscles grotesquely mutating and growing, and at only 60% of his power Yusuke is left utterly terrified, the first time in the series he really displays any fear. Moreover, unlike the first arc, the lengthy, ritualized nature of the deathmatch tournament means there’s more room for long term mistakes on the part of the protagonists and even knowing that they’ll eventually succeed doesn’t make the fights any less suspenseful. It’s the first time the series sets up a long term goal and commits to it.
I’ve always enjoyed how Togashi’s stories have a quasi-Greco-Roman sense of value; honor through combat, strength as an aspect of one’s character, and so on. This is the kind of mentality one has to have in the worlds of Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter, as both are utterly brutal states of nature where force is necessary to back up any system of values. It boils down shounen to its essence and the Dark Tournament arc is a perfect example of Togashi’s expertise in this mode.
Tournament arcs are notorious for their poor execution, often padded to hell with little significant character growth, but the Dark Tournament arc proves it can be done well. Each team that Yusuke’s team fights have their own identity and motivations for winning the tournament and pose their own unique challenges. Fights last only an episode or two each, sometimes less, so the pace is steady and it never feels protracted. There’s also some behind-the-scenes intrigue as the event’s organizers try to unfairly screw over Yusuke’s team in the earlier matches. As opposed to the first arc where it seemed like none of the characters were struggling for anything, each of Yusuke’s team members deals with their own challenges as the arc goes on: Hiei’s attempts to control his unstable and potentially suicidal Kokuryuha technique, Kuruma balancing his previous life as a god and his current life as the son of a human mother, Kuwabara trying to compensate for being the weakest member of the team, and, of course, Yusuke learning ‘the true meaning of strength’. In true Togashi fashion, Toguro gets flashes of inspired characterization too and the explanation of his backstory in the finale casts an entirely different light on the season’s events. Togashi isn’t always that great with the details (Why does Team Urameshi have to fight every single opponent even when they have three wins? What was the point of that subplot with Sakyo and Kuwabara’s sister?) and some of the comic relief moments feel strained, but he always nails the big picture and at his best you walk away with a feeling of completeness. Of all of Yu Yu Hakusho’s arcs, Dark Tournament is the one that strikes the best balance between traditional martial arts shounen and corny 80s horror film atmosphere that Togashi was trying to capture.
Of course, however great the original manga’s story might be it would be nothing without a strong production to back it up and this is where I found YYH S2 shines the most. With long-running franchises where animation resources are strained by tight schedules, the most efficient way of keeping up quality is through active and involved directors. For Yu Yu Hakusho the big name is Akiyuki Shinbo. Shinbo was present in the first season, but there his episodes stood out drastically from the rest. Gaudy colors, chiaroscuro shading, strobing light effects, warped layouts/backgrounds, backlighting, Dezakian tricks like triple takes and postcard shots – in the first season, only Shinbo was doing any of that. Starting with Dark Tournament, however, something must have changed. Suddenly, a more unified stylistic paradigm emerges as all of the conservative episode directors from the first season (even including the series director Noriyuki Abe) start to copy Shinbo’s techniques. What’s more, Shinbo’s output greatly increases, not only on his own episodes but on others’ as well with his favorite animator Atsushi Wakabayashi becoming something of the season’s defining animator. To top it all off, Shinbo’s episodes cover the most pivotal events in the story. It makes me wish more behind-the-scenes information was public because it seems as if Shinbo was promoted to assistant director (if he wasn’t already – he co-directed the first OP and ED with Abe) or otherwise became something of a de facto director with the rest of the staff following his lead. In any case, Shinbo’s style pervades the second season so fully that it bears comparison to what Kunihiko Ikuhara was doing with Sailor Moon around the same time. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Yu Yu Hakusho’s Dark Tournament arc is Shinbo’s Sailor Moon S.
Animation is another area where this season excels. Usually with long-running shounen, consistently good animation is impossible within the limits of their scheduling and the impressive moments are limited to a few stand-out episodes. That’s why, while watching this season I was somewhat incredulous – how could they possibly keep up these exciting and dynamic cuts on such a regular basis? Many great animators worked on Dark Tournament: besides Wakabayashi, there’s Akitoshi Yokoyama, Tetsuya Nishio, Hidetsugu Ito, Takashi Tomioka, Hiroki Kanno, Masayuki Yoshihara, Satoru Utsunomiya, Tatsuya Oishi, and tons more. The animation is also extremely varied in style; it’s clear being ‘on-model’ wasn’t a priority for the animation staff. Another thing I particularly liked was how freely the show used background animation. Background animation is trickier than plain character animation as it requires drawing everything in frame instead of just the characters, making its omnipresence throughout a season of a long-running franchise all the more unusual. The most dynamic fights use the camera’s placement and motion to shape the action just as much as flashy swordsmanship or CQC. It’s not BONES; there are cost-saving measures here and there, stuff you’d normally expect from the genre (flashbacks, retreading scenes at the beginning of episodes (although strangely they tend to redraw/refilm these parts), internal monologues, reused finishers and so on). But the show has a surprisingly high bar of quality, especially in light of it being twice as long as the other arcs. To sample what I’m talking about, I recommend this MAD for Wakabayashi, keeping in mind that it’s far from comprehensive of everything he did for the season.
Tetsuya Nishio said that when he worked on Yu Yu Hakusho there was a climate of friendly rivalry among the staff, that whenever someone did something cool everyone else would try to one-up it. I think that’s a good summary for how this season feels; every time you think the show has peaked, it surpasses those expectations a short while later. As Yusuke’s team progresses through the ranks, each round gets more and more grandiose. It’s fitting that Shinbo’s episode 58, something of a 1990s equivalent to Naruto Shippuden 167, occurs towards the end of the arc. It all comes together with the final round between Team Urameshi and Team Toguro, a suitably hotblooded finale with some great direction and animation.
All in all, I was immensely impressed with Yu Yu Hakusho’s second season, especially given my low expectations going in. It took me months of on-and-off watching to finish the first arc but I binged season 2 in under a week. It possesses many trappings of the genre, sure, but it’s as much of a revelation for shounen as Sailor Moon S was for the magical girl genre. I haven’t seen the fourth season and I’ve only seen part of the third, but I know that the polish and drive of this arc wasn’t reached again, especially with Shinbo’s declining role on the franchise (although his episode 74 in the subsequent Chapter Black saga is among his best work on the show). It says something that I’m more interested in rewatching this arc again than finishing up the series. More than the storytelling and production polish, it has this sense of economy that exploits the tournament arc format more efficiently than all its contemporaries. I know most recommendations to skip or skim through one arc of a show to get to another aren’t usually advisable, but any way you can you must make the time for this season. A classic.
[As an aside, the show’s VA cast is incredible. Megumi Ogata (Sailor Uranus), Nobuyuki Hiyama (Viral from TTGL), and Shigeru Chiba (Megane from Urusei Yatsura) form 3/4ths of the main cast and Norio Wakamoto plays a secondary character at the tournament. Mandatory subs.]
And, finally, a sample of the Dark Tournament arc’s visual style: