Yu Yu Hakusho Episode 1: Sacrifice and Trial

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One of the most popular shounen series ever produced, Yu Yu Hakusho initially ran in the pages of Shounen Jump between 1990 and 1994 – it relates the story of hapless delinquent Urameshi Yusuke as he discovers the world of the spirits and develops mystical powers, opposing numerous monstrous forces along the way.  The term used her to refer to the spirit world, reikai, originated in Shinto theology as a general term denoting the world inhabited by supernatural beings (in contrast to the material world inhabited by humans); Yu Yu Hakusho quickly establishes the duality between the spirit and physical worlds in its first episode by demonstrating how a human could traverse from one realm to the other through Yusuke, and how the two realms interact regularly, even if humans might not realize it. What makes this series fairly unusual is that it presents its protagonist as a delinquent with a reputation – Yusuke performs an altruistic act by saving a young boy from certain death (thus showing him to have compassion), but the brief flashback reveals his place in society as a boy who apparently became so notorious in his community that rumors circulate about his abilities as a juvenile delinquent who leads a rather large gang. Yusuke seemingly speaks to the audience by providing details of his day prior to his untimely death, serving as the episode’s narrator; he struggles to meet social expectations in a world critical of him, although he does disregard school and get into fights with other delinquents (thus cementing his reputation among everyone else as a man not to be trifled with, even though he has done nothing to deserve such a perception). As the episode progresses, however, we see a more compassionate side of Yusuke – his death allows him to reflect on his life after seeing those around him attend his wake, and he has no regrets in his decision to save the boy (even though he learns, after the fact, that the boy was destined to get struck by the car and survive without injury).

Yusuke’s initial characterization as a delinquent in Yu Yu Hakusho helps set the tone for the series, as we see him in a flawed light – many of the most popular shounen protagonists exhibit defiant traits where they try to exert themselves as a positive force in a society where they feel out-of-place, thanks to a society that thinks lowly of them. One of the longest-running and most popular series today, One Piece, features a fledgling pirate by the name of Monkey D. Luffy, who wishes to become the legendary King of Pirates, like Gol D. Roger, a famed pirate whose defiance at his own execution (he alerts the world, immediately before his death, of an enormous treasure he placed somewhere) triggers the wave of piracy currently informing the work’s universe; Luffy must constantly oppose the corrupt and powerful World Government and its Marines, who impose their own semblance of order upon the world and portray pirates as a menace that must be eradicated. Dragon Ball, to give another example, focuses on the exploits of Son Goku as he adjusts to his ever-increasing power and battle numerous alien threats against him and his friends; the story of Dragon Ball originally took inspiration from Journey to the West, as Akira Toriyama (the manga’s author) modeled his Son Goku on the mischievous Sun Wukong in that tale, whose defiance against the heavens forces the Buddha to imprison him for five hundred years (Sun Wukong later helps Tang Sanzang in collecting sutras in exchange for freedom). In this respect, one can understand the appeal of the delinquent protagonist – Yusuke represents the sort of character who initially displays insolent behavior because of a mischievous streak that gets him in trouble, but eventually displays a nurturing, caring side in the face of adversity that threatens the lives of the friends he makes during the course of the story. The audience sees this initial resistance against society in Yusuke’s characterization in the first episode; his life before the fateful incident was not that positive, as he never got along with his superiors at school, and seemingly frequently clashed with another gang led by Kuwabara Kazuma (who later befriends Yusuke, becoming one of his greatest allies).

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The flashback revealing Yusuke’s tribulations immediately prior to his death demonstrate that aspect of his personality and life – we get the impression that he frequently skips school (he returns after a ten-day hiatus); his own mother has a low opinion of him, likely due to his decision to avoid school (she overtly tells her son that he will never amount to anything when he disregards his social obligations); and his peers even believe salacious rumors that portray him as a hardened criminal thug who commands an enormous gang (two students at his school raise that concern when speaking with another student, Keiko). At school, only one of his classmates, Keiko, extends any kindness and concern towards him, and it’s likely because the two are class representatives; regardless of their position in class, however, Keiko displays no apprehension about Yusuke, looking beyond the public facade that others constructed before him to see a troubled boy who wishes to find his place in a society that largely rejects him as a nuisance. That Yusuke has to constantly resist this social description of him comes to a head when he confronts two other students who stole a wallet – one of them claimed to be a cousin of Yusuke’s, hoping that a (false) familial connection would be enough to frighten others into submission (as no one would want to protest against a man who’s related to a notorious delinquent leader who terrorizes the community). This leads to a misunderstanding on the part of a teacher – Yusuke’s attempt to punish the boys for their insolence leads him to believe he extorted the two for money (assuming the wallet belongs to one of the boys, without having the context that Yusuke had). Yusuke can never catch a break, especially considering that society makes assumptions that negatively affect him; however, Principal Takenaka seems to be the one person in Yusuke’s life (at least, at school) who treats Yusuke fairly without judgment. Although one of the teachers attempts to remove Yusuke from school, Takenaka decides to teach Yusuke a lesson in humility and grace by having him remain at school until nighttime, and his lecture seems made out of genuine desire to understand and assist Yusuke (rather than punish him unfairly, like the teacher tried).

When Yusuke returns home for the evening, his mother Atsuko offers her own lecture – as one might expect, this frustrates Yusuke because he can’t seem to escape from lectures. Atsuko might mean well (and she does, considering her distraught state upon the news of her son’s death), but Yusuke has trouble understanding that his actions frequently get him into trouble; he never gets a break in the world, which seems quick to antagonize him, perceiving him as nothing more than a delinquent who would never make a name for himself. The appearance of Kuwabara exacerbates this fact – he is a fellow delinquent, one who frequently antagonizes Yusuke as a member of a “cast-off society” who feels the pangs of social ostracism. This conflict went on so frequently that Kuwabara accumulated 156 losses (counting the brief confrontation shown in this episode) – despite his bravado, Kuwabara doesn’t have the same physical power that Yusuke possesses, but he remains steadfast in his belief that he will one day champion Yusuke in combat. This reflects an unspoken bond between the two – as he so constantly fights Yusuke, Kuwabara sees Yusuke as a worthy rival, one that he himself must defeat by his own hand. Few people would even go so far as to treat Yusuke as a worthy adversary; Kuwabara shows genuine compassion towards Yusuke, as seen at the wake, when he yells at Yusuke for dying before he could kill him. Kuwabara saw Yusuke as someone he had to defeat in order to establish himself as a delinquent leader – he regards his lackeys as “family,” basically, and despite his many losses, he never loses his composure around them, seeing his defeats as a temporary setback.

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Even in death, however, Yusuke defies the odds – by sacrificing himself to protect the child, he dies before his time (the boy was supposed to get hit and survive, as is revealed by Botan), and when the guide Botan appears, she offers him a chance at returning to life by undergoing a trial. The scene with Botan raises the point of Reikai, the land of the spirits – a few shounen productions invoke Buddhist and Shinto principles rather directly in the course of the manga/show, with works such as Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha depicting Buddhist concepts such as reincarnation and karma affecting one’s future lives. Here in Yu Yu Hakusho, the spirit world itself appears as a concrete location, with its inhabitants regularly getting involved in the story – Botan, the first such inhabitant to appear, represents the figure who has the ability to ferry souls into the afterlife. She explicitly mentions the River Sanzu, a legendary river that souls must cross in order to make it to the afterlife and receive judgment (assuming they properly paid the guide six coins for ferrying); by doing so, Botan introduces the idea of a Buddhist cosmology into the show, like so many other productions before and after (fans of Dragon Ball might recall King Yenma, based specifically on a similarly-named figure who judges the deceased when they enter his realm; the shoujo series Hell Girl is more explicit in its presentation of the underworld and the nature of revenge, while Bleach depicts the world of the shinigami or “death spirits” who gather souls). As she speaks with Yusuke, she does not antagonize him at all – she simply offers him the opportunity to regain his physical body and continue where he left off, thanks to the unexpected nature of his death.

Yusuke has a chance at salvation, and proving himself to be a respectable figure in the show; he realizes the profound impact he had on his family and friends’ lives when he attends his own wake, seeing their distressed appearances as they speak realistically of him. Takenaka even attends – his speech, as he addresses a photo of Yusuke, illustrates his hope for Yusuke while simultaneously wishing for Yusuke to have improved himself before his untimely passing. Really, those present at the funeral (Atsuko, Kuwabara, the boy whose life Yusuke saved) all share the same sentiment; they miss him dearly, with Kuwabara specifically wishing for him to remain alive so that the two could fight once again (with him emerging victorious), as he saw Yusuke as an equal in combat. The only two attendants who disrespect Yusuke are teachers, who are admonished by Takenaka; their disregard for Yusuke and his death stand as a stark contrast to the generally gloomy reception, and they even speak of Yusuke’s passing as a benefit to the school (explaining that the school’s stock values may have improved with him no longer present). Takenaka’s brief lecture when he confronts the teachers, admonishing them for their indecent behavior towards the deceased, shows how Takenaka respected Yusuke and desperately wished for him to succeed in life, despite his admission that he cannot praise Yusuke for his actions; he sees Yusuke as unfulfilled potential, someone who could’ve gone on to do amazing things if he applied himself, unaware that he will soon prove himself to be an extraordinary figure in the show (thanks to Botan’s offer of a trial that will restore Yusuke’s physical body once completed). Botan’s arrival into Yusuke’s live is fortuitous, then, as a means of the protagonist to live up to (and exceed) the expectations of those who placed a lot of faith in him – he now has an opportunity to enlist the aid of the spirit world to become a powerful, compassionate boy who can utilize his strengths to oppose great evil, which he will soon.

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