Yu Yu Hakusho Episode 2: A Bureaucratic Underworld

Episode one of Yu Yu Hakusho introduced the protagonist Yusuke Urameshi, who unexpectedly dies after being struck by a car while saving a child; now a spirit, Yusuke must find a way to return his soul to his body, and episode two continues the story by introducing the underworld and its rule Yama. Depictions of the underworld in Japanese fiction, especially anime, often feature oni and other demonic inhabitants, reflecting historical forebears; such representations of hell draw upon classical descriptions found in Buddhist and Shinto texts, which are replete with images of the naraka as a locale of torment and misery. Buddhism’s description of the underworld, particularly, illustrates a realm of torture where spirits can reside for an inordinately long time before reincarnating – it consists of numerous realms, each with its own unique brand of agony for its inhabitants. One can find various examples of the “hell realms” in anime – One Piece, for example, has the notorious prison Impel Down, whose levels reflect both Buddhist cosmology and the Divine Comedy. With Yu Yu Hakusho, it presents the underworld (known as Reikai) in a fairly humorous manner – when Yusuke encounters it for the first time, he sees a significantly bureaucratized region where oni collect paperwork to send to Koenma, the current ruler and son to the previous ruler. Koenma is shown here as an infant in appearance, despite his advanced aged as regent of the underworld; this contrasts with his namesake, who appears in Buddhist texts as a more overtly demonic figure in his various artistic representations. Unlike his forebear, the Koenma of Yu Yu Hakusho appears as more humanoid, and capable of interacting with souls without passing judgment; he even offers Yusuke the opportunity to return to his mortal form, presenting him with a trial to determine his moral compass.

The trial assumes the form of looking after a special egg known as a Reikai-ju – as Koenma explain, the Reikai-ju ingests energy from its bearer, and the form it takes upon birth depends on the host’s heart. If the person looking after it has more negative energy, the creature will assume a devilish appearance, while a more positive energy will turn it more angelic; this can be dangerous for the person, as their soul can be consumed by the Reikai-ju if the beast becomes demonic. Thus, Yusuke must be very cautious when handling the egg, as he can become a victim to it; he also has the additional obstacle of being able to communicate with his family and friends, telling them to preserve his body, as it will soon be cremated if he is not dutiful in contacting them beforehand. Japan happens to have the highest cremation rate in the world – it originated with the Buddha himself, who left instructions on how to cremate his remains, and it goes by the term kasō in Japanese. Yusuke receiving cremation is thus standard, and it explains why he must hurry to avoid that fate; without a body, he will remain in the Spirit Realm indefinitely. Thankfully, Botan explains that he has a means of interacting with those around him, even if he cannot directly take control of his body – he can briefly possess someone else, particularly a person with a fairly high spiritual affinity, and speak through them. As the episode shows, this opportunity comes via Kazuma Kuwabara, the other delinquent character who happens to be the leader of a small gang; he sees Yusuke as his primary rival, recognizing Yusuke’s strength as benchmark that he must overcome to establish himself as the toughest punk in the city.

The episode’s second half show Yusuke attempting to inform people, particularly his family and Keiko, of his impending return; he manages to communicate with Keiko and his mother through their dreams, but Keiko dismisses the visit as part of her imagination. This leaves him with only one other option, possession – thankfully, Kuwabara demonstrates a connection to spiritual energy, and thus offers a suitable body for Yusuke to possess. Like many other cultures, Japan has its own stories of possession and wandering spirits (with the term ikiryō being used) – one of the most famous examples in Japanese literature comes from Tale of Genji, where Lady Rokujo’s spirit torments Aoi no Ue, who was pregnant with Genji’s child, ultimately killing both her and the unborn child. Yu Yu Hakusho doesn’t have the tragic consequences illustrated in Tale of Genji, however – it shows Yusuke’s possesion of Kuwabara in a comedic light, as he briefly inhabits his friend’s body in order to convey his message. That he manages to convince her of his presence by groping her breasts is rather inappropriate; he likely could have found a much better way of convincing Keiko than that, but nevertheless, he went with the uncomfortable route that led to Keiko slapping Kuwabara.

Episode two of Yu Yu Hakusho established some more of the world’s rules, thanks to the introduction of the Spirit Realm, Koenma and the Reikai-ju; Yusuke now has a means of returning to his corporeal form, even if it has the attendant risk of producing a demon that will devour his soul if he demonstrates evil energy. Like many shounen contemporaries, the series presents Yusuke’s struggle as having a spiritual side where he interacts with the underworld and non-human characters; this shares elements with other Shonen Jump manga, where the protagonist exhibits a spiritual affinity that hints at greater power within. It has the fairly unique premise of having the protagonist die, albeit briefly, to allow him to discover and understand the supernatural world around him – while his soul is separated from his body, he encounters both Botan and Koenma, as well as enters the Spirit Realm, which reveals a whole metaphysical world that Yusuke had not noticed before. As mentioned, depictions of such a realm can be found throughout Japanese fiction, with an example being Dragon Ball (another Shonen Jump luminary); rather than being the hellish place of suffering and punishment seen in Buddhist texts, the underworld of Yu Yu Hakusho has a more fanciful and comedic aspect to it, with a bureaucratic nature where the lower-ranking inhabitants work with their ruler to more efficiently run their realm (even if it’s as complicated and frustrating as bureaucracies in the human realm). Yusuke must be able to navigate both the spiritual and human realms if he wants his body to be preserved, and the presence of the Reikai-ju means he must be on his best behavior, to avoid being eaten by the beast when it hatches; he has a fairly tough road ahead of him, but he remains positive and confident in his abilities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s