When Netflix’s One Piece launched to generally favorable reviews and fan enthusiasm, it gave me hope that the same quality and care that went into it would go into its other adaptation of a seminal work in shonen anime: Yu Yu Hakusho. With the show finally available, my hope was woefully misplaced.
Netflix took one of the best examples of an action anime series, excised its best most emotional, blood-pumping moments, and poorly stitched them together with surprisingly decent fight choreography across a criminally short five-episode series.
This piece contains spoilers for Yu Yu Hakusho below.
Yu Yu Hakusho is the story of Yusuke Urameshi, a misunderstood delinquent teenager with a heart of gold and fists of iron. One day, he gets himself killed protecting a young boy from getting hit by a truck. Since nobody expected a ne’er-do-well like Yusuke to sacrifice himself for a kid, the lord of hell gives him a second chance at life. In exchange, Yusuke and a motley crew of human and demon allies work as spirit detectives to keep the human world safe from the criminals of the demon world.
Though the anime spends a lot of time with Yusuke and his allies solving crimes as spirit detectives, the live-action series abandons most of the necessary plot and character building to focus on a very loose adaptation of the events of the Dark Tournament.
The first episode of YYH started really strong. No, I don’t mean it started off with an updated rendition of “Smile Bomb,” though the iconic opening theme did make an appearance, which I know will satisfy fans of the anime. Yusuke (Takumi Kitamura) is already dead, and the episode spent the rest of its runtime making us understand the tragedy of this young man’s death. Kitamura plays a fantastic Yusuke. I know American anime fans are gonna compare him to Justin Cook, the dub performer for Yusuke in the anime. And while Kitamura’s not as abrasive or snarky as Cook, he still has Yusuke’s apathetic dirtbag “modern Robin Hood” air about him that really nails the character.
Yusuke’s rival Kazuma Kuwabara (Shûhei Uesugi) surprised me as well. Uesugi played him pitch perfect as this interminably sweet and loyal guy who really likes to fight. Again, Uesugi cannot match the voice performance of Christopher Sabat, but he’s the actor I fell in love with the most.
Late in the show, Kuwabara (who’s a bit of a romantic) meets Yukina, an ice demon who’s been captured and tortured by mobsters because her tears produce highly valuable gems. Kuwabara instantly falls in love with her and immediately changes his voice to make himself sound like a proper gentleman to impress her. You can hear him switch from informal, hyper-casual Japanese to super formal honorific language (and shout out to the localization team for representing that well in the subtitles). It was the best scene in the show, the one that gave me my only laugh out loud, “he’s just like his anime counterpart fr fr” moment.
Every other character, though, left much to be desired. I fell in love with Kurama — one of Yusuke’s demon allies — back when I was a teenager, and I am unashamed to say I still love him to this very day. But my heart will not permit me to recognize the Netflix incarnation of him. The show did nothing with his character or anybody else’s.
I don’t know what led Netflix to make this show only five roughly hour-long episodes, but the results of that extreme flattening left us with characters that are formless, uninteresting seat-fillers in costumes that make them look like they’re in a high school production of a Yu Yu Hakusho episode. (Kurama’s wig is criminal, y’all. Look how they massacred my bishonen!)
The fact that there’s no reason to care about the people fighting is even more tragic because the actual fights were really good action sequences. YYH didn’t try to translate an anime fight into live action, which can often come off looking weird and clunky. Instead, it focused on delivering authentic well-choreographed and filmed fights that just so happen to be between a teenager and a seven-foot-tall oni. However, Netflix’s awful foreshortening of the story robbed us of a reason to be excited about these really good battles.
I can understand why Netflix chose the plot points that it did to make up this show. It pretty much jumps directly into the Dark Tournament saga, which is, quite literally, the best story in the anime and one of the best examples of the shonen tournament trope in existence. But because Yu Yu Hakusho didn’t take the time to show us the personality quirks that made characters like Kurama, Hiei, Genkai, and Toguro who they are, viewers have no emotional investment in watching them fight. The show took some of the most electrifying fights in shonen anime history, stripped them of context and stakes, and fed them to an audience who will be dazzled by what they see but have no reason to care about any of it.
Netflix calling this show Yu Yu Hakusho is like trying to pass off a YouTube video of the Darth Maul fight as all of Star Wars.