Before Bleach made its debut as THE show about spirit world governed by a bureaucracy, Yu Yu Hakusho pioneered the idea. The famous ghostly series had an interesting start, but it is remembered very differently from what it set out to do. Today, I am not going to talk about the anime/manga. Instead, I want to focus on the four main characters and look at what they bring to the story. There are some spoilers to the 20-year-old story ahead.
Yu Yu Hakusho’s History
Yu Yu Hakusho (幽☆遊☆白書 Yuu Yuu Hakusho or translated as Ghost Files) started as a manga in late 1990. Yoshihiro Togashi (冨樫 義博 Togashi Yoshihiro) is the creator of the manga. If that name sounds familiar, it is because he also created Hunter x Hunter. Yu Yu Hakusho’s anime adaptation aired in late 1992, spanning 112 episodes.
Over the years, there were a few animated movies and a set of OVAs (Original Video Animation) produced for Yu Yu Hakusho. Currently, Funimation holds the distribution rights to the series in the US. It is streaming the standard definition version with ads (but free otherwise) on its site.
Just like much other popular anime, Yu Yu Hakusho was made into different merchandise. Among them were many video games for different consoles throughout the years. Unfortunately, most of them did not reach the United States.
Here is a silly piece of history about me: I remember a small argument with a friend back in elementary school who said characters from Yu Yu Hakusho are stronger than characters from Dragon Ball. Obviously, I sided with Son Goku and friends because they can simply punch a planet to destroy it. Unfortunately, he would not budge and I had to let it end there.
Main characters analysis
Yu Yu Hakusho’s four main protagonist formula is not that common in shounen stories. The protagonists of YYH are often compared to the main characters of Hunter x Hunter, which is by the same author. Other famous shounen series tend to rely on one, two, or three main protagonists. Right off the top of my head, I can only think of Beyond the Boundary and Lucky Star that have the similar four main character trope. But I am sure there are more.
Anyway, back to Ghost Files. As the story develops and characters evolve, Yusuke, Kuwabara, Hiei, and Kurama become representations of different relationships between the Human, Spirit, and Demon Realms. These realms are the three main dimensions in Yu Yu Hakusho. Again, spoilers abound so proceed at your own risk.
Yusuke Urameshi (浦飯 幽助 Urameshi Yuusuke) is the main protagonist of YYH. Naturally, most of the story revolves around Yusuke. His status changes from human to ghost/spirit detective, but he is later revealed to be a demon-human hybrid. YYH places great importance on the relationship between the Demon and Human Realms. As the worlds are connected, things that happen on the Demon Realm can have a noticeable impact on the Human Plane. Especially since there are lots of powerful and dangerous demons in that world.
His work as a Spirit Detective connects the Spirit realm (a place where both humans and demons go to after death) and Earth. After his heritage is revealed, Yusuke’s demon-human hybrid lineage serves as a metaphorical bridge between demons and humans. Let me give you an example. As the power balance in the Demon World is tipped due to the death of Raizen, one of the Three Kings who keep the equilibrium in check, Yusuke suggests a tournament. Its purpose is to find the new ruler of the entire Demon World, an unprecedented position. He joins in the hope of winning and ruling as a king, as well as bringing order and protection for the Human World. Alas, another powerful demon named Enki wins the tournament. As his first decree, he demands peace for the Human World.
Though Yusuke does not get to be the all-powerful demon king by the end of the series, he has successfully made a bet for peace. I think Yusuke, whether or not he realizes, is trying to fulfill his role as an interdimensional glue. He is the force that catalyzes harmony.
I find it interesting that Yusuke’s perspective change from human to ghost to a demon is the opposite of Kurama’s. I will explain further down.
Kazuma (桑原 和真 Kuwabara Kazuma) is the second protagonist that appears in the series. He has a friendly rivalry with Yusuke and later, Hiei. Even though he is the tallest, largest, and loudest among the four, he has the weakest spiritual power. Kazuma, often called by his last name Kuwabara, is the only pure human in Team Urameshi. It is verified that Kuwabara has the strongest spiritual power among pure humans, something that he can definitely be proud of. His sword’s ability to cut dimensional and spiritual barriers is pretty amazing too.
I tend to connect with him more than the other three. As the unofficial representative of the human race and as someone who always needs to catch up to his teammates, Kuwabara can be seen as the audience’s bridge. By placing myself in his point of view, I can feel the awe, respect, and fear that human experiences in Yu Yu Hakusho. He is the weaker participant in the epic chaos affecting the three worlds. He tries to help but is ultimately shadowed by his peers.
His questions at the end of the anime and manga are pretty much what we as the audience want to know. He asks Yusuke what becomes of the Three King tournament, talks with Kurama about his future, and is curious about where Hiei is. Kuwabara becomes worried after the barrier between Demon World and Human World is deliberately weakened. An understandable concern because humans (like us, unless you are a robot or something) are powerless.
Kuwabara seems to have more potential to develop his spiritual power. Unfortunately, the author decided that Kuwabara needs to study, get into a decent high school, and continue what humans do. Not an exciting ending for him, huh?
In some ways, he is a lot like Krillin if you think of Yusuke as Goku. Both characters are great friends with the main protagonists and are some of the strongest humans by the end of the series.
Hiei (飛影 Hiei literally, Flying Shadow) is the pure demon of the group. As such, he is the unofficial ambassador of the Demon World. In the ending to both manga and anime, he chooses to stay in his home realm. But in the OVAs, he briefly returns to the Human World before going back to prepare for the next Demon World Tournament. Though, I would not consider that canonical.
Hiei’s family back story is full of abuse and suffering. It paints how grim the fates of demons can be. Because of his past, he can be spiteful towards humans who, in his eyes, grow up with love and friendship. Despite this, Hiei is capable of love and care as evidenced by his protectiveness towards Yukina, his twin sister, and his teammates.
He is one character that I feel distanced from because of his background story and initial temperament. Yet, he is consistently one of the top popular characters among Team Urameshi and in YYH.
His positive change from a vengeful individual to a more caring and protective one seems to foreshadow the change of the Demon World at the end of the series. I wonder if Togashi had planned for the parallel.
Hiei’s progression to a more compassionate demon/person mirrors Kurama’s, who I will go into detail about below.
Kurama (蔵馬 Kurama), just like Hiei, has a colorful background story. Similar to, though preceding Yusuke, Kurama is the first official link between the Demon and Human Worlds. As a demon fox who embedded his soul in a human baby, Kurama learns about love from his mother. He grows to be a gentle and caring individual but is still able to access his demonic form and power. Effectively changing his point of view from a demon’s to more human-like. On that note, Kurama’s transformation is much more extreme compared to Hiei’s. His original Youko Kurama (Demon Fox Kurama) form is powerful, cruel, and sadistic, the complete opposite of his human personality.
Like I said above, Kurama’s view differs from Yusuke’s. Kurama was set on leaving his mother and the Human World after he turned ten. However, he did not expect to grow attached to his human mother and care about the Human World.
I think his backstory is meant to establish empathy towards the Human World. Kind of a reminder that humans are capable of selfless acts. Comparable to Hiei, he is meant to tell us that demons too are able to change for the better. Both Kurama and Hiei have reasons to be protective towards Human World. Hiei’s sister, Yukina, and Kurama’s mother are living their peaceful lives on Earth.
In closing, I find the four characters intriguing in their own ways. Before researching, thinking about, and writing this article, I would have never thought about the roles they play. Though I now wonder if it is okay that the changes we see in the main characters and story are very human-centric. What do you think, Yu Yu Hakusho fans?