At age eleven, I found myself with a case of acute appendicitis. I was hospitalized immediately and set up for same-day surgery within three hours, but just as my surgeon arrived, the Yu Yu Hakusho opening theme drifted through the prep room. Without missing a beat, eleven-year-old me asked, completely in earnest, “can we just wait thirty more minutes? It’s the Dark Tournament arc and this episode is really important!” Given the levity with which I had handled the whole medical emergency up to that point, everyone assumed I was joking. I was not joking.
Yu Yu Hakusho was a stellar fighting anime, following juvenile delinquent Yusuke Urameshi, who gains supernatural powers after being killed and resurrected. He and his mismatched team of human and demon cohorts go on to spend most of their time fighting baddies and after 112 episodes, Yusuke ends up the king of the underworld. It’s not as cool of a job as it sounds.
Now I love me a good fighting anime, but Yu Yu Hakusho hit a little closer to home than average. While the butt-kicking was nothing to sneer at, Yu Yu Hakusho marks the first time I ever recall seeing a trans character in any kind of media. Miyuki, a minor character who appears early on in the series, presents as female and is then revealed to be male-bodied during a fight and becomes very upset that her identity is challenged. Miyuki only shows up in one episode (one that was censored by Cartoon Network to make her appear cis) and is aggressively misgendered by resident idiot Kuwabara after the undignified wiener reveal, but Yusuke shrugs the realization off and carries on beating her up. I won’t pretend that Miyuki’s is the best-handled trans character in history, but compared to other programming for young people at the time, it was certainly a noteworthy move.
While not much other LGBTQ+ representation made it through censorship and editorial advice, the manga’s creator, Yoshihiro Togashi, mentioned in an interview printed in Shounen Jump magazine that he intended the characters Sensui and Itsuki to be a couple, even though the evidence to that effect that ended up in the show is both scant and creepily manipulative. The only other instance of obvious same-sex attraction (at least, obvious in the uncensored episodes) is the one-sided lust Karasu has for Kurama, which is also quite creepy in that Kurama wants nothing to do with it. Whether this specific flavor of representation really counts as a positive is a hard call, given the issues with consent, but its existence in a 90’s anime targeted at boys is anomalous, at the very least, and eleven-year-old me didn’t miss it, even with most of Karasu’s lines edited down for TV. Togashi also claimed that in hindsight perhaps he should have written Hiei and Kurama as a couple, but although theirs is a popular ship among fans, that relationship was never canonical. A pity, as it would have been less questionable than the others.
While the show’s female characters only have supporting roles, the women in the series are pleasantly diverse and well-rounded, with clear motives and unique personalities. The romance subplots were handled especially well, in my opinion. Several characters, both male and female, are given romance subplots, and each handles the situation differently. Genkai, the angry, hard-hitting sensei, was once in a relationship with the main villain, Toguro, but they fell apart long before the series began. Flashbacks deal with their lingering emotional ties and how they affect their difficult relationship as adversaries. Yusuke’s girlfriend Keiko isn’t the demon-punching type, and she is unique to the show in that she doesn’t have supernatural powers. She is frequently frustrated by her role as a spectator and does everything she can to never end up as a damsel in distress.
Notably, the male characters are shown as being “affected” by their relationships in a way that is comparable to the female characters. There is neither misty-eyed pining nor manpain, and the female characters are never used as a tool for male emotional development—which would be an easy hole to fall into, because there are a lot of men and a lot of pain.
The only real failing of the show (besides the sinfully choppy animation) was the overwhelming majority of male characters, both as heroes and villains. It was a shounen anime, and understandably exhibited many of the conventions thereof, but it was important to me at the time in that it broke a few of the shounen molds along the way, for better or worse. I doubt that Yu Yu Hakusho ever reached a level of popularity that would make it a candidate for a reboot like Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z, but 112 episodes just weren’t enough.