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Review: Yu Yu Hakusho Complete Season 1 (Steelbook Edition) (Blu-Ray)

Despite one’s best weeb intentions, sometimes iconic series’ fall through the cracks. Yu Yu Hakusho feels like one of those instances, so I was understandably very excited when Madman announced Yu Yu Hakusho Complete Season 1 as the first in a series of Blu-Ray releases hitting the Australian market.

Yu Yu Hakusho is all about Yusuke Urameshi, the prototypical delinquent high school student flunking his way through life. A broken home, poor grades and a penchant for getting into fights creates a sense of aimlessness until he invariably undoes his poor life choices and saves a child’s life by sacrificing his own from an out of control car. This act of selflessness grants Yusuke an opportunity to have another go at life and kicks off a journey that will see him pool together fellow delinquent (and number 1 rival) Kazuma Kuwabara along with other members of the underworld, Kurama and Hiei, as part of a group of Spirit World Detectives whose mission is to keep the underworld from interfering with the human world.

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The structure and pacing in Yu Yu Hakusho Complete Season 1 is interesting. The opening arc around Yusuke’s redemption was not what I was initially expecting and helped setup a stack of interesting variables before it seemed to hint at a monster of the week structure once Yusuke takes up the mantle of being a Spirit World Detective.

But the story gets juggled up again here as we find that it doesn’t fit the typical monster of the week formula (like Sailor Moon or Ruroni Kenshin) nor does it adhere to the unnecessarily long winded shounen battle formula (Dragon Ball Z). Instead it sits a little in the middle, with this set covering a handful of small story arcs before finishing abruptly part-way through a prototypical shounen battle tournament arc.

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The end result is a bit muddied. Straddling the two formulas means we’re not subject to their pitfalls, but it doesn’t save it from feeling a little predictable. There’s a Big Bad Guy, some underlings and some slice of life often mixed in. Big Bad Guy should be undefeatable, but through sheer grit, determination or the power of manly friendship Yusuke and his fellow Spirit World Detectives save the day. There are some broader conspiracy groups at play at this stage but nothing terribly revelatory yet.

Where it gets things spot on is the characters. Yes there’s plenty of shounen tropes, but Yusuke’s delightfully pig headed, Hiei’s aloofness is amusing, Kurama’s voiced by Megumi Ogata which instantly makes him rad and Kuwabara genuinely makes me smile with the contrast between ultra-masochistic tough guy and super-genuine spiritual guy.

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The production values are also impressive considering the massive length of the series and typical restrictions on visual flair for an anime TV series of the early 90s. There’s some nice choreography and some of the raw ink work adds a sense of grit that really contributes to the shounen manga feel of the whole thing. It’s something that arguably can’t be replicated very well in contemporary digital animation and I have a real soft spot for it. Combined with late-80s J-Pop music and a great slightly washed out colour palette, this is a great example of doing TV action anime in the 90s and doing it very well.

Yu Yu Hakusho Complete Season 1 as a Blu-Ray package is a great example of doing an older cel animated TV series justice. This is another US Funimation import so there’s not a lot of Australian-related content therein, but that’s all good – Funimation’s encoding and packaging on this release is fantastic, especially the steelbook box which looks amazing. The video restoration does a stellar job of showing off the beautiful, organic cel animation and the audio quality is great too. For those of you fond of Funimation’s localisation approach, their classic English dub is here as well. Speaking of which, my only gripes are the use of the awkward localised English logo during the opening sequence and the English language titles. It would have been great to have preserved the original Japanese assets for these or use seamless branching to fold in the appropriate assets if maintaining the English logo or episode titles were a priority for fans of the dub.

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What was interesting is the interview on the final disc, assumedly made contemporaneously with this release set. In this 20 minute featurette the original cast recount the early days working on dubs in Funimation’s studios and reflecting on how much the scene and industry have changed. While I’m normally nonplussed with dubs, Yu Yu Hakusho seemed to be hailed as Funimation’s next big thing back in the day following the commercial success of Dragon Ball Z, and capturing parts of this shared history is really important given how far we’ve come. Yu Yu Hakusho’s English adaptation has also earned itself a cult following over the years, so for fans this is a great addition.

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Yu Yu Hakusho Complete Season 1 is a great start to a landmark series. While it’s prone to all the bits we love and hate about 90s TV shounen anime, the journey and characters are great fun and the HD bump makes it easy to appreciate the work behind the series.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.