Saturday, June 5, 2010

Yu Yu Hakusho Vol. 1

Shounen-action is not my cup of tea. While I somewhat enjoyed the bulked-up beefcake blowout that was Dragon Ball Z, I tend to gravitate towards more cultured competition that happens to feature a heavy dose of slick and stylish action (see stuff like Hunter x Hunter). For a series like Yu Yu Hakusho, which promises to be a straightforward beat ‘em up in the same way that Painkiller promises to be a straightforward splatter-with-mountains-of-ammo-and-nail-to-walls-with-meter-long-rivets-fest, I went in understandably unenthused.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself grudgingly admitting that, at least from the first volume, Yu Yu Hakusho is, far and away, the best shounen-action series of its kind. Period.

Yes, it’s a series littered with the traditional foibles of shounen-action. And yes, its conceptual framework has been breached by the typical plot contrivances (tedious tournament arcs, lame excuses for queuing up an unending string of fights, characters always calling their attacks). But in terms of execution, Yu Yu Hakusho has this natural, refreshing charm that sets it apart from the rest of the crowd.

As an example, the first arc is absolutely sublime in introducing us to the main cast. Talk about an impressionable inception because the intro is unforgivably direct in dragging us by the heart on our sleeves into Yu Yu Hakusho’s world. The reaction to Yusuke’s premature death is surprisingly tearful and kicking off the series by letting emotional, indirect characterization do the talking rather than the usual boldfaced prattling means the series refuses to treat its viewers like invalids who need everything spelled out for them. Not only admirable, but quite gratifying.

But that alone is not what pitches Yu Yu Hakusho all the way to the perch of shounen-action perfection. For me, engineering a tactical Kill Sat strike is far more rewarding than prevailing in a straight-up slugfest. It’s why I find takedowns in stealth-games such as Thief to be more rewarding than a game where you waltz into a room and systematically mow down serried mooks with a hailstorm of bullets and no regard for discretion. While Yu Yu Hakusho does boast a fair amount of fisticuffs, it’s peppered with just the right amount of intriguing, strategic warfare. Not enough to overpower the mantle of macho belligerence that shounen-action is known for (which admittedly is where Soul Eater or D. Gray Man have gone astray), but enough so that all sorts of nasty, inventive mechanics can slither their way into fights, preventing them from feeling like clockwork clashes.

Admittedly, some fights, such as the climactic encounter with Suzaku, are resolved by the tiresome trappings of the genre (i.e. courage and friendship are the solution to everything), but for the most part, the series gets it right.

To clarify, yes, it’s a good thing that Yu Yu Hakusho never loses sight of the fact that it is shounen-action because, as I mentioned, D. Gray Man and Soul Eater seem to be increasing the concentration of drama and leaving action to rot on the backburner. It’s not a bad thing; just that said series’ come off as confused and jumbled, like they’re suffering from an identity crisis, whereas Yu Yu Hakusho knows exactly what it is and never lets up on the accelerator for even one second.

The first 28 episodes have been unbelievably fun and I’m eager to see how this “Dark Tournament” arc will wrap up in the next volume, in addition to what other grim misadventures await our intrepid heroes.

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