Review: Netflix’s “Yu Yu Hakusho” Struggles with Adapting the Original Story’s Expansive Universe

Netflix’s live-action adaptation of 33 year-old manga “Yu Yu Hakusho” is entertaining and faithful to its source, but lacks emotional pull across its five episodes.

By , 30 Dec 23 14:10 GMT
Courtesy of Netflix.

Following the global success of One Piece’s live-action adaptation, Netflix is hoping that further live-action anime adaptations can both satisfy existing fan bases and attract new ones. The latest manifestation of that hope comes with Yu Yu Hakusho, a live-action adaptation of an eponymous legendary manga and anime series.

The original Yu Yu Hakusho manga debuted more than 30 years ago. Thus, Netflix had a herculean task in adapting such an old story to fit modern tastes. With their live-action Yu Yu Hakusho adaptation, Netflix decided to play it safe and cheap, condensing the manga’s plot into just five episodes (instead of an originally planned three seasons). What results is a product that shows attempts at faith to its original source along with praiseworthy action sequences. However, the adaptation also lacks enough time to make viewers feel emotionally invested in its characters—though perhaps diehard fans may find this forgivable, given the live-action Yu Yu Hakusho apparently had the biggest debut ever for a Netflix Japanese series so far.

Bringing the legendary story to the screen

Courtesy of Netflix.

Yu Yu Hakusho follows a teenage delinquent named Yusuke Urameshi (played by Takumi Kitamura in the live-action adaptation). A typical tsundere, Yusuke seems to only care about himself—until he saves a young boy from a car accident but at the expense of his only life. Unsure whether to send Yusuke to heaven or hell, the Spirit World decides to make him a Spirit Detective. Entrusted with investigations into the human world, Yusuke learns the meaning of friendship and family along the way.

The live-action Yu Yu Hakusho is fairly faithful to this premise, which should appeal to the franchise’s loyal fanbase. Beyond that though, the series has exciting action sequences and edge-of-your-seat action choreography that should also satisfy new viewers. With every episode, Yusuke and the other leads engage in combat both hand-to-hand and using classic elements from the original franchise, like Yusuke’s spirit gun, Kuwabara’s spirit sword, and Hiei’s dragon.

Furthermore, the live-action adaptation also succeeded at bringing the franchise’s complex monsters to life. Netflix worked with Scanline—a Hollywood VFX studio that worked on several MCU movies and Game of Thrones—on this task. The result is seamless, and a notch above any other Japanese series’ VFX in recent memory.

Extending the universe or not?

Courtesy of Netflix.

However, with only five episodes, Netflix’s Yu Yu Hakusho chose a simultaneously safe and risky path. Such a short length allowed the series to remain true to the confines of its original source, but also required cutting out parts of the source material.

Fans of the original series may realize that the live-action Yu Yu Hakusho combines parts of the Rescue Yukina arc and Dark Tournament storyline into a single timeline. This may cause disappointment, as the latter arc takes up 60 episodes in the Yu Yu Hakusho anime and is a fan favorite.

Furthermore, in order to introduce the series’ characters in such a short amount of time, the adaptation also had to condense certain key interactions. For instance, the live-action Yu Yu Hakusho rushes the way it develops friendships between Yusuke and other characters like Hiei (Kanata Hongo) and Kurama (Jun Shison). Villains like Younger Toguro (Go Ayano) also don’t get enough time to develop backstories.

However, what Netflix’s Yu Yu Hakusho lacks most of all is emotional investment. Those who see the original anime or manga may develop connections to the franchise’s characters across a litany of fight scenes and extended character arcs. However, without sufficient running time, the live-action adaptation lacks the ability to build this emotional depth.

That said, it’s difficult to call Netflix’s Yu Yu Hakusho an altogether bad adaptation. The show has hard-hitting action sequences, and top-class VFX. However, while it contains Yu Yu Hakusho’s core storyline, it doesn’t offer anything new for either existing fans or new viewers—and it lacks the emotional heart of its source.

• • •

Yu Yu Hakusho—(Japanese: 幽遊白書). Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Shō Tsukikawa. First released December 14, 2023. Starring Takumi Kitamura, Jun Shison, Kanata Hongo, Shuhei Uesugi, Go Ayano, and Sei Shiraishi.

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