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Friday, June 21, 2024

Yu Yu Hakusho Live Action Review

YuYu Hakusho is Netflix’s latest attempt to bring a classic manga or anime to life, resulting in unique adaptations of everything from Fullmetal Alchemist and Cowboy Bebop to One Piece and Rurouni Kenshin (as well as newer works like Zom 100, Alice in Borderland, and the unfairly maligned Death Note). While few have done much more than act as portals to their original material, a few have managed to be as entertaining as browsing through the manga that inspired them. Akira Morii and Kazutaka Sakamoto’s retelling of Yoshihiro Togashi’s spooky shonen manga is exactly that: a wonderful retelling that, despite being reduced, manages to preserve the tone and characterization that make the original so fascinating.

The camera floats around the disembodied ghost of youngster Yusuke Urameshi (Takumi Kitamura), who stares at his own corpse in astonishment and confusion, from the very first scene. Yusuke jumped in front of a truck to stop a youngster from being hit, and his trip into ridiculousness is only getting started: As he is led into the spirit world, his guide, Botan (Kotone Furukawa), informs him that his death was not accounted for by the forces that govern the afterlife. Thus, Yusuke is given a second chance at life provided he agrees to investigate a demon invasion in the human world at the hands of spirit world ruler Koenma (Keita Machida) – a concept that the series jumps into with gusto.

The demonic creatures that inhabit the people surrounding Yusuke appear to be extremely dangerous. Every element of violence is harrowingly rendered and has a certain weight to it, even when it’s clearly computerised, which is a tribute to Shô Tsukikawa’s superb direction. The concept of “live-action anime/manga” is inherently problematic, but the more we settle into a pattern of our blockbusters and television shows embracing an absurd amount of visual effects to realise images that originated in comic books and animation, the more comfortable we become with that synthesis of what is “real” and what isn’t.

The fights in YuYu Hakusho have the playful choreography and visual expertise of a film directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, in particular), and the combination of practical and digital effects results in some wonderfully grotesque character designs that would also fit comfortably within his work. The way demon bodies morph and shift is sometimes garish, but never unbelievable, and occasionally reminiscent of effects in the live-action Parasyte adaptations, which is not surprising given that both those films and this series were produced by Godzilla Minus One and Alice in Borderland studio Robot Communications.

What is remarkable is Tsukikawa’s embrace of YuYu Hakusho’s humanity. It’s not just the way we’re permitted to sit with Yusuke’s friends and family in the premiere, particularly Sei Shiraishi’s as-tender-as-she-is-funny Keiko, as they lament his death, but also the way certain characters and actors indulge in the melodrama. Kitamura’s performance is more sombre than aggressive, and stands in stark contrast to his rival-turned-bestie (and the series’ heart and soul), Kazuma Kuwabara (Shûhei Uesugi).

Though they both have more than enough comedic talents to handle the show’s physical humour (and all of its fantastic dropkicks), it’s their handling of Yusuke and Kuwabara’s relationship that shines. Even when Kuwabara’s face is caked in fake blood and scarring, Uesugi’s eyes are everything, staring with desperation and determination at Yusuke, hoping to achieve his brilliance, stand alongside him, and, preferably, beat him in a fight.

Despite the strong portrayal of its central characters, Tatsur Mishima’s scripting falls short when it comes to fleshing out the supporting cast, particularly Yusuke’s spirit trainer Genkai (Meiko Kaji) and the demons Kurama (Jun Shison) and Hiei (Kanata Hongo). Their bright wigs and elegant clothing make them unforgettable, as do the show’s quieter, more heartfelt moments, when performers like Shison and the renowned Kaji (Lady Snowblood herself) get to tell their stories. However, due to the pacing of a five-episode series, those moments are far too brief.

Whereas manga protagonists often grow in strength over time and via rigorous training and combat, Yusuke’s physical and emotional progress in the live-action YuYu Hakusho happens all too rapidly and exponentially over each episode. When you know there’s no danger of failure; there’s always a power-up only a few minutes down the road, it’s tougher to buy into the stakes of the situation.

While the debut has a pitch-perfect, compelling start that most series can only dream of, each following episode tries to jam in too much information. Botan and Koenma are lovely characters in passing, but they’re hardly more than comedic relief, limited to tiny parts that play out like Togashi’s winking throwaway panels in the manga. Even the show’s main antagonists, the Toguro brothers, are less completely fleshed-out personalities than soulless hurdles for Yusuke and Kuwabara to conquer.

These characters aren’t exact replicas of their manga counterparts, but that’s not the issue. Their storylines are so abbreviated in this new version that none of the emotional heft lands: the younger Toguro sibling and Genakai’s common past is reduced to mere seconds of half-hearted explication. It’s a tall order to cram such a large ensemble and dozens of chapters of history into five episodes, but the lack of a strong supporting cast only emphasises the richness of the series’ two leads and how YuYu Hakusho is at its best when it focuses on what makes them unique and entertaining to watch.

Hopefully, its creative team will be able to continue exploring Yusuke and Kuwabara with a second season that can delve into who its characters truly are beyond all of their punches and kicks.

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