Watching Anime as a Queer Adult: Yu Yu Hakusho and the Soft Boy

Yusuke Urameshi dies saving the life of a child only to be lead on supernatural mysteries as a spirit detective and soft boy protagonist!

By Pat Dickerson.

I grew up in a house that watched a lot of television. It was a family affair, so my T.V. viewing consisted of the ABC dramas that defined television in the mid-to-late-2000s. Not having much of a cultural reference for anime, when I did watch animated programs, it was usually American content, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, much to the dismay of my father who did not understand why I would spend my time watching “dumb cartoons.” And sure, I would occasionally watch the shows in the Toonami block, but not with much regularity. My only exposure to anime was through other means: the Pokémon video games or the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game, staples of almost any kid growing up in the 2000s.

         Somehow, my friends never learned about my great failing when it came to anime. All my life, I was surrounded by peers who watched anime, read manga and were fully engaged in this cultural landmark. And yet, I personally had only watched a few episodes of some anime. Then one day, my boyfriend (now fiancé) sheepishly asked if we could give My Hero Academia a shot. He, of course, had watched anime his whole life, but was worried that I would judge him for being a “weeb”. However, I was happy to watch something new, plus My Hero Academia was on Hulu, so it was easy to watch. And so began my foray into anime.

         My Hero Academia is a genuinely great time. Its cast of characters, despite being insanely powered, were fun and relatable. The story is engaging and the animation is incredible. But in a media environment that has an abundance of superhero stories, it felt like another, albeit unique and very good, superhero universe. Its ease of entry and fast-paced storylines made it easy to catch up on all episodes that had been released.

         In December 2019, when I mentioned to my friends I was watching my first anime, they were astounded. Kate couldn’t believe it. Bernadette had known me for almost a decade and had no idea that I never engaged with anime. Amanda insisted that I had to set aside all other tv watching plans, and get started on rectifying this immediately. I was given express instructions to go on Hulu and start watching Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files right away. I was a little hesitant to start this show because it premiered in Japan in 1992; I was worried it was going to be dated, with cliches and characterizations that we had long moved beyond. I thought it would be like when you show someone your favorite movie from growing up, just to realize in horror that you only love it because it was an integral part of your childhood.

         But oh boy was I wrong. If you have ever watched Yu Yu Hakusho, then you know what I’m talking about. It was obvious right from the opening arc that these were characters that I was going to become obsessed with. They were troubled but loyal; strong, but caring, and solitary, but most powerful when they were with their friends. I couldn’t peel myself away from the screen. As I watched, I was updating my friends with such regularity that they created a whole new channel on our Discord server to discuss anime.

         I knew that something exciting was happening when my friends all started eagerly telling me about how thrilled they were for me to meet Hiei and Kurama, two demons who team up with delinquent humans Yusuke Urameshi and Kazuma Kuwabara; Amanda (of GateCrashers fame) let me know Kurama is “the softest, most tortured boy.” They were so happy that I got to experience this show for the first time. And slowly, but surely, I began to realize why anime was so important to them.

Soft and Tortured

As a queer man, something that I never really saw in media growing up was male characters like me. And while there were very few openly queer characters on my television, the depiction, in general, of men in American media was problematic as well. Television shows portrayed a sense of manhood that was rigid and often toxic. Male characters were aggressive, rude, gross, and misogynistic. Even in a show like Futurama, one of my favorite shows and one which features strong female characters, characters like Fry and Bender would spend entire episodes treating women poorly or refusing to understand their own emotions and engage in emotional labor.

Anime is not perfect, of course. There are continuing problems with the representation of queer individuals in many different manga and anime. It is not uncommon for a queer-coded character to be the villain, such as Sesshomaru and a number of others in Inuyasha. There is also plenty of queerbaiting, with many queer-coded characters being shoehorned into heterosexual relationships at the end of a series (for example, Ayo in Fruits Basket). But, on the other hand, Yu Yu Hakusho featured an openly queer character in a 1995 episode. This character, Itsuki, was a villain, but he was not just queer-coded; he was openly queer and openly expressed his love.

But while there were not queer heroic characters, there was something just as important happening while I watched Yu Yu Hakusho: I came across four very different men who not only felt their emotions and supported one another but turned those emotions into real, tangible power. Kurama was always soft of course, a dutiful son dedicated to protecting his ailing mother from those who were threatened by Kurama’s demon power. Hiei was dark and brooding, dedicated to obtaining more power and revenge despite the cost to his own health. And Kuwabara was already revealed from the start as a loyal friend and brother-in-arms, despite his hoodlum reputation.

But Yusuke had a harder time with his emotions, with a troubled home environment and a lack of support in school that led him to often act only for himself. He is also a creep, often crossing boundaries with his romantic interest, Keiko. However, once Yusuke became a spirit detective after a surprisingly selfless brush with death and began working with our other heroes, he started to soften too. Yusuke begins to see his colleagues as his friends and even starts to show more respect for the women in his life, including Botan, Keiko, and even his mother, despite her poor parenting.

The importance of his new companions became fully realized during the Dark Tournament arc, a marathon 40+ episode storyline. In the final match of this fight-to-the-death, Yusuke and friends find themselves at a severe disadvantage against the villain Toguro’s team. It is not until Kuwabara, his former rival and now best friend pretends to sacrifice himself does Yusuke gain access to a power source he did not know he had. This intense spiritual energy was unlocked by watching harm come to the friends that had become his found family. He allowed his emotions to take over and, through tears, avenged Kuwabara’s apparent death.

Yusuke vs. Toguro

I had officially been introduced to the “soft boy”. These shōnen leads were so different from the men who led American stories. There was an emphasis put on duty and honor, loyalty and devotion, and even emotional depth. And these characters could be funny, they could be strong, and they could also be emotional. They countered much of the toxic masculinity I had experienced my whole life, growing up in the Atlanta suburbs. They showed me that there were male characters out there that could feel how I felt.

Japan is a collectivistic society, almost opposite to the individualistic society of the United States. A collectivistic society is one where the people are dedicated to supporting the community as a whole for the betterment of everyone, where individualistic societies are focused on the success and independence of oneself. This translates in media to very different archetypes for male characters in particular: American television shows have characters that usually adhere to a strict, dangerous version of masculinity. However, in anime, male leads are often intelligent, dedicated to a cause, and loyal to a fault. Their emotions make them smarter and more powerful. Their friends, teammates, and countrymen work together to achieve their goals and protect their community.

It turns out this is a common theme. In shōnen from Naruto to Demon Slayer, we see these soft boys. Inuyasha, Naruto, Tanjiro, and Deku all get more powerful as they protect their friends and access their emotions. As I watched more and more anime, I realized that Yusuke was not an exception, but the rule.

I think what stood out to me the most about Yu Yu Hakusho was the genuine connection that developed between Yusuke, Kuwabara, Hiei, and Kurama. Queer people in the United States and around the world often find themselves on their own, alienated from their families and their communities because of who they are. Without support, it becomes necessary for queer people to create families of their own. These new families become safe havens that allow for a level of emotional support that many of them have never had before. These families held the queer community together during the AIDS epidemic and help queer youth escape homelessness and poverty. These communities are often much different from the individualistic tendencies of the most American aspects of our society.

Yusuke and his pals fought for each other would have died for each other and were there for each other when it got to be too much. I think about my friends who have become my family and support network. I’m not fighting demons, and I don’t shoot spirit energy out of a finger gun, but I would do anything for them. I would risk life and limb. I have cried about all of them. I have become stronger because of their presence. And being willing to access my emotions and share them openly has made me a stronger person.

A nice family portrait

I bottled up my emotions for so long. I was always afraid to show others what I was truly feeling. I was worried about being perceived as too gay or not manly enough. As I entered into a long-term relationship with my fiancé, my emotions came flooding out. I thought something was wrong with me. I was so worried that these emotions were unhealthy. But then I started watching anime, and I realized that I wasn’t the one who was wrong. Our society and its disdain for male emotions was unhealthy. I was afraid to be soft, but now I am proud to be a soft boy.

I did not start watching anime until I was 26 years old, but I am better for it, because Yusuke Urameshi taught me I should express my emotions. And he taught me it made me stronger.

The original series of Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files is available to stream on both Hulu and Funimation. The original video animations are available to stream on Funimation. I watched the dubbed version.

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