Live-action adaptations are not particularly popular, but that doesn’t stop Netflix from continuing on this road strewn with pitfalls. Against all odds, the red N has even managed to restore the image of these too often maligned productions. With ‘Alice in Borderland‘ in 2020 and 2022, then ‘One Piece‘ in 2023, it seems that the curse of disappointing adaptations is coming to an end. However, it is now Yū Yū Hakusho’s turn to go through the live-action box, and it seems that the exercise of reinterpreting manga is not yet perfectly mastered.
The project was announced in December 2020 to the surprise of fans of the original work. More than 30 years after its publication in the famous Shonen Jump magazine, the first manga of the father of ‘Hunter X Hunter‘ is getting a second wind on Netflix. As with the development of ‘Alice in Borderland,’ the platform has chosen to work with Japanese actors and film crews to produce an authentic program. Since the action takes place in Japan, it could not be otherwise to respect the adapted work as much as possible. Nevertheless, Netflix’s goodwill is not enough to make Yū Yū Hakusho a memorable series in the same way as ‘One Piece.’
A new take on the classic
Just like on the pages of the manga or in the anime, Yū Yū Hakusho tells the story of Yusuke Urameshi, a young delinquent with a supernatural destiny. After losing his life trying to save a child who is about to be knocked down, the Buddhist god of hell, Enma, doesn’t know what to do with the student’s soul. His death was not foreseen, and this act of altruism is in stark contrast to his usual behavior. Yusuke is then given a priceless second chance. He is free to come back to life if he agrees to assume a crucial position within the spirit world. The protagonist then decides to take on the role of a detective on behalf of the deity, to stop the actions of yokai (demons from Japanese folklore) that threaten the integrity of human society.
These premises are unchanged in the new version of Netflix, but this is where the direct reproduction of the original scenario ends. Adaptations of this kind benefit from a real added value when they dare to tell the story from a new perspective. However, this is a risky bet. ‘Yū Yū Hakusho’ (2023) appears to be a work in its own right, if not a true extension of manga and anime. Comparing this live-action to its counterparts would be of little interest as the bias of the production is clear. The manga is revisited and rewritten to function as a stand-alone Western series format. The platform, therefore, offers a daring adaptation both in terms of content and form. This allows ‘Yū Yū Hakusho’ to play in a different league from some programs that are judged to be pale copies, far from being up to scratch. Unfortunately, the westernization of the structure of the storyline costs a few good points to this series that tries to do well.
An uneven rhythm
Rather than adapting Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga word for word, the red N has chosen to deviate to tell a more condensed story. This audacious decision, which one would like to applaud, turns out to be one of the first flaws of ‘Yū Yū Hakusho.’ The series that viewers can experience in 2023 is not the same work as it once was, and that’s a good thing. But it is this same direction that nevertheless ends up establishing a real problem of rhythm on all the chapters. ‘One Piece’ was already suffering from an eight-episode format that was deemed too short, but that didn’t stop Netflix from truncating its new project all the more aggressively. Viewers will have to make do with five episodes of about fifty minutes each, no more, no less. This restricted structure applied to the adventures of Yusuke Urameshi has the effect of weighing down some of the clichés specific to shonen manga.
These tales of bravery and friendship are essentially based on the evolution of the characters and their relationships, to see their impact on the storyline and the abilities of the heroes. Despite its desire to stand out, Netflix’s ‘Yū Yū Hakusho’ obviously uses these inevitable codes. Thus, when the series tries to depict these formative paths usually spread over many fights and other trainings, the drastic evolutions of the characters’ character and their strength appear in the space of a few minutes. The characteristic charm of shonen is then flouted, much to our dismay. To make matters worse, some scenes presented as emotional lose all their sincerity and even their meaning. This adaptation sometimes pushes us to question certain screenplay decisions as they seem unachievable in such a short time.
A Netflix-style Japanese drama
Unfortunately for the platform with the red N, ‘Yū Yū Hakusho’s’ adaptation manages to drown in the flaws of Western productions as well as in those of typically Japanese television programs. The so-called J-Drama (for Japanese Drama) is hardly appreciated in our green lands, outside the spheres of enthusiasts. The format and stereotypes of these programs are so different from the works we are used to that they usually act as a culture and audiovisual shock to Western viewers. Those who find it difficult to appreciate this kind of niche will find many flaws to note in the new Netflix series while others will appreciate the direction of the show at its true value.
The actors are endearing, to say the least, but offer uneven performances depending on the events depicted on the screen. While the many fights inherit the manga’s delusions of grandeur for an amazing show, the dialogues are not always up to the emotions that are supposed to be represented. Once transcribed into a real series, the forced acting of anime gives rise to some palpable discomfort. Unfortunately, this cultural bias is likely to repel the vast majority of Netflix subscribers. ‘Yū Yū Hakusho’ is not a production designed for a Western audience, but rather a slight westernization of the Japanese model. It’s a shame, but the balance is not sufficiently mastered to enjoy the best of both worlds.
With this new live-action adaptation, the streaming giant loses the momentum established by ‘Alice in Borderland‘ and ‘One Piece.’ ‘Yū Yū Hakusho‘ is not a bad series but rather a program that will not be able to get everyone to agree. Nevertheless, this return remains an excellent way to learn about the work of Yoshihiro Togashi, too often overshadowed by the worldwide success of ‘Hunter X Hunter.’