There are movies, television shows, cartoons, and characters that appealed to you greatly as a child that lose their shine as an adult. Nostalgia can do a lot for making up for poor quality content, but it can’t make Cat and Dog as appealing to me as it was when I was eight. Yet there are still those shows, or specifically, those characters that even after decades past still grab you.
Yu Yu Hakusho is not a necessarily good show, but I still love it with all my heart. Even after all the other anime and western media I’ve consumed, Yu Yu Hakusho’s ridiculous and earnest attitude still gets me. Furthermore, Kurama still remains one of my all-time favorite characters in any medium.
Kurama is a fox demon; if you’ve watched any anime you’ve probably heard of them. Popular characters of similar design include Shippo from Inu-yasha, and Kurama of Naruto. Fox demons are extremely popular in anime and derive from the various Japanese myths about them. Typically they’re tricksters, or shapeshifters. In Yu Yu Hakusho, Kurama was originally a thief who lived in the Demon World. Not just any thief, but the Bandit King of the Demon World.
After a run-in with a powerful hunter, Kurama was severely injured and forced to find refuge in the human world inside the body of a human fetus. He was born to a human mother, Shiori, and originally planned to leave her and the human world once he regained his powers. He doesn’t, however, and that’s where Kurama meets the protagonist, Yusuke Urameshi.
Yusuke is a Spirit Detective, a human with spiritual energy who’s given cases by the Prince of the Spirit World, Koenma, to take down demons in the human world. I bring him up in relation to Kurama because their meeting and interactions are different from Yusuke’s other male friends. When we meet Kuwabara, Yusuke’s long time rival, and Hiei, another demon-turned teammate, it’s through stereotypical showcasing of violent masculinity. Basically, they fight until one of them wins. It’s how we see most shounen heroes “communicate” with their fellow male friends.
In contrast when Yusuke meets Kurama there’s a complete lack of fighting desire on Kurama’s side (unlike Hiei) and no desire at all to prove he’s better a fighter than Yusuke (unlike Kuwabara). Kurama is more than willing to give back to Yusuke the spiritual item he stole from King Enma (King of the spirit world and Koenma’s father) without any fight, but on one condition: Kurama wants to save his human mother.
Despite Kurama’s original intentions of leaving the human world once he recovered, he ends up caring deeply for his human mother. He’s willing to use the power of the demon mirror (oh, demon mirrors) to give his life in return to save his human mother. Yusuke, being the noble shounen hero he is, tries to save Kurama from himself. In the end they both survive, and everyone goes home happy.
What marks this meeting as separate and unique is that, unlike Yusuke’s other team members, Hiei and Kuwabara, Kurama does not fight with Yusuke. In fact, they never fight throughout the entire course of the anime. Yusuke fights every other willing and able demon, be they friend or foe. Hiei and Yusuke fight in “Keiko in Peril! Hiei, the Jagan Master” and once more during the Black Tape Arc. Kuwabara and Yusuke’s relationship as rivals is based around fighting, and they fight numerous times in the anime.
Kurama and Yusuke never fight, and Kurama’s other relationships with the main cast are also without aggression, passive or otherwise. Yusuke and Kuwabara often yell and argue with each other. A staple of Hiei and Kuwabara’s relationship is made of entirely of arguing and belittling each other. It’s supposed to be a narrative device to showcase how even though these men are different and fight with each other all the time (like manly men do), they genuinely care for one another.
Luckily Kurama doesn’t fall into that narrative trap. He often acts as the mediator in the group, becoming a good friend to Kuwabara (especially after Yusuke and Hiei retreat to the demon world for individual business), a consistent council and voice of reason to Yusuke, and one of three other people who Hiei trusts explicitly. Because of the constant emphasizing of stereotypical masculinity of the other main male relationships, Kurama sticks out like a sore thumb.
This aspect of his character makes Kurama different; what makes him interesting is the overall complexity of his character.
Kurama, outwardly, is the “pretty one” of the group. He’s designed in such a way that builds assumptions surrounding his character. He’s got long red hair, big green eyes, he stays covered up (unlike Hiei, Kuwabara, and Yusuke who lose their shirts every other episode), he’s soft spoken, and in the manga is often mistaken for a woman. Finally, he fights with plants.
When Kurama finally reveals what his demon powers are in the anime, both Yusuke and Kuwabara appear confused. He doesn’t fight with a sword like Hiei, or raw spiritual energy like Kuwabara, or a spiritual gun like Yusuke. Instead Kurama fights with a literal rose. Kurama’s ability is to transform plants into various weapons. Throughout the series we see him use plants in ever inventive and dangerous ways. His favorite weapon of choice is turning a rose into a whip of thorns. In other fights Kurama has used rose petals to cut up his enemies and numerous plants to literally eat his opponents.
This all connects back to Kurama’s supposed weakness that others see in him. Kurama embodies stereotypical feminine traits. He’s often mocked by bigger, aggressive demons for using “flowers” to fight. Even Kuwabara makes a comment in the dub that Kurama’s technique, “seems girly; I don’t think I like it.”
The irony is, as Hiei points out in “The Beautiful Dance of the Rose! The Elegant Kurama,” Kurama is more cutthroat and cruel than his teammates. In “Kurama Makes Blood Flowers Blossom,” a demon threatens Kurama’s human mother, immobilizing Kurama from fighting back. Kurama ends up sowing a death plant into his opponent who pleads with him. The demon asks, “Don’t you believe in mercy?”, to which Kurama coldly responds with, “No,” and kills him.
It’s a great moment where in Kurama showcases his cruelty as a character. Much like the opponents he faces, the audience is lured into a false sense of security. We are to believe that Kurama, due to his feminine appearance and seemingly “girly” fighting style, is weaker than his teammates. The irony is Kurama is both cruel and compassionate. Though he kills an earlier demon without mercy, when it comes to killing Toya, an ice demon who almost killed him, Kurama spares him. Mainly because he felt for Toya’s plight and hopes Toya can create a better life for himself similarly to how Kurama has.
His often remarked upon “pretty face” is used as a weapon against him or a means to belittle him. In “Annihilation! Yusuke’s Iron Fist of Fury,” after Kurama has been forced to fight unconscious by a corrupt tournament council, his opponent Bakken comments on how peaceful he looks with his “pretty flowers.” Kurama’s first meeting with Karasu, a member of the dangerous and merciless Team Togoro, Karasu sneaks up on him and runs his fingers through Kurama’s hair. Karasu comments on how delicate Kurama’s human body is, and says in the dub, “You know what my touch could do to you, but perhaps you also wish to know.” The sexual implications are hard to miss.
In their actual fighting showdown, “The Desperate Kurama! A Final Measure,” Karasu uses a series of demon bombs to relentlessly attack Kurama; tearing him near apart in one of the more gruesome scenes of the anime. The violence feels gleeful, and is meant to. Karasu is a predator, and remarks during their fight how he loves killing things he loves. In this case the “thing” is Kurama. After nearly dismembering him, Karasu comments that he spared Kurama’s “beautiful face” so it’d always give him comfort after he killed Kurama. In the Japanese subtitles, Karasu says, “As a reward, I’ll allow your beautiful face to remain as it is.”
Karasu treats Kurama like an object, and there’s this underlining of sexual threat against Kurama whenever the two meet. He both belittles Kurama as a person and praises his physical attributes. It’s all a means of emotional and mental manipulation with an underling sexual threat. Karasu isn’t the only one who belittles or mocks Kurama’s feminine features or his choice of weaponry, but he’s just the worst. The climactic moment comes when Kurama defeats his would-be sexual predator with a life plant—as do most fights end with Kurama. Death by botany.
Yet, Kurama doesn’t adhere to traditionally damaging masculine traits like violence, and aggression. In, “The Power of Taboo! Kurama’s Intellect” he uses his wits to outsmart a would-be antagonist while Hiei attempted to use force and lost his soul in the process (it was temporary). Two episodes that directly showcase Kurama’s duality are “The Remaining Measure! Kurama’s Resolve” where he manipulates a child psychic, Gamemaster, who is assisting an adult psychic named Sensui who’s trying to destroy the human world, into losing a video game psychic death match (roll with it). Gamemaster ends up losing to Kurama and dying as a direct result. In the next episode, “Kurama’s Fury! Who is That, Really?!” Kurama is torn up about his actions, and after being mocked by Gourmet, locks him inside a “sinning tree” where he’ll be forced to relive his worst fears for eternity.
The interesting bits of these episodes is that Kurama is willing to kill for the greater good, but not without remorse, whereas the other characters linger on a very black-and-white spectrum of morality. Yusuke is a Spirit Detective, and both he and Kuwabara are simply teenagers thrust in a demon world of mayhem. Their moral codes are strong and very human. Hiei gives a good showing of being unfeeling, but even he showcases less outward cruelty than Kurama. He is either “good” or “neutral,” but he is hardly ever cruel. Kurama is cutthroat, which is also at odds with his compassionate and collection demeanor. He mourns the fact that he had to kill a child, and he lashes out at those who manipulated Gamemaster into his tragic situation. Make no mistake, Kurama would kill Gamemaster again if he had to because that’s what needed to be done, but he’ll carry that regret with him as well.
That’s the interesting thing about Kurama as a character. He has an overall duality to him that makes him intriguing. There’s also an air of subtle subtext of queerness to his character. He’s often shipped with many other male characters (namely black haired demons on the show), and in official art was often paired with Hiei. Kurama doesn’t adhere to one set of stereotypical gender traits, which has left some fans to headcanon him as non-binary or genderqueer. Of course none of this is officially canon. The closest confirmation fans have is a word-of-god from creator Togashi Yoshihiro, who said in an interview, “No, I did not intend for this couple to appear, but now that people have brought it up, I find it funny and probably should have done it.” There was also the inclusion of an actual canon queer couple with Sensui and Itsuki. So the subtext may have been real and not as far-fetched as some fans would like to believe.
Either way, I add it in my continued interest and dedication to the character as an adult. The overall duality of Kurama’s character, and his uniqueness within a shounen fighting anime, stands out even now. As an adult, I wonder if I was drawn to Kurama because of his ability to take feminine traits and prove them powerful and his rejection of the stereotypical overt masculinity of the show itself. The contrast of Kurama supposedly being weak because of his more feminine attributes when in reality he was one of the strongest, cruelest, and most compassionate fighters still resonates with me now. Violence within Yu Yu Hakusho is a showcasing of masucline power (a majority of the fighters, both protagonists and antagonists, are men), and Kurama is one of the most violent there is. But he is violent using feminine means, and he reclaims power through those means against those who would mock, belittle, or attempt to assault him. As a child, I was enamored with his character because of both this contrast and his dreamy red hair. As an adult, I can better appreciate Kurama’s narrative and social relevancy and his dreamy red hair.