A fourteen-year-old boy with an alcoholic mother, a father that abandoned him, teachers that actively hate him, and no direction in life... that doesn't sound like a typical protagonist for a story. In fact, it sounds like the makings of a man who has good reason to hate the world and could likely take out his frustration on others.
Well this teenager, Yusuke Urameshi, is a complicated individual that has a rich life that we get to see unfold in Yu Yu Hakusho. He starts off as a brat who enjoys getting into fights, he struggles with countless obstacles and failures, but in the end, he comes out a much stronger person with a profound sense of who he is and what he wants out of life. Though this story contains reapers, demons, and monsters, you'll find that Yusuke is actually a very grounded character who isn't overly intellectual or focused on ethics.
For those reasons, he is extremely relatable and we become sympathetic to his trials and tribulations early on. Let's go over a few reasons why Yusuke stands out among the countless other main characters from manga and anime.
Crude and Misunderstood
As mentioned above, Yusuke had a rough start from the very beginning. The people who should have looked after him the most and been there to provide guidance were the very ones who abandoned him. It's no wonder that he developed a disdain for authority and decided to take out his anger on neighborhood bullies and delinquents. He bad mouths his teachers any chance he gets. And, he avoids anything resembling discipline or hard work. But underneath all of that pain is a vulnerable kid who wants to do something with his life, but has no idea what it is.
We see a glimpse of the kind of person he could be when he sacrifices himself to save a little boy from being hit by a speeding car. He does this instinctively. He sees someone in trouble and he goes out to help them, with no thought for his personal well-being. His noble sacrifice ultimately leads him to getting a second shot at life. One he accepts only after seeing how his death affected others and the realization that there are people, though they are few, who deeply care for him and want to see him succeed in the world.
Strength is Not Enough
When he returns to life, he is forced to work as a Spirit Detective. He slowly builds a team around him of foes turned allies through mutual respect. Each of those members helps him see a side of himself that he refused to acknowledge before his death. Genkai is one of the people he meets and eventually forms a bond with. She becomes his mentor, martial arts teacher, and something much more valuable. She pushes him to his absolute limits and beyond. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Yusuke needed someone who wouldn't put up with his B.S. and would force him to face his shortcomings. Genkai didn't do this because she wanted a strong pupil. She did it because she genuinely saw something admirable and special underneath all of those layers of doubt, apathy, and fear. She knew someone similar to him in her younger years, and she wanted to make sure he didn't turn at the same as that person.
Before meeting Genkai, Yusuke never dedicated himself to anything and relied on his innate fighting ability to solve every problem. She pounded it into Yusuke's head that life and experience didn't culminate in strength. Power is temporary because life is short and filled with pitfalls you'll never see coming. There is something more to life. Something that each person has to discover on their own. Once they do, they have to dedicate their life to embodying that value. Anything short of that is a wasted life.
Yusuke found out the hard way that peeling away self-imposed layers of fear and resentment is the second hardest thing to do in life. The most difficult thing is to see your efforts come up short time and time again, but summon up the strength to stand up and try again. These are very real lessons and philosophies that people deal with on a daily basis.
For as much as we saw Yusuke grow as a fighter and a man throughout the first half of the show, we also got to see what could have happened if Yusuke never grew out of his selfish and egotistical behavior. Toguro embodied the exact opposite of what the adolescent boy was fighting for. Power, greed, fear, solitude, and, ultimately, release from this world are what the one-time champion of the Dark Tournament epitomized. This man loved Genkai in his younger years. But, he became too fixated on power. He shunned away from the responsibility of protecting others and dealing with mortality. Those tenants of life scared him and instead of facing his shortcomings, he made a wish for power and refused to acknowledge that there were things outside of his control. Genkai refused to let Yusuke fall prey to the same decisions.
Yusuke is the best protagonist because he embodies struggles and ideals that we all experience in our lives. His pain and determination reflect our own. This punk kid gives us hope that we can become better people, as well.