Justin Cook On His Spirited Return To Yu Yu Hakusho’s Yusuke Urmaeshi

On the 30th anniversary of the iconic battle shonen series, Justin Cook gets candid on returning as Yusuke for the new OVA dubs

Justin Cook 2019
Photo: Jonathan McInnis

Many anime series come and go without leaving a lasting mark on the industry. Since it premiered in 1992, however, Yu Yu Hakusho remains one of the most talked about battle shonen shows more than 30 years later. Accordingly, it’s quite fitting that a robust Blu-ray box set is being released to celebrate the anime’s legacy on its 30th anniversary. 

Yu Yu Hakusho chronicles Yusuke Urameshi’s earnest evolution from a juvenile delinquent to a courageous warrior who becomes humanity’s greatest defense against the spirit world. Yu Yu Hakusho ran for 112 episodes, became a flagship program for Funimation after the company started to branch out and dub series beyond Dragon Ball, as well as a reliable program in Cartoon Network’s Toonami anime block for four years. Yu Yu Hakusho’s two supplemental OVA installments from 2018, “Two Shot” and “All or Nothing,” will finally be dubbed for the first time on Yu Yu Hakusho’s 30th anniversary Blu-Ray collection, along with a myriad of special features from the previous DVD box sets that include audio commentaries and substantial looks into both the anime and its dub..

In celebration of the Yu Yu Hakusho 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Limited Edition Box Set from Crunchyroll, Justin Cook opens up on his return to Yusuke Urameshi, both Yu Yu Hakusho and the dub’s legacy, as well as the unique circumstances behind how he was initially cast as the iconic shonen character. 

DEN OF GEEK: It’s quite the rare privilege to get to return to an iconic role like this, let alone after 20 years. Was it an easy role to slip back into or was it a bit of a challenge?

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JUSTIN COOK: Yusuke has always been occupying a spot in my brain–or heart–for the last twenty years and I don’t know if he’s going anywhere. So he had no problems popping back out and finding a few more things to say. 

There are definitely some popular anime that were products of their time, but Yu Yu Hakusho really holds up. Had you revisited it at all before returning to the role?

Yeah, for sure. I was a fan of Yu Yu Hakusho before I was even a part of it. I’ve returned to the Living World, as it were, quite a few times to take another look at it. But I certainly did it before we went into production on the OVAs. Definitely went back to look at it then, if for nothing else than to make sure that I was providing a consistent experience for all of the actors, as well as folks who are taking a look at all of this for the first time. 

Would you do those early Yusuke performances any differently now with what you’ve since learned or was that naivety helpful to some extent for the character?

I hadn’t thought of it from that second angle that you mentioned before, but that’s interesting. I will say, the magic of which was captured–and this goes for any show, not just Yu Yu Hakusho–there’s probably always a desire to go back and do things differently. A lot of actors–certainly myself–are perfectionists. There’s that desire, for sure. However, from the other perspective, I like a lot of TV shows and I would hate it if people took old episodes of whatever and decided to mess around with them or change them. That’s not how these things were remembered. So in that sense, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. With the number of folks who have been inspired by the show and like the dub, it seems to me like it hit all of the chords that it needed to at the right time and so why mess with that.? 

You voice the main character in Yu Yu Hakusho, but you’re also an ADR director, and producer on the show’s dub and seem to be deeply involved in the property. Is it satisfying to see the legacy that the dub has left behind?

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I’m just honored to have been able to be a part of it. In regards to how people rank the show among others, I think that it’s wonderful that people think so highly of it. But a lot of that also has to do with the fact that it’s just a good show. It’s got a great story and it has good characters. Provided that we just stayed to that source material and didn’t betray it, then it seemed like there almost wasn’t a way for us to fail. 

On that note, why do you think that not only Yu Yu Hakusho, but also specifically Yusuke, have found such an audience over the years and continue to show up in video games and grander shonen discussions?

I really do feel that he’s a unique character. He’s a bit of a delinquent. He has a chip on his shoulder, but there’s a heart that’s there. That emotional attachment that he has to his friends is something that transcends the animation and allows audiences to connect with him. That’s something that I admire in his character and it certainly inspires me to kind of want to keep those parts of Yusuke in me–what can I learn from Yusuke, as it were–and so to me that’s what makes him connectable. Perhaps that’s where folks have also connected with that character.

Outside of voice acting work you’ve also had a healthy career as an ADR director for anime series. Is it satisfying to tackle that side of the work and are you looking to continue to do more of that? 

Just being associated with anime, at all, has certainly been incredibly rewarding, whether it’s emotionally or intellectually, and so I’m staying around doing voices or directing for as long as they’ll have me. 

Did you direct these new Yu Yu Hakusho OVAs?

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I did! And to be fair, I think everybody involved with the show has the same level of passion that I do for it. Getting this band back together after so much time wasn’t always easy. We had to look under some rocks to find certain people. But we got nearly everybody back. It was very exciting. Very rewarding.

You started your voice acting career as Yusuke quite early in your life. Have you noticed how much the voice acting industry, and anime dubbing, have changed in the two decades since you started? 

Sure, there’s constant change. That’s the beauty of this world that we live in. It’s always changing, evolving, and improving. And I certainly think that’s the case with the industry. You can see it just as well as anyone that there are more and more anime titles being released globally. Companies like Crunchyroll are really diving in and trying to bring out as much as they can and in doing so it helps make the world feel a little smaller in the process. We want to bring forward as much as we can and as quickly as we can. Nobody likes waiting!

You also have voiced plenty of ancillary characters that have helped flesh out different shows’ worlds instead of being in the spotlight. Do you have a favorite supporting or background character that’s stood out to you over the years?

It’s hard for me to pick favorites because once I do the voice and build that character, part of that character lives with me forever. Hopefully I’ve put a little bit of myself into that character too, but they’re all in here. So can you imagine if I said I liked Yusuke? Then I’ve got Raditz and Buu screaming at me in my head, and I promise you that’s not screaming you want in your head. 

You mention Raditz and Buu from Dragon Ball. What was it like to play some major villains after starting out as a hero in Yu Yu Hakusho?

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When it comes to heroes and villains, it’s just fun to participate in any of this. We’re getting to play pretend, as adults. So it’s kind of awesome, no matter what type of character you’re playing. My approach is always to find the thread of humanity in that character, because each one has it, even a monster character like Buu has desire. He has a motivation and those are those human threads. So it’s first identifying what those are and then how to bring them to the forefront so that it becomes identifiable to an audience.

Finally Justin, do you have a favorite memory that’s associated with Yu Yu Hakusho or some experience that you’re particularly fond of?

I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I do have a fun story about when I was first cast as Yusuke. I wasn’t part of the original auditions and my intention wasn’t to audition for Yu Yu Hakusho. I was tagged as being the voice director, so I was listening to actors and making choices. The producers at the time had a very difficult time arriving at which actor would play Yusuke and it was my producer who asked if I would jump in the booth. So I did, and ran an audition, which then kind of eliminated me from being the one to decide what casting would be for that character. 

I was out doing other work and waiting for them to make their decision on Yusuke. When they finally did, I remember distinctly very cooly and nonchalantly thanked them for the opportunity. I was able to contain my excitement until I got home, at which point I literally ran around the block probably three times just because of the excitement I had. I was thrilled to get this role. I was very excited for this particular role because I had become particularly obsessed with this anime and knew what a big opportunity this would be. The stress then kicked in a little bit later when I was like, oh no, what if it’s not good! 

The Yu Yu Hakusho 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Limited Edition Box Set from Crunchyroll will be available to purchase on Jan. 31, 2023.