Happy New Year, everyone! What better way to celebrate the departure of one year and beginning of a new one than with a story about meeting, parting and beginning your own journey?
Once upon a time, a new manga from a previously failed shounen mangaka hit the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine, called “Yu-Gi-Oh!”, or, to give a literal translation, “King of Games”. Enter Yugi Mutou, a rather weak kid who gets frequently picked on yet his knack for games is second to no other. Yugi is currently working on the Millennium Puzzle, a mysterious Egyptian artifact said to fulfill any wish one could hope for if one were to solve it. That is the tricky part however, especially since his then-bully Jounouchi steals a piece and throws it into the school pool. None of this goes by unnoticed from Ushio, the local school bully, who then beats up Jounouchi and threatens to do the same to Yugi if he can’t pay the protection fee. With Jounouchi retrieving the puzzle piece after Yugi standing up for him as the do-gooder would, Yugi solves the puzzle and gets taken over by a mysterious evil alter ego, who then meets up with Ushio at the local schoolyard at midnight to play a gruesome Game of Darkness wherein both players stab a knife through a bundle of money placed on their hands, the winner takes it all. With Ushio unable to defeat his greed and resorting to cheating however, Yugi’s Egyptean alter ego punishes Ushio, driving him to clinical insanity. But hey, for what it’s worth, Yugi has made a friend in Jounouchi and therefore, his wish to his puzzle has been fulfilled.
Yu-Gi-Oh! goes on like that for about 60 chapters. Through usually convoluted situations, a villain makes an appearances, hurts Yugi or his friends and then gets beaten in a game and punished by Evil Yugi. One has the sound of his heartbeat amplified by a hundred times. Another one gets electrocuted. At one point, Yugi’s arch-rival Kaiba hires some grizzly murderer who has chopped up several small children as a revenge plan for losing in the card game Magic & Wizards to Yugi. Said murderer then gets burnt to death by Yugi.
Yu-Gi-Oh! was my first manga. I also thought it was batshit insane. Not in a good way though. Somewhat interesting with its concept, yes, but batshit insane. I also didn’t like it very much. Its first 60 chapters are tonally jarring and a moral trainwreck with zero self-awareness. Anzu falls in love with Yugi due to him burning a man to death, later pretends to get sexually harrassed so she can gets his attention and even lets herself get kidnapped by a terrorist so she can attract Yugi’s favor as a damsel in distress. Jounouchi also burns a murderer to death and never even talks about it ever again. Kaiba kills people over Blue-Eyes White Dragon. Mokuba poisons Jounouchi. Honda commits the sin of being too stupid to remove his jacket, facing to be crushed to death by a giant block. Even eight years old me was unimpressed. Like, what the fuck.
So here comes Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, Studio Gallop’s adaptation of said manga which I wasn’t too fond of, except it completely removes said first 60 chapters and instead entirely focuses on the card game aspect, starting with the Duelist Kingdom arc, cutting origin stories to bits and pieces or recontextualizing them, also completely ignoring Toei’s liberal first adaptation of aforementioned sinister hijinks. And wouldn’t you know it, with an ongoing manga as a source for adaptation, the result leads to 40 % of said anime being straight up original material created by writers desperately stalling for time. By all means, this was a recipe for disaster. Yet, strangely and miraculously, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters ended up as one of my favorite anime.
This is not something a lot of people will understand or sympathize with. It’s easy to dismiss “teenagers with spiky hair playing card games to save the world” as silly and be done with it. Yet it’s just as easy to dismiss “people watching Japanese cartoons past the age of 12” as infantile, let alone what they actually do end up watching. Somewhere between giant robots, teenage idols, losers getting transported to another world where hot chicks in their nearby area fall for them, “DUDE, HIS HEAD TRANSFORMS INTO A CHAINSAW AND HE BEATS DEMONS, LET’S GOOOO” and other stuff, it doesn’t strike me as particularly outlandish or more ridiculous but you go ahead and try to tell your boomer boss about what kind of things you watch and feel free to realize by the reaction you get where you stand in the food chain of being taken seriously. Anime fans have no self-awareness and no standards but are the first to be judgemental somehow.
I’m not gonna take the same easy path of dismissing things though or, worse, call anything a “guilty pleasure” and will instead vouch for Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters because hardly anyone else will.
Yu-Gi-Oh! is serialized storytelling with all of the elements that make for a good one. Engaging characters on cathartic journeys, dramatic battles that put their very selves and everything they believe in to the forefront, emotional rollercoasters whenever the need arises for one, testosterone- and adrenaline-inducing encounters, atmosphere in spades, a long-winding epic for a plot that ends rewardingly, slick writing for battles not entirely unlike JoJo matchups, one banger of an OST and if not always the skillset, at least the knowledge how to portray events visually the right way with this kind of material.
And, most importantly, Yu-Gi-Oh! has pathos and energy in spades. It’s bombastic and grandiose, chuuni/10 yet never silly. Yu-Gi-Oh! is corny. Which isn’t exactly surprising, considering that Yugi’s hairdo is supposed to symbolize a human hand as a means of communication and contact while playing games and the first syllables of Yugi and his best friends Jounouchi forming “Yuujou” – “friendship” signifies just as much. As such, this is an anime drenched in chuuni aesthetic that also successfully wringes pathos out of its story like no other. When Kaiba gives grand speeches, he does it in the most theatralic ways possible. People will tell you that Lelouch was the proto chuuni character but have you heard of Seto Kaiba? Accompanying this is a fulminant sense for posing, gestures (with a big emphasis on hands like you wouldn’t believe it) and mimics. You gotta sell the concept of people playing a card game somehow after all. And sell it does.
The pathos that Kazuki Takahashi creates is incredibly strong and further refined by anime original additions. Shizuka saving Jounouchi from drowning. Jounouchi getting back on his legs after a brief comatose dream in his battle against Rishid. Yugi telling Kaiba that no matter how much he will build hatred upon hatred, the end result will be weak – fittingly accompanied by Yugi splitting his Ultimate Dragon apart and then smashing it to bits and pieces. This is what got you into watching into anime, don’t lie to me, and if nothing else, it hasn’t gotten you out of it if you’re reading this.
What helps the pathos is that Yu-Gi-Oh! has ridiculously strong and motivating character writing. There is not a single character in here that is boring or straight-up annoys me. Lord knows there are enough shounen anime or manga with terrible comic relief characters or boring heroines hogging up all the screentime, making me roll my eyes or kill the mood yet Yu-Gi-Oh! simply doesn’t have that. And its main trio is so much fun to watch and root for even though they come from very different places both context-wise and in terms of motivation and ideology:
- Yugi, seeking his past to find out which path will lead to his future.
- Kaiba, desperately tring to leave the past behind to forge himself a future with his own hands.
- Jounouchi, looking at the present and knowing he has nothing to show for, seeking his own growth.
These are three somewhat similar yet very different character roads about freeing yourself from your shackles that these people engage with and that will change them as they try to figure out who they are and where they are heading.
It’s also no overstatement to say that Kaiba and Yugi have the best rivalry I have seen in fiction. It’s got the impact and the runtime to fully realize itself in all its glory and conflict. Occasionally they help each other even. When one is dueling and the other merely watching, their rivalry still continues as they reevaluate each other’s skill and strategies.
It’s a rivalry that transcends time and sharpens both contestants to the point that they grow beyond what’s humanly possible as these two lift each other to new heights. It was 3,000 years in the making but this conflict is one set in the present. These two are going the extra mile to reach their goal and develop as characters. These seeds are sown very early into the show and more than 100 episodes later result in an amazing climax.
As such, it’s not surprising to say it’s already at episode 03 where Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters completely wins me over. Whereas Yugi sets out to fight to win back his grandfather’s soul, Jounouchi participates in the Duelist Kingdom tournament to win the prize money for his sister’s eye surgery and I was surprised by how human this card game story turned out to be, even more so when Jounouchi risks his life yet failed to retrieve Yugi’s biggest weapon for victory when Haga tosses Exodia into the sea. And so Jounouchi starts maturing as a human being while also gradually getting better at Duel Monsters, constantly striving to become Yugi’s equal and a true duelist, never forgetting to wonder about the meaning of that term. I can easily claim that Jounouchi is the best sidekick in all of anime and his character development is magnitudes above everything else. One more argument for watching this in its original version contrary to the international release that cuts all of this out.
Yet how do we best express all of this spectacle? That is a very interesting question that the staff must have asked themselves as well. It might not seem obvious at first glance but card game anime need visual support. As such, Yu-Gi-Oh! gives you posing, framing and dynamics as a means to compensate for the lack of animation. That’s kind of what you have to do when your show is technically about two people standing at a set spot. This isn’t rocket science or magic but basic thinking that they figured out 20 years ago at their very first attempt. Yet most modern card game anime are just that. People standing around. Mouths flapping. With no expressiveness whatsoever.
In Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, the characters are more akin to stage performers and angles and whatnot are actively used to create variety in an otherwise perfectly still environment. It works with its limitations.
I believe this Kenichi Hara MAD expresses very well how these people move without actually moving and ultimately, as they play, become part of their very own play as well:
The visual execution of Yu-Gi-Oh! is therefore worth mentioning and elaborating upon. Not only is character acting a huge part of the show – something that the spinoffs never understood – with interspersion of interesting character angles and dynamics to sell the mere concept of “two characters stand still and talk about text written on cardboard” as something that is visually engrossing, Yu-Gi-Oh! is also highly fascinating from a production side. These were industry defining practices. Yu-Gi-Oh! was the first fully fledged card game anime out there and tackled questions of how to deal with the nature of this kind of show. Gold standards were set and never reached again. You look at any card game anime nowadays and it’s literally the thing this anime tried its hardest to avoid: two static characters with a frontal camera attached to them setting cards on some piece of technology. No angles. No acting. No posing. No visual excitement or drama, directed, animated and cared for by nobody. This includes the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise as well – the loss of knowledge regarding these series is so evident in later entries where episodes with good animation directing feature sharp design yet little else.
Where does the production fall into all of this however? Studio Gallop, which was in charge of the franchise from DM to VRAINS, is not a force big enough to handle the entirety of a weekly anime, much less one sprawling across 224 episodes. This is where the production studio cycle comes in: Gallop as well as other studios that were outsourced to would rotate in a set of episodes over which studio gets to work on which episode. This leads to very interesting scenarios such as Gallop’s first episode actually being the third episode. As you can imagine, providing a coherent visual style for all these episodes and various studios is a monumental task – one that Yu-Gi-Oh! never bothered with. In fact, it’s the opposite: even episodes from the same studios can look wildly different. Yet why is that the case?
Simply put, it’s because the animation directors in charge of individual episodes were given free reign with their individual stylistic traits and skills. In fact, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s visual output in character art varies so much on an episodic basis it becomes relatively easy to point out which animation director was in charge of which episode. Visual consistency makes way for artistic expression, for better or worse. The only thing that remains consistent is the rather charming background art that expresses itself the best in the rather diverse and adventure-esque settings of the Duelist Kingdom and Virtual World arcs.
Luckily, Yu-Gi-Oh! has some heavy hitters among its staff. Very notably so for instance for character designs is the late Araki Shingo, renowned industry veteran and character designer for Saint Seiya. The Saint Seiya influences shine through in the choice of staff, like the recruiting of Takahiro Kagami, whom he deemed his best animator and who is nowadays known for being the best animation director of the entire franchise. Other household names include Kazunori Takahashi, whose style is remarkably similar to that of Kagami’s, Hidetsugu Hariyama, Junichi Hayama (with very middling output) and Kenichi Hara, who grows leaps and bounds over the involvement with this project and by the time of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s has become the most prominent constant force of animation directors in the spinoffs.
The use of animation directors extends far beyond just cleaning up character art and devolves into different schools of style approaches on an episodic basis. Character art completely changes, the thickness of outlines, use of layouts and framing, it’s all there or not depending on the animation director in charge. Takahiro Kagami’s iconic AGO faces have even made it to episodes of other animation directors. At its best, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s episodes still don’t feature a lot of animation per se but set new industry standards in style, performance and expressiveness. If you’re a fan of Casshern Sins, you will find several episodes to be very stylistically pleasing for sure.
This, however, also turns out to be Yu-Gi-Oh!’s biggest downfall. As animation directors and studios come and go, over time, the anime starts to look worse. It’s somewhere around season 3 that the anime reaches its peak and thereafter very uncomfortably erodes, not unlike Yuu Yuu Hakusho. By season 4, even Hidetsugu Hariyama leaves and only the Yumeta talents Kagami and Takahashi remain alongside Kenichi Hara. By season 5, we get a very slick Takahiro Kagami opening – yet the season itself doesn’t feature him or his colleague anymore and looks barren for the most part. When the first episode of your anime looks good and your last episode requires a complete staff mashup all across the board to still look bad, that is a very sad “progress”. The manga counterpart, rushed and unfinished compared to the anime’s more fleshed rendition of the Millennium World arc it may be, looking significantly better hurts all the more.
What is more consistent yet no less remarkable is the soundtrack. Across five seasons, Yu-Gi-Oh! boasts with a soundtrack so highly iconic and rich in variety it blows every other anime soundtrack out of the water. Not in a million years would you expect for a toy franchise anime to exhibit something of this quality. Once again, this is what you miss out on if all you’ve ever seen is the international version that completely replaced the OST, character names, rewrote dialogue and plot lines and also entirely removed the epilogue.
Putting the audiovisual execution aside, no matter how much it enhances a story, if there’s nothing to enhance, a worthless product remains worthless. It’s the writing we’re here for. And the writing comes first.
It’s accurate to say that despite the promotional nature of the anime, the story comes first, the card shilling second. The mere nature of summoning holographic monsters in high stakes magical battles is so cool that Yu-Gi-Oh! doesn’t need any in-series advertising to sell blockbusters. Characters say and do cool things that you can do in real life too. The monster designs are iconic too. Simply put, nobody needs to tell you to buy the Black Magician Girl because you already want to do that anyway.
This philosophy of promotion through excitement translates over to the anime original arcs, which could have been more evidently used to promote the things that Konami wanted to promote. And in a certain way, they were – several cards featured in these arcs were prominent in the OCG back in the days but that never extends beyond, say, Kaiba playing Vampire Lord in the Virtual World arc or Chaos Emperor Dragon in the KCGP one. Plenty of anime original characters use anime original decks, promoting absolutely nothing but being showcases of their own traits and personalities. The Seal Of Orichalcos was first properly printed as a commercial product 10 years later. Valon’s armor deck, no doubt the most unique one in the entire anime, still hasn’t seen any commercial release. Raphael’s Guardian deck, meanwhile, was an archetype released in the OCG at the time yet was incredibly important to the character and story at hand to the point you wouldn’t notice any commercial ties attached to it. Its most prominent monsters, Guardian Eatos and Guardian Deathscythe, were anime original too – despite the fundamentally important guardian angel and grim reaper symbolism adhering to the character in question. They could have favored sales over creative integrity but chose to remain integrant instead.
One reason I also believe people underestimate this show is because it does what all card game anime do nowadays but we shouldn’t forget it set these standards in the first place. It could have gone wrong at so many turns but didn’t. The mere idea of summoning monsters based on highly advanced technology through a trading card game seems tried and tested in 2022 but was a breakthrough back then – once you think about it, it’s ingenious.
The duels themselves are of equal importance to the writing. Duels work in very high energy ways, being the more twist-laden equivalent to sports anime. What Yu-Gi-Oh! also can be credited for is that its rules can be easily followed even without expertise in the card game. These were simpler yet not undercomplex times. Monster summoning still meant things compared to later era spinoffs where turns could last ages due to the mere process of summoning monsters in a long line to get the one monster out you actually want to have. Monster effects also aren’t long enough to contain five different clauses in a paragaraph each. Simply put: Buster Blade looks cool and you know what it does and that it requires two tributes and can be fused with Black Magician to fusion summon Black Paladin. This sounds banal on paper but the mere fact that you know as much despite its appearance of only a handful of times across 224 episodes is a testament to simplicity and effectiveness in monster design and writing.
There are duels in this show that stretch across six to eight episodes yet they never turn exhausting. It’s a constant high energy back and forth of epic proportions, involving high stakes drama, twists and at times belief systems clashing against each other. Any fan of Kaiji will understand what I’m saying here. Kaiba’s and Yugi’s exchange in the Battle City finals is the single best confrontation of ideologies in any shounen anime.
The villain gallery is absolutely amazing as well and all of us know how important impressive villains are. Pegasus’ toon monsters are symbolic for his childhood escapism, Marik and Bakura are evil personified and as simple as that sounds, if done well, you get something very effective and these two are done well. Noa and Dartz provide conceptual challenges to Yugi and Kaiba. And Siegfried, meanwhile, gives us Wagner entrances and suffers from the most brutal defeat in terms of cardgame mechanics in the anime.
The creativity of duels extends beyond mere strategic writing or card game sybolism however as, based on arc, additional elements such as the Deck Master system or the very atmospheric Seal Of Orichalcos add new flavors. Not to mention the very creative body horror components in the Marik duels lending them additional intensity. Yu-Gi-Oh! experiments a lot with facial expressions and contortions and the inclusion of horror elements into its darker storytelling works wonders. Takahiro Kagami going full out in his rendition of Obelisk crushing into Malik is a prime example of this. The stylistic approach behind the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, Kazuki Takahashi’s love for sinister villains smirking in darker atmosphere, Shinkichi Mitsumune’s music ranging from bombastic to wicked and Takahiro Kagami’s explosive expressionism are a match made in Heaven.
What also helps is that this is a 224 episodes anime that is ingeniously well-paced and flows smoothly, the admittedly way too frequent use of recap bits especially in the Battle City finals and side commentary in some duels aside. Episodes practically fly by and the anime original content proves not to be a hindrance but an enhancement. These anime original arcs are so in line with what these characters are and represent it’s astounding. Just take the part where Kaiba tells Daimon his dream for games will never lose to a killing machine as he lets Blue-Eyes fly to outer space and destroy the Satellite Cannon. Cathartic and quintessentially Seto Kaiba.
The Virtual World arc enriches Kaiba by giving him his own backstory and makes him carve out his humanity against his virtual stepbrother and monster of a father figure. Kaiba grows beyond the massive arms empire that Kaiba Corporation used to be yet still harbors the very same hatred inside his heart. Without this, a lot of the Battle City finals would have lost its meaning.
Doma presents our protagonist trio with foils to overcome – Yugi faces Raphael, who is bound to fate just like him. Kaiba meets Amelda, a character tied to the brutal past of Kaiba Corporation. Jounouchi faces off against Valon, someone who, just like he used to, has spent his entire life fighting on his own. The underlying mysticism, this time not Egyptian in nature but Atlantean, is cleverly chosen – with Egypt to be said to be a colony of Atlantis. Doma also asks the quintessential question of why the Pharaoh was brought back in the first place, something the source material itself never asks. Its environmental message, meanwhile, sadly ages better with every single year. Remarkable for a kids anime and my favorite arc all around.
KCGP, meanwhile, is hardly a cornerstone of essential Yu-Gi-Oh! DM writing but creates a low stakes arc that the show has been missing and fills other gaps. Kaiba finally gets to build Kaiba Land and fulfill his dream, dueling as a worldwide phenomenon is recognized with duelists from all over the world joining Kaiba’s tournament and there certainly is a bit more of a focus on meta strategies from the actual game at the time.
These arcs don’t just work conceptually as they complete the picture in the world of Yugi and his friends through things that would be missing otherwise – it’s good execution that justifies anime original content of which Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters boasts 40 % with. Kazuki Takahashi thanked the anime writers for putting the Virtual World arc in the midst of Battle City as to provide Kaiba with a proper backstory.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, contrary to its rather ridiculous in nature spinoffs, also rightfully puts a card game at the center of its plot but not its world. Contrary to GX, you don’t get dueling monkeys. Contrary to 5D’s, the police doesn’t enforce arrests through duels. Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters is set in our world and grounded enough to be relatable instead of stupid. If Jounouchi brought his Duel Disk to school, it would get confiscated by the teacher. And no, he wouldn’t get to duel his teacher over it. It’s so nice to have some common sense. And when need arises, a game ends even though it’s not properly played out yet. This is not a card game simulation after all.
I should probably mention that this is an anime that also understands to pick only the best of settings for its fights: A floating platform inside a castle, a blimp, a duel tower, a driving train, a flying plane, who even comes up with these.
Yet ultimately, this long-winded article won’t convince anyone to watch Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, of that I am sure. Too huge the episode count, too insistent the stereotyping of an anime with a perception largely coined by an Americanized, censored joke dub cutting a story into bits and pieces, too sour the Internet memes and cynicism, too strong the clinging to aforementioned dub rendition for most anime fans to ever experience the original version. There is no critical reception here for an anime like this to provide an incentive to be watched in 2022. Even the Pokémon anime somehow receives more fanfare than it nowadays.
As such, one thing that has always struck me as weak hippie talk in anitwitter spheres is the glorification of PreCure and other kids franchises that aren’t toyetic enough to fail to become critical darlings on the reasoning of “I’ve learned so much about friends and family from this.”
You don’t learn these things. You feel them. And Yu-Gi-Oh! did make me feel them. It’s no coincidence that the story starts out by Yugi completing the Millennium Puzzle and wishing for friendship. When you read Kazuki Takahashi’s afterwords to the individual manga volumes, you can tell that Kazuki Takahashi truly meant it. And Stars And Stripes gives insight into him dying to save people from drowning. With that said, Yu-Gi-Oh! will forever stand the test of time in remaining one of the most human stories out there.
And so I believe that when you lose sight of these genuine, reflective moments in writing to instead turn kids entertainment into an adult pissing contest on twitter or scoff at your own childhood wonders to fake growth, you certainly lose sight of a lot more.
But who am I to believe that a puzzle’s missing piece could never be found?
Final Verdict: Must-Watch.