Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Yu-Gi-Oh!
by Jason Thompson, Jul 25th 2013
Episode CLIII: Yu-Gi-Oh!
"Games mean conflict - a combat between two enemies. It's the same for all of them! Cards, chess, the blood-soaked wars of the human race… All these are different kinds of games. Do you know what god gave to people so they could play games in this world? A single chip called life!"
— Kaiba, Yu-Gi-Oh!
Call your little brother into the room, I'm writing about Yu-Gi-Oh! What's that? Your brother who used to be into Yu-Gi-Oh! when he was 8 years old hasn't played it in years and is going into college now? Well, gather 'round anyway. You didn't think I was only going to write about super-highbrow Osamu Tezuka style manga, did you?
I didn't edit all 42 volumes of Dragon Ball—Trish Ledoux edited the first 5 each of DB and DBZ—so Kazuki Takahashi's Yu-Gi-Oh!, at 38 volumes, is the longest single manga I worked on in my time as a Viz editor. From 1996 to 2004 it ran in Japan, and from 2002 to 2008 Viz rereleased it in English. Most of the translators and editors at Viz thought Yu-Gi-Oh! was the stupidest thing on Earth, and nobody wanted to work on it. (A roundtable of four reviewers had slammed the then-import-only anime back in Animerica magazine.) But I was happy to be the editor, because it looked silly enough to be entertaining. Also, I'd played my share of collectible card games and I wanted to make sure the terminology was accurate. Besides, I'd already been the snobby fan and turned my nose up at Pokémon ("it's just a dumb game spinoff fad") when Viz acquired the rights to that, and guess who'd had the last laugh on that one? So for seven years, I worked on Yu-Gi-Oh!. I lived off Yu-Gi-Oh!. (Literally, I mean, it was my job after all.) I absorbed it into my blood and it influenced my own comics like King of RPGs. Yu-Gi-Oh! and I had a relationship, not as steamy as the ones fans imagine between Yugi and Bakura (based on a stroll around deviantart, slash fans are the other primary audience of the series), but still, a friendship. A special friendship, I like to think.
Lest we forget beneath all the sci-fi, auto racing, Harry-Potter-esque "Hogwarts for CCGs" card-playing schools and other Yu-Gi-Oh! spinoff stories that came later, the original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga is about a nerdy schoolkid who gets picked on all the time. (Probably for his weird hair. It's amazing none of the bullies in the series make fun of his hair.) Even Jonouchi, a tough guy in school who's Yugi's future best friend, teases him in the first chapter before eventually his bromantic heart melts and they become best buddies. (The yu from Yugi and the jô from Jonouchi equals yujô, "friendship". Cute, though I wish Takahashi had gone with a Hirohiko Araki/Kazushi Hagiwara style naming scheme and named all the characters after game designers or something.) Yugi lives with his grandfather (his mom shows up in just one chapter), has a crush on a girl named Anzu, and dreams of a better life free of bullying.
Miraculously, his wishes come true when he solves the Millennium Puzzle, a solid gold Egyptian eye-in-the-pyramid amulet that his grandfather lets him wear to school. (Ancient Egypt was known for its well-preserved board games found in tombs, after all; I confess I'm disappointed Yugi never plays senet.) When the puzzle is solved, there's a mysterious glowing light and BAM (or, this being a manga, more often "BAN" or "DON" or "DODODODODODO"): the wimp develops a badass split personality. (Or, actually, he's possessed; more on that later.) This new Yugi, the "dark Yugi" (yami yugi), challenges Yugi's enemies to weird and high-risk games, ranging from dice to Tamagotchi to playing air hockey with a frozen chunk of high explosive over a burning griddle. (Had he been over 21 and lived in Seattle, I think he would have enjoyed Smash Putt.) Furthermore, Dark Yugi has magic powers: when the bad guys lose, he punishes them with ironically appropriate "penalty games" usually involving them being driven insane, suffering weird hallucinations, going blind, or just being seriously injured, possibly killed, in some awful but usually offscreen way. Yeah, take THAT! At first, the 'normal' Yugi isn't even conscious of what his split-persona is doing, and he just innocently goes to school the next day like nothing happened, wondering why the bully's chair is empty.
There's a very superhero-ish vibe to all this, like Clark Kent turning into Superman, or even moreso, like a Batman-esque avenger hero who's scary and dark. Takahashi clearly loves Western superheroes, judging from his art swaps with Mike Mignola, the many superhero-themed cards in later Yu-Gi-Oh! decks, and Advent Heroes, the pseudo-American-superheroes card game (using a standard 52-card deck!!) whose rules he posted online for free in 2011. In the world of Yu-Gi-Oh!, wimpy underdogs always get their gruesome revenge for petty injustices. There's a sense of "disproportionate response" to some of Dark Yugi's punishments, although who am I to tell a bullied tween not to fantasize about horrible things happening to their bully-er. But the creepy madman look that Dark Yugi wears in the first few chapters soon becomes a little less disturbing, and the punishments get less extreme, and soon, Dark Yugi acquires a more heroic mantle: he's a champion of justice. Bakura, the owner of the Millennium Ring who's introduced in volume 6, becomes the sort of ultra-dark version of Yugi; he, too, has a light and a dark side, but his dark side is pure evil, whereas Dark Yugi has a sinister origin story but he isn't any more evil than Hellboy or Spawn. And the manga has typical shonen themes like friendship, victory, perseverance, and others we'll get to later. You can't get too dark when the villains are gangs of kids who beat people up with yo-yos.
Then came Magic: The Gathering. Obviously Shueisha and Kazuki Takahashi would never admit this, but—let's be adults when we talk about Yu-Gi-Oh!, shall we?—clearly the card game in Yu-Gi-Oh! is based on Magic."This is the card game that's such a hit in America…Magic & Wizards!" is how Yugi's grandpa introduces the game in its first appearance in the Japanese manga. In the two-parter storyline that introduces it, Yugi meets and fights Kaiba, a typical evil rich kid who owns more Magic cards than anyone and who lies, cheats, steals and throws his money around to win a game. At this point, the Magic thing is more a homage than a rip-off; frankly, as a fellow gamer I find it endearing that Takahashi was able to put then-niche gaming stuff into shonen manga, like the "Monster World" storyline in volumes 6-7 that's obviously based on Dungeons & Dragons. But "Magic & Wizards" was just too popular to stay as a Magic fanfic. I imagine what happened is this: hundreds of kids sent letters to Shonen Jump asking "That card game looks awesome! I want to buy it! What's it called?!!" Takahashi and Shueisha paused for a second, exchanged a meaningful glance, and answered "It's the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game, of course!" (Later they changed the name of the game-within-a-game from "Magic & Wizards" to "Duel Monsters," which Viz used in the English edition; then that title was shamelessly copied by Shogakukan's "Duel Masters" a few years later.)
Yu-Gi-Oh! introduced CCGs to a mainstream Japanese kid audiences and, as a result, became super-successful. (Wizards of the Coast probably wasn't too worried, since they own various patents on CCGs they can enforce if things get rough, and besides, an ex-employee told me most Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG players eventually graduate to Magic anyway.) In the process, the entire feel of the manga changes; Viz divided the 38-volume series into three parts at reasonable breaking points, beginning the "Duelist" arc with Japanese volume 8, when the card-playing becomes central. The monsters in the cards come to life before the reader's eyes, either because of holographic technology or because the cards themselves have hidden spiritual power, or maybe the players just have really good imaginations (the explanation shifts back and forth from incident to incident). Kaiba, no longer a mere throwaway mook, is resurrected as an amazingly rich mastermind with a grudge against Yugi and various other deep personality issues. After beating Kaiba a second time, Yugi goes up to the next level and battles Pegasus, the American creator of Duel Monsters, who looks like this and not this, and who is revealed to be a sort of evil Willy Wonka of gaming who invites gamers to his private island and mindblasts them. Pegasus, too, has magic powers, because he, like Yugi, has a Egyptian "Millennium Item" and because—TWIST!!!—he didn't actually create "Duel Monsters," he actually just copied the rules from a magical Ancient Egyptian game described in an ancient stele. With the Egyptian motif and the card motif now linked, the stage is set for the penultimate story arc as Yugi, Kaiba and a ton of minor characters (most with some unworkable-IRL card theme, i.e., they only play dinosaur-based cards, they only play cartoon-based cards, etc.) compete in a massive tournament spanning the entire city—the "Battle City" story arc—to attain the three most powerful cards of all, the Egyptian God Cards.
The switch to cardplaying disappointed people who enjoyed the anything-goes nerd-rage free-for-all of the early chapters, but broadened the appeal of the series in other ways: parents may have objected to early chapters where Yugi plays the knife game with his classmates, but they couldn't object as vehemently to scenes of imaginary holographic monsters slashing each other with imaginary swords. Takahashi retained his sadistic streak, though, with some very scary-looking monsters and IRL threats to our heroes: for instance, the scene when Yugi has to play Duel Monsters manacled to the floor with a whirring buzzsaw coming ever closer (it's linked to his Life Points), and the scene when Mai Kujaku must play against Marik while strapped to one of his infernal devices, her arms spread helplessly. Marik, the super-evil descendant of an Ancient Egyptian cult connected with the God Cards, has a whole theme of sadomasochism and torture running through his cards. One of the nice things about working on the manga was that it didn't have to be nearly as heavily censored as the English anime, which even cut scenes of Marik's creepily bulging eyes and wagging tongue as he threatens his captive. The English version of the cards was even worse, censoring the art and frequently 'soft-censoring' objectionable things by just leaving them untranslated or phonetically mistranslated, like "Viser Des" for Marik's card "Vice Death"; the terrible card names were presumably also intended as a tacky appeal to American kids' love of exotic Japanese phrases, because who wants a card named "Gargoyle" when it can be left untranslated as "Ryu-Kishin"? The only major scene we had to change in the English manga was the scene during Yugi's match with Pandora, when Pandora chains Yugi's Dark Magician card to the "Nightmare Cross", which we had to change to a non-religion-specific grid of "Nightmare Chains." I'm the kind of contrarian who really shouldn't be allowed to work in children's entertainment, since I'd generally much rather emphasize and point to any objectionable content in manga rather than covering it up (for instance, in the mostly forgettable sequel Yu-Gi-Oh! R written by Takahashi and drawn by his ex-assistant, isn't Takahashi clearly trying to go with some kind of Christian messiah thing in the way that Pegasus' followers idolize Pegasus after his death and assume Pegasus willingly martyred himself to Yugi for a greater purpose, because obviously Pegasus could never lose?).
But of course, Yu-Gi-Oh! is just a children's entertainment franchise. Even in Japan, it was censored from edition to edition, such as changing the monstrous Zorc Necrophades' dragon-penis in the final story arc into a mere dragon-tail. But considering that we at one point weren't allowed to use the word "darn!" due to Viz's language requirements for All-Ages titles, the visuals in the English manga are surprisingly uncut. (Trying to be sensitive to racism, we also cut the line when Jonouchi calls the villain Shadi (an actual Arabic name, BTW) a "turban yaro". Yu-Gi-Oh! has plenty of stereotypical Egyptian characters , from skulking mooks like the bad guys in the first Indiana Jones movie to Bobasa, the subservient big fat guy who hangs out for part of the final story; I suspect that even someone in Japan complained about Bobasa and that's why he vanishes abruptly without explanation in the middle of the final story arc. OTOH, the anime and cards were apparently reasonably successful in Arabic, Isis Ishtar may be the only anime heroine who wears something vaguely like a hijab, and the final "Millennium World" story arc has more dark-skinned good guys than just about any manga I can think of.)
Yu-Gi-Oh! changed its mood and theme when it became card-centric; then, before the end, it changes again. The 24-volume-long Duelist story arc (really two arcs, "Duelist Kingdom" and "Battle City", with a non-card-game "Dungeon Dice Monsters" interlude inbetween) leads up to the climactic 7-volume arc, "Millennium World", which is totally different from what came before. The question that's been on readers' minds since the first chapter—what is Dark Yugi? Is he Yugi's self-esteem-building alternate self? Or is he some creepy ghost monster?—is answered here. (The answer is, "Yes on self-esteem, and yes on ghost-monster.") Turns out that Dark Yugi, the partner in Yugi's body, is the spirit of an ancient Pharaoh from 3000 years ago who somehow lost his memories and became a ghost tied to the Millennium Puzzle. (3000 years ago would've been towards the end of the New Kingdom of Egypt—actually pretty recent in Ancient Egyptian terms. The English anime changed it to 5000 years ago, which I have to admit actually makes sense; I also give the 4Kids people props for using actual linguistically correct Ancient Egyptian in Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie, thereby throwing extra bucks at some starving Egyptologists.) With the Millennium Items and the God Cards gathered, the modern-day characters spirit-travel back in time to Egypt (or, more accurately, into Dark Yugi's memories of Egypt) to discover the pharaoh's forgotten memories and the origin of the Millennium Items. The series becomes a full-on fantasy adventure with an Ancient Egyptian setting, and the 'card game' element is abstracted into battles between priest-magicians who summon monsters to fight. Weird things happen. Surprising plot twists are revealed. Finally, the relationship between Yugi and his other self, and their character arc, is resolved with resounding finality.
When I was editor of the series, a Japanese Shonen Jump editor confessed to me that Takahashi wasn't the greatest artist, but "his storytelling was great." I agree. This series has some great twists and, despite the slow midsection with the seemingly endless duels of Battle City, feels much more intentionally plotted than most shonen series. Among the many fights are some really clever battles: the way Yugi defeats Marik's mightiest card Slifer the Sky Dragon; the way Yugi defeats Pegasus, who has the seemingly game-breaking power to read his opponents' minds; and the third battle between Yugi and Kaiba. A hero in a shonen manga can't disappoint his readers, so it's hard to show them actually losing, but Takahashi at his best manages to suspend our disbelief and make us wonder sometimes if Yugi will lose. And sometimes the unthinkable happens and he really does. The series also plays with some dark themes, beyond the obligatory adolescent sadism. When we finally discover the origin of the Millennium Items, it's literally stained with blood; they saved Egypt from its enemies and gave our hero awesome magic, but they were created by sacrificing an entire village of undesirables in an evil ritual. Of course, although the hero is wracked with guilt when he discovers this, he himself isn't directly culpable; the pharaoh was just a baby at the time, and even his father didn't know about the ritual until after it happened (the old "the evil vizier did it" excuse). Likewise, like many manga creators, Takahashi wants to create really evil, despicable bad guys, but he also needs to have them turn into good guys later, so he repeatedly creates bad guys with split personalities, so that the "bad side" of their personality can be exorcised and the "good side" can then go hang out happily with our heroes (and thus become one of the boring coterie of side-characters who do nothing but cheer at Yugi's matches). True evil, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, is reserved for demonic spirits like Dark Bakura and distant, evil father-figures, evil old men like Kaiba's adoptive father. Takahashi attempts to create moral gray areas, but he's limited by the black-and-white demands of a shonen manga.
But Takahashi does go deeper and go some places few other shonen manga go. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) "Fundamentally, death is one of the themes of Yu-Gi-Oh!," Takahashi is quoted as saying in the untranslated Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Gospel of Truth character guidebook. "The core themes are friendship, death, love…and also independence." Basically, the final story arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! is about coping with death, your own death (from Dark Yugi's perspective) and the death of a loved one (from Yugi's perspective). Dark Yugi must accept that he is dead and move on to the afterlife (which, Takahashi suggests, may be oblivion, or may be made up of memories of his friendships—a bit like the 1998 movie After Life), and Yugi must accept that he is gone and become a strong man without him. Perhaps Takahashi was fictionally expressing some of his own feelings about his father, who died around the end of the manga's run. Maybe my own personal feelings were bound up in it since I'd worked for it so long, but Yu-Gi-Oh! has one of the best endings of any shonen manga I've read.
It's touching. It's bromantic. (I'm glad I was able to translate one of Yugi's dramatic lines to Jonouchi as "I love you!" rather than just "I really like you!" or "I love you, no homo" or something half-assed like that.) It's nerdy. It's a shameless toy commercial. I like Yu-Gi-Oh!. I mean the original manga, of course; I haven't read any of the newer ones written & drawn by people other than Kazuki Takahashi, except for a bit of GX and all of R. Frankly, the ending of the first one was so good I didn't feel the need, and I'm certainly not as interested in the later franchises in which the original creator has only distant, producer-like involvement. (Maybe I'm not the only one, either; I said back at the beginning of the article that the original Yu-Gi-Oh! was buried beneath all the spinoffs, but none had the impact of the first series.) Still, Kazuki Takahashi tried to become a mangaka for 15 years before he finally succeeded with Yu-Gi-Oh! at age 35, and he earned his success. He's a solid storyteller and I liked working on and reading his manga. I'd like to see a translation of his game Advent Heroes sometime. I wonder if he still plays Magic.
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