Yu-Gi-Oh!: Terrifying or Inspiring?
Yu-Gi-Oh! (by 4Kids Entertainment) is a kids’ show from the early 2000’s whose reputation lives on almost a decade later. When the original cartoon ended movies were released and Duel Monsters continued on in other spin-offs of the universe such as Yu-Gi-Oh!GX, Yu-Gi-Oh!5D’s, Yu-Gi-Oh!Zexal, and Yu-Gi-Oh!Arc-V. Many people today buy and play Duel Monsters– a “real life” card game which mimics the one played in the show. Although Yu-Gi-Oh! has become a mainstream name few know its origins and assume it was an American based cartoon, just as many believe the card game itself is called “Yu-Gi-Oh” rather than Duel Monsters. Before it became a favored children’s show in North America, Yu-Gi-Oh! started as a Japanese manga written by Kazuki Takahashi. The manga was originally intended to fit into the horror genre but its conception was engulfed by themes of gaming and friendship once audiences reacted so positively to characters playing Duel Monsters. Often overlooked because of the consistent theme of “good conquering evil,” this article would like to emphasize some ideologically frightening aspects of the tv show that fans likely didn’t notice as a child.
Yu-Gi-Oh! uses a reincarnation-like theology that revolves around the existence of disembodied spirits which can latch onto and live in inanimate objects. It is through interaction with such spirits that most conflicts in the show arise. In Yu-Gi-Oh! the spirits dabble with dark powers from their ancient past, a time when Duel Monsters was a practice of real sorcerers battling terrifying manifested beasts (and not just a card game). These disembodied spirits have the ability to possess others, and the Millennium Items (artifacts from their time) give their wielders god-like powers. Child viewers don’t acknowledge the ancient evils which conspire to destroy humanity as being disturbing because those threats are undermined by the protagonists’ consistent success. Not only is the show rife with possession, it seems to promote reckless gambling in its portrayal of Yami Yugi, who always bets everything and never loses. Despite hosting a protagonist who takes unnecessary risks, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s popularity is likely founded on that same principle; it’s only because the stakes are always so high that the characters are so motivating.
Disclaimer: This article is looking only at the first two seasons of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters English anime series dubbed by 4Kids Entertainment as aired in North America. What is described may differ from its first original animation with Toei Entertainment or manga.
Introduced in season two is the character Marik Ishtar who plays antagonist to Yugi. Marik wants to defeat the Pharaoh (Yami Yugi) hidden in Yugi’s Millennium Puzzle so he can rule the world… Marik also wields the Millennium Rod which allows him to control the minds of others. Marik is unable to possess Yugi because he is under the protection of Yami Yugi (who consensually shares his body) so Marik instead targets Yugi’s friends. Marik successfully takes control of Téa and Joey’s minds and rigs them into death traps so Yugi has no choice but to duel him. Viewers dislike Marik for having put their favorite characters in such dangerous situations, but often don’t see the bigger picture: Marik has terrible supernatural powers which give him an unfair advantage over other humans, powers no one should ever have.
Children follow the story and relate to the world of Yu-Gi-Oh! through Yugi, the protagonist. Because of this, they don’t acknowledge how vulnerable they would be to the influence of someone with a Millennium Item. Marik Ishtar is a disturbing conception. Yugi’s inherent immunity undermines how easily his fellow main characters had their free will taken from them. This is where Yu-Gi-Oh! stops being a fantasy and starts being horror.
Possession was first introduced in season one by the character Bakura (Yugi’s classmate) who is controlled by an evil spirit in the Millennium Ring referred to as Yami Bakura. Yu-Gi-Oh! intensifies Bakura’s unfortunate circumstance when it introduces Marik who has hundreds of “mind-slaves.” The Millennium Ring’s spirit relies on Bakura’s body to sustain itself giving Bakura’s life some value. In contrast to Bakura and Yugi’s possession, Marik’s mind-slaves are completely disposable to him. Marik is introduced as a character who neither values human life nor free will. Marik sacrificed many of his followers attempting to mimic the power of the Egyptian God Card, the Winged Dragon of Ra. Many religions’ God(s) can/will not interfere with people’s free will, while Marik actively takes mind-slaves to use as pawns. (This is also seen in Pegasus trapping people’s souls in cards with his Millennium Eye, though to a much lesser extent.) To the North American culture which promotes individuality, free will, and the sanctity of the soul, Yu-Gi-Oh! seems almost blasphemous.
Yu-Gi-Oh! as dubbed by 4Kids Entertainment was greatly altered from Yu-Gi-Oh! first animated by Toei Animation because of its target audience. Toei Animation shows Yugi as a boy with competence and love for many different games while 4Kids Entertaiment presents a world engulfed by Duel Monsters in which Yugi specializes. What differs most between the two Yu-Gi-Oh! series’ is their presentations of violence. Toei Animation and its Japanese fanbase do not shy away from scenes of severe physical violence, something which Yugi and his close friends suffer at the hands of villains in nearly every episode. Physical violence was censored out of 4Kids Entertainments Yu-Gi-Oh! not only because parents frown upon it in children shows, but also because it was meant to target the fears of the specific American culture which aims so diligently to enforce freedom and consent. Presenting children with villains which use others, Yu-Gi-Oh! aims to reinforce their naturalized ideals; to those who value spiritual sanctity above physical well being, Marik is a thing of nightmares because he can corrupt both. Mind-slaves and Shadow Games are central elements of the show which aim to threaten characters’ souls and thus their integrity and ability to do what they love, making them easier to empathize with.
In season one the stakes are high in Yugi’s duels; he fights not only for the title of King of Games, but also to free his Grandfather and the Kaiba brothers from the season one antagonist, Pegasus. The “Shadow Games” were first introduced when Pegasus played Yugi in the second episode of the series. Pegasus took Yugi to the Shadow Realm with the powers of his Millennium Eye, stole Yugi’s Grandpa’s soul and held it for ransom. In season two the Shadow Realm becomes involved in a greater frequency of duels. The Shadow Realm, for those who do not know, is basically a kind of hell that opens up and surrounds the playing field during a Shadow Game. The loser of this type of card duel loses all or part of his or her soul to that realm forever. (Toei Animation’s Yu-Gi-Oh! contains Shadow Games but ones which often take from the loser’s body or cause hallucinations which don’t cause permanent spiritual harm to anyone undeserving.)
Yugi is often forced into playing shadow games by Yami Bakura, Marik, or Marik’s mind-slaves. As mentioned before, Marik creates a death trap for Téa and Joey which would trigger if Yugi/Yami Yugi didn’t play against him. To learn the location of his kidnapped friends Yugi must play alongside Kaiba on a skyscraper’s glass rooftop, set to shatter once their LifePoints hit zero, flinging them into a portal to the shadow realm if they lose. Despite the impossible positions Yugi is put into by Marik, it’s hard to overlook that Yugi is undoubtedly a risk taker. Because of his hubris, he consents to being lured into a dark underground room where he is consequently strapped into a dueling ring with approaching spinning blades that can send his soul to the Shadow Realm. All this, simply because he does not want someone else to own his favorite card, the Dark Magician.
Watching Yugi throw his life on the line (physically and spiritually) and consistently win gives viewers a warped perception of gambling. Again, relating to the world through Yugi, who inherently wins everything, glosses over the risks of gambling to viewers. Putting one’s life on the line so frequently is not a good habit. Why does Yu-Gi-Oh! promote risk taking in a world with such overpowered manipulative villains?
One of the scariest parts of Yu-Gi-Oh! is also the most inspiring. When Mai fights Marik in a Shadow Game she and Yami Marik lose pieces of their memory whenever one of their creatures die. The show makes a compelling literal metaphor. Character’s souls and the monsters/cards in their deck are connected. Duel Monsters to us seems like nothing more than a hobby but to the characters in the show dueling is a way of life. They are passionate about what they do. In the first episode of the series Yugi’s Grandpa explains that he “put [his] soul in [his] cards” (Yu-Gi-Oh!). Characters put their heart and soul into making and dueling with their decks and it seems as though viewers would benefit from adapting such a practice in their every day lives. Many people don’t try their hardest because they are afraid to come up short of expectations. Opposing reality, it is inspiring that every character in Yu-Gi-Oh! always tries their hardest.
Characters (even minor ones) talk big to their opponents during duels and are brimming with confidence, even when they know they are going up against the King of Games. Why? Because they truly believe they have a chance of winning; they believe in themselves. Though the stakes in duels are ridiculous, and characters live in a world with villains that could forcibly rip out their souls and use their bodies, it’s motivating to see them continue to fight. Characters in Yu-Gi-Oh! need to beat the odds against them to teach viewers to stay strong in the face of adversity and to overcome their fears.
Maybe Yugi succeeds so frequently, not just because he is destined to win and doesn’t need to try, but because he so adamantly believes in his ability to prevail. It’s like the saying goes, “90% of success is showing up.” Yugi always shows up to take on the challenges faced before him and he does so with his friends constantly giving him moral support. His friends believe in him and give him the confidence he needs to take on dire situations. Such a mentality goes beyond just believing in oneself, Yu-Gi-Oh! teaches viewers to believe in others too. It’s an open-minded and open-hearted philosophy.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! universe might be terrifying to think about, but at least the difficult circumstances serve to make the characters’ struggles more compelling. Frequently gambling one’s life is not optimal, but if Yu-Gi-Oh! teaches children anything, it is that the world can be unfair and the only way to combat it is to put a piece of yourself– your hopes and your dreams– into everything you do, because that will make them more likely to succeed. Even in defeat, all characters with good intent are shown as graceful losers because they feel better about losing knowing they tried their hardest. Living life as passionately as the characters in Yu-Gi-Oh!, no one can ever say you didn’t try! The main philosophy of Yu-Gi-Oh!, believing in the “heart of the cards,” is not promoting gambling so much as it is trying to reassure viewers that the more love, time and passion they put into something, the more that something is likely to reward them back. “If you put your heart in the game there’s nothing you can’t do” (Yu-Gi-Oh!).
“The Heart of the Cards.” Yu-Gi-Oh!. 4Kids Entertainment. Studio Gallop. 18 April. 2000. Television.
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