Andrew Osmond on the world-beating media mix
is often considered a child of Pokemon,
both huge ‘media mix’ franchises which grew out of old-fashioned childhood pursuits. Pokemon
came from creator Satoshi Tajiri’s passion for catching bugs, a popular past-time in Japan (there’s even a documentary film about it, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo).
For Kazuki Takahashi, the creator of Yu-Gi-Oh!,
it came out of a love of games – and because Takahashi was born in 1961, these were games of the pre-computer, pre-console, pre-smartphone age.
“I’ve always been obsessed with games,” Takahashi said in an interview
with the Time.com website. “Certainly as a kid, and even today, I like blackjack and board games like Scotland Yard.
And that’s the basic premise for Yu-Gi-Oh.
The main character, Yugi, is a weak and childish boy who becomes a hero when he plays games.”
It’s notable that, despite what you might think looking at the franchise now, Yu-Gi-Oh!
conceived as a card game tie-in, any more than Totoro
was made to sell soft toys (though both benefitted hugely from the spin-offs). When it began, the Yu-Gi-Oh!
manga was rather different from the anime which most people know. In its original form, Yu-Gi-Oh!
was about a bullied kid, Yugi Muto, who gets the power to take revenge on his tormentors. Naturally, this happens through a game – Yugi reassembles an ancient Egyptian amulet called the Millennium Puzzle, which grants him magic powers and splits his personality. Now Yugi has two sides; much of the time he’s an ordinary student, but when he’s threatened a powerful, magic personality comes into, well, play. It eventually turns out to be the spirit of a Pharaoh who’s Yugi’s psychic soulmate.
The early manga chapters had a Jekyll and Hyde vibe, with the ‘dark,’ magic Yugi very much an avenger. His modus operandi was to challenge bullies and lowlifes to games of his choosing – say, playing air hockey with high explosives - with heavy penalties for the losers. Sometimes Yugi even killed them! As with the later Death Note,
the early Yu-Gi-Oh!
turned a character we’d expect to be a villain into an anti-hero – you could compare him to Batman’
s Riddler or even (pushing the idea to extremes!) Jigsaw in the grisly Saw
franchise. Eventually, though, the character began to mellow, and was further mellowed in the first Yu-Gi-Oh!
anime, made by Toei in 1998.
No, this still wasn’t the version we know today. The Toei Yu-Gi-Oh!
was short-lived by the standards of kids’ anime, running 27 episodes and drawing strands from early manga chapters. (One example of how the show mellowed the strip – a bit! – was that the manga Yugi was capable of burning a baddie alive, whereas in the Toei series he ‘merely’ gave said baddie the illusion
of being burned alive.) But around this time, Takahashi brought in a plot element which would change the franchise’s whole direction. Yugi was given a new game to play; a card game, originally called Magic & Wizards
, but later renamed Duel Monsters
“Originally, I’d planned to phase out that particular game (Duel Monsters
in two episodes [of the strip],” Takahashi claimed to Time.com. “But the reader response was enormous. Shonen Jump
[which ran the Yu-Gi-Oh!
strip] started getting all these calls from kids who wanted to know more about the game – how to play it, where they could get it… It’s much more thrilling to battle against a human being while looking them in the eye than playing with a machine.”
about the Yu-Gi-Oh!
manga for Anime News Network,
Jason Thompson – who edited much of the strip when it came to America – has no doubt that Magic & Wizards
(aka Duel Monsters
) was a thinly-disguised nod to Magic: The Gathering.
The American fantasy-themed trading-card game was enjoying massive popularity at the time. Even in the Yu-Gi-Oh!
strip, it’s specified that Magic & Wizards
is a US export to Japan, like the tabletop role-playing games which had shaped so much of Japan’s fantasy media.
A spinoff Magic & Wizards
game was duly created in Japan (by Konami), and Yu-Gi-Oh!
headed towards the franchise big time. The cards became a predominant part of the strip, and of the next, much longer Yu-Gi-Oh!
anime series – and yes, this is
the one which Manga is releasing. Starting in 2000, the show wasn’t made by Toei but Studio Gallop (which had largely done support work for other studios, though it produced Rurouni Kenshin
and the original Initial D
). As the anime’s full name – Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters –
indicated, it was configured around the card game, and Yugi’s battles with rivals such as teen millionaire Seto Kaiba, his brattish brother Mokuba, and the sinister game magnate Maximillion Pegasus. Of course, the animation meant that the card ‘battles’ between monsters and magical beings could all be shown while the players yelled out their moves and explained their strategies to the audience.
To help him, Yugi has a number of school allies, including the classically feisty girl Tea Gardner, but his best friend is a boy, Joey Wheeler. The characters’ names in the Japanese version were Anzu Mazaki and Katsuya Jounouchi. As Takahashi explained, the ‘yu’ in ‘Yuji’ and the ‘jo’ in Jounouchi combine to make ‘yujo,’ a Japanese word for ‘friend.’
was about collecting, Takahashi claimed the Magic & Wizards/Duel Monsters
game was about co-operation. “You have to play with friends. That’s how it spread; one kid saying to another, let’s play Yu-Gi-Oh!
though, suggested that Yu-Gi-Oh!
had the same appeal as Pokemon
; it offered a secret world of intricate knowledge which grown-ups couldn’t fathom. Either way, it was an appeal that could sell beyond Japan. Dubbed and localised by 4Kids Entertainment, Yu-Gi-Oh!
was broadcast from 2001 on the Kids’ WB channel in America, following up their success with Pokemon.
One of the American show’s best-known changes was to do with the cards themselves. In the Japanese broadcast, Yugi and the other players wield cards which look the same as they do in the game spun off from the series. In the American version, broadcast rules didn’t permit such direct advertising (even though, of course, the cartoons would be peppered with advertising breaks!) For this reason, the in-series cards were altered to more generic designs.
In 2004, Warner Brothers released a cinema film, called Yu-Gi-Oh: The Movie
or sometimes subtitled Pyramid of Light.
Unlike most Japanese spinoffs, it was expressly made for the Western market; Studio Gallop animated the film at the request of the US distributors. After that, the franchise rumbled on, and on. Takahashi’s manga ended in 2004 after thirty-eight volumes, as did Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters
on Japanese TV. But then came the sequels and spinoffs, which are still being made today.
They included Yu-Gi-Oh! R,
a manga by Akira Ito, and Yu-Gi-Oh! Capsule Monsters,
a cartoon miniseries which again underlined how much the franchise was turning American. Capsule Monsters
was commissioned by 4Kids and was reportedly never released in Japan. Both spinoffs brought back Yugi and his friends, although other anime series introduced different heroes: Yu-Gi-Oh! GX
and the motorbike-themed Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s,
in which the players fight while burning rubber.
A snapshot of the franchise was provided in 2010 by the film Yu-Gi-Oh! Bonds Across Time;
this was a crossover adventure
which introduced the heroes of both GX
to the original Yugi.
Yet another spinoff began in 2011, Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal,
whose broadcast continued through unfortunate events in America. In March of 2011, Yu-Gi-Oh!
’s Japanese distributors began a lawsuit against 4Kids Entertainment, claiming they were owed millions of dollars. This led to 4Kids’ bankruptcy
that August, and Yu-Gi-Oh’
by Konami in 2012. (Konami was already a key part of the Yu-Gi-Oh!
having created the blockbuster trading card game.) As of writing, Konami still handles the franchise.
Yet another series, Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc V
began in Japan this spring, a full decade after the end of Duel Monsters.
A new Yu-Gi-Oh! movie
is now in the pipeline. Fancy another game, anyone?
Yu-gi-oh Duel Monsters is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.