Is it okay not to duel?
The Yu-Gi-Oh manga only ran for nine years — a small detail most people forget in colossal shadow the now multimedia franchise casts. During those nine years, Kazuki Takahashi, the managaka behind the original Yu-Gi-Oh series, produced thirty-eight volumes of material. But animation studios, particularly Toei Animation, were eager to jump in on producing the series into a break-out hit. Enter the illusive 1998 Yu-Gi-Oh anime, the predecessor to the far more popular 2000 Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters series.
Dubbed by fans as the “season zero” of the franchise, this series never (for better or for worse) officially touched the English-speaking coast. Instead, the series ran for only a year and ended on the perfect note to the dove-dive into what would later become the card-based phenomena Yu-Gi-Oh is today. For such a short-lived series, it also produced an equally short movie adaptation, which surprisingly does a lot when it comes to confronting the implications of the Yu-Gi-Oh universe’s weird mechanisms.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1999 Yu-Gi-Oh movie — simply called Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie — a fun little sneak peek of upcoming attractions for the series. The 1999 movie stands alone against the abridged adaptations of the manga that make up the majority of “season zero’s” plot-lines. Rather, it introduces a brand new character, Shougo Aoyama, an absolute wimp of a child who wouldn’t know a Duel Monsters card from Uno. This pattern of introducing new characters and plot elements out from left field definitely wouldn’t be the last for Yu-Gi-Oh — we have the Capsule Monsters mini-series and the Pyramid of Light movie to thank for that. This flick, if anything, serves as an entry point for anyone curious about the 1998 series.
Our hero, Shougo, has a problem — he just opened a booster pack only to find out that he pulled one of the strongest monsters in the entire game, the Red-Eyes Black Dragon. The doppelgänger to Kaiba’s iconic Blue-Eyes White Dragon. Utterly overwhelmed by this insane amount of power, Shougo decides his victory is already determined in any duel he plays — so he stops playing children’s card games entirely. Makes perfect sense. One of the best moments in this thirty-minute movie is Shougo announcing to Yugi and friends that he has the Red-Eyes, only for the camera to immediately switch to several shots of middle-schoolers dropping their monster cards in pure awe. It’s corny and over the top, and that’s exactly what Yu-Gi-Oh is all about.
However, Shougo’s character arc does pose a necessary question about the mechanics of this universe — what does it say about your personality not to play children’s card games with children? Are there any limits to what qualifies as a “bad” card-game player if they never touch the game in the first place? For once, Yu-Gi-Oh actually has the balls to include a character who never even duels and refuses to engage in the wackiness of this universe’s card game-or-death mentality. It’s as though the series, finally at the end of its lifespan, realized how silly these arbitrary rules were.
But it isn’t long until Kaiba and his henchmen find out about Shougo’s acquisition of the super-special Red-Eyes card. After doing everything in their power to kidnap Shougo, Yugi and Shougo manage to escape and hide in a bush. This is scene is actually quite sincere — Yugi tenderly puts his hand on Shougo’s shoulder and insists he needs to have more confidence in himself. It’s a rare moment of lucidity from Yugi, who finally realizes that Duel Monsters really is just a vehicle for dealing with the trauma of being bullied. Unsurprisingly, this motif would be emblematic of Yu-Gi-Oh’s more iconic villains, but here we see it depicted on naïve Shougo, who is probably wondering what the hell is wrong with Yugi’s pals in the first place. This scene is followed up with Joey, Yugi’s best friend, sneaking the Red-Eyes into Yugi’s deck so he can go participate in the competition Seto Kaiba (the world’s most angsty teenager) is hosting. Promised he won’t have to compete himself — and not be bullied as a massive failure for it — Shougo and Joey leave to spectate the epic duel that climaxes the plot.
Of course, this movie has a gimmick — it provides glimpses of Duel Monsters-era characters, monsters, and what would eventually become of the duel-disk device seen in the 2000’s adaptation. It’s a clever wink and nod, similar to how the first Pokemon movie previewed the generation two Johto monsters. It’s also quite nice seeing the character models from the 1998 series animated so fluidly, and the scenes with Kaiba ominously brooding are well framed. Kaiba’s design is notably identical to what would be used in the Duel Monsters adaptation, complete with an iconic shot of his trench coat flapping in the wind. It’s rare to see such a transitory piece of media acknowledge its own end. The 1999 Yu-Gi-Oh movie is self-aware that its time has finally come and now it has to pass the torch to a whole new direction in the franchise. Of course, none of this is overly sentimental and is mostly expressed in the epic clash of monsters between Yugi and Kaiba. It’s as though for a rare moment the viewer is peeking behind the curtain of an upcoming attraction, only to see that the show is already rolling.
For what it’s worth, the classic Yu-Gi-Oh anime is fully aware of what it is. I watched only a handful of episodes from “season zero” for context, and am pleased to report it still relishes in the campiness of the Duel Monsters series everyone loves. However, what makes the 1999 movie stand on its own is its acknowledging that its breaking its own rules. Rather than set up a straight-forward confrontation between Yugi and Kaiba, Yu-Gi-Oh‘s forgotten movie drives its plot in a relatively meta beeline before getting to the point. For once, it’s okay not to duel.
Beyond essentially being a promotion for the upcoming Duel Monsters anime, it’s also a special moment in anime where the viewer is able to properly see the exact moment of transition for a franchise. This isn’t just the changing of seasons, but of an entire creative direction and angle in storytelling that ultimately would make Yu-Gi-Oh the legend it is today. And we have this unassuming footprint in its media history to thank for it.