Bend the Rules, but Never Break Them: Individual growth and systemic oppression in Yu-Gi-Oh!

By: Vrai Kaiser June 26, 20200 Comments
a bright neon-palette cover page of the main cast at an arcade playing various games and wearing very 90s clothes

Spoilers for the entire Yu-Gi-Oh! manga

Content Warning: Discussion of parental abuse, genocide, racism; NSFW images

Yu-Gi-Oh! has always been a series about dichotomies. The premise draws from the same well of ideas about “shadow selves” that would go on to make Persona 4 such a hit with the next generation of edgelord teens, and the legendarily brutal edit job it received during 4Kids Entertainment’s localization process granted it an eternal lineage of trivia articles about the Grimdark Japanese Original.

This is not strictly untrue–the manga includes plenty of body horror plus scattered examples of graphic violence, and the wisdom “There Are No Good Dads in Yu-Gi-Oh!” exists for a reason–but it also ran in Shonen Jump, a magazine aimed at teenagers that more often than not runs on capital-letter Good versus Evil.

While the series wants to tell a story about individuals overcoming their trauma and inner darkness, its strength at depicting individual growth often conflicts with the conservative social systems it ultimately upholds.

The Pharaoh and Yami Bakura dramatically throwing DnD dice. shared dialogue: This is is! The roll of life or death!

The Limits of a King of Games

The games the characters played were not played facing monitors, but facing other people. The opponents they played were the mirrors that reflected their hearts. In a basic sense, they fought each other’s spirits. Because this was a manga, it was deeply colored by the battle between good and evil, but I think the basis of the “game” was to clarify what lies between people.   

—   Takahashi Kazuki, Millennium World Vol. 7 Afterword

For those unaware of the series beyond the memes, parodies, and unkillable trading card franchise it inspired, the basic plot is this: Mutou Yugi is a shy high schooler who finds a strange artifact known as the Millennium Puzzle. When he solves it, the puzzle awakens a dark alter-ego that punishes Yugi’s tormentors by challenging them to high-stakes “Shadow Games.”

Eventually, Yugi learns that the puzzle is one of seven Millennium Items, and that his “other self” is in fact the soul of a Pharaoh who lost his memories. Together, the two of them must gather the seven dragon balls Millennium Items and return them to a tablet that serves as both the door to the afterlife and the seal of the evil eldritch god Zorc Necrophades. 

And yes: a substantive number of these earth-shattering battles are fought using a children’s card game.

SIlhouette of Yugi as anxious authority figures ask whether there are any GAMERS who could help them
I want you to know that there is not a drop of irony in my soul when I call this one of the most delightful shounen manga of all time

While discussing the significance of the series’ title (which literally translates to “King of Games”), Draw Two Cards co-host Kird noted that the most important defining characteristic of a game is its rules. As the King of Games, the Pharaoh is often forced to find cunning ways to bend the rules in ways that still technically follow the letter of the law, while his opponents, particularly early on, are punished for lacking the honor to engage him fairly by those same rules. 

In theory, the rules become an equalizing force that ties players to the same restraints, so that skill level is the only thing that matters. Even on its face, this is relatively untenable: it assumes, for example, two equally abled opponents, and becomes even more untenable on a meta-level when one considers the financial barrier to entry of a trading card game predominantly played on a competitive basis. But its roots stretch further. 

early design of the Pharaoh looking spooky, explaining that the loser of the game will face a "Penalty game"
Every day I wonder what the series would’ve been like if Takahashi had leaned further into those good, good horror vibes

While early volumes of the manga, like many of their ‘90s contemporaries, start out with a skeptical eye toward previous generations and authority figures, the story is increasingly limited by the unconscious biases of its author as it goes on. Yugi can broaden the definitions of masculinity to an extent, but he must still aspire to be a masculine man, with certain unspoken lines that cannot be crossed: he must eschew feminine-coded things like crying, and he must move away from his close bond with the Pharaoh and toward his crush on one of the series’ two notable female characters (the series’ queer-coding and particularly queer-coded villainy are too much to discuss here). 

Then there are those Bad Dads. The parents of the main cast might be largely disappointments failing to provide guidance, but no one quite crosses the line of telling characters they’re better off without those cruel fathers or outright breaking ties (unless you count one very justified murder, and even that character spends a considerable amount of page time wracked with guilt). 

Playing by the rules is what defines a game, but it doesn’t work when discussing societal oppression, and it’s when confronted with that fact that Yu-Gi-Oh! breaks itself. The deeper mythology of the series revolves around not just metaphorical but literal kings, which forces the series into conflict with questions it is unprepared to answer: what does it mean to follow the rules if one of the players is also the one who gets to make the rules?

young Pharaoh, Mahad, and Mana. subtitle: I'll create a world where everyone can live freely, where social status doesn't matter
The anime makes enough changes to several characters that it would require a separate essay, but I did feel like pointing out that the very low bar trope of “unusually egalitarian prince protagonist” is anime only. Just to set the bar for y’all.

Quality Characters, Questionable Plotting

The cards played a big role in the story, but more importantly, the characters’ hearts swung like a pendulum between the two sides which exist in everyone… light and dark, good and evil, kindness and anger. The cards expressed the pain and sorrow of this back-and-forth conflict, in the form of duels. 

But when a pendulum swings all the way around, it draws a circle, and that is the strength of the main character.

– Takahashi Kazuki, Millennium World Vol. 6 Foreword

Throughout the series, the writing makes strong individual choices for its characters only to undermine them by failing to acknowledge systemic issues. For Yugi, this means a character arc that values his kindness and empathy while also frequently falling back on scenes of toxic masculinity that admonish him to “be a man.”

For his friend Jonouchi, it means coming from a family torn apart by his alcoholic father’s gambling debts, only for the writing to completely ignore the impact this might have on his gambling-reliant deck. And for the show’s antagonists, the disconnect is even more pronounced.

"This will be a fantastic show to market to nine-year-olds!" a 4Kids executive declared just as this arc was being published in Japan
Yami Marik explaining how he was "born" as Marik's shadow self after a traumatic event
“This will be a fantastic show to market to nine-year-olds!” a 4Kids executive declared just as this arc was being published in Japan

Marik Ishtar, who was beaten, forced to live underground, and ritualistically scarred as a child in the name of protecting the Pharaoh’s legacy before swearing revenge, is painted in a sympathetic light. But rather than focus on the generations of horrors implicit in this idea, the story focuses on saving Marik from the literal manifestation of his own hatred.

This does, in a way, end the cycle of abuse, if only because the Pharaoh has now appeared and erased the need for the Millennium Items to be protected. But the writing feels the need to cap things with a justification that asserts Marik was, in fact, always meant to rebel and bring an end to the violence–not in a direct way, but because the Pharaoh would appear and teach him that revenge is wrong.The revenge he wanted…because of atrocities done in the Pharaoh’s name.

Marik's sister Ishizu delivering the moral that he was meant to rebel so that the Pharaoh could teach them revenge is wrong
Don’t think too hard about that tautology. Your head will explode.

Ironically enough, the closest the series comes to striking a balance between the systemic and the interpersonal is through former-antagonist-now-rival billionaire Seto Kaiba, whose primary personality trait is “raging asshole.” 

Kaiba not only overcomes the cruel, power-obsessed worldview beaten into him by his stepfather but also, after taking control of KaibaCorp, dismantles the company’s armament division and turns its assets solely toward game production and the construction of an amusement park for fellow orphans. He even, despite claiming to only care about his younger brother, increasingly takes on the shounen rival role of “helping while tsundere.” 

Of course, there’s no such thing as an ethical billionaire, and even this plotline suffers from the conflation of destructive anger with having any anger at all toward one’s abuser—but let’s throw the writing a bone here.

still image of the Pharaoh striding toward Zorc, who has a very phallic looking dragon appendage
Zorc’s legendary Dragon Dick was redesigned for the full-color Bunkoban release, but it will live on forever in our hearts (and the anime)

The Personal vs. the Systemic

“We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.”

– James Connolly

Discussing Yu-Gi-Oh! as a character-based narrative rather than a marketing vehicle requires reckoning with a few real-world factors. Namely, that Takahashi was incredibly ill from overwork while writing the last stretch of the story, to the point where he was hospitalized with ulcers. In addition, he was given a mandate by Shonen JUMP that he had six months to finish the series.

white text on black background, afterword in Japanese
white text on black background, afterword in Japanese
Bunkoban Vol. 20 afterword wherein Takahashi explains both his collapse due to illness while working on the final arc and the deadline from Shonen JUMP

The final “Memory World” arc, which—as the name might suggest—took place in the Pharaoh’s memory (back when he was still called by his given name, Atem) and sought to uncover both Atem’s personal secrets and the tragedy that led to him being sealed in the Millennium Puzzle in the first place. It is unevenly written, heavily truncated, and the generator of decades’ worth of fanfiction. It also exacerbates the inconsistencies mentioned in the last section by basically lighting the story’s morality on fire.

Much of the trouble revolves around the Millennium Items, which we learn were created by sacrificing 99 souls and mingling their bodies with gold. Moreover, the sole survivor of that genocide is the Thief King Bakura, a character who had previously served (in another form) as the ultimate scheming antagonist of the series. His speech during his initial appearance even actively calls into question the moral certitude of the Pharaoh (i.e. the hero). While this is not an unusual writing choice for Takahashi, it’s irrevocably changed by the fact that the stakes are now focused on greater systemic issues and leveled at characters with power over that system.

Thief King Bakura declaring his spirit is a god, not a demon, and questioning whether one need only side with the Pharaoh to be deemed "good"
These lines were all cut from the anime in favor of more Extreme Chin Action.

Even Marik, whose suffering was the result of systemic evils as well as personal ones, was a single person who could be symbolically saved, thus putting an end to centuries of cruelty. Even more importantly, Atem didn’t have the powers of a Pharaoh when he confronted Marik. He was a spirit with no memory of his past and little information beyond strangers cryptically informing him of his destiny; trying to save Marik was all he had the power to do. 

This is not so with Atem’s forebearers, who had the entirety of the kingdom’s resources and an assumption of god-granted infallibility at their disposal. We see the leadership of Takahashi’s Egypt, in order to repel an invasion, target a small village that it decided no one would miss—a village of thieves decried as untrustworthy; as drains on the populace. The bone-chilling similarity to rhetoric utilized in real-world acts of genocide immediately catapults the story out of whatever mythic bounds it still operated under.

montage page of the villagers of Kul Elna being murdered and melted into gold while a young Bakura looks on
I’m not saying Bakura was right except that is basically what I’m saying

Once the genocide is revealed, the story does everything it can to reestablish the mythic framing of its conflict. The complicity of Atem’s fore-bearers is handwaved away with the excuse that they were either unaware of the atrocity or secretly under Zorc’s influence from the start. The Thief King, meanwhile, is made to put on a magic evil plot device that immediately corrupts him; now a villain who happily uses villagers as shields rather than an avenger only noted to kill soldiers, he’s safely set up as a threat the heroes can feel justified in opposing. 

The manga’s disconnect between the personal and the political even extends to its treatment of race, as Takahashi includes an interlude explicitly decrying discrimination based on skin color…in a scene where malevolent brown-skinned Egyptians torment pale blue-eyed waif Kisara. True to the pattern we’ve discussed up to now, this explicit acknowledgement of racism only serves to draw more attention to the overall narrative and the caricatured designs of secondary and background characters of color.

It’s paper-thin plotting in a series where the characters’ struggles with personal morality were its strongest point, and Takahashi’s rush to finish by the deadline collapses the more compelling moral greys of the series down to its most regressive bones: the heroes are right because they’re the heroes. While Zorc might be meant to represent the darkness in all of humanity’s hearts, in practice he works as an external monster who removes narrative agency from the beings meant to have formed him. 

bakura talking to the ghosts of his village. the pun in question: I'd say 'welcome to our village" but as they'll soon's a ghost town
RIP Thief King Bakura, his true crime was an unrepentant terrible pun game

Zorc’s presence obliterates any potential for stories of well-intentioned people slowly tarnished over time and transforms the stakes into a simple binary, with those infected and irredeemable on one side and those pure and righteous on the other. Once you’ve broken the rules, there’s no coming back… unless there’s some kind of loophole that means you weren’t to blame at all.

Egypt is also not a made-up fantasy land, though the implications of that fact go beyond the scope of this article and this author. For now, let’s note the parallels to real-world histories and traditions as yet another reason why “Nyarlathotep made me do a genocide” is a less-than-satisfying narrative decision. 

cover spread of the Pharaoh in the background and smaller versions of the main cast to one side
Not even the cover pages could pretend Honda was important by the end

An Unfinished Puzzle

Yu-Gi-Oh! is a series defined by constraints: the illness of its artist, the compressed timetable mandated by Shonen Jump, and the real-world card game that was created part-way through the manga’s run and now defines the series. Hampered on multiple fronts, Takahashi still created a story that bursts with creativity and ambition. 

It incorporates elements of Jungian theory, Egyptian history, game design, and a truly stupendous amount of unacknowledged homoerotic subtext alongside compelling characters that still attract fans even if the final product is, if we’re all being honest, sort of a hot mess. It’s a puzzle composed of beautiful pieces, fit together wrong and missing parts of itself. Readers are left to imagine what best belongs in the gaps, and make peace with the jagged edges.

A 20-year-old shounen manga is not the blueprint that explains the world’s evils. But there is one thing that cheers me up: while the franchise at large embraced Duel Monsters for better or worse, Takahashi’s own art included a post-canon drawing of Yugi and Kaiba working together to test an entirely new game. In the same way, fans of the series can still take the lessons the series applied to personal growth, including its dogged insistence that it’s important to stay alive and keep growing even in the depths of despair, and take the next step to addressing those systemic evils. 

Even Takahashi himself seems to truly care about the state of the world, from despairing over the Iraq War in the 2003 Millennium World forewords to being forced to apologize for drawing anti-Abe Shinzo/Liberal Democratic Party commentary using Yu-Gi-Oh! characters–a good indicator both that even those of us with progressive intent are not immune to cultural biases and that it’s never too late to change for the better.  

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