A lot of strange things happen in the Yugioh TV show. Nevermind that the card game played in the show lacks any internal logic and is at best a sound and light show of cyclical dialog and high-stakes motivations–Yugioh is as brainless as cartoons get, but it can be a blast to watch if you buy into the drama, even just through nostalgia. But when you actually listen to what the main characters preach at one-another, the show’s moralization can be so contradictory, hypocritical, and broken, that it’s more enjoyable for its uncleanliness than for any kind of sense-making.
Let’s start with the first episode (of the American broadcast). In it, We’re introduced to the Duel Monsters card game, and to the incredibly rare Blue Eyes White Dragon card, by Yugi’s grandfather. Seto Kaiba shows up at Grandpa’s game shop and tries to demand that Grandpa sell him the card, but Grandpa refuses on the grounds that the card is too precious to him. Kaiba challenges Grandpa to a duel with the Blue Eyes at stake if he loses, and Grandpa accepts the gamble on the basis that he wants to teach Kaiba a lesson about the heart of the cards. However, Grandpa gets his ass wrecked, and Kaiba tears up the blue-eyes, sending Grandpa into such a shock that he has to be rushed to the emergency room.
But here’s the thing–everyone acts like Kaiba’s this massive dick for how he treated Grandpa and the Blue Eyes card… but Granpa was the one who accepted the duel and lost fair and square. Regardless of how Yugi then defeats Kaiba using the power of friendship and the heart of the cards, Yugi’s Grandpa failed of his own accord. If Kaiba had walked away without accepting Yugi’s challenge, yes it would’ve sucked for Yugi and his Grandpa, but it wouldn’t really prove Kaiba to be any kind of dick. If we don’t fall for the fact that Yugi is the main character, and therefore is the one we’re supposed to root for, it’s easy to see Kaiba as in the right here.
In the proceeding episodes, we are presented with someone the show considers a cheater: Weavile Underwood, who throws Yugi’s all-powerful Exodia cards off of the boat on the way to the Duelist Kingdom, and who’s had a sneak peak at the secret rules of the island’s game. There’s no doubt that Weavile is an asshole, especially for trashing Exodia, but the idea that he’s more of a cheater than Yugi and friends for these actions is kind of backwards. Yugi gets Joey onto the boat, even though he was uninvited, by giving him one of his star chips, and later does the same with qualification cards for the playoff tournament. Yugi even coaches Joey through his early duels and gives him a bunch of cards to beef up his deck. Not to mention that Tristan and Tea sneak onto the boat illegally to get to the island. Calling Weavile a cheater for reading the island rules early, then turning around and telling Joey the rules in the middle of his match with Mai Valentine, stinks of hypocrisy.
When Yugi and Kaiba duel in the middle of season one, Kaiba cheats in a different way, by standing on the edge of the castle roof, claiming that if Yugi finishes off his life points, he may be knocked from the castle and die. In this case, Kaiba is again treated like a bad guy, and is moralized at by Tea who claims that in giving up, Yugi showed he was twice the man that Kaiba was, and that his life is fuller because he has friends and Kaiba has nothing. However, Kaiba’s motivation for dueling is to save the soul of his brother Mokuba, just as Yugi wishes to do for his Grandpa. Yugi’s preaching about the heart of the cards and fighting for loved ones suggests that by having the drive to fight, the player is going to succeed because the cards will hear their desire to win. However, even though Kaiba’s desire is stronger than Yugi’s, Kaiba loses the match. To recoup his loss, Kaiba ensures victory through his ploy, meaning that in the end he was more willing to go the distance for victory than Yugi was.
What is the suggestion here? Should Kaiba have lost on the faith that the power of friendship was going to help him in the end? That’s what Tea seems to think, as she uses her friendship powers to get Yugi his star chips back and get him back in the game. Meanwhile, despite growing to trust in the heart of the cards, Kaiba loses his match against Pegasus, against whom Yugi later wins. Sure, Kaiba’s achieves his endgoal anyways–the power of friendship does prevail, but what made Yugi’s way of going about it the way of victory and not Kaiba’s?
Bear in mind, none of this is really complaining. Yugioh’s morals are unclean because the show isn’t really about morals. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the friendship morals only exist in the first place because this manga ran in Weekly Shounen Jump, and series in this magazine are literally forced to carry themes of friendship (which is why they all feature it so prominently). However, while some manga in the magazine actually take the themes to heart and make them work as part of the narrative structure and purpose of the story (like One Piece, for example), others just blindly shout about friendship and use it as a magical reason for the main character to succeed. Why does Yugi always draw just the right card? Because he’s morally superior! How is he morally superior? Because he’s the main character!
But again, the show has no internal logic to begin with. Duel Monsters makes no sense, the rules and the cards in the main characters’ decks are all ass-pulls, and dramatic twists and turns in the story rarely have any import on the unfolding of events. Yugioh is not a logic puzzle, and it’s not like watching a chess game. It’s not meant to be smart or tricky, it’s just a really over-the-top series of dramatic reveals that are at best fun to watch unfold.
While I wouldn’t recommend Yugioh to anyone who hasn’t seen it for these reasons, I find myself enjoying the show because it’s so broken that it’s impossible to begrudge. There’s no expectation that anything is going to make sense, because it never has. The dialog is so silly and repetitive, the duels are so overly dramatic, and the game makes so little sense, that it’s really just about fist-pumping to the insane shit that happens more than anything. Can I really be bored when a character screams “the entire space time continuum is going crazy! Eons are passing by in seconds!” while symbols of all of human history pass through an on-screen vortex, all to represent characters playing a card game? …yes, I probably could, but twelve years of knowing and even kind of caring about a lot of these characters and duels ensures that I’ve got enough to go on.