Yu-Gi-Oh! fans may shoot me for this, but Yuki Judai is a good protagonist.
Why? Because he actually changes a lot through the course of the series. Not to say that Yugi and Atem from the original series didn’t change–they did–but the character development, especially for Yugi, were a lot more subtle. At the end of his journey with Atem, Yugi emerges into a powerful duelist in his own right, and truly becomes the King of Games when he defeats his darker counterpart. Judai’s struggle is more pronounced because the distance between where he starts and where he finishes are worlds apart.
GX evolves in much the same way as Judai’s journey. It starts off childishly, whimsically and then ends up in a darker, more adult-like place at the end.
Even in its cheeriest moments, GX is ultimately a tale about responsibility, a surprisingly heavy topic for a children’s card game series. What annoys a lot of viewers about Judai (Jaden for you 4Kids victims) is that he is not particularly responsible. He floats around, hanging out with friends, being your typical card-games obsessed teenager and somehow we give him flak because he’s so childish. He’s got the emotional sensitivity of a doorknob, doesn’t know subtlety if it bit him in the arse and is shamelessly upbeat.
Not that optimism is a bad thing necessarily but naiveté is dangerous. While Judai pulls through when he has to, he does it in a way that is so effortless, so nonchalant, so annoying heroic that we can’t help but grind our teeth a little at the ease in which he does it.
It’s not really until season 2 that we’re introduced (at least a little) to the idea of responsibility. In season 2, Judai suffers his first consequential loss and slowly realizes that hey, turns out that card games aren’t always just card games. It’s also in season 2 that the concept of destiny (a favorite theme in Yu-Gi-Oh!) is fully brought to the fore. Judai, according to Saiou, has the power to shape his own destiny and consequently is a threat to his world domination plans. The idea that Judai has the power to move not only his own fate but that of others is a sobering one. Losing isn’t something he can just laugh about—losing a duel now has consequences. And the stakes only continue to pile higher and higher, until we’re dealing with life and death.
What distinguishes these five duels from the rest are the stakes, execution of badassery, and symbolic oomph. Most fans will admit (myself included) that many Yu-Gi-Oh! duels are forgettable but the ones that stay with…well, there’s a reason why they stay with us.
5. Johan vs Judai
(Dark World Arc)
“Johan, if I can duel to save the world, just like you said…I [too] will fight for my own purpose! My deck…lend me your power so we can save Johan!” -Judai
Clocking in at number five is…yet another duel between Johan and Judai. I did say they have chemistry and man oh man, what better way to shower your best friend with affection than by beating them at a children’s card game?
You got to give GX kudos for biting the bullet of taking card games a little too seriously. While the concept of using a children’s card game to determine the fate of the world has been spinning its wheels since the glorious yesteryears of Duel Monsters, GX stands out in its dedication of canonical shipping.
You heard me right, folks. When it comes down to it, GX is a story about luuuurve. Not the fuzzy wuzzy, lukewarm fluff of your typical shojo romances. This is real love–love that is passionate, obsessive and occasionally downright twisted.
This duel scores high for some awesome combos from both sides. Advanced Dark gives the Gem Beasts a little extra boost (not to mention a wicked makeover). The Gem Beasts aren’t particularly strong on their own but they do they have excellent swarming ability and a gamut of spell card combos to back them up. Judai breaks free of his Fusion fears and accepts the responsibility of saving his friend.
Crowning moment of awesome: When Judai plays Super Fusion to fuse Elemental Hero Neos with Rainbow Dragon and bring out Rainbow Neos.
One theme explored in this particular season is the relationship between pain and love. Yubel is under the impression that pain is a form of love, which is why she inflicts pain on Judai as a way of expressing her love for him.
You’d think that her reasoning is off-the-charts bat-shit crazy but when you think about it the association between love and pain is actually not as counterintuitive as one thinks. For those who have felt the pangs of unrequited love or even affection that’s more intense than happy go lucky puppy love, we perceive love as something that is both wonderful and the same time, terrible, pleasurable and painful. Judai hesitates to hurt Johan because he cares for him but has to do so in order to save him. Along similar lines, Yubel thinks she has to hurt Judai in order to show that she loves him, because that’s what he did to her (albeit unintentionally) all those years ago.
Twisted self-gratifying love or the manliness of friendship–not hard to see what wins out here. If you’re wondering why exactly Johan didn’t disappear into little glowing sparkles, well…let’s just bypass that plothole, eh?
4. Judai vs Yubel
(Dark World Arc)
Yubel: All of this was just me trying my best to make you happy, Judai.
Judai: Happy? I’m happy? After my friends got hurt, suffered and killed?
Yubel: But that’s love, isn’t it? In tormenting you, I wanted to tell you how deep my love for you is.
Hands down, Yubel is the most interesting GX villain (though even 4Kids manages to simplify her complex character down a few pegs despite having so much to work with).
Like a lot of shonen shows Yu-Gi-Oh! has tended to shy away from any serious treatment of romance, which isn’t the most popular thing to run with the 6-10 year male demographic. But GX gets points for doing something different–Judai’s relationship with Yubel is a complicated one indeed, one that transcends time and space.
I’m not sure what to make of Yubel and Judai’s relationship in GX. And maybe that’s a good thing. YGO, despite being solidly shonen, has proven to be quite inventive in its moral paradigms. And its morally ambiguous representation of Yubel and Judai’s relation is perhaps the boldest and most complex relationship it’s had to show.
On a basic level, their tale is a sworn love that is forgotten. YGO loves its mythology, and GX ramps it up by giving our Yutagonist a past life as a king.
King Judai’s no Atem but he occupies a similar role as a dark defender. The archetypal sides of good and evil are inverted here, as per GX-style. Instead of fighting the darkness, it’s the light that one has to fear and prince Judai bears the heavy burden of being the chosen one to protect the world.
Yubel gives up his/her(?) in order to assume a form that will enable her to protect Judai. In the passion of impetuous youth, prince Judai, touched by her devotion, vows to love “her and her alone.”
Presumably, prince Judai dies while fighting the good fight with the light of ruin and later gets reborn as the duelist we know today. While Yubel sticks around with her beloved as a Duel Monster card. Yeah, that might put a hamper on one’s relationship.
Reincarnation is a tricky thing and memories become more of a curse for one who has an eternity to live. Chibi Judai isn’t interested in Yubel as more than a friend, let alone a lover, and is having way too much fun playing children’s card games with actual kids. When Yubel starts getting a little too possessive and strategically starts targeting his friends, he goes off and sends her away in a spaceship as a long-term “time-out”, figuring that maybe his card might get an attitude adjustment and start behaving less selfishly.
And here we have the reversal. Judai’s action was made out of kindness but the outcome actually was the cruelest. I mean, how was the kid supposd to know that there are nastier things in space than asteroids and black holes? An act of love twisted into a consequence of hatred. Yubel, to her credit, never stops thinking in terms of loving Judai. But thanks to the corruption of the Light of Ruin, her definition of love warps, and she comes to the conclusion that loving someone must involve hurting them. How else could she rationalize Judai’s actions for leaving her and hurting her?
In her eyes, Judai’s greatest sin is not so much for hurting her, though that’s certainly a major factor. Judai’s greatest sin is that he forgot her. Which is such a Judai-like thing to do. And a big no-no for sworn love.
Why this talk about love? Because it’s what’s reflected in the duel itself. Yubel’s deck, and her card’s ability, represent the selfishness of her warped love. As a protector, her card’s ability to negate all battle damage inflicted on her and reflect that back on the opponent really gives her credit as a formidable guardian. However, in battle, her card causes pain to others, while leaving herself, unharmed, something that she notes with regret.
In contrast to Yubel’s solitary love (her deck is essentially built around summoning her and sacrificing other monsters to do so), Judai’s Neospacian/E-Hero deck is built on the bonds of friendship and cooperation between his Elemental Heroes and his Neospacians. Individually, they’re weak but through the potential of Fusion Summoning, their powers transcend any limits.
Crowning moment of awesome: Elemental Hero Prismer’s special effect to turn into Fusion material for ANY fusion monster…holy gosh, welcome back Rainbow Dragon and RAINBOW NEOS.
“I’ve made many friends…and have learned this from them all…Real love is wide enough, large enough and deep enough to envelop the whole universe! Your so-called love is nothing more than your own self-righteous misconception!” -Judai
Like the numerous combos and special abilities of Judai’s monsters, true love is not something finite. Yubel argues that Judai’s friendships and formed bonds with others has diluted his love for her. She accuses Judai’s friends of stealing his love for her. Judai counters that she’s wrong and that love isn’t something easily quantifiable.
WTF move: Judai breaking every single rule in the game by using Super Fusion to chain Yubel’s Chain Material and fusing his and Yubel’s souls together to simultaneously save all twelve dimensions of the freakin’ universe.
A lot of viewers disliked the ending because it was just so…out there. I don’t mind the card deus ex machina—I mean, you have to remember this is YGO you’re watching—but part of me wonders whether or not Yubel should be forgiven. Or Judai, even. Though forces and powers beyond their understanding misguided them, they collectively killed and caused a heck a lot of suffering. Granted, his friends actually made it out okay for the most part (excluding the emotional trauma and other collateral damage), the duel is really of an ending of sorts in more ways than one. It’s not just an end to a season (the following episode is just the aftermath), it’s an end of Judai’s childhood. It’s an end to GX’s childhood. There’s really no going back to those light-hearted fun schooldays. Children’s card games just got serious.
3. Johan vs Hell Kaiser Ryo
(Dark World Arc)
“To have the best duel with the strongest opponent—that is my purpose for living!” -Hell Kaiser Ryo
With such a huge cast, it’s inevitable that some characters get shafted. Misawa’s an unfortunate example of this. Fubuki gets some of this. Kenzan’s character development is pushed to the side because goddamnit, Sho-senpai has an inferiority complex and has seniority rights.
But not Kaiser. Not Marufuji Ryo, who is indisputably the most badass GX character. Seriously, the guy doesn’t even have to try.
As one of the rare individuals that has defeated the Yutagonist, Ryo has a special place in YGO history. Although his Cyber Dragon deck and no-nonsense personality are alluded to the legendary trenchcoat-toting Blue Eyes duelist himself, Ryo is far from a Seto Kaiba. Sure there are some of the obvious similarities—they both have small helpless brothers who tend to get into trouble just by existing; vacillating between moments of rare consideration for others and just plain jerkassery; and having great senses of humor.
It takes (at least) two to duel but Johan, despite being possessed by Yubel and sporting an edgier, sexier(?) wardrobe is eclipsed by Ryo in this duel. And rightly so. Because Ryo isn’t just looking to duel—he is dueling for his LIFE.
“My heart will probably stop beating soon. In other words, my fight has no future. Until now, I never found the meaning in simply winning. But now, I’ve been able to get past that nagging issue. I’ve become Hell Kaiser and wandered about hell, and now…neither for the thrill of victory nor the fear of defeat, I want to shine through this moment!” -Hell Kaiser Ryo
Academy Kaiser was cool albeit a bit polite. Hell Kaiser was just a shy too manic and aggressive. In this season, Kaiser Ryo, in constant reminder of his mortality, meets a balance between the two duelist sides of him—the earlier side that championed respect and perfect combos and the later side that pushed for victory at all costs. We have a Hell Kaiser that’s a good deal saner and duels aggressively while maintaining a modicum of honor.
Some duels are private, but this one, in particular, is meant to be a spectacle. Ryo claims he is looking for a “place to die” but really, he’s not just going to let the writers write out his character without a fight. If he’s going down, he’s going to go down in a blaze of glory so big, so bright, the only thing you’d be thinking at the end is, “Why the hell did he not win?”
Crowning moment of awesome: Any time Kaiser opens his mouth. Every move Kaiser makes. “EVOLUTION BURSSUTO!”
“The Kaiser…he isn’t fighting to die. It’s the opposite. He desperately wants to burn his life, and leave proof of his existence for eternity!” – Judai
This duel’s all levels of inspiring and comes at a much needed time. Morale is at an all time for the survivors (I am astounded that Chronos is still alive at this point). Judai’s too scared to duel and Johan, after going AWOL for the last 30 or so episodes, comes back possessed. Yup, they need Kaiser to work his magic and save their asses before things. Down to literally the last few minute of his life, Ryo has nothing to lose and is thus immune to fear.
“In the future of a dead man, there is no fear!” -Hell Kaiser Ryo
WTF move AND Crowning Moment of Awesome: Kaiser using Cybernetic Zone to end his battle phase and then use Power Bond to revive Cyber End Dragon, all for the purpose of making Cyber End’s ATK raised to 16000…just to prove a point.
While you real-life professional duelists go on and shake your heads at the stupidity of Kaiser’s last move, I’ll go ahead and say that move was probably one of the most important dueling moves in YGO history. Why? Because in one mere turn, it captures the essence of Ryo’s personality and the spirit of dueling. Dueling (even when your life’s on the line) is something incredible and weirdly enough, enjoyable. Screw the heart attacks and the cruel realities of Dark World, Kaiser’s here to duel and damn it, enjoy himself while doing it.
Sure, we might get caught up into the fine practicalities of executing insane multi-card combos and winning, but really, that’s not what real dueling’s about. Real dueling is about being true to yourself, laughing in the face of defeat, and chilling the crap out of your opponent by playing the most ridiculously awesome moves you can play.
“After watching a duel like that, how can one laugh?” –Chronos-sensei
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