“You used to be a part of me, but then you weren’t. And then we had to face each other in a duel, a duel to determine whether I was ready to stand on my own. And when I defeated you, you left us. You left me. Forever.” – Yugi Moto
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when I first watched the Ceremonial Duel that brought Yu-Gi-Oh! to a close. We might have had over 220 episodes, but Atem’s departure felt abrupt, premature, gone all too soon. Like a whirlwind, he was here one day and gone the next, but leaving us all fundamentally changed in his wake. Regardless of whether you grew up watching the notorious 4Kids English dub with Mr. Dan Green (the show’s saving grace) or suffered through the hilariously bad pirated fansubs to get the fully uncensored and authentic Japanese dubbing experience, the image of Atem’s calm smile, of his retreating back as he walks into the light, still burns bright in the memory of every Yu-Gi-Oh! fan.
When Kazuki Takahashi in December 2015 announced a sequel–not a half-assed attempt to sell more trading cards–but a bonafide sequel to tie up the loose ends left by the gaping hole of Atem’s departure, I was both thrilled and wary at the same time. Few Yu-Gi-Oh! fans can wax poetically on the movie installments in the franchise. Will they finally get a movie that’s both visually stunning and poignant? What could a movie add to an already perfect ending?
It’s taken me well over a year since its North American release, but I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and watch it properly. And man, what a watch it was. After screaming on Twitter, I’m coherent enough to put my thoughts to paper. Here we go.
[Warning: Movie spoilers ahead]
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions is a story about many things, but at its core, it is a story about loss. It is a story about unfinished business. It is about death and life and coping, that is, everything in between.
Like the triangle of the Millennium Puzzle, this movie follows three narrative threads: Yugi, Kaiba, and Diva, our obligatory Yu-Gi-Oh! movie-only antagonist. Their threads, though not immediately apparent, all intersect and tangle wonderfully as they go head to head in some electrifying and amazingly animated duels.
Yugi’s thread is the most straightforward and perhaps the one we are most familiar with. Although not as immediately obvious as Kaiba, Yugi’s conflict, though perhaps the most understated, is the one that perhaps feels the keenest. Six months later (according to the tagline, but in all honesty, the timeline feels like a few years later) is far too short of a time to have moved on. Even as Yugi and his friends go on with their regular lives, with plans and dreams for the future, there is a void to be felt in the warm scenery of Domino. Yugi’s neck feels bare without a familiar heavy chain and puzzle to encircle it. They don’t play Duel Monsters in class. Yugi looks at his own deck, his beloved ace monster on top, with eyes that have gone to the end of the world and back. Even in the joy and laughter of graduation, of chasing after new dreams, of moving forward, Yugi’s heart isn’t quite yet ready to move on, not yet. He’s still fixated on that final duel, of his last moments with his other half, of words that were left unsaid.
“I know it was for the best, but I just wish I had one more chance to let him know what he meant to me.” – Yugi Moto
Although Yugi was indisputably the closest to Atem and therefore the one who most directly impacted by his passing, it is Seto Kaiba who has the most difficulty with acceptance. Kaiba has always been a man of extremes, the very opposite of Yugi’s mild temperament. It’s all or nothing for Kaiba and the loss of his greatest rival has broken him in ways he can’t even begin to admit.
Where Yugi contemplates, Kaiba acts. They are both creators in a sense, what with Yugi’s new interest in game-making (rather than dueling) and Kaiba’s unbelievably infinite funds to pour into creating something as ridiculously exorbitant as a space elevator and an upgraded duel disk system that breaks more laws of physics faster than you can say “My turn.” But unlike the gentle warmth of Yugi’s dream of creating a game that could be shared and perhaps inspire the next generation of gamers to dream and play, Kaiba’s creations seem colder and selfish in comparison, but somehow also pitiable at the same time. Space station! Space elevator! Duel disk that uses the neural signals in your brain to bring your duel monsters to life! Inventions that are marvelous in their own right but all entirely focused on creating the conditions to bring back the dead. Kaiba joins a long retinue of Yu-Gi-Oh! antagonists who become too entrenched in the past, too obsessive with trying to unearth skeletons that are best left in peace, too fearful to cope with the pain of losing someone dear. Watching Kaiba wrestle with all five stages of his grief (the ending suggests he never quite reaches acceptance) is both darkly humorous for its absurdity but strangely poignant. We pity Kaiba but at the same time, we’re cheering him on, too, because there’s that little bit of Kaiba inside of us, that selfish part, that wants to see Atem come back.
Yugi: “He’s gone, Kaiba. He’s gone forever. I’ve known it, deep down in my heart.”
Kaiba: “You lie.”
Aigami, or Diva for his true name, is the odd one out in our triumvirate in that he’s the only one who doesn’t want the Pharaoh to return. The Pharaoh’s return would mean the end of the Plana, this mystical power to bend reality to one’s will, bestowed by children gathered under Shadi, who hoped the children would serve as the force of justice to balance out the evils of the world after Atem’s passing. I’m not sure I trust Shadi’s judgment given that he picked traumatized children who look like they need therapy and time to heal from their scarring life experiences, but in any case, Diva’s no emissary of justice and makes little distinction between criminals (there’s a bit of attempted underage pornography soliciting that’s tastefully censored in the English dub) and the ones that get in his way. While Yugi looks to the future and Kaiba’s mired in the past, an embittered Diva rejects both, going so far as to reject the world as wretched, unsalvageable, and beyond redemption. He favors fashioning a perfect world of his own making, a premise Yugi is quick to shoot down. Nothing good can be created from a foundation of hatred.
“You say that we hate? From what I’ve seen, that’s all that fuels you. So there’s no way you could create a world without it.” -Yugi Moto
Clocking in at just over two hours, The Dark Side of Dimensions is sprawling and meanders but is a generally satisfying watch. Diva is a serviceable antagonist, with a background that is more fleshed out than his predecessors. He’s not inherently evil, but rather misguided by fear, and only “becomes” truly evil when he’s possessed by the dark magic of the Millennium Ring. The most compelling part, of course, is watching how Yugi and Kaiba cope with Atem’s death. For the longest time, Kaiba has always been Atem’s foil, but here, we get to see how their philosophies (and their dueling styles) differ.
What I love about Yu-Gi-Oh! is its commitment to dueling as a metaphor for how one lives. Yugi’s deck, though it features cards like the Dark Magician and Dark Magician Girl, staple cards in Atem’s deck, is a deck that is entirely his own. It is whimsical, agile and surprisingly tricky. Atem was a much more straightforward duelist. Yugi’s heavy use of counter traps that often reverse the flow of attack in his favor showcases his strength. He’s not a power duelist like Kaiba, but someone who is excellent at using his opponent’s strength against him. There’s a playfulness in his deck that Atem’s deck never quite had; it’s a fun deck. Kaiba’s deck, of course, despite its shiny veneer of newly tooled Blue Eyes White Dragons, has only changed superficially, and mirrors his similar fixation on the past. Yugi’s deck speaks of his homage to his shared past with Atem but indicates his willingness to walk forward. Kaiba’s deck, while formidable in its own right, seems strangely stagnant. The cards may have different names but his dueling hasn’t really changed at all.
Feature length movie means feature sized budget. And wow, what a budget they have poured into this love letter to fans. The cinematography is great and there are quite a few beautifully animated scenes. The 3-D animation adds a futuristic sleekness that was never capitalized well in Bonds Beyond Time (which worked more as a movie with 3-D effects rather than a 3-D movie), but it’s executed well here, making the duels more fluid, life-like and exciting.
Updated monster designs are a mixed bag for me. Perhaps it’s the old fogey fan in me, but I find the updated Blue Eyes White Dragon design more clunky. I love the simplicity of the sleek lines of the original art.
I particularly loved the scenic shots and camera angles of the lingering, quiet moments: of AI!Atem walking to meet Kaiba inside a cathedral, of belying peaceful Domino at night, of Yugi, Joey, and Tea just taking in the view next to the bridge, of Yugi pensively standing in the Kame Game Shop. This movie moves through so much content, with so many scene changes, that it’s really nice when the story slows down to breathe. The 4Kids English dub is decently faithful to the spirit of the Japanese script, and while you’ll still cringe at some of the reworked dialogue, there are undercurrents of snark and powerful one-liners that pack quite a punch. Yugi and Kaiba’s interactions are easily among my favorite interactions in the entire movie. I love confident Yugi, and seeing him portrayed here really helped me realize that, and to see how much Yugi really has grown over the years. Even Kaiba seems taken aback when Yugi, while pleasant-mannered, isn’t afraid to call him out and makes it very clear that one doesn’t mess around with his friends, whom he will protect with his dying breath.
Supporting characters, in general, were well used here. Tea takes a bit more of a backseat, Tristan even more so. Joey and Bakura get more development here, though they function more as characters for plot progression. One of my favorite scenes is when Joey and Yugi confront each other after Joey is miraculously saved from death by dimension, through the power of friendship. One adaptation change I disliked was the handling of this scene. The Japanese version makes it clear Joey was able to prevail through his willpower and his memories of his friends; the English dub implies Atem somehow intervened. Joey’s about to tell Yugi about seeing Atem but at the last minute, he changes his mind.
“I just wanna say…thank you.” – Joey Wheeler
This is such a perfect scene. It’s understated, speaking of calm acceptance. What would be the point of telling Yugi about his Atem sighting? Joey holds back to reinforce the message of Yugi moving forward, of them all moving forward. Not that Joey isn’t grateful for divine intervention but that isn’t the focus. Their focus is on the here and now, of the future, they will shape together.
A few notes on the ending…
The inability to find closure is something Yu-Gi-Oh! is a bit notorious for. It seems almost fitting that a series centered on resolving unfinished business would end up being…well, unfinished. I admit balking to the ending when at the eleventh hour, a fading Yugi is rescued by Atem, who arrives in a blazing column of furious light. He doesn’t speak, which is a rather telling detail that suggests he may not actually really be there as a person but as some kind of abstract force of divine intervention. Having Atem come to Yugi’s rescue seems to undo all of the character development we’ve had with Yugi here, and seem to undermine the overall message of moving on and standing on one’s own. So what were the writers smoking?
“You have your bond with him and I have mine.” – Seto Kaiba
The core of Yu-Gi-Oh! has always been friendship. And in light of this, I can understand why the writers chose this particular ending. With his Life Points whittled away to a wisp, his nearby friends fading into unconsciousness, Yugi stands alone in the darkest hour. At this point, he doesn’t really have anything left to prove. He’s beaten Diva. He’s backed Kaiba into a corner in a duel he would have most certainly won had obligatory movie villainy not intervened. Yugi has shown again and again he is a worthy duelist, one that Kaiba has been forced to acknowledge (and we know Kaiba only tag team duels with duelists he deems worthy). We know how strong he is…so why have Atem come to the rescue?
Because in Yu-Gi-Oh!, one never saves the world alone. And in a stunning reversal, with Atem’s help, they draw the card they need to win. Atem doesn’t speak. He merely exists to act as an arm of Yugi, to carry out the final turn. It’s a poetic call back to when Yugi plays Dark Magic Ritual face down in their duel against Pegasus, a move Atem carries out on Yugi’s behalf when he is unable to duel.
And in the aftermath, like their duels so long ago, they face each other. Yugi gets the closure he needs and the Millennium Puzzle magicks itself out of existence. The hands of time move onward. The power of Plana fades, Yugi having chosen to place faith in the future. Amazingly, everyone lives and they all step forward into the light once more, ready to face what lies ahead.
But what about Kaiba?
I think it would have been more poignant and less heavy-handed to not make it as clear that Atem had intervened beyond the grave, though the sentiment of friendship prevailing beyond time is an appropriate one for Yu-Gi-Oh! (not to mention there’s a delightful irony in having a ghost tie up loose ends…ahhh, why I love this show so). Yu-Gi-Oh! was never a subtle show to begin with, but count me in among the flabbergasted (and yet somehow highly entertained) when we’re treated to a post-epilogue scene of Kaiba using the Millennium Cube’s dimension manipulating powers to travel to the afterlife, a journey that he presumably may not return from, given how his reply to Mokuba’s pleads to return is to relinquish control of his company.
Mokuba: You’re coming back, right?
Kaiba: Mokuba, you’re in charge.
Even in the end, Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions is a finale that remembers its roots in duality. Like the sides of a flipped coin, or the sides of a Duel Monsters card, everything in Yu-Gi-Oh! comes in two. While Yugi chooses life, accepting the reality that all beginnings come from endings, Kaiba chooses death, and in the eternity of endings, finds the beginning he seeks. It’s not a happy ending, but Yu-Gi-Oh! has never touted itself for completely happy endings. I’d even call it grim, but in a twisted way, even Kaiba gets the closure he needs.