How Yu-Gi-Oh Rocks at Storytelling

This post is about one of my favorite cartoons, Yu-Gi-Oh. Before you completely dismiss it–maybe you haven’t heard of the show, maybe you think it’s stupid, or maybe you just think reading about cartoons is a waste of your valuable time–I just want you to know that this post is also about writing a good story no matter what the format or who the audience.

Okay, so Yu-Gi-Oh is this anime-type cartoon that is probably meant for 10-year-old boys, but I love it. It is about this card game (which, honestly, I couldn’t care less about), and it stars, Yugi, a very small and good and loyal boy, who’s got himself possessed by an ancient (also good but powerful) pharaoh. And his friends. And the various bad guys who want to defeat him/take over the world, etc.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like anything special, but the creators/writers/animators of this show either really know what they’re doing in the storytelling department or have excellent instincts.

Characters: First we have Yugi, who is a cute little guy, easily pushed around physically, but has a strong loyal heart and always chooses to do the right thing. He runs the risk of being a little too perfect at times, but the complication of his pharaoh friend, along with being a weakling, keeps it in balance. And you have to love a guy who is so loyal to his friends he’d lose a championship to them and still be happy about it.

Next are his friends, Joey, Tea (with an accent on the “e”), and Tristan. Joey is an aspiring duelist and comic relief, Tea is pretty much a cheerleader (I like her the least), and Tristan is more of the muscle, though he has his own plot lines from time to time. They all can duel, though only Joey is serious about it. They always support Yugi, though Tea is also creepily in love with the Pharaoh.

Oh, and the Pharaoh counts as a character too, especially as the series gets toward the end. Apparently they used to duel real monsters in ancient Egypt, so Pharaoh is an excellent duelist and takes over for Yugi in his battles, though Yugi can still give input. The Pharaoh is good, but not as pure-hearted as Yugi. He definitely has a lot of sides to his character.

And even the more minor characters are interesting. There’s Mi (could be spelling her name wrong), a tough-girl duelist, only relies on herself, but ends up kind of falling for Joey, Kaiba and Mokuba (I’ll get to them later), and Bakura (Also, later), to name a few.

Some characters run the risk of being cliched, but they’re so entertaining to me, and the other elements work together so well I don’t care. What the show gets right is that every character has depth and has motivations and flaws and strengths, which makes good characters no matter the format.

Pacing/Plot: First, this show is really well balanced with high drama/excitement and humor, both physical and verbal. The stakes are also set extremely high. Normally, we really wouldn’t care if Yugi wins his stupid card game–not even Yugi would care, but if the life of his friends or even the fate of the world is on the line, then yes, we really want him to win. And there’s always something at stake. The stakes also build progressively through the series. First it may just be the need to stay in the tournament or teach some jerk a lesson, but then he needs to save his grandpa, and later his own soul from “the shadow zone.” All of humanity is at stake in the later parts of the series. Yugi is always fighting for something, so we always want him to win.

Now, these battles, especially the big ones, often take several episodes to finish, and that would be boring, especially to someone who doesn’t get into the card game aspect so much (though the monsters on the cards are displayed via lifelike hologram and sometimes the players even experience pain as they lose lifepoints). But they get the pacing exactly right. In a book you want your scenes to have a rise and fall–either start high and end low or vice versa. In Yu-Gi-Oh each episode has to have that rise and fall. Yugi never wins a battle easily. There is always a point where he’s about to go down and will suddenly spring back. Sometimes this happens several times in the same battle, but if he began the episode low, he’ll get high again before the end. (Though unless the battle has finished there’s always some kind of cliffhanger–which is how we are supposed to finish our chapters–so readers/viewers in Yugi’s case will come back for more.)

Sorry, this is getting long. Almost done, though.

Villains: This is the kicker for me, because I always love a good villain, and Yu-Gi-Oh abounds with villains of all types. First there’s Kaiba, my favorite character. He’s this rich kid who makes inventions that enhance duel monsters and he has no love of Yugi or his friends. He ends up on their side more often than not, though, often trying to save/protect his little brother, Mokuba. I love Kaiba. He’s such a jerk, but he’s such a great character. You can’t trust him, but he comes through when they need him.

Then there’s Bakura. This kid goes to school with Yugi and his friends (though they never actually attend this school, except rarely when shown playing with their cards at desks or getting in matches/fistfights before/after class). They call Bakura their friend, but for almost the whole series he’s possessed by an evil spirit that’s trying to stop the Pharaoh. Even after they know about this spirit they still keep trusting Bakura. I don’t know why they think he’s their friend at all since he only hangs out with them because he’s possessed. He doesn’t act like much of a friend, but Yugi and co. are just that nice. He’s more of an annoying bad guy, but he’s pretty formidable when they have to take him on.

And speaking of annoying bad guys, there are tons of minor guys, some recurring, that Yugi and his friends have to face. These are generally bullies and they get in the way, but they offer nice complications and side plots–a must in any long-running story.

And we have the big bad villains as well. These guys have pretty much no redeeming qualites (though there have been a few who have reformed–Pegasus, for example (the crazy creator of the card game who traps Yugi’s grandpa’s soul in a card to force him to fight in a tournament). They are ruthless and powerful, and their battles with Yugi take all his abilities.

Closure: And everything ends the way you expect. Yugi wins his battles even though it looked impossible, and he does it with skill and quick thinking, not luck. (You could consider drawing the right card at the right time “luck” but on the show that has to do with “trusting in the heart of the cards” which is sappy and silly, but it has to do with the themes of the show so I’ll allow it: trust, friendship, goodness). Even minor characters get closure, so everyone leaves happy in the end.

Maybe Yu-Gi-Oh isn’t a perfect TV show, but it’s done well, and I definitely appreciate it and enjoy it–me and a bunch of 10-year-old boys. 🙂


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