One last duel with some old friends.
One saturday morning around fifteen years ago, while on vacation, I flipped on the TV and caught a weird anime show about some kids playing a card game. Two young friends squaring off against a pair of brothers who did kung-fu flips between drawing cards and summoning monsters. It was silly. As I watched, though, I was drawn in by the inherent drama of a battle of wits and the relationship between the two friends. My verdict after was “curiously engaging”.
That show was, of course, Yu-GI-Oh and the episode was Yu-Gi and Joey vs The Paradox brothers during the Duelist Kingdom story arc. Though I let it go for the rest of the vacation I kept finding myself thinking about the show and shortly thereafter I started watching regularly on saturday mornings. Sure it felt weird being a married dude in my 30s getting into an anime aimed at the minds and allowance of eight year olds, but as I continued to watch I became aware of the really interesting story buried inside the commercial for a trading card game. As I do so often; I became somewhat obsessed.
Yu-Gi-Oh had great structure; each season had a story arc which built up to a large multi-season story. When season five was over (with a rather satisfying end I might add) it felt complete. I tried to get into the spin off shows but none of them had the same X Factor as that original series (and, yes, I know the series I’m talking about wasn’t the FIRST anime of Yu-Gi-Oh… calm nerd rage). My obsession waned but obsessions never go away; there is just longer times between relapses.
Now thanks to the home video release of “Darkside of Dimensions” I get to relapse again. Featuring the entire cast of the original series DoD picks up six months after the events of season five. Corporate honcho and duel master Seto Kaiba is still smarting from his duel loss to The Pharaoh (whom The Young Yu-Gi was a vessel for). He digs up the millennium puzzle that housed The Pharaoh’s spirit. Kaiba wants a rematch, see, and has nearly endless resources to commit to getting it. Kaiba’s reasoning is that if he rebuilds the puzzle the Pharaoh will return and Kaiba can best him in a duel.
Meanwhile a new character, Aigami (real name Diva so your choice), is stalking all the main characters. Aigami is the embodiment of a supernatural power that can change reality and he has a nasty tendency to banish people to another dimension with the help of something that is part Hellraiser puzzle box, part Rubix cube. Aigami (or Diva why he has an alias is never explained) lost his protector and teacher to an attack by the evil spirit of the millennium ring. The ring was a different artifact that had possessed Yu-Gi’s friend Bakura. This has left Diva (cause it’s easier to type than Aigami) emotionally scarred and clouds his stewardship of the supernatural power with a lust for vengeance. In an attempt to save Bakura from DIva’s banishment Yu-Gi (and Kaiba eventually) has to duel Diva who, not really having any common sense or immunity to dramatic irony at all, gets possessed by the millennium ring.
The title of the movie may be Yu-Gi-Oh but this is Kaiba’s show. Always the most interesting character; Kaiba has constantly straddled the line between antagonist and ally with Yu-Gi and his friends. He’s an arrogant prick but has the chops to back it up. Most of the conflict, and fun, is driven by Kaiba’s actions. As ridiculous as his motivations seem his drive and focus and quippy put downs (at one point Kaiba calls reality “Poorly designed” and claimes he would’ve fired whomever put it together) drowns out the lukewarm motivations of Diva. Making the main villain pale in comparison.
Yu-Gi and his friends fare much better but these ARE characters we know and love. Joey is still brashness with a heart of gold, Tristan the capable friend, Bakura (now rid of the evil spirit) the heartthrob and Tea the beating heart of the gang. At the set up they are all about to graduate with plans scattering the friends. It also injects a faint melancholy and sense of loss. All the characters have grown a bit. No one more than Yu-Gi who misses his partnership with The Pharaoh and is still working on accepting that loss in his life. This gets across the theme of letting go, what can happen if you don’t, and of endings which reiterate themselves through the movie.
As with all Yu-Gi-Oh shows the duel monsters play an important part in plot and suspense. In that sense DoD is a bit of a weird animal. Diva forces a new type of dueling called Dimension Dueling which moves fast and furious and doesn’t seem to really have any of the strategy that made the other duel forms so engaging. On one hand this allows big impressive CGI monsters to be summoned right out of the gate. And DoD doesn’t skimp on the big impressive part but on the other hand the speed of the duels undercuts the very thing that made the series so interesting. I kept coming back because I wanted to see how Yu-GI, Kaiba or Joey got out of the trap their opponent had them in. It’s hard to absorb any kind of logic behind the new rules before another towering, glorious CGI behemoth appears and unleashes a torrent of destruction. As overwhelming as the duels get it makes up for in eye candy.
The character designs have evolved with the times; the monsters are crazy, sometimes exhaustingly ornate. I could see a series of master level model kits not unlike Gundam hitting the shelves in Japantown toy stores and anime cons across America. The main characters look fresh with some variation on their old looks (Seto’s little brother Mokuba being the most pronounced moving to a business casual wardrobe).
The animation is pretty damn good. Sometimes a little too much; the dizzy 360-720 degree multi access camera spin around reveal favored in anime seems to be on a cocktail of cocaine and red bull for this movie. Every monster summoned feels titanic because the camera acts like a fly on speed buzzing around Mount Rushmore. Heady visual stuff. If it wasn’t anchored by quieter and willfully weird moments it would be too much.
If you’re scratching your head over the word salad I just served odds are this movie isn’t for you (how can a card game threaten the world?!?!?). Steeped in that story arc structure I mentioned in the first paragraph; DoD isn’t really designed to bring new people to the table. It is meant to be a final word. At least as far as original manga creator (and DoD screenwriter) Kazuki Takahashi is concerned.
All in all the story feels like an organic continuation of these characters and story. The affinity for Yu-Gi and friends/enemies and monsters is earned. In that way Dark side of Dimensions isn’t a sell out or selling something but a last loving look at something I obsessed over. Well worth the relapse.