Yu-Gi-Oh! is one of those prolific anime that needs little introduction to the world at large. Its cultural penetration is tremendous, and its characters and monsters are iconic. The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime is also a series from a bygone era of heavy localization for Japanese cartoons, and one consequence is that, in many ways, the show America received and then exported to the world is significantly different from the original. It’s a song and dance as old as anime in America, but the result is that audiences potentially come to enjoy each version for differing reasons as well.
The Japanese and English versions of Yu-Gi-Oh! (Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters in Japanese, to distinguish it from a previous anime by Toei) are not wholly dissimilar. They both feature over-the-top personalities fighting for their lives and dreams through a trading card game. But when looking at the presentation of characters, music, and duels, the two diverge significantly—perhaps to the extent that they could be regarded as two different shows—even when factoring out what would be called censorship, e.g. removing references to death or religion.
Characters between versions of Yu-Gi-Oh! are generally the same archetypes, but there are instances where they vary greatly. Anzu Mazaki is nowhere near as friendship-obsessed as Tea Gardner. Katsuya Jounouchi doesn’t have the Brooklyn accent, but he’s still kind of a delinquent with a heart of gold. The biggest example of character disparity is undoubtedly Seto Kaiba.
Viewers familiar with Kaiba’s English incarnation know him as an extremely arrogant bully who almost can’t help but simultaneously self-aggrandize and belittle others every time he opens his mouth. He also has an extreme skepticism towards the occult to the extent that even when transported to an ancient, illusory world, he maintains that it’s all holograms.
Japanese Seto Kaiba, while still arrogant, is nowhere near as condescending. Instead, he’s more curt in his speech, and comes across as a no-nonsense individual who has little time or concern for goals outside his own. He’s also extremely intense about the things he cares about, puts himself into every duel, and is more willing to believe in the unknown than his English counterpart. What’s more, while both have fierce rivalries against Yugi, the Japanese version is more willing to give respect where it’s due, even if grudgingly.
Neither is necessarily a better character, but the way they approach scenes with their different personalities shapes and transforms the overall feel of the anime. Scenes of Kaiba in Japanese that are about emphasizing his passion become scenery-chewing exercises in English. Characters in the English Yu-Gi-Oh! can come across as practically parodies of their Japanese versions (which, as an aside, makes Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged all the more interesting).
To a generation of Yu-Gi-Oh! fans, “It’s time to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-duel!” is a downright iconic refrain. The music in the English version is made to sound tough and cool, like whoever or whatever it accompanies is a ridiculous badass. Though the Japanese music can also be described with similar adjectives, it comes with another dimension—a sense of personal emotional weight.
Take for example the second opening, “Shuffle,” by Okui Masami (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Scrapped Princess). There’s energy and excitement, but also dread tinged with sorrow. When the chorus hits, there’s a swath of emotions telling the audience that the stakes are high. Those feelings come across, likely even if the listener doesn’t understand Japanese.
English Yu-Gi-Oh! has one opening theme, whereas Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! has five distinct opening themes, so it’s possibly unfair to compare them when the latter has so many opportunities to change. But one element common to all the Japanese themes is a sense of melancholy mixed with power. While that is arguably just a product of the tendency for anime songs to add some sadness, it still means the Japanese series front loads the expectation that the story is an emotional trial.
Because of the character and music differences, the duels themselves take on distinct feels, despite the fact that they play out largely the same way in both languages. In English, the duels act as wild displays of the characters’ ridiculous personalities. When Kaiba or Yugi pull off some combo and win the game, it’s like the cherry on top of a cake of absurdity. When a character then explains the logic behind their actions (keep in mind that they pretty much make things up as they go along), the response I have is, “Sure. Whatever you say.”
In Japanese, however, because all of the characters carry a greater sense of personal conviction, and the music is filled with greater variations in emotion, the duels reflect those self-serious attitudes. Even though the actual moves and explanations are more or less similar to the English version, the Japanese characters deliver every word like it’s the most important thing in the world. When hearing them explain their actions, it’s easy to feel as if everything they say makes complete sense, even when it doesn’t.
Both versions create tension and end up in the same positions in terms of story, but what draws viewers in to keep watching the duels feels like the difference between an action game and an adventure game—similar in many ways, but different upon closer inspection.
Nostalgia plays a tremendous role in how Yu-Gi-Oh! is remembered. Those who grew up with one version or another might very well be as attached to them on a deep and personal level. The desire for the “original” can also fuel disagreement over which version is better. The fact that the Japanese version came first arguably positions it as the “true” story, even though it is adapted from a manga and has its fair share of filler arcs. But even when factoring out nostalgia and reverence for the original and/or “Japanese-ness,” the two versions are different enough that, if you were to re-dub the entire series with the same English voice actors but with a script and music closer to the Japanese version, the experience would be quite different. The English Yu-Gi-Oh! makes the series feel more like an exercise in excess and bombast. The Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! leans more towards melodrama and intensity.
At a far enough distance, the distinctions made above between English and Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! can seem trivial. Being built from the same core, they capture a lot of the same important points in terms of story and character. But it’s because the disparities appear mainly when taking a closer look that feelings about which iteration is better can be so strong. Viewers were treated to different sets of emotions and different images of the characters. One version does not wholly deliver the desired effect of the other, leaving those unfamiliar with the “other” either unsatisfied or intrigued.