The Legacy of Takahashi Kazuki’s “Yu-Gi-Oh”Manga Anime Economy World
A “Card Battle” Manga that Won Fans Around the World
In July of 2022, a body was found floating in the waters off of Nago, Okinawa. The revelation that it was Takahashi Kazuki, creator of the manga Yu-Gi-Oh, sent shockwaves around the world.
Three months later, authorities reported that Takahashi, who had been snorkeling, died while trying to rescue other swimmers who had been caught in a rip tide. (The Japan Coast Guard knew of the details, but waited to release the information in accordance with the wishes of Takahashi’s family and those he rescued.)
Takahashi’s manga series Yu-Gi-Oh debuted in weekly Shōnen Jump in 1996. It starred Mutō Yūgi, a game-loving young man who completes an ancient Egyptian “Millennium Puzzle,” which awakens “another Yūgi” within him. Yu-Gi-Oh originally centered on how Yūgi cooperated with his dark alter ego to win all sorts of games.
At first, Yu-Gi-Oh was just a schoolyard drama, but a card game that Takahashi introduced into the storyline proved highly popular with readers. Soon, Magic & Wizards (or Duel Monsters in English translation) became the main focus of the story—transforming Yu-Gi-Oh, which had at one point teetered on the brink of cancellation, into Shōnen Jump’s star performer and later a global hit.
Takahashi, who was born in 1961, grew up loving the live-action sci-fi series Ultraman and dreamed of becoming a kaijū monster designer one day. He understood that kaijū were portrayed by people wearing elaborate suits, and so his drawings incorporated practical features such as breathing holes and entry points for the actors. In an interview in Jump Style, Takahashi would later reveal that many of the monsters he drew years later for Yu-Gi-Oh were based on these childhood designs.
In junior high school, Takahashi realized that he wanted to become a manga artist. He worked at it for years while commuting to trade school, and made his debut while still in his teens. However he failed to land a serial thereafter, leading to a decade of struggle.
In 1991, Shōnen Jump picked up his series Buray, but it was soon cancelled. Takahashi did part-time design work for video games to make ends meet, while submitting idea after idea to the publisher, which rejected them all. He has described how many times he walked away in dejection from the editorial offices in Tokyo’s Jinbōchō. But after a year, he devised the idea that would become his greatest success, Yu-Gi-Oh.
A Monster Earner: Magic & Wizards
Yu-Gi-Oh remains the top earner for Shōnen Jump, higher even than One Piece or even Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.
It isn’t the top in terms of books sold. But Yu-Gi-Oh is a super-performer when it comes to merchandising—namely, games. When the card game devised for the storyline was turned into a product, it proved a massive hit, driving revenues over the long term.
Magic & Wizards (Duel Monsters) is what is known as a trading card game. The original hit in this space was Magic: The Gathering, created in 1993 by the American firm Wizards of the Coast. The Pokémon Card Game debuted in 1996. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters Official Card Game arrived in 1999. Magic: The Gathering was made for adult players, but the Yu-Gi-Oh game was designed for children, who quickly made the game a phenomenon.
In trading card games, players organize their cards into decks that are played against those of their opponents. Unlike playing cards, they are sold in a huge variety of types, each with different characteristics, such as attack strengths or abilities. Among them are rare cards that are extremely powerful or have special powers, making them highly sought after by players.
Players begin by purchasing a set of cards, then improve their decks by purchasing additional cards. Cards are generally sold in sealed packs whose contents are concealed. So players often buy many at once in hopes of scoring the cards they need, trading off the rest to friends or selling them to collectible card shops.
The manufacturer produces perhaps one rare card for every 10, stoking the collecting passions of players. There are also extraordinarily rare cards only distributed as prizes in competitions or for participating in certain events. In 2000, one such card sparked headlines in Japan when it sold for ¥2.25 million at auction.
The Yu-Gi-Oh game won a Guinness World Record as the best-selling card game in history in 2011. In recent years, rare cards have continued to increase in value, with early rarities like “Blue-Eyes White Dragon” regularly selling for more than a million yen. And Japanese collectible card shops have noted an uptick in foreign visitors as well.
Shops often provide spaces for play, or hold competitions of their own devising. This fuels the desire for acquiring powerful cards. That demands both purchasing power and knowledge-gathering ability, but success is about more than either of these factors. As there are many types of magical and special ability cards, winning is as much about strategy as the power of your monsters.
Just as in the Yu-Gi-Oh manga, being rich isn’t enough to guarantee a win. Both strategy and connections among players play even more of a role than money.
The True Message of Yu-Gi-Oh
Yu-Gi-Oh showcases the battles between the monsters on the cards in a virtual reality with a manga flair. The dynamic contests are said to have been inspired by the scene in the 1977 Star Wars opener A New Hope, where holographic monsters fight atop a futuristic chessboard.
The introduction of the game made the manga incredibly popular. The monsters that appeared in the manga then became cards, increasing their popularity. And the 2000 animated series Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters proved an instant hit.
However, the true pull of Yu-Gi-Oh goes beyond “media mix” cobranding strategies or the game system.
Takahashi speaks of this in the afterward of the first collected volume of Yu-Gi-Oh manga: “Yu-Gi-Oh feels like a manga about a card game, but at its heart it is really a school drama. . . . Every character who appears in Yu-Gi-Oh has some sort of personal flaw, but just like the concept of the Millennium Puzzle in the story, each represents an essential piece to the bigger plotline.”
Neither the protagonist Yūgi, nor his friend Jōnouchi Katsuya (Joey Wheeler in English) or his rival Kaiba Seto, are invincible. Each has his own flaws. Sometimes these flaws cause them to lose. But they are not true weaknesses.
The characters learn to trust their friends, compensating for each other’s flaws, making each other stronger like pieces in a bigger puzzle.
This is portrayed even in the character’s names: the “yū” of Yūgi and “jō” of Jōnoichi combine to sound like yūjō, friendship—the central theme of the manga.
Friendship is about more than the bonds between individuals. It is about drawing strength from doing things for those other than yourself. Takahashi isn’t simply portraying this conceptually in his work, but also as an expression of his own personal experience.
Takahashi’s life ended tragically early, but the impact of his creation is still felt around the world, as first-generation fans become parents themselves and introduce their own children to the pleasures of Yu-Gi-Oh, ensuring that it will continue to flourish.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Yu-Gi-Oh Official Card Game is the best-selling trading card game in history. The Guinness Book of World Records also recognized Yu-Gi-Oh for being the subject of the most-attended trading card game tournament. © Nippon.com.)