Yu-Gi-Oh Was Weird, But Also Pretty Sexy

On a lazy evening a few weeks ago, Iain burst out laughing beside me on the couch. On twitter, he’d encountered a clip from Yu-Gi-Oh: the legendary Catapult Turtle moment from the first season.

“With my Catapult Turtle, I can launch my Dragon Champion towards your castle, shattering its flotation rings, thereby causing it to collapse on top of your monsters!”

“Is this real?” he asked me. “Does this actually happen, or is this like, a fan dub or something?”

Something rumbled deep within the depths of my teenage memories. Summoned from that dark, forgotten shadow realm, I had answers immediately. Passionate answers. “WELL,” I said, “that’s the 4kids dub, which was really bad. Like, worse than a fan dub. Also, they didn’t really follow the rules of the TCG in the first season — or much of the show, honestly. But, yeah. That’s definitely what happens.”

Let’s be clear: I was absolutely in love with Yu-Gi-Oh in middle school and early high school, and not because of the physical card game. Nope, I was in love with the series. That’s right: the “extended commercial” remembered primarily for its incomprehensible-even-by-anime-standards-hair and world-shattering, high-stakes… card games.

I fucking loved that shit.

Seto Kaiba in his detailed tight pants and amazing leather (?) jacket everyone wanted when they were thirteen and trying to be cool.

Most everyone has something like this, I’m sure: a show, story or film that you simply ate up when you were young, something you couldn’t get enough of. Something that consumed every ounce of your creative energy and passion.

Something that wasn’t accepted into the canon of lovingly-remembered childhood entertainment.

But as Iain giggled, repeating to himself, “Catapult Turtle, what the fuck?” I had a hard time shrugging off how much Yu-Gi-Oh had once meant to me. What was it about this show about card duels that straight up consumed me when I was a teenager?

That’s just it. I was a teenager: a hormonal, confused teenager, and Yu-Gi-Oh pushed all of my buttons. Unf. No, don’t give me that look, let me explain — !

Yu-Gi-Oh is, at a glance, a show clearly “aimed” in a traditional sense at young boys. The art is sharp and angular, and nearly all of the characters look perpetually angry. The female cast is rarely given anything to do (and when they are, they have names like “Mai Valentine”). But the fandom for the series I took part in over ten years ago was quite mixed: and, if I had to guess, primarily young women.

That’s because, for all of its attempts to be epic and masculine, everything about Yu-Gi-Oh is bizarrely sexual: so much so that confused, budding heterosexual teenage girls like me went nuts for it.

“Ryou Bakura is adorable and my body is reacting to this animated series in a strange way, please send help” — teenage me

Yu-Gi-Oh is full of sharp-eyed men who throw intense, powerful gazes at each other with alarming frequency. Its characters are long-limbed and slender. Almost everyone has ridiculously tight pants. They’re titillating archetypes, too: there’s Bakura, the white-haired, huggable introvert… with a dark secret! Yugi, the shy, bullied kid… who turns into a hero when his friends are in danger! And of course, Seto Kaiba, the rich jerk (with a well-guarded — but so, so sensitive! — heart).

I mean, come on. I’m 26 years old and I’m still biting my lip at this.

Yu-Gi-Oh’s themes aren’t heady: light vs. dark, good vs. evil, the works. But there’s one twist that captured my poor teenage imagination: many characters are two souls in one body, one good and one (presumably) evil. Hikari and Yami.

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that the fandom didn’t sometimes take this concept in extremely problematic directions, but god damn did I eat this up. At that age, we all dealt with our first questions of identity: who am I, exactly? I listened to Linkin Park and Evanescence in my room, pondering the meaning of my existence for the first time. Do I have a dark side? After all, sometimes I DO feel inexplicable, existential angst…!

Oh, the torment.

Enter Ryou Bakura. Ryou himself is shy, quiet, and often overlooked by his peers. He seems to be a sweet guy: pure boyfriend material. But the“dark spirit” that shares his body is a distinct contrast. Yami Bakura is conniving and cruel, but he’s powerful in a way that Ryou is not. You know, the reserved, gentle boy becoming dominant at the turn of a smirk.

Hoo, boy.


Beyond the overt sexual appeal, it’s easy to see the parallels to basic teenage identity crises: there’s Ryou’s vulnerability, but then there’s the power fantasy that comes out through his “dark side.” He presents the idea that even the meekest among us can hide something powerful and frightening within. Do I have a dark side? What am I capable of? We squirmed at the idea that even if they’re separate beings, both versions of Bakura are still him —both are responsible for the actions of the other, for better or for worse. Could I be a bad person deep down?

Malik’s alter ego isn’t a spirit, he’s a split personality born of Malik’s abusive childhood and trauma. “Abusive childhood” and “split personality” are pretty much every teenage writer’s first edgy story idea.

And I don’t even need to go into the inherently sexual nature of two souls fighting for control over the same body, do I? Dominance and submission, control and letting go. The fandom took this and ran — often straight into a, uh, troublesome, slightly creepy ditch. Use your imagination. Even in its least problematic form, Yu-Gi-Oh sure was an early outlet to explore a whole lot of kinky ideas (nsfw?).

In any case, teenagers dug this. I dug this.

Yu-Gi-Oh took all of our identity issues, all of our emerging questions of self, and manifest them as dark spirits who threw sexy, smoldering gazes at each other while they did battle in something called the Shadow Realm. For every Catapult Turtle, there was a vulnerable soul tormented by his sinister shadow. For every poorly-dubbed line (“what a digital dummy!”), there was a pharaoh with a mysterious past fighting to regain his memories, unsure he’d like what he found.

Both in really, really tight pants.

Oh, and I guess there were card games in there sometimes, too.

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