When most people think about Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, the first image that pops into their mind may be a bright red Duel Runner with its impossibly spiky-haired rider because, after all, a lot of people simply laughed, shrugged and dismissed this series based on four words: “card games on motorcycles”. However, you shouldn’t judge a card until you’ve seen its effect and the same rings true with Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s.
The third television anime series based on Konami’s best-selling trading card game, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s opens up with an introduction to “Satellite”, a run-down slum just a stone’s throw away from the luxurious metropolis of New Domino City. The two share a complicated co-dependence with each other, despite travel being prohibited and the clear class divide, with Satellite residents likened to vermin. Residing in an abandoned subway station with his friends, Yusei Fudo is unlike the peppy protagonists of Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s past in that he’s a stoic young man with one thing on his mind – revenge. Hailed as New Domino City’s “Master of Faster”, duelling champion Jack Atlas enjoys a celebrity lifestyle achieved through betrayal and now, Yusei wants to regain what he lost.
Now, before we go any further, there is one important rule to remember when watching Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s – don’t just suspend your disbelief, but leave it at the door. There’s no point asking why a children’s card game has a place in law enforcement, is outlawed amongst poorer residents or is important enough to resolve world-ending crises – it just is. There’s no denying that the series is a glorified advert for trading cards, but we just have to embrace it and enjoy the ride.
Manga Entertainment’s first Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s release contains a whopping 64 episodes spread across two major story arcs – the “Fortune Cup” tournament that serves to summon all our key players to the field together for the first time, as well as their battle against the villainous “Dark Signers” and their world-ending scheme.
This time is well-spent progressing the characters at a natural pace, with long-standing disputes being resolved, allegiances changing and individuals not only questioning their place in the world – but finding it too. The result is a largely likeable cast with believable story arcs that go far beyond the expectations of children’s television, with the most striking example perhaps being Akiza Izinski.
Possessing the ability to bring Duel Monsters and the damage they deal to life shrouded Akiza in a cloud of fear, with many labelling her a “witch” and driving her to seclusion behind the mask of the “Black Rose” – a chilling persona that takes sadistic glee in punishing those who would ridicule her. Although introduced as an antagonistic figure, over the course the season we learn of the scared flower behind the thorns and bear witness to the struggle with a cult she was led to call “home”. Akiza was easily the highlight of the series for me; her duels were often just as much a psychological battle as a trading card one and the instances where her psychic powers ran wild were some of the most atmospheric and visually striking of the series; the chaotic ecstasy on her face was incredible and her more sombre, reflective moments were the most emotional.
When combined with the series’ slow pacing however, this overexposure can quickly become a double-edged sword. Leo’s hyperactive and overenthusiastic attitude may be the norm for a young boy and bearable in small doses, but when a whole four episodes are dedicated to his duel and his sister’s frankly cringe-worthy escapades in the Duel Monsters’ Spirit World (talking monkeys are involved), it can start to feel like a chore. In general, duels are occasionally stretched beyond their natural length by periods of excessive monologuing with few cards being played and repetition of flashbacks.
Especially when taking the series’s age into consideration, I was impressed with the quality of both its 2D and CG animation. The addition of Turbo Duels (yes, the “card games on motorcycles”) adds a much-needed visual flare to duels, providing a more kinetic experience than just watching two people stand opposite each other (although those kind of duels still happen).
A few shots in the first season did look noticeably off-model and some CG movements were occasionally clunky, such as one scene when Jack Atlas effectively flops off his bike. The majority of the errors, however, were a result of 4Kids’ adaptation. On at least one occasion, the Japanese image of a card was replaced with an entirely different one, showing a Junk Synchron on Carly’s duel disk, despite the card being a signature of Yusei’s. There were a number of verbal snafus as well, with spell cards misidentified as traps on occasion and vice versa, as well as a surprising amount of misidentified monsters towards the end of the collection; which is especially unusual given that Junk Warrior has been used frequently since the very first episode.
As part of 4Kids’ now-notorious localisation process, it is to be expected that certain aspects will be toned down to match the target audience’s perceived sensitivities, but some of the edits here are borderline farcical. An example of this is when Yusei is injured following a duel and is carried away for immediate medical attention. Despite the obvious urgency from the rest of the cast, as well as visuals depicting bloodstains following his transportation and invasive surgery, the doctor performing the procedure is given lines diagnosing internal bruising! Now, I can totally get behind a world with soul-devouring trading cards, but life-threatening operations to treat internal bruising? Please.
Although the casting and vocal performances of the English cast leave nothing to complain about, the script’s over-reliance on quips can not only be annoying, but get in the way of characterisation. For example, whenever Crow duels with his Blackwing deck, you can bet that both he and his opponent will throw out any bird-related joke the writers can think of – which isn’t many, considering how many times I heard phrases like “birds of a feather”. I also wonder if one of the writers recently purchased a puppy when localising the earlier episodes and was just really excited about it, considering the number of random jokes about dogs that just felt out of place.
Ultimately, it would be foolish to simply dismiss Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s as a hollow product tie-in, because behind the trading cards lies an entertaining and heartfelt story that confidently speeds ahead of the series’ that came before it.