Director Satoshi Kuwahara assigns Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions one job: melt the audience into a puddle of nostalgic bliss by whatever means necessary. The film completes its task with aplomb. Whether subbers or dubbers, audiences will commune with the voices of the past—the grating, oddly-accented, quirky vociferations viewers thought they abandoned in the ashes of Kids WB. Visually, the film stays true to its roots, keeping the franchise well-positioned for another win at the year-end Weirdest Character Design Awards. The aesthetic mirrors the original season but brushed over with big-budget lacquer. The card battles mix 3D and 2D models serviceably, with all the pyrotechnics and battle flash one expects from feature-length shounen affairs—solid animation for the entirety of its 130-minute runtime. While the narrative never reaches Shakespearean heights, TDSoD rarely fails to rebound from its foibles with charming naivete.
We open in outer space–Seto Kaiba engaged in his nightly brooding ritual, in which he endlessly ponders his own magnificence while simultaneously wishing death and torture to anyone willing to interfere with his quest for trading card dominance. Meanwhile, Yugi, cheerful after expelling the ancient Egyptian gaming spirit from his soul, leads his half-witted card-gang to another day at Short Skirt High. And, true to expectations, the reunion of the original duelists triggers nostalgia and reveries of days when children gathered at school recess and deluded themselves into thinking they knew how to play the game correctly (“No, my Red-Eyes beats that card because Joey plays him in the show. Oh, and I just played these five Trap Cards at the same time, so you lose.”).
Unfortunately, the mysterious Aigami, master of fifth-wheelery, shatters Domino City’s Edenic peace. He fulfills his role within fifteen minutes by exposing the High School’s underground amateur porn ring. Meanwhile, Seto Kaiba (the actual villain) simulates his impending manhood-measuring contest with Pharaoh Yugi (Atem)—a no-holds-barred, techno-proxy, monster mash in which Kaiba’s Ultra Neo Gutenberg Ultimate Blue-Eyes White Dragon dukes it out with Yugi’s Hyper Dark Black Magician + Sexy Lady Black Magician combo, both duelists shouting their respective strategies over a technicolor warzone. The dual duel-villains, now thoroughly introduced, proceed to teeter and totter the plot for the remainder of the film.
In fact, the writers go out of their way to demonstrate the incomprehensibility of Aigami’s “plan” for revenge—something about sympathetic wavelengths, collective awareness, trans-dimensional kidnappings (and the dark sides of said dimensions), piranha minds, and factors of seven. The demi-antagonist has ample time to explain all the metaphysical nuances of the Yu-Gi-Oh cosmos (and squeeze in a quick duel) due to a Kaiba Henchman’s hilarious request for exactly “thirteen minutes” to undo the insane security system he just spent all day installing around the Millennium Puzzle. Indeed, the lion’s share of dialogue comes across as self-aware—cognizant of its own hyperbole and comfortable with it. Instead of pouring the conventions of the show into a mold of fabricated gravitas, the writers let the franchise stay true to itself: overblown, campy, and obsessed with card-based monster fights.
That being said, the film’s pacing suffers from Aigami’s dubious origins and general distractibility from the more important showdown. Apart from his ill-conceived moral fables, Aigami’s utility begins and ends with his providing an excuse to resurrect Yugi’s pharaonic alter ego. The pseudo-villain’s very existence exemplifies the writers’ penchant for making too much work for themselves. A straightforward boss battle between Atem and Kaiba would satisfy most. Besides dead-weight characters, the writers slog through concepts like mental duel projection systems and interdimensional travel and insist on explaining them in excruciating detail. Yet the film’s frenetic cardgasms, and Kaiba’s highly entertaining exercises in egotism heal its narrative wounds and ensure that the viewer always has some nugget of fun to savor. Despite the story’s artificial seriousness, TDSoD never takes itself too seriously.
In keeping with the core principles of the series, the writers design the plot to function as a glorified connect-the-dots activity—a procession of side-shows punctuated by duels. Besides enhanced graphics, the movie does nothing to elevate its trademark card battles beyond a Youtube Let’s Play Yu-Gi-Oh! channel. Each duel serves as a commercial for the TCG. Characters highlight arena quirks and introduce new monsters with larynx-shredding passion and superciliousness—a marketing technique Yu-Gi-Oh and other toy-tie-in anime have long practiced. Loyal to the cards above all else, Kuwahara reserves a whopping forty-five minutes for the final confrontation between Yugi, Kaiba, and the other bad guy.
The film culminates in an impromptu mega-tournament, so Kaiba can reveal his Links Omega Drive Super Explosion Platform to the world, and, of, course, summon his eternal rival just to promptly destroy him in the card game to end all card games. In the process, we learn that (as long as one yells loud enough) any rule makes sense, a dragon’s name can never have too many adjectives, one should always stay hydrated (because passing out increases the risk of spirit possession), and Dark Diva’s not nearly as cute as Aigami.
An outsider to Yu-Gi-Oh might walk away from TDSoD befuddled, ears ringing from the incessant screaming, but oddly titillated. The film flounders when overshooting the franchise’s conventions and straying from its traditional relationships, but, for fans of the game and the original show, The Dark Side of Dimensions‘ successes outweigh its failures. Viewers who fondly remember early Saturday mornings spent with Yugi in The Duelist Kingdom will enjoy hearing the voices of their childhood and seeing Domino City’s newfound visual sheen. Consider the nostalgia bait taken, Studio Gallop. Well played.
Good For: nostalgia junkies, Yu-Gi-Oh fans, dragon collectors, platform jumping tips.
Bad For: fashion advice, fun haters, science lessons, seekers of deeper meaning.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger