(Warning: This post contains spoilers for seasons 1-3 of the anime series Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters.)
Okay, so I know what a few of you may be thinking.
Yes, a good chunk of my last post was just me expressing my dislike towards a book character for being a snob. And yes, I’m aware that Kaiba isn’t that much different in that regard. In fact, he’s probably worse.
That was why I used to dislike Kaiba back when I was still watching Yu-Gi-Oh every Saturday morning on TV. He was a jerk. Plus, I always thought Yami Yugi was cooler.
Last summer, I decided to revisit the show and watch all of the episodes, including the later seasons I never got around to watching (but have a vague idea on what happened). I’m still not finished with Season 2, but it’s been entertaining and a bit nostalgic. Whether it’s in the original Japanese (the version I’ve been watching) or the edited English dub (the version I grew up watching), it’s still the same, over-the-top show.
And this over-the-top, unintentionally funny quality that this show has is what made me come to realize upon my rewatch how great Seto Kaiba is. A character like him is what gives this show its charm.
No, This is Not Just Some Regular Card Game
The world is in danger, your friends and family are at direct risk of losing their lives (or trapping their souls to the Shadow Realm, a punishment world filled with fear and darkness), and the only way to save everyone is to find the perpetrator and duel him in a card game.
There’s also an overarching “my alter ego is actually the soul of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who used to play this exact card game (but the monsters were actually real)” plotline, but either way, it’s clear that Yu-Gi-Oh has a ridiculous premise.
The show is sort of in an interesting spot where it takes its premise seriously, but not too seriously that it backfires and becomes not fun to watch. In Yu-Gi-Oh‘s universe, Duel Monsters is a global phenomenon. Everyone plays it. People can profit from the game, whether it’s on the dueling/competing or the business side of things (or both, if you’re Seto Kaiba). Maybe in the real world, Yu-Gi-Oh is just one of many competitive card games. In the anime’s world? It’s the real deal. And that applies to every life-threatening situation the characters are caught up in, no matter how unbelievable it sounds.
“I was forced to enter a tournament to duel the creator of Duel Monsters because I lost to him through a pre-recorded videotape, and he stole my grandpa’s soul as a result.”
“A stranger is sending mind-controlled minions out to kill me through duels, and the only way I can defeat him is to compete in a tournament that will also help my alter-ego regain his past memories.”
Say this to any sane outsider and they likely won’t believe you. Yugi and his friends are more or less thrown into the center of conflict, so they’re forced to accept the ridiculous situations they’re in. There is one recurring character who acts as the skeptic, and that’s none other than Kaiba.
And No, He’s Not Just Some Average Duelist (or Person)
Normally in a comedy or some show with a wild premise, there is bound to be a “straight man,” the one logical, sane character who provides a deadpan quip to whatever is going on.
Well, that’s not Kaiba.
Despite his reasonable-at-face-value skepticism towards the ancient Egyptian ties to both Duel Monsters and his rivalry with Yugi, he’s possibly the most ridiculous character in the entire series.
Let’s ignore that even though he’s only a high schooler, he is also:
- One of the top duelists and businessmen in the world
- The head of an entire company that had enough influence to turn an entire city into a Duel Monsters tournament
- The creator of every relevant technology for the Duel Monsters game (all holographic and VR systems the game is played on, the Duel Disk from Season 2 onwards)
Let’s also ignore that he can fly a helicopter and quickly hack into an encrypted system. And that he can disarm and physically fight people by throwing cards at them.
His insane accomplishments are already enough to deem him as most unrealistic, but that’s not what I want to get at. His priorities and motives are straight up the wackiest among all characters.
For the majority of Season 1, his motives were fairly reasonable — his little brother was kidnapped, and his company was in danger of being overtaken by Pegasus, the creator of Duel Monsters and the main antagonist for that season. This doesn’t apply to his first introduction (Episode 1), where Kaiba puts Yugi’s grandpa in shock/strain from dueling. Having obtained the fourth Blue Eyes White Dragon card, he then rips it up in front of Yugi and the others so that no one else will be able to use it. (The original Japanese anime explains that players could only have three copies of the exact same card. Kaiba already had three Blue Eyes.)
To put it simply, he tore up someone else’s card (after hospitalizing the poor owner) just because that card was his favorite card, and he didn’t want anyone else ever playing it. Calling his actions petty would be an understatement.
Throughout the entire Battle City arc (Season 2 and the latter half of Season 3), Kaiba participates in the city-wide tournament he is hosting. By participate, I mean terrorizing the opponent in every preliminary duel he’s in by playing his Egyptian God card every chance he gets. It’s like how for every one of his duels, he insists on playing and dealing a final winning strike with his Blue Eyes White Dragon — regardless of whether it’s truly necessary or not, he’s most likely doing it to flex.
In that arc, he has two main motives to duel. The first motive is to gather all of the three powerful Egyptian God cards for himself. The second is to duel Yugi (the only duelist he sees as his equal) again and win. They’re all just personal, selfish reasons. The looming threat the antagonists bring towards Yugi, Yugi’s friends, and the whole world? Kaiba doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t even believe in all that.
For Yugi and his friends, Duel Monsters at its core is supposed to be just a fun game. It’s just used by the series’ several antagonists as a means to fulfill their evil goals. It’s not the game itself that should be taken seriously (that is, to the point where they have to risk their lives) — it’s the stakes that have been set by the antagonists.
Kaiba, on the other hand, has it reversed. He doesn’t care when the Ghouls/Rare Hunters have kidnapped Yugi’s friends to lure Yugi out; it’s only once his little brother gets kidnapped as well does he help out. He lets Shadow Game duels go on even when the loser always ends up unconscious (either by God’s wrath or by Battle City’s antagonist Marik inflicting a punishment); he simply views these duels as a way for him to study the other God cards. He treats the game itself seriously, not just through the perspective of a businessman whose company is built around Duel Monsters, but also through that of a high-profile (and arrogant) duelist.
As a result, it’s actually quite funny to see Kaiba with a completely separate train of thought from pretty much the rest of the cast. If he were some random outsider, his general skepticism towards anything magical would be reasonable. The problem is that Kaiba has witnessed them all for himself. He becomes a victim to a Millennium Item in Season 1 (and still remembers it, although he insists it’s just some hack). He is also the first person to be told about the ancient prophecy and was even shown a vision of the ancient past as proof (to which he dismisses as some delusion). It gets to a point where you’d wonder if he’s just in constant denial the entire time or if he still genuinely believes they were all just some special effects or something.
The show itself is one you can’t really take too seriously. Seeing a character who’s relevant to the story and yet so out of touch with the ongoing conflict highlights this show’s charm. When it comes to popcorn entertainment, look no further to Kaiba’s narcissistic mind and dramatic actions.
Seto Kaiba may not be the best character in terms of likeability (although who knows, the “rude but strong archrival” archetype seems to be popular in general), but he’s easily first when it comes to entertainment factor.
Fitting for someone who wants to be the king of games.