Why Yu-Gi-Oh is Actually About Dealing With Childhood Trauma

By Blake P.

The first time I re-watched the Yu-Gi-Oh anime as an adult, I realized Seto Kaiba—the cocky teen CEO rival to the series’ protagonist Yugi Muto—seriously needs therapy. Now I look back at those pretty, leather-clad boys and think about all the VHS tapes of the show I recorded as a kid—my awkward adolescence was fucked up, but then, so was the concept of ancient Egyptian monsters terrorizing children in modern Japan. Actually, it’s no wonder that I ended up being a hyper-conscious mess—just look at Kaiba and his maniacal obsession with his signature monster card in the game of Duel Monsters that completely defines the Yu-Gi-Oh world: the Blue-Eyes White Dragon. Kaiba’s  trying to compensate for something he never had as a child, something I also desperately want to reclaim again.

I revisited the anime because of Duel Links, a mobile game based off the Yu-Gi-Oh franchise. Starting the game, you assume the role of either Yami Yugi, a reincarnated Egyptian king, or Seto Kaiba. You’re mostly slamming down powerful Dark Magicians or Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards to make grade-schoolers cry—in a matchup between an overly-serious, absurdly dressed rich main character and a small child, you’ve got to feel bad for the kid named “Josh”.

It’s weirdly cathartic bullying these kids with my holographic monsters and collecting the winnings like some power-hungry tyrant. The game makes you feel good being the bully—a somewhat uncomfortable experience that led me to reflect on my love for Kaiba’s character. What I realized is that despite all his callousness, I loved him because—like most angsty teen anime boys—he was depicted as doing everything he could to compartmentalize his trauma.

Power Fantasies and Children’s Card Games

When first played Duel Links, I felt an emotional whiplash as raw as a Blue-Eyes White’s lighting blast. It was overwhelming to hear my childhood cartoon crushes speak to me again—most of the original voice actors reprised their roles for the game. The art style was highly reminiscent of the anime, and it’s easy to forget, playing it, that it’s not 2008.

It’s far from a perfect game—it employs a predatory gacha model—but it captivated my  depressed college self, temporarily taking me away from everything and making me forget I’d ever left the world of Duel Monsters. It reminded me of browsing early galleries of shippy fanart and sappy fanfiction on now defunct webring sites. While real-life power-hungry CEOs are inherently gross, I absolutely had a preteen fantasy of kissing Seto Kaiba and flying away on a beautiful Blue-Eyes White Dragon. It was a fantasy much in the vein of Kaiba’s quest to be something his father wasn’t—by transforming his multinational corporation from arms manufacturing to games development, obsessing over being the best card game player in the world, and generally living his best self-indulgent life.

In the anime, Seto and his little brother Mokuba were adopted by corporate scumbag Gozaburo Kaiba after Seto—seeing the CEO as his ticket out of orphandom—beats Gozaburo in a game of chess and insists on being made his protegé. But Seto has no clue what awaits him in the abusive Kaiba household, as it turns out that Gozaburo has machinations of his own—he merely adopted Seto to motivate his slacker son Noah. One striking scene has Gozaburo forcing an exhausted Seto to study his textbooks while yelling at him to stay awake.

At the risk of being too personal, this scene could easily have taken place in my overachiever household. In retrospect, it’s pretty disturbing—Yu-Gi-Oh didn’t hesitate to straight-up show how abuse manifests in families. But Seto was being groomed for success, whether he liked it or not. And once Gozaburo kicks the bucket, Seto takes over the Kaiba corporation, changing its focus from military weapons to gaming paraphernalia.

Yu-Gi-Oh did a great job of showing us how awful dads could be. Stories like Kaiba’s are a resonating fuck you to toxic parents who leave their children to sort through the wreckage of traumatic childhoods. For me, these stories were escapes that offered hope—the tragic anti-hero always gets to redeem himself and ultimately come out victorious against his awful family members.

The Dream of Getting to Tell Off Your Dad

Yu-Gi-Oh is primarily about a card game, ancient mysteries, and the “power of friendship.” But it also sometimes has a surprisingly nuanced way of exploring heavier subjects. We only get bits of Kaiba’s past across several seasons, never getting the whole picture until Kaiba is finally ready to face his trauma head-on. It was inspiring when Kaiba finally realizes he has to turn inward and conquer his own personal demons in order to defeat his rival Yugi, especially as a kid who only had the vaguest notion of what constituted mental health.

Abusive parents in kids’ shows are rare—what’s even more rare is when the kid is allowed to get revenge. And Yu-Gi-Oh gave its viewers just that. In one story arc, Kaiba is forced to duel a virtual reality copy of his father’s consciousness to prevent him from stealing his body to reclaim control of his corporation. Gozaburo later abandons this plan, instead attempting to extend his patriarchal ambitions over the entire planet by trapping the Earth’s population in his virtual world. But this harrowing situation turns out to be an opportunity for Kaiba to say all the things he never got to when his father was alive. He defeats Gozaburo, showing him that he’d become a confident, capable adult despite the trauma his father had heaped on him—the ultimate fantasy for an abused child.

Kaiba’s story arc showed me there was nothing wrong with telling your horrible parents to screw off so you could go screw the rules yourself. He realized what it meant to be a kid tossed into the adoption system without any guidance—not to mention having to protect his brother from bullies. And he had to grow up too fast, a responsibility that far too many of my classmates shared in grade school.

The Yu-Gi-Oh boys became an early refuge for me, a home away from my tumultuous single-parent household. I could relate to their androgynous appearance, project onto them and their inner lives as they spilled their hearts out over card stratagems. They were clever when they needed to be and somehow always had the right move up their sleeve, a deus ex machina that always worked out for them when a duel went bad. If the villain won, it was only a temporary victory—the goodness of duel monsters would inevitably shine through. Just believe in the “heart of the cards,” as Yugi so frequently says, and everything will be okay.

The Drama of the Gifted Child Duelist

It’s strange imagining Seto Kaiba admitting himself to therapy, but I don’t necessarily think he’d turn down the idea either. This is a man who, despite his icy cold exterior, wants to do what’s best for himself and those depending on him. Like Yugi, he genuinely feels for certain people, but—and this is the case with Yami Yugi in the early manga as well—can quickly become vicious if you don’t pass his moral litmus test. Unlike Yugi, Kaiba doesn’t keep his opinions to himself, and he definitely didn’t wait to call out bad people in his life just for the sake of keeping face.

His cruelty in the show is explicitly a cruelty bred from years of abuse. It’s a survival mechanism. In the early episodes he was especially vindictive, and while there’s no excuse for somehow sending your main protagonist’s grandfather into a coma by beating him in a card game, it’s harder to condemn his hatred for his father. Yes, trauma can leave you bitter, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person.

After the first season, while Kaiba was busy in the Duelist Kingdom tournament trying to beat Yugi, his father’s corporate henchmen were trying to take back the Kaiba Corporation. It’s technically a filler arc—an anime-only storyline meant to give space for the manga to get far enough ahead of the show—but it’s also a sad reminder that, no matter what Kaiba does to move past his family trauma, it keeps rearing its ugly head. Unfortunately, this is a repeating trend in the series, which wasn’t exactly a subtle message to me at an impressionable age: no matter what you do, trauma will remerge and ruin everything you’d done to work past it. Great. But in this case, at least, Kaiba eventually comes out on top.

I Have a Blue-Eyes White Dragon Jet, Your Argument Is Invalid

I projected so heavily on Kaiba and his strange manifestations of trauma that I never realized how truly blown-up his personality was, how exaggerated and self-important his feelings were, until I went to see The Dark Side of Dimensions in 2017—the reboot movie meant to be the anime’s true ending. The entire world had to know he was the best, had to see his face on giant screens across Domino City, hear his voice booming from every microphone. It was a little shocking to hear Kaiba’s original English voice actor Eric Stuart again after so many years. But it was also a reminder of what attracted me so much to this series in the first place.

In an interview in preparation for Dark Side’s American screening, Stuart commented: “Some people think he’s [Kaiba] a villain. I think of him as a rival… If he were truly just a villain, he’d be evil, and he’s not.” This captures the essence of Kaiba’s character—he’s always seeking competition, to overcome his rival, but never out of malice or spite. If anything, it’s an attempt to prove to the world that he isn’t that weak, frightened kid anymore.

Just look at the movie’s post-credits scene, where Kaiba pilots a personal jet designed to look like a Blue-Eyes White Dragon into the past to duel the Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. It’s completely ridiculous, maybe a little sad, but altogether amazing. It was the self-indulgent cherry on top of years of waiting for Kaiba to finally get what he wanted. For all his flaws, Kaiba turned his angst into a bombastic self-declaration of his worth.

Some of this is unrealistic—most abused kids don’t get to become teen CEOs with dragon planes and holograms at their disposal. But Kaiba’s grandiosity masking depression is in fact exactly how many neglected children cope in adulthood. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller says that “The grandiose person is never really free; first because he is excessively dependent on admiration from others, and second, because his self-respect is dependent on qualities, functions, and achievements that can suddenly fail.” Sound like any dragon-loving reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian priest you know?

But in Yu-Gi-Oh, trauma can be re-visited and conquered—not in a therapist’s office, but in a holographic card game arena. And in the end, you get to define the rules for yourself and break out of destructive family cycles. Of course, in real life, we don’t get to finally shut our parents down in virtual reality card games—we have to do the hard work of accepting and integrating our childhoods to grow as people. But even so, as I watched these characters as grow into themselves as young adults, I knew that I could do it too. I could become someone stronger, even in the company of monsters.