There is a rare bread of anime that manages to permeate itself into the mainstream popular psyche and ingratiate itself into the childhood memories of a generation. Pokémon, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and even Digimon, they all have experienced their own revivals or rejuvenation over the last number of years. It was only a matter of time before the King of Games stepped forward to reclaim his throne.
Yu-Gi-Oh! has always been a favourite nostalgic guilty pleasure of mine. As cheesy and over the top as any show about the ancient Egyptians settling their disputes through a children’s trading card game could possibly be, there was something about the series’ world-building and mythology the captured the imagination. In later years, the phenomenon that was Little Kuriboh’s Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series managed not only to begin a movement that continues with the work of Team Four Star, but also re-ignite our collective passion for the source material.
Set shortly after the original manga’s conclusion and the Pharoah’s ascension to the Netherworld, The Dark Side of Dimensions sees the ever-obsessed Seto Kaiba attempt to resurrect his fallen rival so that he can once and for all prove his supremacy. Meanwhile, Aigami: a character whose history is directly linked to the Millennium Items, is using a mystical power called the Plana to reshape the world to his liking. Yugi Muto, his grieving over the loss of his other-half, must use all his resources to prevent the world’s destruction and ensure the Pharoah continues to rest in peace. You know what that means? Its time to duel!
As par for the course as the plot may sound, the most shocking thing about The Dark Side of Dimensions is that underneath its well-assembled action set-pieces is a character study centred on the nature of loss. There is a solid argument for suggesting that Seto Kaiba, and not Yugi, is the main character of the film. Kaiba’s need for self-fulfillment demands he have a rival worthy of his talents and without the Pharaoh he struggles cope with his own genius. This obsessions manifests in the creation of VR technology, not for the benefit of mankind, but the potential digital re-incarnation of the Pharoah. When that he fails, Kaiba goes as far as to dig up the Pharoah’s grave to re-assemble the Millennium Puzzle in hopes that Yugi can once again channel the ancient King of Games. Nothing matters other than their potential rematch. Yugi, on the other hand, while still in a form of mourning has moved on. He looks to the future rather than the past and tries to embody the Pharoah’s teachings in his everyday life. Where Yugi accepts the Pharoah’s ultimate fate, Kaiba refuses to accept that there is something outside of the realm of his control. Even our ostensible antagonist, Aigami is struggling to deal with the loss of his mentor and what his legacy should be. All of our focal characters are dealing with loss in different ways and throughout the film come to terms with it in their own fashion. This could easily have been a surface level theme common in a lot of shonen anime, but there is a subtlety and nuance to how the film presents itself that surprised me. Exposition is still rampant, but the undertones of language and animation on display give this film a maturity that I was not expecting. This is not to say that the film takes itself too seriously, far from it, but rather than it treats its audience with respect. It understands that the main audience for this movie will be those who grew up watching the show. Without taking away what drew them to the series in the first place, it injects thematic elements that are considerate of how they have developed since the show’s end. The Dark Side of the Dimensions never forgets its pedigree, but neither does it fall into the trap of being bound by it.
None of this is to suggest that the film lacks in the comedy department. The melodramtic nature of the show’s premise was always a source of much humour, this is arguably the funniest that the series has ever been. At the Irish premiere, a full-theatre cracked up numerous times throughout the showing. The fact that Kaiba gets most of the laughs goes even further prove his main character status. Its clear that writers of the English-version were having fun balancing the freedom from old school 4Kids censorship with the need to keep some tonal consistence between the TV and film dubs. Some changes to the original script will be obvious, but it remains an accurate reflection and representation of the original work. If only the could have included a “screw the rules” references would could have all gone home even happier than we would have otherwise.
Presentation-wise, the film is spectacular. Whether it be Digimon Adventure Tri or Battle of Gods, anime re-union pieces such as this spend an inordinate amount of resources of ensuring that they maintain the style of the predecessors while also adapting them in light of new animation technology. The Dark Side of Dimensions walks that line appropriately blending new 3D techniques with the classic 2D material we’ve all come to love. From the sound department, major props must be given to the returning English voice cast. There will be some for whom these individuals will never live up to the Japnese seiyus , but for most the thrill of hearing Dan Green and Eric Stuart reprise their iconic roles will be enough. However, in just over ten years since the series finale, these actors have further honed their skills. This is the original English cast, but one aided by a fantastic director and experience behind them. The cheese is still on display for those who relish in it, but it has improved with age.
The music is an inspiring update of the dub’s original soundtrack that provides a consistent nostalgic background for the film’s many card-battles. The strategic use of the show’s main theme for pivotal moments provides a sense of gravitas for some of the film’s weightier scenes. It is the use of silence where the film excels. Throughout the film they are frames that become poetry giving nothing more than what the audience take from them. One scene, towards the end of the film, is one of the more poignant examples of silence in an animated film that I have seen for quite some time.
It is a movie that manages to mix hyperbolic, holographic card-game battles with and humour with an interesting story that is sure to satisfy long-terms fans. At times, the pacing may lag, but when a film manages to keep you consistently entertained over a 130 minute period, then the timing issues tend to fade into the ether. The Dark Side of the Dimensions is not going to set the world on fire, it may only preach to the converted, but it demonstrates that shonen anime need not sacrifice story-telling depth at the alter of entertainment. The final showdown is here, draw your cards and let’s duel.