On July 7, 2022, authorities in the town of Nago, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, found manga creator Kazuki Takahashi unresponsive in the water. The 60-year-old author had been out sightseeing alone and was found wearing snorkeling gear. He seemed to have suffered an accident in the water and was pronounced dead at the scene. After the media in Japan shared the news, Takahashi’s fans around the world offered an outpouring of grief.
While Takahashi began his manga career in the early 80s, he struggled to find success. His earliest titles, Fighting Hawk and Tennenshoku Danji Buray, are now beloved by diehard fans, but they aren’t the comics that put him on most fans’ radars.
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Instead, it’s his 1996 smash-hit Yu-Gi-Oh! that made him a household name in both Japan and the US. Yu-Gi-Oh! follows the adventures of a timid young boy named Yugi Mutou, a middle school student who finds it hard to make new friends but loves playing all manner of tabletop games. Yugi’s life changes forever when his grandfather gifts him a strange artifact from his recent trip to Egypt.
Kazuki Takahashi was born Kazuo Takahashi but changed his name at some point before he began publishing comics in Weekly Shonen Jump. He was born on October 4, 1961, in Tokyo, and started his career in comics in 1982. His earliest comics weren’t commercially successful, but he remained undaunted and continued to try his hand at various titles.
In 1996, he found success with a manga centered around playing tabletop games. Takahashi himself was an avid gamer, often telling reporters that he loved to play card games, mahjong, shogi, and even tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. As Yu-Gi-Oh! grew in popularity, Takahashi introduced new games and scenarios for the young protagonist Yugi to learn and master.
One such game, called Magic and Wizards in the manga, was clearly inspired by Wizards of the Coast’s hit trading card game Magic: the Gathering. While Magic and Wizards wasn’t initially the focus of Yu-Gi-Oh!, fans enjoyed the one-off storyline so much that Takahashi decided to center more of the manga’s plot around the card game.
The first several chapters of Yu-Gi-Oh! followed the adventures of a young gamer named Yugi Mutou as he came to terms with the Egyptian artifact his grandfather had gifted him. The artifact, called the Millennium Puzzle, had apparently stumped archeologists, and Yugi’s grandfather decided that his genius grandson would be the right person to try to solve it.
Yugi struggles with the artifact until finally solving it, revealing that it’s a pendant to be worn around the neck. After solving the puzzle, Yugi is confronted by the spirit of a long-dead Pharoah, though the Puzzle’s magic makes the Pharoah look like an older version of Yugi. The Pharoah is capable of “taking over” for Yugi in intense situations and helps him win dangerous games against bullies and criminals.
Early in the series, Yugi and the Pharoah mainly play games of chance against gangsters and con men. The two are able to bait evildoers into playing the sweet-looking Yugi before having the Pharoah “step forward” and hustle them out of their money. This era of the manga is noticeably darker and more intense than the future chapters, surprising some newcomers who only know the franchise from its card game and anime adaptations.
Once Takahashi realized how popular Magic and Wizards had become among his readers, he swiftly reconfigured the manga around the competitive card game. Yugi’s friends all picked up the game, and their favorite cards were able to act as visual representations of their personalities. Takahashi’s love of the classic manga JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure became clearer at this point, with each character’s favorite cards functioning in a role similar to JoJo’s mystical “Stands”.
Magic and Wizards became so popular that Takahashi saw an opportunity to create a real-world card game inspired by the rules he made up for the fictional product. Rather than use the legally-dubious name Magic and Wizard, the manga (and anime adaptations) rebranded the game as Duel Monsters. In the real world, the game is called Yu-Gi-Oh!, and it’s been one of the most popular tabletop games in Japan and the US for over 20 years.
Around this time, anime and manga were experiencing a major surge in popularity in the West. Massive properties like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z were already popular among fans in the US, and Yu-Gi-Oh! was perfectly positioned to capitalize on the success of these series.
Yu-Gi-Oh! skyrocketed to success in the West due to a huge marketing push from publisher Konami. The franchise, including translated versions of the manga, anime, and card game, all hit the US in the early 2000s and became immensely popular. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records called Yu-Gi-Oh! the bestselling trading card game in the world. At the time, it had sold over 22 billion cards worldwide, and today it has brought Konami over $9 billion in revenue.
Most fans discovered the game through the anime, which features characters like Yugi and his friends playing the card game in high-stakes duels against villainous opponents. In the show, characters use futuristic stadiums that can create holographic representations of their cards, making the games much more cinematic and eye-catching than a simple game of Magic: The Gathering.
The anime later introduced Duel Discs, a piece of wearable technology that allows characters to play their cards on a wrist-mounted apparatus equipped with holographic projectors. This freed the characters from the arenas and allowed them to duel each other anywhere in the world–and, naturally, these eye-catching devices became must-have toys for young fans.
Massive Media Franchise
The franchise expanded beyond just anime and a tie-in card game, too. Konami quickly created a series of video games, adapting the card game’s rules to various systems. These games proved extremely easy to market. Konami could essentially print money by including exclusive cards for the tabletop game with the video games. This all coincided with the franchise’s explosion in popularity in the US, but Takahashi decided to end the series in 2004.
Fans were so ravenous for more content, however, that Takahashi returned to the series as a supervisor to oversee future entries in the world. Naoyuki Kageyama wrote a follow-up manga called Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. This sequel story takes place in a “Duel Academy,” a school environment in which aspiring young duelists can learn from the best. This sequel series followed the adventures of Jaden Yuki, a cocky and talented young duelist who accidentally meets dueling legend Yugi Mutou before his first day of class.
After GX concluded in 2008, Konami released another follow-up series, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s. This series was more futuristic in tone, following another young duelist–this time, a criminal outsider named Yusei. Takahashi continued to oversee the franchise throughout the next several story arcs, including Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS, Yu-Gi-Oh! Sevens, and, most recently, Yu-Gi-Oh! Go Rush!!
The Card Game Continues to Grow
The trading card game has remained popular and successful for over 20 years, making it one of only a handful of TCGs to stick around for as long as mainstays like Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. Many fans have credited this longevity with the strong artistic direction and cinematic sensibilities that Takahashi included in the game back in the original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga.
If you drop in any local game store in the US or Japan, the odds are good that you’ll find out they have a weekly Yu-Gi-Oh! meetup, as well as organized play tournaments and a thriving local community. Takahashi was very vocally supportive of the strong community that grew up around the game he created, often saying that if his work helped bring people together, then he was happy. Fans shared this sentiment online after his passing, encouraging one another that he would be happy to see his creation bringing people together for years to come.
Remembering Takahashi’s Legacy
While Takahashi was no longer involved with writing the popular series he created, he was still an active comic artist who commonly contributed to Weekly Shonen Jump and similar publications. Most recently, he released a collaboration comic with Marvel titled Marvel’s Secret Reverse. The fun-spirited crossover comic stars both Iron Man and Spider-Man and follows inventor Tony Stark as he attends a gaming convention in Japan.
People around the world expressed an outpouring of grief when news of Takahashi’s passing was made public. Many fans of his work were children when they first encountered Yu-Gi-Oh!, and the game was instrumental in getting millions of fans interested in tabletop games and the worlds of anime and manga alike. His fans will miss him deeply, and the world has lost one of the greatest comic artists of all time.