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"Duel Masters" Not Your Typical Toy Commercial

Who’s the kid with the spiky hair!? SHOBU!
Flaming hand up in the air! SHOBU!
Creatures battlin’ in the zone! SHOBU!
Gonna take the trophy home! SHOBU!

Duel Masters! Duel Masters! DUEL MASTERS!
The battle’s on!

ImageSorry, I couldn’t help myself. When you have a catchy theme and an advertising campaign that hits you over the head with it, the song infiltrates your brain. Duel Masters is an odd little TV show which premiered in the U.S. as a seventy-one minute movie titled The Good, the Bad, and the Bolshack, which is now out on DVD. Is this another Yu-Gi-Oh! clone or does this series actually have its own merits?

Things are going swimmingly for young Shobu Kirafuda. He’s just won another national tournament, is getting all sorts of acclaim, and has a hot girlfriend. However, a mysterious man in black named Knight, who just happens to be one of the best Duelists in the world, has come to teach Shobu a thing or two about Dueling. As if that isn’t enough, a mysterious organization called “The Temple” seems interested in Shobu, and a mysterious (boy, a lot of stuff in this movie is mysterious) “evil genius” named Kokujo is here to beat the tar out of any Duelist he can find. Luckily, Shobu is a training to be a Kaijudo Master. A form of martial arts, Kaijudo allows Shobu to make his hand (and his cards) light up on fire and summon the giant creatures straight from the cards! He’s going to need all the Kaijudo he can muster after this one.

A lot of movies start out cool and then turn to crap, but Duel Masters: The Good, the Bad, and the Bolshack is one of those rare films that starts out lame and then becomes really spiffy. When this premiered on Toonami almost a year ago, no one knew anything about it and just about everybody wrote it off. Well, the first half lived down to that expectation. Except for some typical anime expressions and a decent joke about Shobu’s mom, the first half of this “movie,” which actually consists of the first four half-hour episodes of the series edited together, is just plain dull. Only Shobu has a personality, courtesy of Joshua Seth, who many anime fans know as Tai in Digimon and 009/Joe in Cyborg 009, and Shobu’s friends may as well have been cardboard cut-outs and nobody would’ve known the difference. Even Knight, who gets a few cool camera shots, is unable to rise above generic status.

And then the good stuff starts. You see, in Japan Duel Masters is a series made up of 5-minute episodes. So the American writers, who had to fill twenty-six half hours, padded it out with re-used animation and turned it into a comedy. The result is a poor man’s Yu-Gi-Oh! that is devoted to making fun of itself.

Since the movie has been edited down to ninety minutes, some of the “new” footage had to be lost. Some of the funnier jokes, such as Shobu’s parody of the “Sailor Says” segments from DiC’s first run at Sailor Moon, were cut out, along with a more detailed explanation of how the card game actually works, but plenty of other good stuff stays in. It’s hard to resist a series where the hero reacts ominous music cues or the brooding pretty boy is worried about the camera getting too close. A scene where Shobu thinks Kokujo is Ozzy Osbourne never gets old no matter how many times I hear it. Best of all, the jokes actually enhance the story and breathe some kind of life into the characters.

Visually, the series is yet another 2D/3D hybrid. The characters and backgrounds are hand-drawn, but the summoned creatures are rendered in CG. Considering that its only purpose is to look cool, the CG does its job. It’s not ground breaking, nor is it going to put any other CG show to shame, but it does add a little visual punch to the story. The 2D animation, on the other hand, is really cheap, particularly since the characters just stand around and talk for most of the movie without the exaggerated poses and sharp, distorted visuals of Yu-Gi-Oh!. Character designs are even worse, and only Kokujo really stands out. Thankfully, the show’s self-deprecating humor forgive much of its visual dullness.

Aside from the now-legendary Joshua Seth, the cast includes Cam Clarke (Leonardo/Rocksteady in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Prince Adam/He-Man in the recent He-Man and the Masters of the Universe revamp), who provides the voices of Toru and Rekuta’s father. The other actors don’t bring quite the same star power (for some, it’s their first feature), but their performances are decent enough.

Aside from the catchy theme song the music is pretty bland. The only subtitles on the DVD are the captions, but this is probably because the show has been so hacked up the original Japanese track would no longer make any sense.

The greatest technical problem with the DVD is the lack of chapter selections. There are a few chapter stops, but there’s no menu to select the scene. Extras are also weak. The DVD comes with a free Trading Card Game demo, which teaches you how to play the game. The only other extras are Paramount’s commercials. These also play as the disc boots up, but you can skip through them by using the scene select buttons.

And that’s it. There’s no featurette explaining the making of the show, no commentary with the staff, not even any DVD games. Heck, they could’ve included the three-minute blooper reel from the promo DVD from a while back with no effort at all. Here’s hoping that when the TV series is released these bloopers and some better extras are included.

Duel Masters has become one of Toonami’s biggest cult hits ever had and it’s easy to see why. The dubbers knew they had a clunker when they were hired to translate the show and did everything short a Mystery Science Theater rip-off to liven it up. With Season 2 around the corner (and most of the Season 1 staff laid off), this is the perfect chance to relive the beginning of this bizarre little gem.

Duel Masters: The Good, The Bad and The Bolshack is now available on DVD. Duel Masters airs every Saturday at 7:00 pm on Cartoon Network.

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