Judai may be the main character of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, but there's something off about him...
Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, like all other Yu-Gi-Oh! series, is an absolute wild ride. Yes, Kaiba did shoot cards into space just because he could. Yes, Kenzan did turn into a dinosaur to destroy an evil satellite. No, I am not exaggerating any of these points. When I first watched the show as a kid, I took it at face value because card games are fun and I really enjoyed seeing who would come out on top. It’s been 15 years since Yu-Gi-Oh! GX first aired, and since then I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot more depth to this silly show, particularly in its protagonist, Judai. At first Judai seems like a hero, he even has cards echoing American comic book heroes, but does he truly fit the mold we’re all used to?
Following Duel Monsters where the power of friendship is key, it’s hard to go into GX not expecting Judai to be the same. For a time he feels that way, since Judai is cheerful like Yugi is. He’s competitive and is also kind of a slacker, but he has a natural charisma that draws people in; for all his quirky flaws, people like Judai, and gradually flock to his side. By the second season, he has a considerable number of people around him, but he seems to almost keep them at arm’s length.
Some of Judai’s reactions to things are rather odd as well, like he doesn’t seem to pick up on the gravity of people’s problems very much, or express empathy for them. For cards, though? Sure! But not really for people. Judai hears about a set of cards that, if unleashed, will destroy the world, and his first reaction is to talk about how cool they must be. He watches a man get eaten alive and doesn’t try to help him at all! When Manjoume talks about the immense amount of pressure on him to win, Judai callously laughs it off. For all the people surrounding him, he doesn’t actually connect with them in a meaningful way, and that can’t really be called friendship, can it?
Most protagonists are driven, with goals, with dreams. They all want something in the future, something greater than themselves. Judai just wants to have fun; to duel and have a good time, but that isn’t really a goal. That’s fine for existing in the moment, but that isn’t really something to base your life on. Everyone else around him has something they want, but Judai doesn’t really care for things in general, not unless they directly affect him. His drive to duel fuels the series, and he does have a natural charisma, but beneath the surface, he feels rather directionless.
Enter season 3, and in becoming close to Johan, Judai realizes that he’s an incomplete person. Unlike before, this is something that begins to trouble him, so he starts trying to become a better person by emulating Johan’s path. However, he can only do so on a surface level because while he now has an ideal, he doesn’t have the drive behind it. Once Johan is gone, Judai doesn’t have someone to help him out either. He becomes lost, and without a person to look up to, he becomes trapped by his own expectations. Expectations that he can never live up to. Now that he’s seen what he could be and is ashamed that he isn’t that, he falls into despair. As the Supreme King, his worst potential is revealed; he has no problem slaughtering hordes of innocent people, including the people that should be his friends. It takes a lot of sacrifice to bring him back to normal.
In Yubel challenging him, Judai begins to understand in the only way he can comprehend people’s pain: by experiencing something similar for himself. There are consequences to him being such a callous person. People are hurt if they are left behind and forgotten. So by the final season, after Judai has accepted Yubel, he has reached more of a middle ground. He isn’t going to be a traditional hero; he can't be. What he can do is sympathize with people, not by personally understanding them, but acknowledging that they exist.
Most protagonists struggle to find their place in the world. They fight to prove themselves, their mettle, the strength of their ideals, and in being triumphant, change the world around them. However, Judai wants no such thing because Judai doesn’t want a place in the world. He is fine being by himself and living in his own bubble. His struggle isn’t proving himself, but rather learning that he can’t be completely isolated. Isolation has consequences, and only in opening up to some people can he grow as a person; some distance remains, but that distance is necessary. Judai isn’t very sociable, and he isn’t very heroic. He can’t pull a heroic sacrifice and throw himself onto the pyre. He can’t be selfless and only doing things for the greater good, because that’s not who he is. He isn’t necessarily a ‘good’ person, but he can be a more ‘understanding’ person. He has bonds; they’re not deep, but they’re enough. So Judai’s story ends with him not surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends, but going off to have an adventure of his own.
It's hard to see Judai's shift because it's disguised under the typical protagonist-necessary cheeriness and considerable talent. Once it was brought to the forefront, it easily became one of my favorite things about the show. Despite all of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX's considerable wackiness, it tells the story of a young kid who doesn't really click with people, who has to grow up by realizing that he doesn't live in a bubble. It's about learning how an individual's actions can affect others, but also learning when to take a step back. It's about how not everyone can be a traditionally good person, but you don't have to be traditionally good to be aware of others. For that, Judai remains one of my favorite Yu-Gi-Oh! protagonists, and one whose journey makes the entire show worthwhile.
What do you think of Judai as the protagonist of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX? Let us know in the comments!
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