Although he certainly didn't get the same amount of recognition before the first volume of Cardfight!! Vanguard was published, the mysterious Ito Akira did not simply appear out of thin air and start pumping out this storyline. While we know almost nothing of his identity, brief indexes of his work are available throughout the net. Most prominently, he did all of the artwork for Yu-Gi-Oh! R with Takahashi Kazuki's writing and direction at the helm. Here's a summary of his work;
- He was on the team for the original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga, though his exact role isn't specified.
- Ito did key animation for episode 9 of Mirai Nikki, as well as some side work for Samurai Champloo.
- Over the course of four years, he personally drew every panel of Yu-Gi-Oh! R, and is also said to have some hand in the story, even though Takahashi is listed as the main writer.
- Ito also assisted in the creation of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX.
What this article is concerned with though, is the recurring themes and design choices common between R and Vanguard. Sharing both a writer and artist, it's natural that these manifest. For the intents of this article, it should be clear that I am in no way suggesting a lack of originality, or of Vanguard being a "rip-off" of Yu-Gi-Oh!; the two series are different beasts that follow different rules.
Consider first, the most natural of symmetries; the art. A number of characters in Vanguard can draw their origins back to R, and the most prominent of them all is the series' antagonist, Suzugamori Ren. His design is made to directly evoke the same presence of Tenma Yako, having similarly patterned hair and eye shape as well as the coat Yako was so fond of sporting;
As in R, in Vanguard people are not the ultimate source of evil. Perfectly well-meaning ideals are made to be compromised by forces from outside the characters' context.
In R, Tenma Yako's desire to resurrect Pegasus J. Crawford, is twisted by his means of doing so--the Wicked Gods--into a mindless lashing out at Pegasus' perceived murderer, Mutou Yugi.
This has its own parallel in Vanguard; Suzugamori Ren's longing for the strength to support his friends is engineered by the power of PSY Qualia into a lust for humiliating his opponents. Both characters have lost sight of their original goals, and are instead given to a desire to, in Ren's own words, "take everything."
And both of these characters have their foils, who stay by their former ideals but reconstruct them to adjust for reality. Unlike his twin, Tenma Gekko is not so vested in reviving Pegasus that he would sacrifice innocent lives to do so. Though he disagreed with Yako, Gekko still kept by his brother's side up until Yako's Project R.A. was brought underway. Similarly, Shinjou Tetsu initially continues to stand by his old friend Ren, becoming a Foo Fighter where Kai chose to run from Suzugamori's plot.
Just as Gekko eventually turns away from the Rebirth of Avatar altogether, and rebels against his brother believing that Pegasus' death has made them stronger, Shinjou Tetsu expresses a gradual shift in the aftermath of his match with Kamui. Where he should have felt triumphant over his victory, Kamui's comments on the meaning of a team prompts Tetsu to look up at Kai in the stands and seemingly reevaluate his position. Though Vanguard's first season has not yet finished airing, it is fair to say that this may be the extent of Tetsu's development towards Gekko's decision--because Gekko's role is actually split between two characters, Tetsu and Kai.
While Tetsu represents the Gekko that chose to stay with his brother, as well as the overall attitude of Richie Merced and Depre Scott, Kai Toshiki is the Gekko that opposed Yako. And for that, Ren resents him, as Yako did--though unlike with Merced in R, it's ultimately Ren himself who puts Kai on his knees.
And although the comparisons are frequent, where he serves the same function for Ren that Yugi did for Yako, Kai ultimately resembles Seto Kaiba in design alone. Kaiba's coldness towards others is because of an antagonistic personality and lack of respect for people, but Kai is a genuinely nice person whose childhood experiences have left him socially awkward. Ironically, a large portion of Kai's fan following can be derived from misinterpretation of his lack of social skills as self-confidence.
Compare as to how he also resembles the initial counterpart I introduced, Gekko. The absence of color throughout much of the Vanguard manga leads to decidedly similar artwork for each of them, both featuring predominantly dark, white-trimmed jackets over an interior white shirt and downturned collars. The buttons on Yako's double-breasted suit act as twin highlights beneath the shoulders to Kai's school uniform, which causes them to be shaded similarly under different light levels.
So if Ren is Yako, and Tetsu and Kai are together Gekko, then who is Bandit Keith Howard? Surprisingly enough, compare Suiko's actions with Howard's; she works in an advisory role to the antagonist, feeding him stimuli that compel him to clash with the protagonists. As Keith deceived Yako into believing that Yugi was Pegasus' murderer, Suiko was content with hooking Ren on the power of PSY Qualia, granting him Phantom Blaster Overlord to temper that strength and encourage his growth. The two avoid endangering themselves in straightforward battle, preferring to use others first, and then become confrontational only as their goal approaches.
Setting wise, Yu-Gi-Oh! R's Kaiba Corp tower bears a distinct resemblance to the Foo Fighter HQ; the Foo Fighters themselves are the series' equivalents to the card professors guild. As such, the HQ serves much the same purpose as Kaiba Corp, being the antagonists' home ground.
What Yako uses the Fiend's Sanctuary card to illustrate, is that Yugi can only resent his Other, who has stood in his place and gradually taken over his life by fighting his battles for him. Mutou Yugi is not himself the titular "King of Games"(Yu Gi Ou)--the nameless spirit he's become the host for has, and it is the spirit who has been living his life.
While Yugi himself takes control of his body once more to refute Yako's claim, believing firmly that his Other is his friend and that it is because of the Other Yugi that he grew as a person and met so many people, this point does not go unvisited by Cardfight!! Vanguard. As the series progresses, the protagonist Sendou Aichi learns to "hear" his cards' voices, an ability eventually identified as PSY Qualia. A completed state of PSY Qualia is marked by auras appearing in the wielder's eyes during periods of use, and is accompanied by ever-expanding arrogance on part of the wielder that bears marked similarity to the personality traits exemplified by the Other Yugi in Yu-Gi-Oh!'s earlier chapters. Every known bearer of PSY Qualia gained it by craving power to please their friends; ride 50 epitomizes this during Sendou's fight with Kai.
"Why? Why won't you understand?! I'm strong! I got strong!"
"I believe that everyone has an 'other self' inside them. It may be your ideal self, someone who it's your goal to become. But when you're pressured to be a certain way by the expectations of your parents or the world, the burden may be too much to bear and you may lose sight of yourself. In other words, your 'other self' is something you have to create, not that people can force upon you. I think it's best to take it easy and keep an eye on your 'other self,' and aim for that goal. But don't stress out about reaching it right away."
But where Takahashi embraces transformation as a tool of growth, Ito refutes it. Rides 43-50 of Cardfight!! Vanguard are a vicious deconstruction of transformation, and the superpowers which pervade comparable anime. PSY Qualia is ultimately rejected, as it is no longer the player that is fighting but supernatural forces from outside their control--and so the player is no longer playing at all. Rather than transformation being a necessary, positive change, it is instead a denial of the self while blindly attempting to live up to the expectations of one's peers, thereby compelling them to "grow stronger." This is not growth at all, but a furthered dependency on others.
PSY Qualia is however only one half of the total stimuli that made Aichi's transformation a reality. The other half, the Shadow Paladin deck that Ren gave to Aichi, is not without its own R equivalent. Compare how the Wicked Gods line up with Phantom Blaster Dragon;
I have discussed the word "bunshin" and the difficulty in translating it before, and R is yet another example of this term coming into play. When Yako summons the third and final Wicked God in volume 5, he declares The Wicked Avatar(or as the original Japanese manga has it "ＴＨＥ ＤＥＶＩＬＳ ＡＶＡＴＡＲ") as his own "bunshin," what Vanguard and R both translate as avatar. While Takahashi had the stronger presence in R's overall writing, there is no doubt that Ito's time spent working on this project and his involvement in it would go on to influence his own concept of avatar in Vanguard, particularly Suzugamori Ren and Aichi's own "devil's avatar," Blaster Dark.
Reinforcing this comparison is how the Wicked Gods are portrayed becoming active in Yako's deck versus how the Shadow Paladins are active in Aichi's third deck.
So what can we conclude from these artistic parallels? As stated before, in both R and Vanguard people are not the ultimate source of evil. Evil takes place when an external force corrupts good intentions. Just as R concluded with Yako repenting for his actions, letting go of Pegasus and being grateful that he did not "take away [Yugi's] smile," Ren will likely realize the error of his ways. Previews for the second season, Asia Circuit, showcase Suzugamori as joining Team Q4 on their overseas trip, which would support this theory. The primary conflict in both series is fundamentally an emotional one, where unprepared young people must cope with the deaths of parents and the betrayal of friends. For season 1's conflict to be concluded satisfactorily, Ren and Kai need only apologize to one another.