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World Perspective : Asia : Cartoon Craze Boils Over in Japan : Yugi-oh features its own comic characters, trading cards--and near-riots.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget Pokemon. In Japan, the characters and card game that have taken America by storm are rapidly being pushed aside by the latest rage, known as Yugi-oh Duel Monsters.

“I have dozens of Yugi-oh cards,” says 9-year-old Sano Yuichi. “I have Pokemon too, but these days all my friends play Yugi-oh.”

While the game’s creator, Konami Co., has no immediate plans to export Yugi-oh to the U.S., the demand for video games and collectible card packs is so high here that the company recently called out riot police when hysterical fans got out of control.

The uproar started when Konami sponsored a tournament and swap meet late last month at the Tokyo Dome, a stadium used mostly for baseball games and rock concerts.

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Kids were invited to compete playing the recently released “Legend of the Duelist” hand-held video game, based on the Yugi-oh characters, and to buy packs of limited-edition cards featuring the 700 Yugi-oh characters.

Before the organizers knew it, they had chaos on their hands. Instead of the 40,000 fans Konami had expected, 55,000 kids and parents showed up, mobbing the gates and crushing each other to get at the special-issue cards.

The 10,000 people who couldn’t get in--including people who had traveled hundreds of miles and waited hours in line--quickly grew irate, surrounded the stadium and refused to leave.

With tensions high, the company decided about midafternoon to cancel the sale of cards altogether. But that made people only angrier. And, in something of a shock in a society bred on respect for authority, many inside the stadium refused to disband. Some raised their fists and shouted, “This is a fraud!” and “Bring out someone in charge!”

Even record unemployment and 10 years of recession haven’t sparked that sort of public reaction here. Then again, Japan does take its video games and cartoon characters seriously.

As tempers flared, the riot police arrived to restore order. Deputy Police Chief Futoshi Okamura said he’s never seen such an uproar, “even in the Kinki Kids concert,” one of Japan’s most popular rock groups.

The police say they were ready to make arrests if things got much worse. At least two people were taken to the hospital, and dozens more were treated at clinics in the stadium. “The air was very tense,” Okamura says.

While Konami officials appreciate the tremendous demand for their latest hit, they say they regret the way the event turned out. “From now on, whenever we plan this sort of event, we have to be more careful and ready,” a company spokesman said. “We’re very sorry.”

While most fans went away frustrated in their bid to snag the limited-edition “monster cards,” 11-year-old Shunsuke Nozawa was one of the lucky few who hit pay dirt before sales were halted.

“I felt sorry for the other people,” says Nozawa, who lives about 25 miles from Tokyo. “But I am so happy I got them. My friends are all jealous and say: ‘You got to go? You got cards? That’s not fair!’ ”

Yugi-oh cards are normally sold in packs of five for about $1.35, while limited-edition packs go for slightly more. In the game, each player starts with 8,000 “life points.” Characters on the cards, each of which has different strengths and weaknesses, then face off against one another until one side loses all its points. One of the most sought-after characters is “blue-eyed dragon,” which has special powers.

The game has deep resonance among many young Japanese who have for years enjoyed the comic strip of the same name. In 1998, Konami decided to build on the strip with a Gameboy video title, television cartoons and the card game.

The first video title sold 1.6 million copies. The second version, released in July and known as “Yugi-oh Duel Monsters II,” sold 1 million copies in its first week.

Konami is no stranger to success. It recently created another big hit among teenagers and young adults with a video arcade machine called “Dance Dance Revolution.” Players writhe by themselves--or occasionally with a partner--as lights on the floor show them where to move their feet, and a home version also is in the works.

Eleven-year-old Nozawa says he likes Yugi-oh better than Pokemon because it is easier to play and much more exciting. “There are monsters, traps and magic cards you can use against an opponent to build up your strength,” he adds. “I really like it.”

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Makiko Inoue in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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