I haven’t the faintest idea how to play Mahjong. You sit around a table, taking it in turns to draw tiles and trying to make hands that you have to memorize. You set these up by putting tiles on one side of the table, and there are advantages and disadvantages to being the dealer. Throwing in sticks ups the stakes. And there are also some dice in the middle, but I have no idea what for. Even after watching Saki, I would still call myself almost entirely unaware of how Mahjong works.
But I am aware of how sports anime work – encompassing competitive board games – and after all I knew nothing about go when I started Hikaru no Go, and that became my favourite manga of all time. Knowing that I would probably enjoy the way the anime worked, I got hold of Saki, though soon forgot that I had it, so that when I started to watch I had entirely forgotten that it was a mahjong anime – for all I remembered, it was going to be about H.H. Munro.
But no. Based on a Young Gangan manga, it is a typical but nonetheless highly enjoyable sports anime. It follows a tried-and-tested formula: a rather ordinary young person reveals an uncanny talent for a competitive game in front of an established top youth player. The youth player becomes a bit obsessive – with a hint of romantic attraction – and manages to coax the peculiarly talented one into playing competitively. Though there is a hint of rivalry, the series settles into a series of matches in a competition format, with the sympathetic team encountering opponents with unusual approaches to the game, and after reaching some inner revelation, overcoming the challenge. Meanwhile, the simple actions of the game become highly dramatised, so that the power of moves may be represented by strikes of lightning, visions of mighty creatures or sudden changes in air pressure. This is almost exactly the formula Hikaru no Go had.
But for all the similarity in outline, Saki is very different in feel from HikaGo. With its predominantly female cast, cutesy art style and readiness to have really bizarre character types – including a girl so hard to notice that even her tiles begin to disappear, and a tiny loli who is effectively kept chained up for her immense mahjong prowess – it is rather more like Bamboo Blade. There’s also a propensity to put all the characters into romantic pairs – all but the goofy main guy and the childish teammate being lesbian pairings – that owes something to Maria-sama Ga Miteru, though with about a fiftieth of the subtlety and gentleness. This is a series happy to send its almost all-female cast off to bathhouses and
springs so that they all get naked together, and does
not hesitate to use the old trip-over-and-fall-on-top-of-the-one-you-like
But that Saki doesn’t mind being a bit lowbrow about its presentation is part of why it’s so much fun. It’s bold and obvious and very obviously geared towards otaku tastes – but that’s why it has an infectious exuberance. It’s just enjoyable to watch, enjoyable to rush through and enjoyable to laugh along with. It’s not trying to change the world or to offer something new and daring, but wants its audience to enjoy – and I certainly did.
It’s no Hikaru no Go – it doesn’t have the sincerity that allows for much more heightened emotion, but then again anyone who might find HikaGo tedious would be better-served here. I think mahjong is fundamentally less-suited to this sort of presentation anyway, being much more luck-based, whereas go has no random factor. Mahjong is evidently about trending towards winning rather than winning every time, but that’s not what this anime shows, and even with my lack of knowledge I know that a lot of the amazing winning hands shown are amazing because they involve ridiculous luck, not just in arranging your hand but in picking a random tile to complete it.
Since I know nothing about mahjong, though, it doesn’t really matter to me how realistic the presentation is. What I enjoy is the absurdity, and the sense of triumph when a character wins. The anime is also very, very good at making the audience root for every character it gives a background to, when of course only one player can win.
This was only the first of three seasons. There is very little sense of closure here – it’s made clear the national tournament is the real goal of these characters, and this entire 25-episode series, after the exposition, is about the qualifying tournament to get to the nationals rather than the tournament itself. It also seems that when Studio Gokumi split off from Gonzo, they took Saki with them, so after this there comes a change in studio – if not staff. I may not swallow it up quite so ravenously, but I will certainly be watching the rest of Saki