What They Say
Saki is a cross between sports action and high school drama that revolves around a girl's spiritual growth through a tactical and adventuresome mahjong competition with keen rivals all aiming for the high school club championship. What makes it different from traditional mahjong-themed pieces is the character that are all colorful and charming whose personalities are far from being dark, cunning or cowardly. The story opens with the arrival fo Saki who demonstrates her almost magical talent by instinctively playing the game in an extremely calculated manner so that she never loses or gains even a point...
Content: (please not that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Adapted from the manga by Ritz Kobayashi, serialized in Young Gangan (Square Enix), Saki is not your average sports anime, nor your common high school drama. Instead, it combines elements of both to make for a rather unusual sports drama. Manabu Ono (Dragonaut - The Resonance, Transformers: Cybertron) was chosen to direct the anime adaptation, with Tatsuhiko Urahata (Card Captor Sakura, Hajime no Ippo, Strawberry Panic!) in charge of scripts, and Masakatsu Sasaki (key animator, Fullmetal Alchemist) designing the characters and overseeing the animators at Gonzo. The voice talent is an interesting collection, with the leads from both Spice and Wolf (Ami Koshimizu, Jun Fukuyama) and Hayate the Combat Butler (Rie Kugimiya, Ryoko Shiraishi, in addition to Shizuka Itou, the seiyuu for the major supporting character Hinagiku Katsura) forming the core cast supporting the lead actress Kana Ueda (a long time veteran seiyuu and also a Hayate cast member) as Saki.
Saki Miyanaga seems like an ordinary high school girl. When we first meet her sitting under a tree by the banks of a small stream reading a book, we might just pass her by without a thought. Our attention would probably be drawn to where Saki's own attention is drawn: towards a pink-haired girl with, quite frankly, unreasonably large breasts. As Saki stares at this girl, she notices that this other girl is wearing the same exact uniform as hers, which tells her that the pink-haired one is also a first year student at her same high school. As Saki engages in a little wishful thinking, her childhood friend "Kyou-chan" asks her to go with him to the cafeteria. To have a romantic lunch together? No. To have her buy him the "Ladies Lunch," which he thought looked good that day. At lunch, it is revealed that Kyoutarou is a member of the school's Mahjong Club. At this point Saki quietly says to herself "watashi, mahjong kirai" "I hate mahjong." Kyou-chan seems to be oblivious to her feelings, but instead latches upon the fact that Saki knows how to play.
Kyoutarou drags Saki up to the Mahjong Club's room atop the old school building, since he says that the club is one player short today, and she can be their fourth. When they come to the club room, Saki meets…the overly endowed pink-haired girl, Nodoka, who is revealed to be a member of the club as well. Before we can learn anything more about Nodoka, the incredibly overactive and on the small side Yuuki. Yuuki's endearing traits are her energy and her obsession over tacos. The quartet complete, the decide to play a match. Saki is at first upset at being roped into playing, but she does not seem entirely disappointed when she notes to herself that this is the first time she has played with people other than her family.
The game proceeds with lots of talk about scoring and the different types of hands. I have no knowledge of mahjong other than building small forts out of mahjong tiles in a set my family had when I was a small child. [It was fun to then use marbles as cannonballs to knock down the walls]. So I could not really follow along 100% with the gameplay, though I will give Crunchyroll's translation/adaptation team a lot of credit, since they provide good translator's notes at the top of the screen when the characters spout off the complex mahjong terminology.
The one thing that sticks out, however, is that Saki is an extremely skilled player. But she devotes her skill to underperforming. She deliberately does not try to win, instead aiming to get a ±0 score every time. And she manages to do so, 3 games in a row.
At this point, she manages to gain the attention of the president of the Mahjong Club, Hisa Takei, who also happens to be the Student Council President (she insists, however, on being called the Student Congress President, but no one else seems to care). Hisa had been sleeping in the backroom the whole time, but when she awakens and sees what is going on, with Saki scoring ±0 two games in a row. As she can walk behind and see what hand Saki holds, she notes that in the last game, Saki holds a powerful winning hand. But instead of declaring that winning hand, Saki instead dumps it to declare a lower scoring hand that gets her…±0 again. Hisa is shocked and impressed. At this point, however, Saki declares her distaste for mahjong, and noting that the Club President is now available to play, she excuses herself.
Hisa, however, cannot let go of what she's seen. How is it possible for anyone to score ±0 for three games in a row? Nodoka cannot let go of what occurred either, and she abruptly runs off to track down Saki, even though it has begun to rain outside. She finally catches up to Saki and we are treated to a little wet girl embracing, along with the occasional view from an inappropriate angle (did I mention the school uniforms have rather short skirts? There were a couple of low angle shots earlier as well). In the rain, Nodoka asks Saki to play mahjong with her one more time, but Saki declines. She doesn't like mahjong.
I won't summarize the entire episode. Suffice it to say, if Saki never played mahjong again, the show would be over. And as many would probably have guessed, it would be Hisa who would somehow manage to cajole Saki back into the club room for one more match. This time, however, Hisa makes the conditions much hard for Saki to achieve her unusual result: a special shortened version of a full match, with far fewer hands available to achieve a ±0 score. This time, Saki is playing against not only Nodoka and Yuuki, but also Mako, another member of the club and friend of Misa's. In this shortened game, the stakes are raised considerably. Needless to say, Saki manages the incredible, scoring a ±0 at its end (I will not give away how she does it).
Everyone is suitably impressed. Even Hisa is driven to remark, in the first episode's final line of spoken dialogue as the ending song begins to play: "Luck powerful enough to create miracles…is that the power of a god or a devil?"
For those who might be wondering why this is classified as a sports anime, I can tell you clearly why it is. Many of the character types that we all know well from sports are present: there is the bumbling newcomer (Kyoutarou). The accomplished veteran (Nodoka). The lazy genius (taco-loving Yuuki). The "coach" figure (Hisa, though she is also a player, but we do not get to see her play yet). And then there is the supernatural prodigy, "The Natural," Saki, whose abilities are a level beyond what mere mortals can achieve. There is also the full range of visual tropes that we have come to associate with sports anime: slow motion whenever a particularly dramatic physical movement occurs. Lens flare. There's even a bolt of lightning when Saki throws down her final tile while declaring her "winning" hand at the end of the episode. Vocally, there is a lot of game terminology and an over the top delivery at moments of high drama.
Yet it's not purely a sports anime. We also have some hints of high school drama, as Nodoka and Saki do quite a lot of blushing in each other's presence. The other characters' relationships to each other are also only being hinted at so far.
While I am completely unfamiliar with the mahjong terminology being thrown at me left and right during the games, I found quite a lot of enjoyment in the show. While some of the character designs are little generic and somehow out of place (it just happens that the Mahjong Club has both an overdeveloped girl with breasts that might each be the same size as the head of the underdeveloped loli member) for this setting, being chosen more for their otaku appeal, the pacing is brisk which prevents it from being boring or annoying. The character personalities are also a little cliched, from the overconfident Student Council President, to the very demure Nodoka, to the hyperactive Yuuki, but that does not seem to detract from the story. Since, so far, we have a group, for a change, that does not have a clear villain among them (I'm guessing, from the ending animation, that the villain(ess) will emerge from another school's mahjong club which will likely surface in future episodes). It's not high art, but it's pleasantly diverting. While you might get something more out of it if you actually know how to play mahjong (and you certainly won't learn how to play just by watching this show), it has its appeal even to those who wouldn't know a tsumo from a kong, let alone King Kong.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles
Apple Mac Mini with 1GB RAM, Mac OS 10.5 Leopard.