Mahjong is a game with origins tracing back to Chinese culture. The game consists of tiles with several suits and ranks, and there are many variations by which anyone can play it. For solitaire-obsessed players, one can organize the tiles in elaborate stacks and find matching tiles to tear it down. For everyone else, of course, it’s a gambling game that involves having to draw and discard tiles over several turns in order to find the best combinations against their opponents. Not quite sure which came first, but mahjong tiles are very much treated like a deck of poker cards, only much heavier and typically made with higher quality (and therefore far more expensive).
This Chinese gambling game is played around the world in the modern era, and that neighbor across China’s easternmost sea that gave us anime is no exception. This anime, as well as its original manga, were inspired by this game and, of course, features something that some otakus like to fawn over: overtly cute high school girls.
Now I have to admit, I don’t know much about mahjong, since I’ve only played the gambling version of it maybe once or twice, and of course I didn’t really know how to keep score to make money off of it. Thankfully since I was with family while I played it, they didn’t really care for keeping score either (not that they knew how in the first place). Needless to say, mahjong wasn’t entirely a selling point for me to watch this series (though after watching it, the game looks very interesting), but then again, I watched Chihayafuru without any prior knowledge about Uta-koi Hyakunin Isshu either. Not sure if I have a strong curiosity in the games created by my ethnic cultures (if you haven’t guessed, I’m Chinese/Japanese American) or I got suckered into watching this series by the cute girls; but either way, I honestly found Saki quite enjoyable.
The series focuses on an entourage of high school girls in the (you guessed it) mahjong high school championships, particularly in the Nagano prefecture. While there is also a boys’ tournament, author Ritz Kobayashi obviously decided to go with the girls’ side only. Throughout the series you learn to love (or just get annoyed by) the six protagonists who are in a mahjong club at Kiyosumi, a high school that has yet to participate in any tournaments due to a long-standing lack of membership (do I smell an underdog story?) Among these girls (and one guy, who in my opinion, has no real influence on the plot) is our titular character, Saki Miyanaga, a seemingly plain girl who apparently has a mysterious power over the tiles. This power, of course, bothers another protagonist, Nodoka Haramura, the former middle school mahjong champion who gains much of her experience by playing the game online and doesn’t believe in superstitions. And before you can say “shoujo-ai,” these two seem to hit it off by promising to enter the national tournament together.
The 25-episode series actually only covers the Nagano prefecture tournament and hints at the very end that there will be a national tournament (I suppose that counts as a spoiler), but not without developing over twenty girls’ characters! Yes, I said TWENTY! Maybe even more. Saki the animation features mostly the team finals of this particular tournament. Each mahjong match is played with four people, and each team consists of five players. So if you did your math right, you have a lot of high school girls to choose from in more ways than one.
Among the girls who are featured in this series, many of mahjong’s superstitions and playing styles are exploited. While playing a match in the anime, the players have imaginary cut scenes where they go beyond the metaphors of their gameplay and act as if they were superhuman. From a girl who conceals herself as well as her discards, to a girl who appears to have psychic powers hiding in her heterochromic eye, to a girl whose special combo in the game is aptly named “Bottom of the Sea” thereby drowning her opponents in anguish, there are a lot of different superstitions at work in mahjong. None of these cut scenes, of course, are physically happening, but I guess that just brings an extra anime flavor to the mix. It also gives guys (and girls, perhaps) a variety of fetishes to choose from.
Fans of this series can also argue over which school is the best, which players are the best, or who would totally beat the crap out of another character in a game of mahjong, and who can blame them? Despite there being the protagonists of Kiyosumi I obviously knew were going to win, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the other girls who did not. The story beautifully develops several other characters from the other teams, showing that they too aren’t so bad themselves, almost to a point where I totally wished that the series wasn’t called Saki, which obviously favors the team that the titular character is on.
And yet there is a plot beyond just playing mahjong at work in this series. Well at least, I’d hope so, because just having cute girls play mahjong and fans ogling over it qualifies more as teasers without a plot. Saki Miyanaga also has an older sister who left the family in order to hone her skills as a mahjong player. Now a national superstar in the game as well as a two-time high school champion, big sister Teru Miyanaga poses a major threat to Saki in that Teru’s reputation has pulled them almost too far apart to even talk to each other, let alone the fact that Teru does not acknowledge ever having a little sister. Saki appears to have demonic powers as a mahjong player (if you watch the series, you’ll know what I’m talking about), but has a very noble, yet innocent goal that competing with her sister on the national stage will somehow convey her to return to the family.
Wishful thinking, perhaps? In any case, Saki the animation is a true underdog story where the protagonist fights on for all the right reasons. Despite being a heterosexual male otaku’s dream, Saki actually does have a beautiful story that brings out the innocence of a common goal amongst friends in a popular game. Its development of characters beyond just the protagonists also gives it a fairly bittersweet flavor, knowing that the girls are all good friends, yet throw down dramatic fits in any given mahjong match. And while I do lash out against the fan service on several occasions, I admit that perhaps I might “like” some of the characters myself, in a non-creepy way, of course.
Saki the animation first aired in 2009 on TV Tokyo. It is based on the manga written by Ritz Kobayashi. And in case you didn’t get enough of it, the spin-off Saki: Achiga-hen was also produced as an animated feature. Review on that coming soon!