Anime Review: Saki Episode of Side-A

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If you liked Saki, the anime about a bunch of cute high school girls playing in a mahjong tournament, guess what? There’s more where that came from! Original Saki author Ritz Kobayashi inspired yet another series relating (but not entirely about) our favorite mahjong team from an underdog school in Nagano. The same fervor from Saki continues, as a large group of different girls all compete for a chance at their ultimate goal: to be National Champions of the mahjong high school team tournaments!

The premise of this spin-off series is about, yet, another underdog team from the Nara prefecture. The Achiga Girls’ Academy hasn’t competed in a mahjong tournament for roughly ten years, when the school had lost the National tournament in the semi-final round. In order to return to this competitive stage, former student Harue Akado returns to coach a promising fresh team of girls: the superstitious Matsumi sisters Kuro and Yuu, a level-headed Ako Atarashi, the sharp-minded Arata Sagimori, and the energetic Shizuno Takakamo! Each girl has their own playing style, as one can imagine from reading or watching the original Saki, and aim to become the National champions in their first year: a feat that their coach could not even surpass!

It turns out that Ako and Shizuno are also old friends of Nodoka Haramura, the other ace of Saki’s team. Despite not competing at an individual level, the team’s goal is to give a single shot at competing with our favorite protagonists from the original series. So in other words, as usual for this storyline, we get to cheer for the rivals as well as the heroes.

Most of the story of this anime takes place where Saki left off, where the girls of Achiga Academy compete in the A-block of Nationals. Due to some unfortunate match-ups, the Achiga and Kiyosumi teams are placed in separate blocks. In other words, Achiga must become one of the top two champions of Side-A (get it?) just to guarantee the possible chance of playing Kiyosumi, and therefore Nodoka, who are competing in Side-B. There is, of course, a chance that Kiyosumi high may lose before getting to the finals, but let’s face it, they don’t know that they’re in a TV show that practically guarantees they’re going to make it. (Saki: Zenkoku-hen, the Nationals chapter, is projected to air in Japan for the Spring 2014 season).

One thing that I did like about Saki: Achiga-hen over the the original series is the true determination that comes out of all five of these girls as they work together. Forget that there are shameless cameos from the original or the fact that all the other nationals’ teams are veterans, or that Saki Miyanaga makes an appearance just to creep the team out (though all the fans know she was simply wandering the halls, getting lost again). For me, the entertaining value lies in what makes underdog teams like them strong, and that is their resilience together and their ability to turn things around in their favor when no one else seems to notice.

My favorite scene from this series actually comes out of the OVAs that were made to complete the Side-A chapter after the regular 12-episode season. In a particular OVA, the Achiga captain Arata Sagimori competes against the three other veteran teams in a match of wits. One of the rivaling teams’ player for this match, Hiroko Funakubo, is an analyst. She appears to have the entire match figured out because she has studied all of her opponents’ in past games. What she doesn’t understand, though, is Arata’s playing style, which she eventually does piece together. She realizes that Arata’s combos are usually of the Circle suits, which are reminiscent of the Sagimori’s bowling business, as the circles and their numbers represent pins. At this point, we believe that Arata’s hand is totally predictable and Funakubo would use that to her advantage.

But Arata Sagimori has another thing coming for the veterans.

Before realizing it, Funakubo was too late in completely analyzing her opponent. Arata does not simply play mahjong the same way she bowls. In fact, she looks up to the former student (now coach) Harue Akado, more than anyone else. That’s right. Arata’s playing style is reminiscent of her mentor’s. In this semi-finals match, Arata Sagimori plays more than just for her team to win. She plays in order to redeem her fallen coach, to make it passed a round that even her coach could not get through. This was the pivotal moment, for me anyway, that showed the Achiga girls’ determination.

Once again, great show, and it certainly makes me want to learn to play competitive mahjong, despite the fact that there is a lot of fanservice presented in the anime. Can’t wait until Saki: Zenkoku-hen, airing some time in the future!

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