Saki Review - Magical Mahjong
Some of you may have noticed a bit of a motif in my past reviews, specifically related to a four-player game in which players pass around tiles to score points and humiliate their opponents over and over again. Yeah I finally finished up Akagi, and the only way I can fill the void left by both it and Kaiji right now is to play five hours of mahjong daily until I finally get bored and go back to WoW or something like that. Still, after sinking a ton of my time as a kid being destoyted by my mom in gin rummy marathons, I find the game strangely compelling. I can understand why there’s a cult following here; it’s a fun little game once you’ve finally figured out all the scoring hands, Japanese terminology, gameplay gotchas and the absolute swamp that is the scoring system.
Okay, maybe I’ve oversold it a bit, but nevertheless I really found myself enjoying the game, and as much as I want to give Akagi my attention this week, I’m actually rewatching it right now to see if I can’t understand all the plays more than my uneducated self did before me. And wouldn’t you know it, Crunchy noticed that I was shotgunning mahjong anime like Coors Light at a frat party, so it slipped a note under my door telling me to put on this strange show called Saki. I was skeptical at first, because it was two letters off from an unrelated mahjong series that I knew was good and was actively enjoying. Then the itch hit me: “This is mahjong anime, SnYves! You’ve been on a mahjong bender ever since the semester started! Step to it, wimp! Those tiles aren’t going to organize themselves!”
I’m not sure how the idea got into my head, but I think one of my less educated friends told me that Saki was also done by the Akagi and Kaiji guy, and the minute I pressed the play button and realized all of the narration, dark music and exaggerated noses were gone, I realized that he might have been taking the piss. Because Saki is definitely not one of Fukumoto’s series; in fact the author of the original manga is named Ritz Kobayashi, and while Saki seems to be her life’s work, that’s really her only major project to date. That said, Saki has been in publication for the past eleven and a half years, and really if it isn’t broken there’s not much point in fixing it.
Gonzo picked up the series for animation in 2009, which Miss Kobayashi worked very closely with, and the twenty-five episode series kicked off that spring season. The titular Saki Miyanaga (Kana Ueda, Re:Zero, Sakamoto and…dammit, I have to type it again…Bikini Warriors) is a first year student who has mixed feelings on the game to put it delicately. She’s quickly recruited into the school’s mahjong club by classmate Nodoka Haramura (Ami Koshimizu, better known as Ryuuko Matoi and Holo), in which she manages to keep her score at exactly 0 throughout the entire match, and if you’ve ever played mahjong before, you have an idea of how close to impossible that is to pull off. Nevertheless, she finally joins the club and goes out with them to compete in tournaments and become the best high school mahjong team in Japan.
It’s a pretty typical sports anime setup, even though I’m hesitant to classify mahjong as a “sport” per se, but nevertheless the show his a lot of the same beats typical of shows like Haikyuu! and Koroko. However, what this show very slyly hides from its audience is that Saki is actually a magical girls show. Every single character in this anime has a mystical luck bending power of some absolutely ridiculous description. Oh the writers definitely explain how everyone came to be so damn good at the game: some worked full time at a mahjong parlor, Saki was forced to gamble her New Year’s money away to her parents (hence why she always tries to land a perfect zero scoreline), and one of the best characters in the series has absolutely no damn clue how to play the game but keeps getting very high scoring hands regardless.
Because how do you read someone who has no idea what the hell they’re doing?
I had a lot of fun with Saki - more than I really thought that I would - though I must admit some of that fun comes from understanding the show’s primary basis. If you’ve never played Japanese mahjong before, then this might not be the best show for you to watch. Crunchy does provide a few sub-subtitles to try and get the audience clued in as to what some of the in-game terminology is, and depending on how interesting you find the core premise, they definitely help. Regardless, this is a show on a very particular subject matter, and how much you’ll enjoy Saki will likely depend on how compelling you find the core premise.
Put another way: if you didn’t like furry webcomics, then it wouldn’t be right of me as a critic to forcibly steer you towards a site like Katbox.
But let’s put that huge conditional aside for a moment, because even though I didn’t have a passionate interest in volleyball when I started watching Haikyuu!, that didn’t keep me from putting on and actively enjoying the show. This is something sports anime in general are very good at doing - getting a general audience with varied interests and pasttimes invested in a single sport or hobby. Even if you don’t have any background whatsoever in the area of Japanese mahjong, would you still find Saki to be a compelling show?
And honestly…it kinda is! Saki is really, really fun to watch, even if you haven’t even seen the word mahjong up until you read this review.
The plot isn’t terribly exciting, since it just goes down the regular sports anime beats: the rival school is competing in the local tournament, they haven’t been beaten by our protagonists in ages, and this is one of the few times our underdog heroes will be competing against them head to head, and everyone has something to prove over the course of the tournament, and I probably don’t need to say anything more. That’ll probably be my only major complaint about Saki; that it doesn’t really do all that much to break away from the standard sports anime tropes that we’ve seen multiple times in the past.
Apart from that, however, Saki is visually impressive, very well-written, neatly directed, and just charming on the whole. The games in particular are very fun to watch, and even if you don’t have any idea how the game is played, it never stops being fun to watch our protagonists meticulously think about their plays, smugly lay down their winning hands, and celebrate nearly every round with a taco regardless of outcome.
The show oozes bombast, character and energy, and in striking out its own personality Saki portrays itself in a colorful, exciting manner as it exhibits a game not many people consider too competitively, similar to how Ping Pong absolutely nailed its interpretation of table tennis when it came out. The characters are fun to watch, the banter between them is funny and I frequently found myself laughing a bit too hard at some of the jokes, and I’ll again emphasize that it is super fun to watch the mahjong team in action during the tournament.
Naturally, it makes sense to ask how this show stands up to the king of all mahjong shows, Akagi. And I find that question difficult to answer, because the tones the two shows are trying to set are so starkly different from each other it kinda feels unfair to compare them. Akagi is a gambling show first with mahjong as its central premise, and it sells itself on the tension and drama associated with gambling shows. Saki, meanwhile, has no such ambitions, mostly because it doesn’t need them around getting in the way of the lighthearted and energetic tones of the tournaments the girls play in.
Every part of this show has just the right amount of charm in its writing, characters and animation. The cute characters are cute without being overwhelming, the sharp characters look sharp without them coming off as omniscient, and the comedic relief supports serve their duties as well as they can be expected to. It’s not Haikyuu! levels of storytelling or writing, but then again that’s really not what this show is aiming for.
All it wants to do is share a fairly esoteric game with its audience and present it in a fun, zany and creative manner, and in those respects, Saki succeeds. It’s energetic and striking in its presentation and while it doesn’t strive to go too deep with its themes and story, there’s really no point to that in a show like this. Sometimes anime series just need to be fun for the audience, and Saki fits that bill nicely. Even though it doesn’t do much to make itself memorable, outside of magical girls playing mahjong, it’s nevertheless an enjoyable twenty-five episode experience that I certainly had fun watching.
And, yes, there’s a direct relation between how much you know about the game and how much you’ll enjoy the show - see also Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, and Duel Masters (who remembers that one?). Nevertheless, this is still a fun show to just chill out to after a stressful day.
Cook some microwave chicken parm, uncap a ginger ale and sit back in a comfy sofa before putting this on. You’re almost guaranteed to be in a great mood following.
THE VERDICT: B+ Next time: Another request