It’s nice to know that after over a decade watching anime, I can still be surprised. Of course, along with that comes the knowledge that I’m guilty of pre-judgment and closed-mindedness.
So how is it that it’s now, almost ten years after it finished, I’m finally watching one of the more popular anime of the first decade of the Century? I posted a topic on Animesuki a while ago, asking for some overlooked classics that I might have missed over the years. I always like to have one or two older series in my rotation at any given time, because no matter how thorough I try to be (though this is less an issue now that I’m blogging) there’s a good chance I’ll miss something really, really good when it’s airing. I’ve found Seirei no Moribito – my favorite anime ever – this way, along with Dennou Coil and many others. Some of the suggestions were ones I expected – Monster, Honey & Clover, The Twelve Kingdoms and the like.
What surprised me, though, was the number of well-respected sources that recommended Hikaru no Go. I had pretty much pigeonholed this as a kids show, something of a slightly dressed-up Pokemon. But when some of the posters whose opinions I most respect called it out, I figured I had to re-think this one and I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I did. No matter what your preconceptions are, no matter your opinion on the shounen genre, don’t be fooled – this is a great series. I’d even go so far as to call it a classic.
At the risk of devolving into the sort of semi-intellectual nonsense I usually spout, what really fascinates me about HnG is how a series can so perfectly conform to the structures of the sports shounen genre, yet so thoroughly transcend them. In theory, this has all been done countless times. We have our shounen hero, Hikaru Shindou, who starts the series off as a twelve year-old, a bit of a slacker and smart-mouth. You have the rival, Akira Touya, who Hikaru must chase for the course of the series. You have the mentor, the chaste relationship with the female friend, the small army of friendly rivals whom Hikaru meets on the way and help him on his path. You have the long-destined confrontation which the entire series builds toward.
So with that, and the fact that a few months ago I had no interest in or real knowledge of the 2000 year-old Chinese board game that the series is built around, how is it that I found HnG so thoroughly engrossing that I zipped through 75 episodes in a matter of two months despite blogging 15 current series? Why were there countless instances where I meant to Youtube one episode, and ended up watching three or four? Because this is, quite simply, a brilliantly executed series. Studio Pierrot and director Nishizawa Susumu have done a thorough and intelligent job of adapting Obata Takeshi and Hotta Yumi’s manga (also excellent). More so than in any series I can recall, the characters age believably over the course of the series, which follows Hikaru and Akira from short-pants 12 year-olds to first-year high-schoolers. It isn’t an overnight time leap, either – the progression is gradual to the point where you almost don’t notice until there’s a flashback to a much earlier episode. No detail is too small as the series paints a picture of the world of Go in modern Japan – the school clubs, the Go Salons, the training sessions at the Go Institute, even the birth of internet Go are explored lovingly and carefully.
Part of the reason why this is all so vivid is that both the mangaka and the studio strove to get all their facts straight, largely by using Go Professional Umezawa Yukari “5-Dan” (the “Dan” system is used to rank Go professionals in Japan) as a technical advisor. They even provided “Go Go Igo” segments at the end of many eps, short tutorials on the tactics and history of the game. Do I understand Go now? Not by a long shot – but I am utterly fascinated by it, a game so complex that computers are nowhere close to the championship level despite already being on par with chess pros. The series was responsible for a huge Go boom in Japan, especially amongst youngsters, and even sparked a small boomlet in the West. I appreciate that everyone involved strove to provide as much accuracy as possible in describing the sport.
Fundamentally, of course (and if you read my posts you knew I’d get to this) what makes me love HnG so very much is that it’s an incredibly involving human story. Hikaru (Kawakami Tomoko, who sadly passed on this year) is a likeable and believable hero, a pretty typical adolescent apart from the two-tone hair. He’s basically a good kid who doesn’t respect his mother enough or study hard enough, not out of malice but just general ambivalence towards life. The fantasy element of the story comes in the form of Fujiwara Sai (Chiba Susumu), a Go master from the Heian Era who died under tragic circumstances, causing his spirit to remain Earthbound and tethered to the ancient Go board that eventually ends up in the hand of Hikaru’s grandfather. Sai has re-entered the world once already, his spirit paired with that of Honinbo Shusaku (the real-life greatest player in Japanese history) during the Edo period. For reasons known only to God (for the moment) Hikaru is able to perceive him, and he enters the world again through bonding with Hikaru.
That’s a pretty odd premise, but trust me – it works. Sai is a wonderful character – a fish out of water even in Edo times, never mind the 21st Century, he’s nevertheless smart, compassionate and very funny. He loves Go, of course, and it’s his quest for the “Divine Move” that’s kept him subject to the bonds of Earth all these centuries. Now that he’s spiritually in the world of the living again, Sai wants nothing more than to play the game he loves – and given that Hikaru has no interest in the game whatsoever, he’s willing to humor the ghost by letting Sai guide his hand through a few Go matches. coincidentally, the first one – at a local Go Salon – is against fellow 12 year-old Touya Akira (Kobayashi Sanae), who just happens to be the son of Japan’s greatest player and the finest junior in the country. And thus begins one of the more memorable rivalries in modern anime.
I won’t attempt to summarize the entire story, which needs every one of its 75 episodes and then some. But it follows Hikaru on an amazing journey, a path that takes him through Go Club at school, amateur tournaments, the life of an apprentice pro (Insei) and finally, towards Akira. Along the way he comes to love the game of Go and the spirit who teaches it to him, and meets an incredibly memorable cast of characters old and young who inhabit all aspects of the Go world. They’re all vibrant and interesting and so much much more than stock characters, and my favorite of them is Waya (Takagi Reiko), the boy one year older than Hikaru who serves as his mentor in the ways of the path of Go. Waya – and all of these supporting characters – each have their own very identifiable sense of style, from speech patterns to clothes to tastes in food. The adults all seemingly smoke like chimneys – apart from Akira’s father Koyou, the stern but noble dean of the Japanese Go world who represents the ideal Sai is chasing in the same way Touya does for Hikaru. It’s almost beyond belief how artfully it all fits together.
This isn’t a perfect series. There are elements of the ending that don’t totally work, and some controversial directions in the story that won’t please everyone. It is a shounen, and thus far richer in male characters than female – though with the opposite being so prevalent in anime these days I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. But really, what six-cour series is perfect? I can honestly say that I was moved to tears three times with HnG, which is a damn rare thing with me, and it’s not by accident – it wraps you up in the lives of the characters in the way only a long and artfully conceived series can. It’s funny and smart and damned exciting, too, with some of the best cliffhangers of any series I can remember. This is a good one, well-deserving of its popularity, and I’m only sorry I waited for so long to experience it for the first time (and that I won’t be able to do so again). If you’re looking for a rock-solid, well-produced and riveting series that’s accessible while still really smart and complex, you could hardly do better.