Hikaru no Go – Series Review

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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.

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29 comments

  1. L

    This a series I've always wanted to watch but have been too busy to watch it. But I'm happy to hear im in for a treat when i do get around to it. ^_^ Part of the reason is the length and the hype that surrounded this series that turned me offin the begining. I thought it was going to be like the big 3 but once again I'm happy to be wrong.
    I will be expecting the a review of the last three episodes of the ayashi japanese classic horror stories and mononoke whenever you have the time ^_^

  2. C

    Gahhhh. Now I really want to re-watch it.

  3. l

    It was this anime that actually introduced me to Death Note. I was one of the people that actually wait for death note to come out after Hikaru no go finished.

    Another classic I will recommend will be:
    Vandread
    Martian Successor Nadesico
    Mahoujin Guru Guru

    or a better link will be

    http://www.sankakucomplex.com/2011/07/20/top-25-nineties-anime/

  4. S

    Great to see you spreading some love for Hikaru no Go!
    HnG is one of my favorite manga growing up and I was one of those kids who picked up Go thanks to the series. I'm pretty sure the tankobon are stashed somewhere but I never got the chance to watch the anime since they weren't as easily accessible back then. Fujiwara Sai is one of the more amusing characters in a shounen series and without a doubt, the best parts of the series was when he was around ;D

  5. @Lizzie: I promise I will try to get those Ayakashi episodes. And trust me, HnG is worth it.

    @Croosboy: Good! That's why I do this. 😉

    @Ikaze: Yup, Obata's art is certainly recognizable. The story itself is massively different though (I actually like HnG better).

    @Seishun: I'm working my way through the manga now. This is definitely one of those adaptations that's extremely faithful. I love Sai as well, no one could have a word against him, I don't think. But I think Hikaru is a very underrated example of a thankless rôle (male lead) and Waya just cracks me up for some reason. And when Isumi went to China… LOL.

  6. K

    I would recommend:

    Ergo Proxy
    Witch Hunter Robin
    Elfen Leid
    Air TV
    Fate/Stay
    Wolf's Rain
    Chrono Crusade
    Princess Resurection
    Ah My Goddess

    All are decent old school animes and well worth your time.

  7. Thanks, Karma. Seen some of those, the others are pretty much all on the list…

  8. A

    That was a really great review. Your impressions of the show somewhat mirror mine own, though I never did first approach the show as a Pokemon/YGO! mishmash rofl.

    But anyway, now that you learned your lesson to not judge a book by it's cover and dismiss an anime for being kiddy …

    get your butt over to watching Erin and HunterXHunter you slacker.

    Meanwhile, my butt will be over there watching Shojou Chara.

    *fyi, steer away from Fate/Stay*

  9. Shouldn't I hold out for the reboot of Hunter?

  10. A

    Thank you for talking about Hikaru no Go, it is just simply an incredible anime and manga. It is just a shame that it never was released in the North America on DVD. I know that you can download them from itunes and Amazon, but :(

    I find it really interesting how for many people this series is always "I never thought I would like something like this but…" I mean a show about Go? I'm so glad that they ran the manga in the North American Shonen Jump or I would have never discovered it.

    As far as Hunter x Hunter goes, why wait for the reboot? It'll take at least two years for them to catch up to where the old series left off. Can you really say you want to miss out for two more years?

  11. K

    I learned my lesson with Saki and Shion No O not to just dismiss board game animes.

  12. d

    I must confess that I have been guilty as well of dumping this in the Pokemon clone bin and ignoring it. I'll have to give it a shot. Have you seen Shion no Ou, by the way? It's another great show about board games if you haven't.

  13. No, but you're the second person today to recommend it, so I may have to give it a try. Oh, for more than 24 hours in the day…

  14. s

    I thought the manga looked weird, but I read it anyways, and I don't regret it. I got attached to each of the characters. Now that I've read your review, I'll probably watch it in my spare time, since I loved reading about Go! Thanks for bringing back this wonderful story. :)

  15. You're welcome, shirayuki! I can't recommend it highly enough. It's very faithful to the manga, but I think the characters are brought to life really well.

  16. m

    I'm actually currently watching this show on Netflix, but I sort of stalemated with the huge number of airing shows that I've been following. I, too, was surprised at how enjoyable I found it, but then I also appreciate anime like Shion no Ou. Another nice surprise is that the Netflix version uses subs >.<
    Thank you for your review of this show; it's encouraged me to go and finish it!

  17. B

    to me, Hikaru no Go is my most favorite manga series from Takeshi Obata. I enjoyed HnG much more than Death Note/Bakuman and I can recalled HnG manga created big wave of new Go players during its time.

    Anime adaptation was faithful to the manga version until around episode ~70 then it concluded on its own way while manga version still had another arc after that.
    Unfortunately the manga ending didn't satisfy a lot of people, rumors said it's because of political issue vs Korea but it explained why manga ended like that when the popularity was still very high.

    And I want to second the vote for Hunter x Hunter, I highly recommend manga version though.
    One might look at it as a kids show but it is anything but that, reading HxH requires much more brain power than average shows. The series being on hiatus serveral times, each time lasts serveral month to year due to author's health issue so one needs a lot of patience to follow this series though.

  18. l

    @Arabesque

    Fate/Stay is a very very good VISUAL NOVEL, so yea to anyone want Fate/Stay try to play the game instead. Too many things are missing from the visual novel. It available in English now.

    @Enzo
    HunterXHUnter is a good anime UNFORTUNATELY it caught up to the manga and the manga have been in hiatus for a century long(at least it feel like a hundred years). But FORTUNATELY for you, the HXH is getting restarted now. Therefore feel free to burn midnight oil to marathon the entire series of HXH and then go watch it reboot series. Good luck.

    @Pokemon lover

    I wanna be the very best. And I gotta watch them all. It took out 70++ GB from my HDD. Now I only need time to watch it and to somehow bear it repeating plot over and over again.

    P.S. 36 hour per day is not enough for me.

  19. There's not enough midnight oil for me to finish H x H by the time the reboot starts, but I might take a crack at the manga instead.

    It's interesting that the author, Yumi Hotta, really hasn't done anything of consequence since HnG – just one short sports shounen. Creatively, I guess that was her life's work.

  20. t

    I think you've just put me over the edge enzo,my excuse was always,"I know nothing about go" but that's not much of an excuse when I've watched akagi without knowing a thing about mahjong (hell,I'm not even sure that's how you spell it)

    I've always like Obata's art (in fact,looking at the latest bakuman chapters I think he's still improving!JC staff don't do him justice in the anime version) and it'll be nice seeing it associated to a different writer.

    Still,gotta finish Monster first (couldn't resist watching the anime after reading the manga) and that's another long one,and there's 2 other older shows I'm watching as well,and there's like 10 fall animes I want to watch….But yeah,I'll get around to it.

  21. I confess, I'm encouraged to see this post get 20 comments in two days. I guess HnG is still a much-loved and well-known property. I hope you do watch it, totoum, and a few others too. If nothing else, I'd like to see Kawakami Tomoko remembered for this role, too, as it doesn't seem to get much attention in her catalogue.

  22. p

    I always lurk here and RC for your posts (mainly natsume and no.6) xD
    I've been a HUGE fan of HNG for at least 5-6 years and started playing go cause of it. And this (along with Madoka) made me a huge fan of Sanae Kobayashi. I actually got reccomended this series by a friend of mine whose opinions I respect, otherwise I dont think I'd have picked it up. Now this anime is one of my all time faves, and I'm thrilled that now that there is another fan :DI always lurk here and RC for your posts (mainly natsume and no.6) xD
    I've been a HUGE fan of HNG for at least 5-6 years and started playing go cause of it. And this (along with Madoka) made me a huge fan of Sanae Kobayashi. I actually got reccomended this series by a friend of mine whose opinions I respect, otherwise I dont think I'd have picked it up. Now this anime is one of my all time faves, and I'm thrilled that now that there is another fan 😀

  23. p

    Erm sorry not Madoka, I meant Nanoha xDErm sorry not Madoka, I meant Nanoha xD

  24. Hi pitchan – I always say everyone is welcome to lurk as long as they want, but it's nice to have comments too! You know Sanae Kobayashi is also Reiko on Natsume Yuujinchou, right?

  25. p

    Ergh Sorry for the double posting inside the posts…my phone posting sucks xDDD
    Actually no I didn't…but no wonder her voice sounded so familiar! 😀

  26. N

    I haven't watched the anime yet, but the manga is one of my favorites. In addition to everything you had to say for the plot, I have to add that the art is amazing, going for a very realistic faces style (for adults, anyways).
    The ending kinda sucked, but then again, when you have such a great run, ending it will always a disappointment :)

  27. I

    I was surfing for Obata art when I came across your wonderful review of Hikaru No Go. ^^

    Someone said it was a shame that they weren't released on DVDs in the US. Techniclly they were, 11 volumes, but Viz packed it in after 44 episodes of english dub. (And, of course, the really powerful stuff doesn't hit until Ep 60. Poo.) I would give my left arm if Viz would dub the rest and re-release it on disc. The 11 volumes are now out of print, and getting more and more difficult to find at reasonable prices, though I have had pretty good luck on Amazon and Ebay. Still, if you don't want to pay horrendous prices, be prepared to lurk for months.

    Have you seen the anime Fantastic Children? It is my third favorite anime (one notch above Hikaru, in fact) and is not well known. Many people are put off by the simple, Tezuka-inspired art, others expect it to be a child's anime and are put off by the blood and angst, others can't handle the confusion or find it slow. It is an anime for people who like some depth and mystery, and who don't mind that you're not really sure what's going on until halfway through the series. From the things you say about HNG, I think you may be one of the people who would appreciate this anime. It is the ONLY non-comedy anime that made my favorites list.

    I don't think they stream it (legally) anywhere, though, so you may have to get hold of the discs. (If you do, be sure to watch the Special Ending on Disc 6's extras, if the series leaves you needing a bit more.)

  28. Thanks very much for commenting, Inkwolf. I haven't seen Fantastic Children in fact, though it does look interesting. It's on my bucket list – if summer is as mediocre as it looks, I may use it to catch up on some older shows that I've been meaning to watch.

  29. U

    I just finished this series. Im kinda sad that Sai never had a chanve to say goodbye. But its good in its own way. I watched this series after following the works of the author from death note to bakuman and then this. I hope others try watching this!

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