Yes, I know, not a book again… But nothing I’m reading right now is really something I can review. It’s all historical or classic—and at least for the present, I’ve no intention of “reviewing” a classic. Of course, the classic in question is Dune, which isn’t quite the same as, say, Dickens…but still.
Anyhow! I’m rewatching this series, and thinking about the subtext and style an awful lot, so I figured I’d review it.
I only knew about it vaguely when it first aired: I was going to watch it, and then my parents placed a restriction on my TV time (3 hours a week, I think it was) so I picked Inuyasha, Conan, One Piece, Nadja and a variety show called Sekai Marumie (“The World Exposed”), or whatever drama my classmates were into at the time.
I watched it a couple years later, shortly after which I learned that one of my ex-classmates had become a go pro, and overheard some other ex-classmates mentioning that his interest in the game came from the show. It’s true that in the year that it was airing, my class played quite a few board game tournaments (though we also did things like chess and shogi).
Now, on to a summary:
Shindou Hikaru is your average elementary school student with very little direction in life. When the story opens, his parents are withholding his allowance in punishment of a particularly bad grade. So when we first meet Hikaru, he’s digging through his grandfather’s shed for something to pawn, and digs up an old go board. His friend Akari—a girl from his neighborhood—is with him, but she doesn’t see the stain on the board that Hikaru sees; nor does she hear the voice that Hikaru hears. As it happens, a ghost named Fujiwara no Sai was haunting the board, and delighted to find someone who can hear him, he transfers to Hikaru. Sai has no interest in anything but go; Hikaru thinks that go is a boring game for old men with nothing better to do. This is a problem for the pair, as lacking a corporal state, Sai needs Hikaru to cooperate in order to play. When Sai proves that he can make Hikaru extremely miserable if Hikaru refuses to play, Hikaru grudgingly heads into a go salon (or tries and fails to play his grandfather, then stumbles into a go salon, if you’re reading the manga). It just so happens that Touya Akira, son of Touya Kouyou (holder of 4 professional titles and considered to be the strongest player of the modern age) and go prodigy, who also happens to be the same age as Hikaru, is at this salon, and is all too willing to play Hikaru—and is utterly shocked when this boy who claims to never have played go before beats him without even playing at full strength. Hikaru, in turn, is struck by not only Sai’s dedication to the game, but also by Akira’s intense focus and determination.
And this is how, in a strange and mutant go variant of a love triangle, Akira begins to chase Sai who he thinks is Hikaru, and Hikaru begins to chase Akira. And the force and intensity of Akira and Hikaru’s respective obsessions becomes the driving force of the story.
Now, frankly, I don’t think it’s going to be possible to review this in any capacity without spoilers, so… SPOILERS AHEAD.
The true beauty of this story, I think, is that there are not only many very different characters that draw you in, but also the relationships that those characters construct amongst themselves. There is obsession (especially when Sai gets involved), there is rivalry, there is jealousy, there is growth and there is love: there is complexity. The go in this show is also actually go.
To illustrate what I mean, I shall draw on the Prince of Tennis (PT), which aired back-to-back with this on TV and was essentially a similar concept but with tennis instead of go. Here is a list of things that the shows did differently, all of which contributed to making Hikaru no Go (HG) more appealing to me.
- PT starts with a tennis prodigy who wins everything, who is always a tennis prodigy who wins everything, and continues to be a tennis prodigy who wins everything. HG has a go prodigy whom we first meet losing a game, and another beginner who learns and takes the game into his own hand at an alarming rate.
- PT is about a team of tennis players containing a tennis prodigy, and basically they win everything. There are rivalries, but the hierarchy is clear. HG is about principally two plus one go players, and emphasizes the fact that go is a game for two. Rivalry is the most important part of the game, according to HG, because only by playing someone, racing someone, does a player truly improve. Wins and losses are less important than the games themselves.
- PT!Tennis≠Real!Tennis. Among the many magical techniques that the cast uses are lasers and omnipotent spins; while watching the show may make you interested in tennis, you’re not going to learn anything about playing tennis. HG!Go=Real!Go. All the important games are based on real games. You actually learn the basics of go watching this series. And if occasionally quick and vicious games between Sai and Hikaru or Akira are depicted by metaphorical sword fights, you find yourself not minding as it’s very much the minority in addition to making the show more accessible to those of us who know nothing of the game and eventually get tired of seeing patterns of go stones on a board and not understanding exactly what makes this pattern special.
- The driving force of PT is out-of-this-world tennis, and the general awesome infallibility of the cast. The driving force of HG is the growth, relationships and fallibility of various characters.
In fact, the driving force of HG is Hikaru and Akira’s relationship. Akira’s obsession and then subsequent disillusionment with Hikaru coincides with Hikaru’s interest in Akira increasing to the point of obsession until he’s motivated enough to chase Akira to the ends of the world without any encouragement from Akira himself. Sai’s relationship with Hikaru, with Akira, with Touya Kouyou, with anyone is not actually that important as a force that drives the story itself until the end of his undeath.
You see, Hikaru starts learning go because of Sai (and maybe a little bit of fascination with Akira). But he doesn’t really obtain that drive that propels him onward at amazing rates until he develops his obsession with Akira. Even at the point where he is taking the pro examinations, and his strength is already awing those around him, I can’t imagine him continuing the game if Akira had quit, or died, or otherwise been lost to the world of go. Hikaru sees no goal, no rival but Touya Akira. Personally, I think that if something had happened to end Akira’s go playing at that point, then Hikaru would have stopped. Oh, I still think he’d have become a pro and been generally amazing. But I also think it would have been Sai playing from then onward. Sai encourages Hikaru’s obsession with Akira, because this is Hikaru’s drive to get better, stronger and higher. I think that Sai wouldn’t have protested too much if Hikaru had said, “I’m not interested in playing for myself anymore; you’re better, you play now.”
After all, this was how Sai haunted Torajirou.
Hikaru’s own desire to keep playing irrespective of Akira only emerged after Sai left, and Hikaru found Sai in his go. Only then, playing for both himself and Sai, does Hikaru develop a deep attachment to the game beyond merely playing, racing and beating Akira.
While the “death” of Sai was tragic and never fails to make me very profoundly sad, I find that from a critical perspective, it was executed to astounding and utter perfection.
The story, which begins when Hikaru is 11/12 and ends when he is 15, follows him through 4 years that coincide with puberty and that general age where children take their own perceptions of the world and begin to shape their own lives. Sai, while obsessed with go and tremendously fun, is basically a responsible adult (or a conscience, like a temporally and culturally displaced Jiminy Cricket) that lives in Hikaru’s head. As long as Sai is there, Hikaru doesn’t have to deal with the world alone, because he never is alone. Sai provides Hikaru with constant companionship, constant supervision, and over those years he becomes to Hikaru a buffer against the outside world. Hikaru still has to deal with life, of course, but Sai is always there to praise him, to scold him, to guide him.
Because of the nature of Sai’s existence, Hikaru can’t just “leave the nest” like he could with any other adult. Because of the nature of the story that chronicle the events leading from Hikaru’s departure from childhood into adulthood (and from beginner to professional go player), the story can never end until Hikaru has, in some shape, way or form, “left the nest.”
Unfortunately, that meant that Sai had to die eventually. This is a given. But what I find truly astonishing about how it was executed was the timing.
This story fits together like puzzle pieces carved to slip together in beautiful perfection. It’s not just the timing of Sai’s death; it’s the entire story. Nothing happens meaninglessly, making the show/books wonderfully fun to watch/read multiple times.
Akira and Hikaru could have ended up playing together at multiple points throughout the story:
First, during the middle school go tournament. Hikaru wanted to play Akira; he was going to play Akira, until he heard what Akira had gone through just to play Sai one more time. Therefore, Sai played the beginning. The fact that this game was played by both Sai and Hikaru served three purposes: first, that there is a clear motive—a sense in Hikaru’s mind of how he wants to play—for Hikaru to interrupt the game with an unexpected move of his own, which would later lead into his signature playing style; second, that we as viewers can see Akira comprehend the change as soon as it occurs, whilst it happens early enough in the game that Akira seems to assume that he merely didn’t notice sooner; thirdly, that this is not truly Hikaru and Akira’s first game. Akira’s subsequent disillusionment and Hikaru’s devastation that manifested as determination at Akira’s rejection set the stage for a very large part of the story.
The second time was at the Wakajishisen. Had Hikaru won against the pro that he was playing, he would have played Akira. But storywise, Hikaru and Akira could not play yet. Hikaru has, at this point, come a long way from his loss to Akira at the tournament. However, we know that he still would not have been able to hold a candle to Akira. Perhaps, having played Akira, Akira would acknowledge Hikaru’s potential and their rivalry could truly begin. But what would have happened to Hikaru’s motivation? Throughout the professional exams, Hikaru is utterly determined in the name of Akira. But if you pay attention to what motivates him, it’s the fact that Akira’s never looked at him, never focused on Hikaru like he has on Sai. The moment that Akira’s focus turned toward Hikaru at full force, Hikaru’s goal would be achieved. Yes, I’m sure that Akira’s acknowledgement of him would still serve as enough motivation that he would keep going. But not with quite the same edge, I think.
So Hikaru was destined to lose that game. But, even so, this game could not be a mere unremarkable loss—and this not for the sake of Hikaru’s motivation, but for Akira’s. Akira, having lost his drive, his edge, his ferocity after being disillusioned with Hikaru, only really picked his game back up after Ogata took him to see how far Hikaru had come. In a way, Hikaru’s progress is now Akira’s motivation, and merely letting Hikaru lose “because he wasn’t good enough yet” would just be another disillusionment for Akira. So Hikaru, in this game, demonstrates the first instance of what would later become his signature style of using seemingly bad moves in ways that most other players don’t expect. This awes Ogata: awe which is, in turn, conveyed to Akira, thus serving its intended purpose.
But there was one more function: the formation of the opinion of Hikaru’s opponent during that game. This was by no means a bad match from Hikaru’s side—as we know from the astonishment expressed by both Ogata and Sai—but it’s nowhere near the kind of game that he’ll be able to play when he next meets this man as a professional. This man becomes Hikaru’s first opponent when he makes his comeback—and this allows us to see how truly far he’s come. It also gives one more person reason to be jealous of Hikaru for the regard that Akira demonstrates toward his seemingly unremarkable skill, which is an opportunity the author can’t seem to resist.
The third could have was the biggest could have of all: it was the game that was supposed to be Hikaru’s first as a professional, until Akira’s father collapsed and Akira didn’t show up. Of course, the most obvious reason for this is to give Hikaru reason to rush to the hospital to see Touya Meijin (because we can assume that if the Meijin had fallen ill at any other time, Hikaru wouldn’t have heard about it quite that quickly), setting the stage for his epic game with Sai. But there was still one more reason why Hikaru and Akira couldn’t play each other yet: Sai was still there.
But why is this a bad thing? If Hikaru and Akira had played, then Sai and the Meijin had played, then Sai had disappeared, the story could have continued as it had, right? Well, yes. But one vital element remains undiscussed, which I suspect is the real reason why the author refused to let the two of them play until Sai was gone. This element is the fact that Akira is the only person in this entire series who holds all available pieces of the puzzle that everyone wants to solve. Akira played Sai through Hikaru. Akira played Hikaru as a beginner. Akira played the modernized Sai online. And when he plays Hikaru as a professional, he’ll have the last piece that ties it all together.
And tie it together he does, with more insight than he himself realized.
The thing is, though, that following Sai’s death, Hikaru is alone and will need a regular go partner. Akira is, of course, the obvious candidate—but this has to kick off from somewhere. Had Sai still been there when Akira made his observation, Hikaru would have spent more effort trying to hide, or denying his involvement with Sai (whether over a desire to be seen as himself rather than as Sai in Akira’s eyes or for the same reason as usual remains to be seen and isn’t really important). They could have started up a friendship nevertheless, but its meaningfulness would be less than what it is if it had begun in the presence of Sai, because this by necessity would involve more lies and secrets—and the damage that would probably have been done to this friendship after Sai’s death when Hikaru couldn’t tell anyone what had happened is unthinkable. If there had been no friendship and they had already played, Akira may not have tracked Hikaru down quite the same way. He may have tried to use his insight about Sai, which would not have helped the grieving Hikaru. Perhaps they would still have reached the same point eventually, but my feeling is that it would have been darker and colder a path.
Ultimately, Akira and Hikaru’s relationship is the main focus of the story. And this brings me to a glaring point: the romantic interpretation. Certainly, it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to interpret the entire story as one love story revolving around go. I find that the vast majority of the internet seems to ship Hikaru and Akira over any other pairing in this fandom. (Yes, those are 2 separate links. Go knock yourself out if you’re interested.) I…haven’t really made a judgment. It really depends on my mood, whether I read the two of them as romantic or platonic life partners. (Yep, I don’t doubt that they’re life partners.) Mostly, I just see the two of them being so busy being obsessed with go and each other that they forget that romance (including the carnal variety) exists in the world. I can see it happening either way, and won’t be discussing this further since anything I might say is said in the above two links (the first even answered the question I had after I watched the show the first time: “What’s the point of Akari? Just to stand there, be a mediocre player, in love with an oblivious Hikaru and look pretty?” I’d much rather think of her as Akira’s unfortunate foil). What is clear that Akira and Hikaru are constantly orbiting each other, even after their real first game.
One reason why the manga is worth reading is because it shows you the way that Akira and Hikaru’s relationship continues to change and evolve even after they become friends. When they begin playing together outside of an official setting—as you’ll know if you’ve seen the anime—they seem to take great pleasure in playing together and holding discussions about their matches that deteriorate into intelligent arguments that, in turn, deteriorate into arguments on par with a toddler’s tantrums. But this is a phase that doesn’t last very long. Hikaru takes any fights picked with him, and soon is arguing with other go salon patrons, and fighting other go players with that same intensity that he once only demonstrated in the name of Akira. But what’s interesting is that at this point, Akira and Hikaru have moved beyond the point where they fight (on and off the go board) all the time, into a comfortable sort of friendship with amounts of bickering more on par with the way that Sai and Hikaru used to bicker.
Like I said, go life partners. Having each found their own reasons to play that have nothing to do with the other, they can finally come together and play—and thus they strive towards that perfect game that everyone dreams of. It is this relationship’s formation and development—slowly, expertly, flawlessly—that keeps viewers like me glued to the screen for hours on end.
Phew, long review! And more like a critique. Of one aspect of the series. But huzzah anyway! Let’s say 9.5/10, because I believe that, expert and wonderful though this story is, it still has room for improvement in some ways.
EDIT: And now there’s more—a part 2!