Yesterday, I wrote a review (more like a babble) that mainly focused on the story structure, and I spent a lot of time talking about Hikaru and Akira’s relationship as the driving force of the plot. But I didn’t do Sai nearly enough justice. If Hikaru and Akira’s relationship is the heart of this story, providing the drive and passion that propels the characters and therefore the story forwards, then Sai is the soul—the very essence that underlies it all, without which there would be no story to tell, no passion or drive or go.
This is increasingly less of a review, but I’m not entirely sure what else to label it as, so review it is. Bear with me.
Three guesses as to where I am in my re-watching cycle. Actually, if you know the story, you shouldn’t need more than one.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I talked about Sai’s role and why it had to end, last time. But today, I’m more interested in talking about the reason why he had to begin.
Sai is beauty personified, and I don’t mean in terms of mere physicality. His strength—which is astounding and which we have known to awe the entirety of the cast that knows enough of go—is beautiful. His manner, his gestures, his gaze… But most beautiful of all is the purity and honesty which he demonstrates with his selflessness.
Sai loves go more than anything in the world (as his non-corporal existence only serves to demonstrate). He is never happier than when he can play a game, and would be the last person to decline an offered opportunity to play. It’s this desire, this yearning that has shaped his undeath; that shaped Torajirou’s life as Shuusaku; that kicks the story off when Sai’s grief overwhelms Hikaru upon his refusal to play.
It is odd, perhaps, that I say that it’s Akira and Hikaru’s relationship that is the driving force behind the story rather than Sai and Hikaru’s. The reason for this is simple. While their relationship has ups and downs and conflict, in the absence of Akira (or, more specifically, the mutual obsession that he shares with Hikaru), the story would have been hard pressed to progress past a cutesy one-shot. Sai, while admiring of Akira’s dedication and capable of enjoying a game with any opponent, does not actually see Akira as a true opponent with whom he would have to fight at full force. He views no one this way but the Touya Meijin, and thus had Hikaru never decided to play, that relationship would no doubt have become the driving force of the story. But really, with the Meijin’s capacity to see through everything, he and Sai would have played each other much earlier had Hikaru not developed his own passion for the game; and at that point, having reached a mutual understanding that they are rivals, there would not be much story left to tell in that respect. Furthermore, before Hikaru acquires his own passion for the game, he and Sai are little more than a pair of reluctant Siamese twins with different interests, yet forced to engage in everything together. They argue a great deal, even with Hikaru’s budding interest in response to Akira’s dedication that he saw in that first game.
Perhaps Hikaru is at this point more of a reluctant puppet who is capable of talking back. He does what he does less out of interest than because he has to anyway. When he begins to learn the game, he still lacks that passion that would become the driving force of the story shortly afterwards. At this point, the balance is tipped in favor of Sai, for he almost always convinces Hikaru to let him play; on the occasion when Hikaru plays for himself, he does so to Sai’s encouragement and hidden smiles.
Everything changes when Hikaru discovers his own deep-seated desire to play Akira during the match at the tournament. Prior to this, his fascination with Akira had been present, but more passive. It was more along the lines of, “I’d like to play him one day,” than the subsequent “I’ll catch him, pass him, make him look at me!” that it would later become. But Akira’s disappointment upon seeing Hikaru’s own level of strength changes everything—though this does not become apparent for several months. Sai’s relationship with Hikaru has balanced at a more even place at this point, where Hikaru plays people he knows, and Sai plays strangers and during desperate situations. This also marks the summer when Hikaru lets Sai play “dozens” of games online. This not only solidifies the online username “sai” in the memories of the cast; it also serves to demonstrate to us viewers—and to Hikaru—that Sai’s strength is truly a force to be reckoned with, for not once does he lose.
As a matter of fact, Sai loses only once over the course of the entire series, and that is when he goes up against Touya Meijin in Hikaru’s stead, and plays with a self-imposed 15-moku handicap.
But I get ahead of myself. At the end of the summer when Sai went on his gleeful massacre through the world of online go, two things happen: one, that Sai has become a legend and many now want to know who he really is; two, that Akira becomes a professional, knowledge of which will spur Hikaru to greater heights when it reaches him.
From this point onward, Sai becomes less of a go legend, and more of Hikaru’s mentor. He is patient, understanding, and never mocking. He watches Hikaru grow, and when he sees fit, takes him by the hand and leads him to even greater heights than before. He teaches Hikaru to school his mind and heart as well as his game, and there follows a year during which Hikaru becomes an Insei, and then tackles the exams which, if he passes, will make him a professional.
There is a period of time—starting when Hikaru played Hong Su Yong and ending with Hikaru’s first pro game with Touya Meijin—when Sai is insecure with the worry that maybe Hikaru will not be letting him play other people at all in the future. The show and manga move so fast that it perhaps does not sink in how utterly patient Sai has been up until this point: before this game with the Meijin, Sai had only played one game with one person apart from Hikaru in more than a year and a half.
And yet, prior to hearing a declaration that people could believe that Hikaru had played Sai’s games too, Sai showed no sign of disquiet. Sai loved teaching Hikaru, and never attempted to stall his growth for any reason. Sai allowed Hikaru the credit he deserved, and then some. Even after the game with the Meijin, Sai expresses regret over the blemish that is now on Hikaru’s record, in the form of a wild game only discernible for what it was to those few who knew to look.
I feel that it’s important to point out that the writer made a point of making sure that Akira, who—being young and inexperienced despite his amazing skill—would never have guessed the truth, was the only person who asked a better player, and therefore obtained the truth second-hand. As Akira himself reflects, the “truth” is an unbelievable one—that Hikaru, a new pro, played the Meijin, Japan’s strongest player, with a huge handicap that he self-imposed—that raises more questions than it answers; and yet, having that little piece of the puzzle allows Akira to later become the sole person in the series to find Sai without being able to see him.
Meanwhile, Sai’s desperation to play Touya Sr. in a real match becomes more and more overt, and manifests itself in his demands of Hikaru: not just to let him play, but to show him papers with the records of Touya Meijin’s matches and turn the pages. Predictably, being the self-centered teenager that he is, Hikaru responds with annoyed compliance. This isn’t to say that Hikaru’s behavior is beyond understanding. Like I said in the last review, one thing that I love about this series is the reality of the characters and their relationships and interactions. Sai has, in effect, spoiled Hikaru with his undemanding, patient kindness. Why wouldn’t it seem unreasonable to the teenaged Hikaru, whose life has just begun, that the thousand-year-old ghost at his side suddenly wants his own way?
And after he finally attains the game he so desired, Sai realizes that this has been the reason for his continued existence all along…and this realization means that he becomes all the more desperate to play as much as possible before he blinks out of existence. Hikaru once again responds with exasperation. Sai’s desperation and fear grows and grows and peaks into grief—and then dissolves peacefully into acceptance that Hikaru will continue to grow and improve, carrying Sai’s will onward until he will pass it on to someone else in his own turn. That he “died” peacefully in the middle of a game was probably God’s gift to Sai.
Hikaru’s grief and regret I will not go into excessively. He searches in vain, and then finally looks at Shuusaku’s games—which he had never felt the need to look at when he had Sai right there. Hikaru doesn’t find Sai, but he realizes the full extent of Sai’s genius: and note that since acquiring enough strength to truly see the extent of Sai’s capabilities, Sai has barely played four games that Hikaru has watched, thus masking the true extent of his capabilities from Hikaru’s awareness. In his guilt over his own selfishness, Hikaru quits in the hope that this will make Sai return. Not even Akira himself can bring Hikaru back to the game. Not until Isumi guilts Hikaru into a game months later does Hikaru see Sai inside his own game and resolve to play, thus finally forming an attachment to the game itself as opposed to the people that surround the game (by which I mean Akira).
Only now does Hikaru and Sai’s relationship become the driving force behind Hikaru’s dedication to the game. Soon after his return to the game, Hikaru plays Akira. Akira acknowledges Hikaru on his “lifelong rival,” and the two become friends of sort. In a way, this change marks Hikaru’s final growth. His rival, until then his antagonist and goal, has now become his life partner and together they rise to greater heights. His life partner, until then omnipresent and his conscience and guide, has now become his goal and his aspiration. I’d liken it to the departure of a child from a parent in favor of the company of a peer.
Once again, I will point out that I am not oblivious to the multitude of implications that place Hikaru and Akira (and possibly other pairs) as more than mere friends and rivals. Once again, I will direct you to these two links. But this time, instead of moving on, I’d like to talk about another interpretation that has occurred to me since yesterday.
I mentioned my dissatisfaction with Akari’s place in the story, whilst reluctantly accepting the first link’s interpretation of her as a foil for Akira. But now, I’d like to take a step back and look at gender roles in the series for a second.
All main characters are male. All three main characters (Hikaru, Sai and Akira); all professionals with any contribution to the story are male (Touya Sr., Ogata, Kuwabara, Kurata, etc.). There are a total of five women with any role in the story at all: Akari, Kaneko, Nase and Hikaru and Akira’s respective mothers. Akira’s mother exudes responsibility for a household, tradition and a sense of propriety such that she does not question her husband or son. Hikaru’s mother is a typical middle-class mother, baffled by her son’s sudden interest in and then foray into a world that she did not even know existed. Nase appears to be mostly fan service (does anyone else have a better explanation for why she seems to stretch so much?). Kaneko’s function mostly seems to be to keep the strength and rivalry from being totally male-dominated throughout the story. Akari has several functions apart from those raised in the first link. She also shows us a “normal” rate of improvement as she began learning at approximately the same time as Hikaru. She also serves as a reminder of how far Hikaru is drifting away from “normal” people as he dives further and further into the go world. The romance that would no doubt have surrounded her and Hikaru had he remained—that I fully expected to see pan out for the first twenty or so episodes, until I realized that it wouldn’t—shows us how go has truly consumed Hikaru’s life. The frightening thing, I find, is the thought that maybe the writer still meant for them to end up together: forming for Akari a future akin to that of Akira’s and Hikaru’s mothers combined, understanding go and caring deeply for Hikaru but unable to truly be a part of Hikaru’s life and obsession.
More importantly, I’d like to point out that not once throughout the entire series is there ever a girl or woman who is a serious opponent for Hikaru.
Now, I’ve always looked at this as simply a reflection of the fact that this was written as part of the shonen genre: aimed at young boys. I figured that it was the writer’s decision to make it more appealing to the audience to young boys by making it a male-dominated testosterone-fueled story with girls merely serving as eye candy. Rather chauvinistic, but it wouldn’t be the first story to do that.
Consider the argument made by the first of the two links above: that there are so darn many aspects to the story that would peg Hikaru and Akira as a romantic pair that it can only be deliberate. But the alternate interpretation that just occurred to me is that maybe this is exactly why both Akira and Hikaru are men: because then, especially among the demographic targeted by this story (young Japanese boys), there is less room for romantic interpretations between the pair.
The same goes for all serious opponents that face each other throughout the series. There is exactly one pair of opposite gender that have a serious match/rivalry: Mitani and Kaneko. And these two grow closer, their relationship becomes one easy to interpret as romantic (or pre-romantic). So I’d have to say that a very plausible reason for making a story of this sort entirely male-dominated is because it had to be dominated by one gender or another in order to avoid an excess of distraction of the readers’ focus in the wrong (i.e. romantic) direction.
Think of it this way: had Akira been a girl, no one would have questioned that his (her) relationship with Hikaru was, or would become, a romantic one. Now consider if Waya or Ochi or Kurata or all of the above had been female. The tension in their matches with Hikaru would have been too easily interpreted as sexual tension, diverting attention from the go that was meant to be the main focus of the story and towards the relationship. Jealousies and other motives would have been ascribed to the romantic rather than the competitive angle.
For all that this is a story driven by characters and their relationships, its focus has to remain on the go. I will agree that this is a difficult task: ultimately, the writer of this story has to make a board game exciting enough to keep the audience engaged. Romance would only distract from the competition and passion to grow stronger that is the main focus of the story.
In point of fact, this is a pothole that can be attributed to many manga that seek to focus on a subject that the target demographic may otherwise have considered mundane. Nodame Cantabile is the only example I can think of that manages to maintain focus on the characters’ dedication to music whilst propelling the romantic relationship along at the same time. Other stories that focus on a sport or a game or something else often get sucked into some other direction, and the “subject” of the story becomes the mere backdrop. Hikaru no Go is a rare example that actually manages to maintain the go as the center of the story while using relationships to suck you in: a feat only possible because of the carefully constructed relationships between all of the cast, but especially Hikaru, Sai and Akira. The relationship between Hikaru and Sai, or between Hikaru and Akira is what draws the audience in; but then the characters’ passion for the game redirects the audience’s interest in the correct direction. The relationships—the love, the grief, the loss, the competition and everything else—are still important and emotional, but it’s difficult to follow the story without learning and following the go to at least some degree.
I’m not trying to say that because they’re all male, romantic interpretations are impossible. I do agree that it’s all too easy to read into Hikaru and Akira’s relationship and see a lot more than a mere rivalry-inspired friendship. This is particularly true if you’re reading the manga, and note the way that Hikaru and Akira’s explosive fights simmer down to companionable (but still intense) bickering that isn’t restricted to go-related subjects. Japan in the 90’s was sheltered enough that I don’t find it impossible that the author simply didn’t see the potential there, but not so much that I see it as more than a sliver as a possibility. (Such interpretations between Sai and Hikaru, though, I reject with vehement prejudice. Sai is Hikaru’s teacher, and seems to me part parent, part big brother. The idea kind of makes my skin crawl.)
In conclusion, I don’t think it’s possible that I’ll ever have enough of analyzing and dissecting this story.