I have a weakness.
No matter what form; be it a book, a manga, an anime, a film or a television series- so long as it touches a subject that I’m interested in, of which there are many, it would get at least get half an hour of my life.
Of late, I’ve become a tad too devoted to Saki, a mahjong themed anime series, designed for a (probably) largely male fan base. Admittedly I nearly threw in the towel within the opening minutes of the series after seeing shots focusing and lingering on a female lead’s overtly-well endowed, bouncing chest.
(For the record, I appreciate and embrace in equal parts, both BL and GL and forms of fan-service. However, focused cut aways on over-sized breasts and voyeuristic shots catching high school girls’s panties lines are simply not my cup of tea even within the yuri genre so I tend to avoid material with too much such emphasis.)
So, why watch Saki if there were so many doubts?
Simply put: The Mahjong.
Let me be clear: I am no expert of mahjong. My understanding of the rules of the game are rudimentary at best and to further complicate things, Japanese mahjong rules are different from that of the general Chinese diaspora. But with guidance from experts in the Saki forums (or apply the power of internet search engines with keywords “Japanese mahjong rules” ) and one could learn enough to understand the terminology and follow enough of the game play.
Initially, protoganist Saki Miyanaga didn’t quite seem like the ruthlessly-demolishing-opponents mahjong queen one would expect from a series like this. Instead, what I got in place was a meek, bookish girl who seemed to exhibit no particular outstanding skill or even real fondness for the game. As she gets pushed into a practice match with the school’s frightfully small mahjong club by her childhood friend, Saki’s first mahjong game seemed outright dull and the game ends with her simply breaking even and making a hasty exit straight after.
Was there some mistake? Could the pink-haired, well equipped (in all senses of the word) Nodoka Haramura whom I glimpsed in the opening scene with Saki, be the real lead?
The pink haired lady was already established as a real powerhouse; a former National Middle School Mahjong Champion, and also the prototype of a gal whom most male fans of the series could ogle after. Picture the figurines and other merchandise to come with her ample assests… (I did too think at this point that this story was about to give rein to the tried and tested route of many a shonen manga; a battle-hardened winner mentoring a clumsy but immensely talented beginner, and thus would begin the journey of polishing the diamond in the rough, the trials and tribulations of the prodigy who would one day no doubt outshine her teacher…)
But all my assumptions was for naught! The fake-out was in the nature of Saki’s mahjong abilities! It was hard to “see” her genius straight off the bat. Our juggernaut’s special skill was being able to achieve the perfect neutral, the “plus minus zero” result, round after round.
And if you understand anything about mahjong, you will know that this is damn near impossible.
While one can be greatly skilled and play a good game, there is still a great deal of unpredictability stemming from the random draw from 136 tiles on the table. You have little control over draws and discards; even with uncanny observation and major risk assessment skills, luck plays a great element in the game with the endless possibilities from the different combinations across the board with 34 different kinds of tiles.
With a game starting normally between 20,000 points to 30,000 points per player, and it ending when one of out of four players loses all his/her points, everyone at the table has to be constantly keeping track of the scoring system not simply to win, but as part of their strategy.
All of them have to be aware of the structural criteria (plus different tournaments use different rules), bonuses and stack and predict various possible scoring combinations versus their opponents plus the possibility of the worst faring player losing before they can push their scores up. (If a player “bankrupts” before the game, the player in the lead takes the game even with rounds left, ensuring the need for anyone in 2nd or 3rd running to try and “save” the last player to ensure a possible turn-around especially if the game is close.)
As someone who has struggled with maths my entire life and has an incredibly short term memory, just a thought of the sheer volume of these mental sums and list of rules to memorise would make me go into convulsions.
So when I watch how unassumingly Saki takes on Noh, a former mahjong champion in their initial match-up, I realised that this quiet girl is really one of those Nightmarish Mahjong titans who emerges out of a dark, seemingly peaceful black hole to swallow you whole before you can even think to call for help.
Incidentally, Yuuki Kataoka is also the only character who has visibly shown any struggles with the numbers aspect of the game. So it’s safe to assume that the rest of them in this world are all mathematics savants or superhuman computers who really should be working as financial analysts and saving the economy. Then again, that might not be the hardest thing to believe, given that Saki’s world boasts of an incredible number of attractive high school girls who are crazy about playing competitive mahjong, something not quite reflected in my reality.
Yet one of the most adorable slices of life touches for me in the show was their taking of time to incorporate everyone’s superstitions or habits that they bring into the game.
Most gamblers are a superstitious bunch; I’ve heard stories and discussions on how one is not supposed to walk straight into a casino (you’re supposed to go in sideways) and how you should visit the toilet or change underwear to break a bad streak.
Likewise in Saki, we were given little gems like Yuuki’s obsession with T-lettered food (specifically tacos) as a source of luck energy, Noh’s holding onto her stuffed penguin and Saki removing her socks and shoes to hit their stride in the competition. Player Kazue Nanpo brings it to an unworldly level, upping her power in the game during the South Wind Rounds because of her surname. (Her surname, Nanpo in Japanese, 南浦 is close to the words South Wind.)
I’ll leave it to you to decide how much of this you would view as hocus pocus but I think most of us have at some point in our lives, either carried some object or wore some clothing that we felt brought us some form of luck. (Mostly before exams or important interviews no doubt. We call it “clutching the Buddha’s foot” for help in dire situations.)
There were also other fun bits poking at the girls amazing abilities, and I liked how it was skillfully applied to introduce other aspects of the game; like when Mako playfully accusing Saki of cheating after yet another stupendous end game:
Mako basically accused Saki of was cheating with a technique (since I can’t find the equivalent of it in English) that we term in Mandarin 推牌. This means you turn over the tiles (you’ve seen) directly in front of you, then pretend to shuffle them, and proceed to simply replace them in front of you. This is a real cheating technique that arose from the habit of players who would simply turning their tiles face down and piling them together after a game to shuffle their hands for a new draw.
Suga however immediately refutes this by pointing out that they are using an automated mahjong table, a great invention from Japan. Unlike the manual “hand-washing” employed by most other places, all tiles are pushed into a centre opening in the middle of the table, and a button is pressed for automated shuffling. This helps ensure the fairness of the shuffle and also disputes Mako’s wild accusation, played for laughs since automated mahjong tables are the norm in Japan.
But I digress.
After the newly formed Team Kiyosumi ventures into the prefecture mahjong tournament, we get introduced to a new cohort of quirky characters armed with a medley of diverse skills. I’m not complaining, mind you, because there came the glorious mahjong hands.
Goodness, what hands.
Any amateur player watching this series could get into a frenzy over even the incomplete ones. They were works of art that one could only dream of; you would be so fortunate as to wring out such a hand once or twice a year at the gaming table.
The two majorly feared players in this series are of course Saki, and the much gossiped about, mysterious, Koromo Amae.
Amae who is seen as the Ultimate Rival in this series is introduced as almost unbeatable and already playing at a stupendously high level despite her youth. Not only did she help her team achieve an unexpected crushing victory in the prefecture competition the previous year, she went on to play against a professional player and won. Her abilities were just as much feted and feared by team-mates and opponents alike.
Between Saki’s rinshan kaihou (poetically named as “a flower blooming on a ridge”) and Amae’s haitei raoyue (“scooping the moon from the seabed”) continuous moves, the duo have the local market cornered in unholy luck and winning moves, reducing the rest of their unlucky competition to tears of frustration and despair at the table.
Yet in spite of these ostentatious game displays, Saki is really a well-drawn out story.
Instead of only focusing on Saki, the series chose to gave full rein to the extended cast; team mates and adversaries alike were allowed ample screen time to develop their characters. Everyone had their time in the sun to brandish their distinctive finesse at the gaming table.
Kiyosumi’s other ace, Nodaka for example, who is also secretly an internet mahjong champion typically favours a mechanical, swift playing style, efficiently and quickly racking up points for the win. She is the Scully to everyone’s Mulder, dis-believing in the “flow” or “supernatural” talents of others, which at times either helps or impedes her from the game.
From what I’ve garnered amongst the online fan discussions is that everyone has generally agreed that Noh and Touka (Amae’s cousin and team mate)’s style of play were likely the most true to-life. Perhaps the best in-series acknowledgement came from the character of Fujita, a professional player and commentator who mused out loud before a Noh-Touka match up, that the true worth of consistently good players such as them could only be seen by racking up the scores after a thousand games played.
And to name a few other players with diverse abilities and talents:
Mako Someya, the good Sergeant of Kiyosumi has a chess grandmaster-like ability to recall and use every game she has seen played to work the board and predict draws and throws. Jun Inoue of Ryuumonbuchi High, the consummate observer, functions primarily as a tile disabler tactician, working to throw off other people’s combinations. And we have a mistress of manipulation in Mihoko Fukuji of Kazekoshi High who gets competitors to play off each other and into her hand, and finally a somewhat supernatural “Stealth” Momoko Touyoko of Tsuruga Academy came armed with an eerie ability which causes competitors to disregard her presence and make careless discards.
Every player has their expertise and the chops to show for it.
And in the end, the best things about Saki is when you realise that there are no true villains in the series. The girls are just a motley crew of committed players brought together by a passion for the game who are out to prove themselves as the best and to win.
Up against such foes, Saki finds herself with new, higher obstacles to overcome, even meeting for the first time, someone besides her fearsome estranged sister who could stop her finishing move.
But just how good is Saki?
Our heroine not only possesses an uncanny ability to read the flow of a game, she doesn’t really need to depend on others for tiles she needs to complete her hand. She makes draws from her own dead wall, ala the menzen tsumo, often using the same self-drawn hands to complete a closed hand with a self-drawn tile.
Her patented rinshan kaihou(嶺上開花) is virtually unstoppable and she pulls it out, round after round, hitting kan after kan. And besides her devastating finishing move, she’s capable of pulling the best (or worst) trick in the book; the last round comebacks even in the most unlikely of situations. Even during her trial games with the Kiyosumi mahjong club, Saki is capable of completing hands that have, as quoted by her captain, Hisa Takei, that have “a thousand in one chance”.
The good Hisa also commented, she doesn’t know if Saki’s powers are that of a God or a Devil. (My response is; who cares, love, she’s on your team.)
While these abilities do earn her a lot of nicknames like “mahjong monster”, her rivals still adore her. Because Saki, despite her immense talent, is an incredibly humble sweet person, who plays the game (and encourages others to do likewise) and she does so because she enjoys it. While the competition serves to excite her and bring her game up to a different level, prep-ping for a comeback even in the most impossible of odds, she doesn’t forget that it’s also supposed to be fun.
Saki isn’t consumed by only wanting to get better; she acknowledges that her competition gives her a new edge and keeps her going back, but she doesn’t forget what made her start it in the first place and it’s spirit like this that’s a quiet undercurrent through most of the characters in the series that draws me to them.
Last but not least, why really did I love this series so much?
Despite raving about the powers of Saki and so many other character in the show, it is the Kiyosumi team captain who holds sways over my heart. I have so many feelings about this character and over how she is so wonderful that I’m considering writing another entry devoted to her, but we shall see if I can put down my procrastinating ways…
But In the meantime, I will be awaiting (like the legions of Saki fans) for season 2…
The first season of Saki has been collected in a Blu-Ray set. (No subtitles, folks).
Saki’s official manga under Square Enix and is still serialising.
There has also been a spin-off from the original series, Saki Achiga-hen episode of Side A.