Every so often, one of my fellow anime-watching friends will recommend an older (i.e. not currently airing) anime to me. Sometimes this results in unearthing a real gem that’s worth taking a deeper look at, and recommending to other anime fans in turn.
I think that this is the case with the moe/shonen fusion known as Saki. It is rather appropriate that Saki is a fusion because its tournament arcs are highly reminiscent of the famous Dragon Ball Z.
In fact, I can give you the short version of the review now to spare you some reading time, if you want.
Just ask yourself, how many of these four do you like:
- Dragon Ball Z style tournament arcs?
If you like 2 of these 4, then I recommend Saki to you!
If you like 3 of these 4, then I strongly recommend Saki to you.
If you like all 4 of these 4… stop reading right now, and go get this anime!
But for those of you looking for a more in-depth review, please read on.
The Saki anime runs 25 episodes, and aired back in 2009. It was, as one person told me, “Gonzo’s last stand”. To find out more about this once powerful, but now defunct, anime studio, check out this Wiki link here. Gonzo pulled out all the stops for Saki, and you can often see this in the exquisitely elaborate epic mahjong playing of this anime.
Mahjong is, as I mentioned before, not the only hook for this anime, but unlike some “sports” anime, it never fully loses sight of its competitive premise. This thankfully makes the anime seem sweetly sincere, even while quasi-super powers are employed in the cause of winning high school Mahjong tournaments.
But even while mahjong maintains a center stage presence in this anime, it is also used very well as a vehicle to bring friends (and likely many romances ) together. The moe and yuri elements of this show maintain, at the very least, a constant backdrop for the action, and a fantastically fine frame for the picture of highly competitive mahjong playing.
I will say more about Saki, as a whole, at the end of this blog entry, but for now I want to focus on the five main protagonists of this show, because I think that much of the appeal for Saki is due to these five characters. In the interests of emulating Saki’s over-the-top style (and also since I’m often horrible with remembering anime character names ^_^; ) I’m going to assign a comedic nickname to each of Saki’s characters. First we have the titular lead, Saki Miyanaga, who I have dubbed…
When it comes crashing down, and it hurts inside…
She’s gonna take a stand, it won’t help to hide…
Well, you hurt her friends, you hurt her pride…
She gotta get a kan, she will make it slide!
The Sakster is a real… majong player.
But even so, she has an absolutely unreal comeback style. She pulls off comebacks that would make a certain legendary pro wrestler blush with punchy patriotic pride.
Saki’s almost magical comebacks from virtual near death experiences are akin to hulkin’ up after the boots have been put to her by brutal competitors from the ‘heel stable’ of The Million Dollar Girl…
But while The Million Dollar Girl tries to buy her way to the World Championship, The Sakster has the lightning-esque power of Sakimania to help her out!
It takes awhile for Sakimania to start running wild, but once it does, it becomes a truly irresistible force. It is particularly irresistible to the next member of the five fantastic female leads.
I give you Nodoka Haramura, aka…
Boobs is a frequent source of envy in this anime, due to the body part which I have named her after. Those mammaries are also treated as a frequent object of desire for our one major male character.
However, Boobs does have a personality lying beneath the surface of her physical endowments. She consistently sticks up for her friends, takes mahjong deadly seriously, and is possibly more yuri than even Subaru of Nanoha StrikerS.
Oh, and as for her surname, she is very attached to a penguin plushie, and spends enough time playing mahjong on the internet that she might as well be a software operating system. Indeed, her online avatar of Nodocchi is very suggestive here:
The relationship between The Sakster and Boobs is a megapowerful one, and an almost constant fountain of blood red blushing. It also may pose a serious challenge to Nanoha and Fate as anime’s most ambiguously lesbian duo.
But while lesbianism abounds in Saki, there is at least one girl in this show that is clearly attracted to guys.
That girl is Yuuki Kataoka, who I will call…
In a stroke of absolutely brilliant irony, the one and only girl in this anime that we know for certain is attracted to guys… is also obsessed with tacos. As opposed to, say, sausages.
In fact, and as far as I can tell, Tacos exists for only three purposes:
- Eating Tacos
- Playing mahjong
- Persuading Kyoutarou to eat her “taco”.
Since two of this girl’s three reasons for existing goes back to tacos, it seems rather appropriate to call her that.
Still, Tacos is a good comedic relief character, that helps to ensure that the SRS BSNS of the mahjong competition of this anime never totally overwhelms the viewer. Basically, she has a lightening affect on the overall atmosphere and mood of the anime.
Tacos is something of a love-or-hate kind of character though. She’ll either annoy you, or amuse you, and it’s not likely to be anything inbetween.
But one character that is much more nuanced than that is Hisa Takei, who is known to chemists as…
Harutonium, in its most pure and raw form, is extremely powerful, very reactive with other elements, and can provide enough energy to fuel your entire anime show.
However, it is also dangerously combustible, and if it explodes, it could have Earth-shattering effects.
Hence, pure Harutonium has to be handled with meticulous care and constant supervision. If you don’t believe me, just ask this guy.
So due to the great potential of Harutonium, but also its more threatening qualities, many anime studios have tried to refine it into something much more manageable.
This has had largely mixed results.
In the case of an anime called Angel Beats!, the attempt to refine Harutonium created a cool gun-toting action heroine! Alas, she was also prone to bouts of total insanity as seen by the screenshot below.
Totally freaked out by Angel Beats’ approach to Harutonium, the people behind the anime Moshidora attempted something a little less action heroine, and a little more business saavy. What resulted was a badass brainy baseball team manager that knew what it took to win, but she was still hindered by one of the key properties of Harutonium – an obsession with girls named ‘Yuki’.
So as you can see, refining Harutonium is no easy task, and rarely gives you exactly what you want.
Except, I think, in the case of Refined Harutonium from the anime Saki.
Saki’s Refined Harutonium has many of the excellent properties of the raw form, but with 95% less insanity! She is a genuinely great group leader for her Mahjong Club, and she even doubles as a Student
Council Congress President in her spare time! She is a charismatic crafty Chief who uses the one male member of her club for heavy lifting and harsh manual labor, while frolicking about with female members of her club. Can there be any doubt that she is made of Harutonium?
In all seriousness, this character works well as the brains of the operation, and her presence makes the plot a bit more interesting than what it otherwise would be.
Refined Harutonium’s best friend, and final female member of our major protagonists, is Mako Someya, or as I like to call her…
Much like a certain critic of a similar title, That Girl With The Glasses has a real taste for nostalgia. Her main mahjong playing skill, after all, is carefully remembering every mahjong match she’s ever played, so that if she encounters a mahjong game very similar to one of those, she knows exactly how to best approach it.
She also has a keen observational eye, always taking note of the people around her, and applying good critical thinking to the situations that she faces. She isn’t the brains of the operation, but she is the soundboard for her. She offers second opinions, and sometimes alternate takes. She hence makes a good critic.
And since I want to be a good critic in this review, I will bring up a few other points about Saki, pertaining to its strengths and weaknesses.
Saki does an impeccable job of fleshing out no fewer than 20 major characters (not including supporting cast). These 20 characters come from four competing schools, five girls for each. With a cast this size you’d think it would be impossible to keep track of everyone, but by the end of the anime, most of the characters I knew like the back of my hand.
What the Saki anime does well is utilize the slow, gradual pacing of the shonen-esque tournament arc by having loads and loads of character-enriching flashbacks. Due to the flashbacks, I found that I developed a good sense for each and every one of these 20 female characters. I’m certainly not going to say that they’re all very deep and multifaceted, because they’re not, but they each feel like their own individuals within the anime’s narrative. In other words, I don’t feel like the plot is dragging them along, but rather that their own personalities are what pushes each and every one of them forward.
The next most notable thing about Saki is its highly atypical plot structure. You have an introductory period of 5 or 6 episodes in which we are introduced to the five female leads I talked about above, as well as a lead-up to the major team tournament arc of this anime. But then the tournament arc meets a great climax in Episode 19, meaning that you have six full episodes following what is unquestionably the most climatic moment of this anime. That does kill momentum a bit for the final few episodes of this anime, it has to be said, as the singles tournament that follows the team one never really captures the gravitas that the team tournament does.
Nonetheless, this anime has a masterfully memorable mix of moe appeal with yuri subtext with over-the-top mahjong with shonen-esque tournament competitions.
I know that such shonen-esque tournament competitions can be a real turn off for a lot of viewers, but please trust me when I say that if you like moe and/or yuri, those two elements will be of a big help in seeing you through the slowest middle portion of this anime.
I should also say that I thoroughly enjoyed this anime in spite of knowing next to nothing about mahjong. My suspicion is that if you’re very familiar with mahjong, that your appreciation for this anime may be even greater than my own.
All in all, Saki is no anime masterpiece, but it is a fun-loving yet serious sports anime with lots of quirky charm, good humor, and explosive competition.
Personally, I’d give it 8/10.
So I think it’s a very nice anime watch, and perhaps now is a good time to watch it, since I’ve heard that Saki will be getting a second season.
In any event, you wouldn’t want to anger this girl, would you? :
And with that, this concludes this Triple R Random Retro Review! I’d love to know what you thought of the review, as well as if you’d be interested in other such reviews of older anime shows. Thanks in advance.