A series that we’ve yet to get around to covering is Saki, but that ends today. Never before has mahjong been so gay, and with three seasons to get to (including the spin-off, Achiga-hen), there are several ships that set sail, so let’s get things started.
Synopsis: Saki Miyanaga is a high school freshman who doesn’t like mahjong. Ever since she was a child, she would lose her New Year’s gift money during her family mahjong game. If she won, her parents would be upset, and if she lost, well, she lost. As a result, she’s learned to play in such a way that her score differential always remains ±0: not good enough to win, but not bad enough to lose. When we meet her, she’s being dragged to her school’s mahjong club by an old friend. How will a girl who hates mahjong, yet has become adept at the game as a result of her upbringing, survive in this environment?
Since this is an anime about mahjong, it’s not much of a surprise that there’s A LOT of mahjong lingo that went completely over my head. My only experience with mahjong is with those apps where you play by yourself, so I didn’t really understand any of the intricacies of play. Having a general knowledge of mahjong would definitely be helpful to better understand what exactly is going on during the matches (as well as helping to enjoy it more), however, it’s not a requirement, and it’s easy enough to understand if a character is simply doing well or not. Honestly, I usually just zoned out when the finer details of mahjong strategy reared their head, but despite the many matches that take place over the course of the season, this strong emphasis on the X’s and O’s of the game didn’t take away too much from my overall enjoyment.
With that out of the way, the two-cour season covers everything from Saki initially joining the mahjong club, to her contentious relationship with Nodoka, to her reconciliation and pinky promise with Nodoka, to Kiyosumi’s entry into the prefectural team tournament, to the individual tournament that sees many familiar faces face-off. Pacing felt a little off, thanks in large part to how long the prefectural team tournament was. Spanning fourteen episodes, I feel as though it dragged on for far too long, even if there was plenty of downtime between the matches. In comparison, the individual tournament lasts a meager three episodes, and it sort of feels like an afterthought.
The motivation of some of the characters—such as the family issues that drive both Saki and Nodoka to aim for nationals—help give the story a more personal feel, and even though these aspects aren’t really a major focus, they are appreciated. One other thing that’s also appreciated is seeing things through the perspective of these rival schools. It helps in caring more about them, and it makes their showdowns with the competition feel much more interesting.
Overall, there’s a decent amount of character development, but first and foremost, the story focuses on Saki and Kiyosumi High School’s attempt to qualify for nationals. There’s a healthy dose of comedy, and I wouldn’t have thought that something as sedentary as mahjong can be made to look very interesting, or dare I say, exciting, yet Saki somehow managed to pull it off.
The same way there are a lot of schools vying for the trip to nationals, there are a lot of characters to be found in this anime.
As the titular character, Saki is sort of like your typical anime protagonist, except she’s exceptionally good at mahjong. Neither bland nor terribly exciting, she’s the kind of cute everygirl that you just can’t help but like. Early on, it seemed like Saki would definitely be the primary focus of the anime, but the emphasis instead shifts to the entire Kiyosumi team, and she’s just one (major) part of that well-oiled mahjong machine.
Nodoka’s a former middle school national mahjong champion, so it’s not all that surprising that she’s probably the fiercest competitor of all the Kiyosumi girls. She’s as serious about mahjong as anyone, though, her cuteness factor is off the charts. What’s especially adorable is how she always plays with a stuffed penguin doll that she tucks under her boobs. You can’t really ask for a better main character duo than Saki and Nodoka, but wait, there are even more entertaining characters! 😛
Yuuki’s the cute/annoying comic relief character that has a ton of personality. Her love of tacos is a running joke that doesn’t seem to get old, and they actually help her perform better during her matches. She’s dripping with personality, and whenever the show needs a shot in the arm, she doesn’t disappoint. Hisa and Mako are the elder stateswomen in the Kiyosumi mahjong club (a third-year and second-year, respectively), and they work together to get and keep the first-years on top of their game. Out of those two, Hisa is particularly likable, and it’s just nice to have so many charming characters on the same team.
Aside from Kiyosumi, three other schools serve as the major threats to the top spot, Ryuumonbuchi High School, Kazekoshi High School, and Tsuruga Academy.
With the arrival of Touka Ryuumonbuchi (the granddaughter of the school’s founder) came a shake-up that resulted in the school ending the six-year prefectural qualifying tournament win streak of Kazekoshi. Touka craves attention, and seeing that Nodoka has become the media’s darling, she naturally hates her. Touka’s snobby but entertaining, and she makes for a pretty solid villain-type character. The only other character from Ryuumonbuchi that I found to be particularly interesting was their star player, Koromo. She has the appearance of a loli, is said to be possessed by a demon when she plays, and has even beaten a pro player. Even though she’s feared by her opponents, she’s oftentimes really cute and friendly, and I liked how she always mistakenly referred to Nodoka as “Nonoka”.
Kazekoshi is a regional powerhouse that had a stranglehold on the top spot of the prefecture tournament, until they were upset by Ryuumonbuchi. To me, this school is all about Mihoko. Yes, they may have a cat girl who occasionally sprouts ears and a tail, but even that isn’t enough to make me like her more than Mihoko. Probably the sweetest character in the entire show, Mihoko’s the complete opposite of Touka, and you can’t help but like someone that obviously loves her friends and teammates so much.
The third and last of the major rivals to Kiyosumi is Tsuruga, yet prior to the start of the tournament, all the Kiyosumi girls would talk about is Ryuumonbuchi and Kazekoshi, so they didn’t feel like a legitimate threat to me. Their ace is Momoka, a girl with such little presence about her that her opponents often don’t recognize her plotting until it’s too late. She may be a powerful player, but I wasn’t really a fan of hers. Overall, this is my least favorite rival to Kiyosumi, with only one character that I felt had enough personality to compete with many of the other girls from the other schools.
There’s really only one male character in the entire show, so before we get to the Titanic-sized ship that is Saki x Nodoka, there are actually several other ships that you’ll find in this anime. Granted, most, if not all, of these relationships can be viewed as nothing more than romantic two-girl friendship, but that doesn’t make them any less welcome. Intense blushing is the order of the day, since nearly everyone is guilty of doing it, but that’s just because you can ship so many characters together. Here are the other ones that stood out to me.
Hisa and Mihoko are the leaders of the Kiyosumi and Kazekoshi mahjong clubs, and they have history that dates back to the national middle school tournament three years ago. Years later, they unexpectedly meet again, though, Hisa doesn’t even remember Mihoko, so it’s a one-sided longing to see each other again. As senior members of their clubs, both Hisa and Mihoko have a motherly vibe to them (especially Mihoko), and they’re very easy to like. Another reason to like them? Hisa looks like Mako from Love Live!, or rather, Mako looks like Hisa, since Saki came out before LL!, and Mihoko has a “magical eye” that she never opens… until she’s in a real pinch during a match. I guess you can also ship Hisa with Mako and Mihoko with Kana, but why would you really want to?
Tsuruga is my least favorite of the schools, but it’s home to one of the most obvious pairings in the entire show, Momoko x Yumi. Honestly, Yumi is fairly forgettable, but thanks to this, she became much more interesting. Momo’s backstory flashback explains why she’s so attached to Yumi, and whenever they’re together, it’s always adorable to see Momo cling to her senpai. They don’t get the limelight like Saki and Nodoka, yet Momo and Yumi are arguably the cuter pairing.
Now, those are all nice ships, but throughout the course of the season, it’s made obvious that Saki and Nodoka are the flagship couple that we’re all meant to get behind. They hold hands on several occasions, seemingly blush during every other interaction with each other, fall asleep on each other’s shoulders, and just obviously care a lot about each other. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re canon, but they’re a major reason why this anime is enjoyable, at least for me.
Yes, the cast is pretty large, and not all of the characters are very memorable, yet there are still several that are. You have more than enough yuri subtext to go around, but even without that, this would be a pretty charming cast by any standards.
Visually, Saki tries to make mahjong seem more interesting by over-the-top effects that give it a distinct fantasy edge. It definitely works, as does characters slamming pieces down in dramatic fashion when they have a winning hand. During matches, characters’ imaginations get the better of them, and you’ll get moments like a magical girl-style showdown that makes things seem more exciting and action-oriented, and that’s a refreshing twist that helps the game of mahjong seem less stodgy and dull. For an anime like this, these are all welcome additions, so whether it’s mahjong or slice of life, this is a solid-looking anime.
It’s also worth noting that even though it’s rather mild, there’s no shortage of fanservice in this anime. Short skirts, convenient camera shots that always seem to focus on the characters’ thighs, and constant reminders that Nodoka has big boobs, are the best examples. The obligatory onsen scenes are present, though, it’s tamer than I would have thought.
Moving on to the music, Saki does it’s best to make mahjong seem as exciting as possible, and even though the music isn’t great, it does its job well enough. Between the intense matches and the slice of life moments, the music is more than serviceable, so there’s no complaining from me. And that also extends to the two OPs and four EDs (one of which is the first OP), which are all as catchy as you’d imagine. One of the EDs in particular will make Saki x Nodoka shippers pretty happy as well, and that’s just icing on the cake.
More than a dozen years after first being serialized, the Saki manga continues its run, so getting another anime installment may not be totally out of the question, however unlikely it may be.
If you were a basketball fan, you would probably enjoy a basketball anime more than a non-fan, and the same applies here. If you like mahjong, or even just know how to play, you’ll probably love this. But even if you’re not a fan, I think Saki blends the game of mahjong and slice of life in an attractive package that’s still enjoyable, regardless of whether you’re familiar with the game or not.