The great thing about shounen manga these days is that it can be written about pretty much anything without ever breaking from its quirky, inimitable style. You know what I'm talking about. All the one-on-one showdowns, and overwrought speeches on power and skill levels. The funky special techniques. How all the world's problems will inevitably be solved by engaging in some epic duel with the local ideologue. This all used to be pretty well limited to titles centered on martial arts or other similar forms of violence, back in the day. All at once, however, the entire industry seemingly picked up a volume of Dragonball or Hokuto no Ken and decided it would all work just as well without the punching.
They're right, of course. The appeal lies in the means, rather than the end. Diversity is inherently interesting.
And so, there are now shounen action series being written about everything. Somewhere in the depths of a Tokyo manga café there even exists one such series about… baking bread. I don't remember the name, or how I came across it. None of that is important. What is important is the idea behind such an odd creation--the notion that one could take this premise, and, with enough belief in the process, find a way to leave the reader breathless. Who will win? Can our hero pull through? Watch the bread rise! On the surface, nothing could be more stupid. And yet, it is charming. All because of the unmistakably Japanese thought process that might lead a character to shout, in amazement, “I HAVE NEVER SEEN A YEAST SUCH AS THIS!”
That is shounen manga.
So don't question the premise of Hikaru no Go. Do not think it impossible to be engaged by the drama of a twelve-year-old Go player as he learns through observation and desire how to properly hold a Go stone, and, with much enthusiasm, snap it onto the board with a thunderous KLAAAAAK! You will enjoy this no matter how many games of Go you have not played.
Not playing Go is actually pretty crucial to this opening volume. Hikaru Shindo is a young, brash kid, as you may well have guessed. While rummaging through his grandfather's attic in search of odd trinkets to pawn off, he manages to come across a Go board that he figures looks a little odd, what with the bloodstains and all. Problem is, his friend Akari can't see the blood. And she can't hear the voice Hikaru begins to hear. It seems the board is possessed by the spirit of a Heian-era Go master by the name of Fujiwara no Sai. Sai excitedly hops into Hikaru's head and regales him with his epic tale of betrayal and passion. Once one of the emperor's two Go instructors in his time, Sai was challenged by his partner to game, with the stipulation that the loser would leave his post because, hey, who needs two Go instructors anyway? The evil instructor cheats, frames, and beats Sai, who is banished from the capital city forever. He eventually dies before his time, but his passion for Go attaches his spirit to our world through his personal Go board.
Hikaru's Go board, now. Hikaru, who has no intention of ever playing Go.
This does not last, of course, but it does turn into a bit of a running gag wherein Hikaru casually mentions giving up Go, and suddenly becomes violently ill. He is feeling Sai's intense disappointment, we are told. Sai didn't hop into this kid's head after two hundred years of waiting (he was previously in the head of an Edo era Go prodigy named Hon'inbo
Shusaku) to not play Go! Hikaru spends a lot of time awkwardly yelling at Sai out loud, telling him to shut up, not speak unless spoken to, etc. It can be pretty funny. At one point, the two even engage in a little bit of bartering; Hikaru will attend a Go class if Sai does his homework for him. Reading that exchange between the spirit of a Heian nobleman and a lazy twelve-year-old is about as delightful as one might imagine.
There's really a lot of interaction between Hikaru and Sai, despite one residing in the head of the other, and it is almost always interesting on some level. Sai himself is a fun character. For all his elegance and wisdom, he's still a kid at heart, begging Hikaru to play Go with a dopey grin on his face. In times such as these, Hikaru is the one playing the responsible father figure, trying to keep Sai level headed. It's a nice dynamic. The dialogue, bickering, and teaching going on between Hikaru and Sai mirrors Hikaru's growth as a character. It is a replacement for an inner monologue, and it goes over really well. This is how to write an entertaining story for children without losing all meaning and value.
It's how to draw a story for children, too. The art in Hikaru no Go is perfectly acceptable. It is easy to see how characters are feeling, and their designs are crisp and easily recognizable. Sai in particular looks nice in his Heian era Imperial court get up. He also never looks out of place in any given frame, even though he's technically not present. He will often show up just behind Hikaru, as if he's speaking into his ear. It all flows very well.
For all it's charm, Hikaru no Go is, so far, completely predictable. It never really finds the time to stray from the formula set out for this sort of work. Characters that we see on TV eventually show up, and they are of course related to someone else that is important. Rivals are established. Hikaru does begin to learn how to play Go on his own, without the help of Sai. During an intense match with Japan's best player, Hikaru shows brief flashes of what can only be “the player inside”. He will advance of his own volition as the series moves on. Go will teach him how to grow. He will eventually have to play a crucial match without the help of Sai. This is all laid out rather clearly. That might often sound like a striking criticism, but it speaks to this volumes' strengths that I am more pleased that I can see the plot develop than I am disappointed. There's nothing to really complain about, to put it simply. All I can say is that that might register as a complaint in and of itself to some people.
If not, have fun. Try not to shout Go phrases next time you beat someone down in Street Fighter. It might be difficult.
APROACH AT 3-5! KLAAAAAK! SUCH INTENSITY IN THOSE FINGERTIPS!