Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 22nd 2009
Episodes 1-25 Streaming
Saki Miyanaga is a new student at Kiyosumi High School, and she's looking for the right circle of friends and the right activities to get involved with. When one of her classmates suggests that she join the mahjong club, however, Saki is reluctant—her childhood memories of the game mostly involve having to put up with a family of sore losers and sore winners. But after being coaxed into playing a few rounds with the school club, Saki's unusual skill is revealed: she can play to a perfect zero score every time, the result of always having to accommodate her family's poor mahjong manners. If she can learn to tweak her ability towards getting high scores instead of zero scores, then Kiyosumi High could emerge as a contender for the national high school mahjong championship.
When people say "Japan can make a cartoon about anything," one of the examples sometimes brought up is the game of mahjong. But in truth, the mahjong genre remains mostly the province of salarymen reading manga on the train, immersed in stories of seedy underworld types and their elaborate gambling schemes (because, as the stereotype goes, mahjong is a typical yakuza activity). By contrast, the younger core anime audience has paid little attention to the world of mahjong ...
Until a bunch of cute girls stepped into it.
That's the defining trait of Saki, a series that takes two tired-out genres (Epic fighting tournament! Schoolgirls galore!) and freshens them up by putting them in an unlikely context. The result is not without its flaws: too many girls, not enough episodes, an ending where the middle should be, a middle where the ending should be. Nonetheless, it captures the joy and excitement of the game in a way that even novices can (vaguely) understand—and comes replete with the superpowers, special moves, and distinctive personalities that make the tournament genre so appealing.
However, the series also starts with the kind of material that makes the tournament genre infuriating—character introductions, preliminary matches, and training sessions. It is here that the show is at its most mediocre, with predictable bishoujo stereotypes engaging in predictable acts of fanservice as friends and rivals get acquainted. What is also troublesome is the instant immersion into the game: there is no "beginner's guide to mahjong" phase; instead, viewers are expected to already know the rules or learn them along the way. Even seasoned players may be surprised by the peculiarities of the Japanese scoring system, as mahjong comes in multiple variants, just like poker.
Those who survive the early episodes, however, will be rewarded with a tournament arc as gripping as any mainstream fighting or sports anime. The Prefectural Qualifiers, which span most of the episodes in the teens, bring out the best in Saki: the characters finally evolve past stereotype, revealing unique tactical styles and "superpowers" such as turning one's self invisible, intentionally playing low-probability hands, or simply blitzing through opponents in the first round. The pacing and cliffhangers throughout this arc are second to none, with maybe the only complaint being that mahjong is often a game of pure dumb luck—so if you were expecting some kind of strategizing on a level with Hikaru no Go or Eyeshield 21, it won't be found here.
Unfortunately, the Prefectural Qualifiers are so masterfully done that the next stage of the tournament—the Individual Qualifiers—falls short, both in quality and in episode count. The final arc stumbles toward the finish line, ending on an "our adventure is just beginning!" note and showing in the credits that there was a lot more manga material that couldn't be covered in time. Thus the series ends up with a great ending in the middle, and an awkward middle at the end. Could a second season be in the works?
Even though it falters at the finale, the series still delivers some thrilling gameplay moments, thanks to an over-the-top animation style full of flashy sequences and visual metaphors. Saki's signature move, for example, is rendered with electric sparks, CGI effects and dramatic camera angles; another special move that translates to "Plucking the moon from the bottom of the sea" is portrayed as a rising waterline threatening to drown the players. If a tabletop game seems like a boring concept for a TV show, well, this series does everything in its power to make it as un-boring as possible. Sadly, the same can't be said for the listlessly animated school-life scenes and cookie-cutter character designs—and with so many different high school teams, one can get all the way to the final episode and still not remember who all the players are aside from vaguely recognizing their faces.
The show's soundtrack falls into a similar situation as the animation: absolutely electrifying during major gameplay scenes, but generic and boring otherwise. The technopop beats and blaring brass during Saki's finishing moves add that extra layer of grandiosity to the moment, but cut to a scene of the characters chatting with each other and it's mostly forgettable fluff melodies in the background. Even Saki's yuri-tinged friendship with teammate Nodoka—apparently an attempt to shoehorn some emotional weight into the series—is punctuated mostly by shallow, sentimental ballads.
But of course, one does not watch Saki for emotional weight or subtle artistry. This is, above all, a celebration of the thrill of competition, the exuberant highs and devastating lows that come with any tournament—even if it is just a tabletop game between high school students. Of course, it does require some suspension of disbelief to appreciate the exaggerated animation, uncanny special abilities, and ridiculously lucky competitors involved. And it takes an even more forgiving eye to overlook the poor planning that results in the series peaking too early and ending on an anticlimactic note. But for all its flaws, Saki has accomplished at least one thing: it's taken the mahjong genre out of the world of yakuza and salarymen (where even Akagi dwells), and finally brought it to the realm of the everyday anime fan.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : C
Music : C
+ Captures the thrill of a sedentary parlor game thanks to flashy animation, edge-of-your-seat pacing, and distinctive characters with special moves.
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