Reviewby Jason Sondhi,
Hikaru no Go
Manga Volume 1
Some pop-culture pundits might speculate that something is amiss in that most honored of Japanese manga institutions, Shonen Jump.
Perhaps changing to reflect the metrosexual realities of our day--or instead serving as a sign of society's ever-constant struggle towards a more civilized living--regardless, the phone-book anthology that gave us Goku appears to be getting a bit soft.
From the brawny, single-minded pugilism of Dragon Ball Z's peak, we were moved on to the more effeminate stylings of Kenshin. But still, his asskicking credentials were undeniable. Then the times gave us Yu-Gi-Oh! and though the battle field was reduced to a card game, at least it had scary monsters and stuff.
But now the wussification of the venerable institution seems to have taken a new step. One of the latest titles to roll out of VIZ's transcontinental Shonen Jump pipeline, Hikaru no Go has its young prepubescent lead proving his manhood with daring fights of life and death consequence---only its by means of a board game. This ain't Jumanji either, it's Go, an ancient strategy game that before this series had a reputation in Japan as a game exclusively for geezers.
But maybe such social trend musings bore you, and maybe asskicking is not a prerequisite to your manga reading enjoyment. You simply want to know “is Hikaru no Go good?” Well yeah... Hell yeah actually.
I will not try to hide my unabashed love for Hikaru no Go, the story of a young boy, Hikaru Shindo, whose mind becomes the home for a Go-playing ghost named Sai. Set free when Hikaru stumbles upon the Go board in which he had been inhabiting, Sai is a master Go player whose love for the game, and desire to play the “divine move” has kept him in the world for over 1000 years. Sai's enthusiasm for the game slowly draws the hitherto uninterested Hikaru into the exciting world of Go.
Volume One quickly establishes what will become the central conflict of the series, the rivalry between Hikaru and the young prodigy Akira Toya. Akira is the son of the best Go player in the world, and even though he is only a sixth grader, he can compete with many professionals. Hikaru stumbles into a Go salon in order to indulge Sai, and picks out Akira for a match since he is the only kid around. Although Hikaru says he never has played before, aided by Sai he defeats Akira. Akira is shocked, not believing he could be beat by the likes of Hikaru who cannot even hold the pieces correctly. Akira demands a rematch which Sai wins, but seeing Akira's passion for the game sparks a similar feeling in Hikaru's heart. Thanks to Sai, Hikaru develops a bit of fame as a great Go talent, but what happens when Hikaru wants to start playing for himself?
The major reasons for my confessed love of the this manga are simple. Almost every aspect of Hikaru no Go is top notch. The result of a team-up between Shonen Jump contest winners -- writer Yumi Hotta and artist Takeshi Obata -- the book grabs the reader's attention immediately, gets the exposition out of the way quickly and jumps right into its flow, which itself is intensely addicting. Most readers will finish this volume in one sitting, I guarantee. The art is good-looking and well-detailed. Despite an ever-increasing cast, all the characters are remarkably distinct. Cityscapes and crowded rooms are given specific and nuanced attention, as are the gameboards themselves, which can be challenging to draw, littered as they are with dozens of round playing pieces. More often than not these gameboards represent actual gameplay as the manga is technically supervised by a professional Go player, Yukari Umezawa. Hotta's writing easily and effortlessly shifts from lighter comedic moments to the intensity of a match-- intensity that one would doubt possible from what is still just a board game. Dialogue in these “battle” scenes rarely elevates above the genre's traditional, “OMG he did that!?!”, but these scenes still are incredibly engaging, and remarkable in that the tension is developed in the absence of villains. Toya, as Hikaru's rival is not a bad guy, he is simply an incredibly focused and talented player.
Still if a character says “OMG he moved THERE!”, will it mean anything? Well-known in the fan community prior to its VIZ pickup, Hikaru no Go was at one time considered a potentially interesting test case for North American acquisition, being that the story almost entirely centers around a game with which most of us are not familiar with. The manga's quality eventually made it worth the gamble, but then again, it seems that every series out there is getting picked up now, so the question still lingers. Ultimately, though, to read VIZ's release of Volume One is to realize that such fears are unsubstantiated. Despite being called Japan's “national game”, Go has suffered from something of an image crisis in Japan, and many young Japanese do not know the rules of the game either. Hikaru no Go therefore, like Fighting Spirit, Prince of Tennis and innumerable sports manga before it, is written with the Go neophyte in mind. Hikaru's learning process becomes the reader's learning process, and we become slowly acquainted with the rules, terminology and strategy of the game. Brought over intact from the Japanese tankubon are inserts and author asides which explain the rules and strategy more straightforwardly. Even after all this, knowledge of the game is not strictly required to enjoy Hikaru no Go, as the art and dialogue effectively explain the scene regardless of where the pieces themselves are.
Released in the popular, unflipped, $7.95 format common to all of VIZ's Jump titles, Volume One of Hikaru no Go clocks in at a hefty 185 pages of pure manga goodness that provides some bang for your buck. Volume One is a good start to this terrific series and it only gets better.
+ enjoyable and addictive
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