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The Mike Toole Show
Tiles Against Humanity

by Michael Toole,

Ever sit down and try to start playing a complicated board or card game after watching a round, but before studying the rules? It's terrifying, like being illiterate but trying to figure out how reading works. You'll sit there, staring at little silver tokens and trying to figure out if the scotty dog is somehow better than the race car. How in blazes do these Cards Against Humanity fit together, again? And what the hell is a Carcassonne, anyway?

That's how I felt when I first started digging into anime and manga about that most dangerous of parlor games, mahjong. See, I thought I knew what mahjong was. It's a tile-matching game, right? You play it on the computer, and you just have to match up pairs of the little tiles. Turns out all this time I'd been playing mahjong solitaire, a sharply simplified version of a game of wit, chance, and tiles that's more traditionally played by 4 participants. Jump into mahjong manga or anime without a net, and you'll stare in confusion as the underdog panics at the sight of a new tile, a reverse dora, which changes everything, man! Savvy players line up multiples of the same tile, declaring “chi” or “pon,” to multiply their scoring bonuses, and the table's shark confidently flips his tiles face-up and declares “Ron!” But who the hell is Ron?!

I found myself in a mahjong crash course because I'd spent the past couple of weeks blazing through Akagi, a 2005 Madhouse TV series about a mysterious and inscrutable master of the game. Akagi is a cool series – it functions mostly as a period piece, a 1950s-60s yarn that takes place in backrooms, dive bars, and the private parlors of crime lords. A haze of cheap cigarette smoke hangs over the proceedings. The story opens with an inept gambler, Nangou, backed into a corner during a treacherous mahjong match against the Yakuza. Just as Nangou's about to lose his shirt (and possibly a couple of fingers) a young man wanders into the crime den nonchalantly, drenched to the bone from the evening's rains and clad like an ordinary high school student. But Shigeru Akagi is no normal kid – he's trying to give the police the slip, and happily joins the game in Nangou's place to get off the streets.

Akagi turns out to be a hell of a player – his relaxed grasp of the rules and intuitive, idiosyncratic playing style make him tough to beat, and he stares the opposition down with the sleepy eyes of death, straight out of the Renzaburo Shibata novels. The only way for the ladder of lowlifes and crooks to take Akagi on is to parade out their own kooky “rep” players against him. But much like Takao Saito's Golgo 13, Akagi isn't about whether or not the title character will win—he will definitely win. It's about the joy of seeing how he wins, about observing a young man who seriously does not give a fuck relentlessly picking off bad guy after bad guy. Sane players eventually back away from risk, but Akagi rushes towards it; late on, a crime boss offers to let Akagi wager his life against a huge pile of cash. Akagi bristles, not because he's scared to bet his life, but because the collateral money isn't enough—it has to be a sufficient quantity to completely ruin the villain if he loses to make it a worthwhile bet! That's the kind of player he is.

Mahjong manga and anime is a genre that's been around for nearly as long as manga's been popular; if you want a quick primer, you'll find a section on it in Fred Schodt's Manga! Manga!, which is where I first learned about it. But manga and anime about mahjong, a complicated game that isn't widely played in these parts, simply hasn't been accessible to English-speaking readers until very recently. Akagi is one example; another is the much safer and prettier Saki, a seinen tale about high school girls who play competitive intramural mahjong. Saki's pretty enjoyable, but it sticks to the formula a lot more readily than Akagi—the title character is more reminiscent of a shonen tournament hero, a gifted player who'd dropped the game, but is lured back by the promise of friendship and exciting times. Saki also occasionally breaks to explain some of Japanese mahjong's (because, of course, it's slightly distinct from Chinese mahjong!) complicated melds and scoring system, a conceit that Akagi doesn't bother with. In Akagi, it's assumed that the reader knows mahjong—or else they'd better learn it quickly!

The thing is, I wouldn't have given Akagi a second look if not for Kaiji. Like Akagi, Kaiji is a manga about gambling by Nobuyuki Fukumoto—affectionately known as FKMT to his legions of fans-- that was adapted into a TV anime by Madhouse. Unlike Akagi, however, Kaiji isn't about a tough, inscrutable world-beater, but instead chronicles the struggles of a complete loser, an unemployed young man who sits in his shabby apartment, eating lousy food and worrying obsessively about money. A sketchy old loan he co-signed for a friend years ago comes back to haunt him, but with it comes a tantalizing gamble—his black-suited gangster “friend” Endo tells Kaiji Ito that he can board a mysterious cruise ship to play a high stakes card game. Losing means total financial ruin and indentured servitude to a shady construction company, but winning means real financial freedom! Kaiji takes the gamble! But he probably shouldn't have, because he kinda sucks at gambling.

More accurately, Kaiji isn't good at winning—he's naïve to a fault and almost always a step behind his savvier, sharkier opponents. But what he's good at is surviving—he weathers loss after loss, setback after setback, but is always ready to come back and bet even more that he can pull himself out of the hole. Adding to the excitement of rooting for the ultimate underdog are the intricacies of Fukumoto's gambits; they start with a diabolical game of rock-paper-scissors, and continue with a death-defying tightrope walk, another card game that involves wagering body parts, a rigged contest using scrip currency, and plenty more. Kaiji doesn't have Akagi's swagger, but he has a weird sort of charisma, enough of it to lead not just to a pair of seasons of TV anime, but to a prized feature film adaptation.

The Kaiji movies—there's two of ‘em—are an interesting piece of work. If you've been watching anime for a while you'll know that movie adaptations of anime and manga are hit-or-miss, with a very high “miss” rate. I've seen the first film, and it's refreshing compared to Fukumoto's original and Yuzo Sato's anime adaptation—it's surprisingly brisk, compressing an entire multi-volume story arc into a single two-hour movie. Some critics have pointed to the casting of Yuki Amami as Kaiji's adversary/enabler Endo as messing with Fukumoto's formula, since the mangaka so rarely uses women in his stories. But I think the move pays off—it gives the pair a weird chemistry that's missing in the manga, and makes the character Endo more than just another schemer. My big objection to the Kaiji movie, which was released in Britain but not here in North America? The lead, Tatsuya Fujiwara, is way too handsome to be playing a dude like Kaiji, a gangly man with a hangdog face, a mullet, and an unfashionable aviator's jacket. But unfortunately, we all know that since Death Note came out in 2006, it's the law in Japan that all anime/manga film adaptations must star either Fujiwara or his Death Note costar Ken'ichi Matsuyama (they're both in this film, natch).

When I first watched the anime version of Kaiji, I labeled the animation as cheap, which was uncharitable of me. It's got a simplicity that is pretty clearly calculated, and it's heavily stylized. We can see why just by examining Nobuyuki Fukumoto's original manga, which is about as rough and workmanlike as they come. That's not to say that it's bad or weak—the artist is still more than capable of elaborate, detailed two-page spreads of sweeping cityscapes, arena-like gambling halls, and messy construction sites. But Fukumoto's developed a certain style that he adheres to quite rigidly. The characters are never really close to being handsome; the the good guys, whether they sport steely glares or panicked expressions, are usually decked out in lousy haircuts and flop sweat. The bad guys tend to be beefy men in suits with greedy grins on their faces, flanked at all times by flunkies in black suits and sunglasses. The black suits/shades motif is so ingrained in Fukumoto's work that he makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the Kaiji film… playing one of the black suit men.

How ‘bout that? Another of Fukumoto's greatest contributions to the field of manga is his use of sound effects. He doesn't just use them to sharpen up the action, he employs them to enhance the mood, including one particular effect that he's made famous. When there's a sudden impact, like a door being slammed open, you'll see the effect “dan,” orダン. A gunshot might useド, or “do.” But what's the sound effect for a feeling of incredible dramatic tension? What stylized katakana should the reader see when the protagonist is facing a life-or-death choice, or squaring up against a feared adversary? According to Fukumoto, the best sound for that isざわ…ざわ…, or “zawa… zawa…,” a distinctly Japanese onomatopoeia used to describe an unsettling buzz or murmur. The effect has become well-known and associated with his work to the point that both the Kaiji anime and film adaptations include it, to great effect. Another thing that Fukumoto loves is overblown narration, in a style reminiscent of Stan Lee's giddy text explanations of 1960s Marvel comics, which the Kaiji anime also uses to great effect. Fukomoto's manga and anime are pretty distinctive in Japan, and even moreso here in the west, where there are so few comic or animation stories like his works.

My attachment to Kaiji and Akagi, which you can check out legally on Crunchyroll, led me to try and answer the question of what sort of story Fukumoto would make if he left gambling off the table. That question is answered by The Strongest Man Kurosawa, a fairly lengthy serial manga Fukumoto created in the early 2000s. The title character may not be a compulsive gambler, but like Kaiji the bottom-feeding straggler and Akagi the sociopath, Kurosawa isn't an admirable person. He's yet another homely dude, a schlub in his 40s with a pronounced underbite, bushy old-man eyebrows, and yes, a mullet.

Don't let the title mislead you. Kurosawa's an incredibly strong man, but his strength comes not from his muscles or brainpower, but from his resilience, his refusal to yield in the face of complete failure and embarrassment. He's a construction site supervisor by default—not sharp enough to be promoted to the front office, but too experienced to be relegated to entry-level duties. His fellow laborers don't like him that much, but he just hasn't screwed up enough to make them mad. Buoyed on by the sight of a decades-younger site supervisor bonding with his colleagues, Kurosawa vows to become cool, respected, popular, and even loved… at any cost!

From that premise, Fukumoto weaves overwrought, page-turning mania, as Kurosawa ineptly tries to curry favor with the guys by getting them drunk at work, strains to win respect by getting in a spectacular brawl with 15-year-old bullies, throws up on his co-workers, and nearly causes an international incident. He is so amazing in failure that he starts somehow falling up the stairs, each squirm-inducing conflict inexplicably leading him to a kind of infamy and the chance take bigger and bigger risks—and there's a very real note of sadness there, as the 44-year-old Kurosawa spends entire chapters of manga lamenting over his misspent and irretrievably lost youth. Fukumoto's got a real gift for taking put-upon guys and making them sympathetic, even heroic at times.

I'd like to see more of that kind of magic in my manga, but sadly Nobuyuki Fukumoto seems to specialize in esoteric and lengthy works—hell, the aforementioned Akagi, twisty and voluminous as it is, is merely a spinoff of his earlier breakout hit, Ten. Long, complicated manga are kryptonite to the current sales climate in North America. Fukumoto's made his name in Japan, but I think it's going to take a broadly popular e-manga platform to bring his work to the west legitimately. Even Kaiji and Akagi, with their cult following, took years to arrive on Crunchyroll. For now, we're just gonna have to rely on those as the worldwide ambassadors of Noboyuki Fukumoto, seinen gambling manga's strongest man.

After all that, one thing remains clear to me: watch Akagi, and one way or another, you'll learn the rules of Japanese mahjong. I'm still working out the scoring system, but I've joined the pack of strugglers at tenhou.net, the web's largest Japanese mahjong site; our own Astro Toy Dave is a frequent player! I bet he knows what “tsumo” means. Have anime and manga left you wanting to learn about eastern games, like mahjong, go, or shogi? Or have they just led you to gambling problems? Got a favorite Fukumoto work? Let me know in the comments—and be sure to go here and build your own FukuNobo-tastic likeness in the meantime!

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