Saki showing us what Umehara did before Street Fighter IV
These days, gamers are swimming in a pool of competitive fighting games thanks to the renaissance sparked by the release of Street Fighter IV back in 2008. But prior to that, even Umehara Daigo had called it quits on the fighting scene. What did he do during this gap? Well, ex pro-RTS gamers go to online poker, and I guess ex pro-fighting game players go to mahjong. And that’s exactly what Saki is about.
I will be perfectly frank. I don’t know a lick about mahjong, much less the derivative ‘Japanese Mahjong’ that the series is based on. And after watching, I still have no idea what’s up with mahjong or if what I saw even represented legal play or not. But going through the series has supremely reinforced my belief that special effects, dynamic poses and that right camera angles can make anything interesting.
The titular character, Saki, is a first year high school student who is minding her own business when she is suddenly dragged off to the mahjong club by her friend, Kyoutaru, who has recently just learned how to play the game. After setting up a game at the club, Saki finds herself competing against Kyoutaru and two other club members, one of which was the junior national champion for singles (Nodoka). After losing a few games, Saki decides to head home as the mahjong club captain, who was asleep in the room during Saki’s stay, realizes that throughout all the games that were played, Saki managed to keep her score at 0, which is apparently even more difficult than consistently winning. Nodoka’s pride is wounded for a moment, especially when she realizes that Saki has no love for the game and can play effortlessly. As the two girls’ rivalry begins, so does a strong friendship that, at times, borders on ‘markedly close.’
As I said before, I know nothing of mahjong, so for a series to be able to grip me throughout its entirety without me knowing a lick about the main topic is quite a feat. It’s all due to great music, distinct character designs and just the right amount of moe to remind viewers that yes, you are still watching an anime series. Though, I will say that one of the characters bears a striking resemblance to Flonne from the Disgaea series. Watch, and you’ll know who I’m talking about.
Saki takes it slow in getting through its mahjong lingo; the entirety of the series only really runs through a single tournament, and the ending is left extremely open-ended for a sequel (one that will likely never come, since a spinoff anime series was recently announced). As slow as the series progresses however, it really manages to express the tension that the characters feel as they fiddle with the tiles on the board. My only real complaint was the ‘powers’ that were used by certain characters. One of these characters has the ability to stay ‘unnoticed’ … it’s practically stealth camouflage at the mahjong table. That’s pretty ridiculous; she was able to draw and lay down tiles without anybody noticing for some reason — and it was never really explained in detail. Another ‘power’ was the ability to lock the tiles down and not let anybody draw anything useful. That one really pushed me over the edge: I’m a very big fan of card games and stuff like Yugioh, so I can understand a power like ‘extreme luck that lets you draw what you need.’ The opposite, however, does not make for very interesting games. Imagine a fantasy TV show based on Magic: The Gathering where one opponent had the ability to force the protagonist to draw nothing but land for a straight 20 turns. Yeah, it was like that.
Other than this minor detail (only an episode or two in the series run of 25), the series is very entertaining. Maybe I’m just that easily amused by simple things made ‘epic,’ but I really did enjoy Saki and all of its bells and whistles. You won’t find me at the mahjong tables or anything, but if I did, you can bet I’d flash dramatic poses if I ever got the opportunity to mutter “rinshan kaihou” in an extremely girly voice.
Character Ranking – Saki
- Takei Hisa
- Fukuji Mihoko
- Miyanaga Saki
- Toyoko Momoko (Stealth Momo)
- Haramura Nodoka
- Ryuumonbuchi Touka
- Amae Koromo
- Kataoka Yuuki
- Kajiki Yumi