Sunday, May 13, 2012

Anime Survivor: Spring '12 - Week 4.1

Three weeks of Anime Survivor down, and we're already staring at the halfway point of the anime season. Yeah, we started late this year, but can you blame us? There's been a lot of quality we've had to sift through, so we're not going to jump right in and cast our votes after only one episode.

I have no guilt about the first four shows that have been given the hook. Hiiro no Kakera is going nowhere, and now that the sides are set, I expect it to finish the same way that Fushigi YĆ»gi did. Unless Upotte!! manages to recreate the Invasion of Normandy as a sports festival, I'll have no interest in looking back.  At the same time, I'm noticing a pattern in the poll—you guys just don't like Medaka Box, do you? Way to hold a grudge against NisiOisiN.

Well, you won't see it disappear this week, either. Voted off the island as the fifth series to go during Spring 2012's Anime Survivor is...

(...or Saki: Episode of Side A. Whatever.)

Selling Point: I only know one way that mahjong is played, and that's the idiot's version where the game resembles Memory more than it does dominoes or cards. That's not to say I haven't seen how it functions in Japanese society. Plenty of mahjong video games are out there, some of them in game centers that are as creepy as they come. I've usually seen most of these games in the back near the panty-vending machines and pachislo games, ashtrays full of spent cigarettes parked on their consoles. It really tells you the sort of crowd that is drawn by mahjong.

In a nutshell, I likely belong to the large majority of anime fans that have no idea how the game is to be played. Ergo, there must be an anime for it to educate the listless masses on its intricacies and strategies. That's not to say there haven't been any (remember the satirical Mudazumo Naki Kaikaku manga with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi taking on President Bush in mahjong?), but there just haven't been any that made it fluffier than cotton candy.

Plumb the depths of the oceans and oceans of titles in Crunchyroll's library, and you'll find the original Saki TV show, a 2009 anime about Saki Miyanaga, a talented high-school mahjong player who had such hatred for the game that she consistently attempted to keep her final score as close to zero as possible. I'm no expert in mahjong, so I have no real way of telling how this is possible or what you need to keep your score so low, but apparently the end result is Saki's overall love for the game finally blooming once she is able to play with capable friends.

Of course, Saki and her friends are not the only fierce mahjong competitors in Japan. One particular connection to Saki, the frilly Nodoka Haramura, used to play mahjong with friends in Nara Prefecture until they developed callouses on those petite moe fingers of theirs. However, after Nodoka moved away, the club disbanded due to a lack of membership, only to reform when two of the main characters, Shizuno and Ako, realize that Nodoka is now one of the strongest high-school mahjong players in Japan. With a renewed vigor, the girls at Achiga get the band back together and set out to challenge Nodoka, just like old times.

Defense: This show is innocent enough in terms of content, perhaps bordering on K-On! in terms of male/female ratios. For much of the show, you're going to get female characters doing a lot of traveling and little in terms of actual mahjong. You're not going to get much in terms of romance, as there are only two—count 'em, TWO—male characters, and neither get much screen time. I suppose if one were to paint this show with positive strokes, there's really no risk of seeing anything one would associate with the real seedy underbelly of mahjong.

There could eventually be a story lurking here, as we get cameo appearances from the characters from the first Saki series, mostly in the form of the main characters freaking out from passing Saki (and her incredible battle aura) in the hallway. How will the eventual match between Shizuno and Nodoka actually turn out? Does Saki play any sort of role? Will Akado-sensei find her place in a Japanese society that apparently has room for little girls playing mahjong, but not women in their mid-twenties?

I suppose you could also give the animation some sort of blessing, as the computer graphics are saved for the tiles' movements, their strikes against each other delivering sparks. Winning hands are flipped graciously and flawlessly, sometimes from electricity and/or dragons in the air. It's not Beyblade or Yu-Gi-Oh! or Cardfight! Vanguard or even Pokemon in terms of colorful clashes, but at least it's not normal mahjong.

Final Judgment: Some people are not going to be happy that I'm flushing Saki: Achiga-hen before I send off Nyarko-san or Medaka Box, shows that may deserve the slow boat back home. However, my argument stands that there's a major flaw in Saki: Achiga-hen—the overabundance of characters. Because there are so many candy-eyed girls in this show, there's just no time that can be devoted to strong rivalries. A particular high school known for their mahjong in the prefectural tournament is built up to be some sort of powerhouse, only for the Achiga girls to dismantle them in a game that takes a whole minute. That's a horrible display of plot balance.

I also question the smarts when it came to selecting Saki: Achiga-hen for a foreign audience. As I mentioned, I have no idea how mahjong is played, and it's certainly not the role of the anime to explain every single detail, since they need to focus so much on the characters. However, a lot of the reasons why certain moves make sense are left assumed by the viewer. How does scoring apply? What is a riichi? At what point is the game actually over? I can understand foregoing explanations for tennis, basketball and soccer, but there was at least some explanation of sorts in Chihayafuru for karuta—why are we left in the dark about mahjong?

In the end, it's just a bunch of girls playing games. This show could have been about the Girls' All-Japan Old Maid Championships, and you would still get the same stories about hotel trips and overnight camps. In fact, Saki: Achiga-hen actually does the opposite of what their intent may be—it makes me want to play mahjong even less than before.

Now, who's up for an anime about Uno? Anyone?

Next time: This week's other Anime Survivor cast-off!

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