Late one stormy night in 1940's Japan, Nangou is playing a game of Mahjong with the yakuza for high stakes and losing. He's getting desperate as the rounds go by and his debts stack higher and higher, knowing that if he loses, his life is forfeit since he can't pay what he owes. He needs a deus ex machina, er, I mean miracle, and he gets it when a teenager drenched from the rain barges in on the presumably secret game room. This teenager's name is Akagi, and after watching Nangou struggle for a couple of rounds, he offers to take the gambler's place. Thus begins the legend of Akagi, who turns out to be a natural gambler and an insane genius of Mahjong "strategy."
Akagi is another shounen anime in the vein of Hikaru no Go, Yu Gi Oh!, and Prince of Tennis about a competitive sport played by outlandish characters in some occasionally outlandish situations. Normally, these stories are fairly light, sunny and kid-friendly, with the worst peril coming from the terrifying thought of losing a children's card game. Not so with Akagi. Set in 1940's Japan not long after World War II, this anime is a dark tale about characters who gamble for very high stakes illegally in smoke filled rooms guarded by bulky men in sunglasses. There's a tangible sense of danger in this anime; when characters sweat over what their next move will be, they have a good reason. It is hard-boiled, grimy shounen anime, which gives Akagi plenty of style and grit. It is truly a shame that it is not much more than that- it has an appealing package, but not a lot of entertainment value.
As I mentioned in my synopsis, this anime opens on a dark and stormy with Nangou, a thirtysomething gambler, in debt deeper than he can hope to get out and playing an all or nothing game with the yakuza hoping to cancel his debts. If he loses, he dies. Midway through the game, a strange teenager walks in. This infuriates the yakuza, who want him beaten and thrown out, but looking for an excuse to take a break from the game, Nangou lies and tells them the boy is a cousin of his that he instructed to check in on him at midnight. The yakuza are suspicous, but they let the boy stay.
The boy's name, as I'm sure you figured out, is Akagi. He spends a couple of rounds watching Nangou play from behind his back, and even though he doesn't understand the rules of Mahjong, he is smart enough to give Nangou crucial advice that wins him a round. Sensing that Akagi may be a natural genius at Mahjong, Nangou has the boy play in his place after explaining the basic rules. I don't know about the rest of you, but placing my life in the hands of a boy, genius or otherwise, who has never played this game before, sounds to me like a bad idea worthy of the Darwin Awards. Lucky for Nangou, Akagi is very, very good at Mahjong, turning the tables drastically on the yakuza. By the end of the night, they owe Nangou and Akagi money. Thus begins our hero's journey to greatness, yadda yadda, blah blah blah.
How does Akagi do it? you ask. Well, I'm not sure, and there is a good reason for that. Mahjong is a very complex game, mostly because players have to memorize what hands are worth points and how many points they are worth. The website I linked in my Notes says there are thirty-six different types of hands in Reach Mahjong, each with a different name and different score. On top of that, there are things like the riichi and dora to learn about. Every game has a lot of jargon that comes with it, and Mahjong seems to have more than most. Here is a snippet of what the dialouge is like throughout most of this anime:
NANGOU: (thinking to himself) If Akagi's pair or four Peis become the new Doras, his hand becomes a Man Gan or more. Ichikawa would be liable for the full payment of the Tsumo. Of course, the chance of this occuring is extremely low.
BRADLEY: (to himself) What do you mean "of course??" What's a Pei, Man Gan or Dora?? What the hell is going on??
And you know what? I never figured out what most of these words mean. The anime doesn't take much time to explain them either- though I can't blame them for that, because they have a story to tell. Learning the rules to a game is always the dullest part of gaming, and anime is no exception. Still, I was never able to follow blow-by-blow what was going on, and instead depended on watching the character's reactions to figure if someone made a good move or not. That helped to kill the suspense of watching the anime.
There were several other factors that made this anime a bore. Akagi always wins. He never stumbles, never mucks up, he always has a plan and it will always work. There is a bit of suspense in figuring out what crazy idea he has that will work out, but not much since I don't understand the game in the first place. He's also got more than a little bit of Gary Stu in him. He knows the rules from the get-go, and figures out how to make valuable hands without being told what they are. He is, and this as a competitive player irks me the most, a natural, a freak of genetics who becomes an instant champion. These kind of characters make for poor drama; they are impossible to relate to. The Bobby Fischers of the world are very rare, and even then I'm very sure that Bobby Fischer did not defeat the reigning world champion on his first night playing chess like Akagi did. On the other hand, characters who do stumble, who do muck up, who discard the wrong tile at the wrong time, and keep making the same mistakes over and over again make great drama.
I've gone on for too long already about this show, so I will close writing about what irked me the most in this anime. The first fourteen episodes are about Akagi's meteoric rise in the Mahjong underground. They are mildly entertaining, since I was able to tolerate all the jargon. The final twelve episodes are contrived, long, and all about one very long game that does not get a satisfying conclusion. A quick sketch of its premise should suffice the reader: Akagi is recruited by the yakuza to play in a deadly game of Mahjong against an aging miser who once controlled all of Japan and was singlehandedly responsible for Japan's involvement in World War II. In this game, Akagi must bet vials of his own blood as payment against this miser's millions. If Akagi wins, the miser will be ruined; if he loses, Akagi will be dead. I call shenanigans. The sheer length and monotony of this story arc will test the patience of any fan, since we are already sure of the outcome and become impatient to see its end.
Fans of gaming anime who also enjoy gritty noir may enjoy this, but will become frustrated in the end. If you are neither, don't touch this. Also, if anyone who is reading this plays Reach Mahjong and has seen the anime, please drop me a line at email@example.com and let me know how plausible Akagi's tactics are. I don't think they are, but I'm not in a position to guess that. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: Because of frequent cursing and violence, this one is only appropriate for mature high schoolers and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub.
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Akagi © 2005 Madhouse Studios
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