Read all about the latest craze in Japanese childrens’ cartoons for people with no taste, Saki!
The first thing you need to know about Saki is that it’s made by Gonzo, the studio responsible for Strike Witches. I could write a book on why Strike Witches is the greatest affront to civil society in recent memory, but the long and short of it is: underage girls with magical animal ears and tails turn their lower bodies into WW2-era propeller planes in order to battle an evil force and do not at any point wear pants. This bold characterization tactic allowed them a higher proportion of panty shots per episode than any mainstream show before or since, and cemented its place as the most distasteful anime I’ve ever heard of.
They’ve set their sights somewhat lower this season, with an adaptation of a sports manga about a game that isn’t really a sport. Riichi mahjong is not the boring matching tile game that comes bundled with older Windows machines, it’s more like a kind of bridge played with what look like dominos. Like bridge, it involves a lot of memorization of hands, careful strategy based on reading your opponent, complicated tabulation of points, and a heavy luck factor. Also like bridge it is played almost entirely by old people and whichever of their grandchildren they can shanghai into joining them for an afternoon of half-understood rules and boring stories about “the good old days”. What appeal could a story about this game possibly hold for the 16-30 year old males who do the bulk of the spending on anime?
Keep in mind this character is a first year high school student, probably either 15 or 16 years old, and presumably Asian. Her figure is both biologically improbable and physically unsound, you expect her to just tip over in every other scene. I realize that the genre is characterized by art that can be interpreted as either having a unique style or as being completely ignorant of anatomy, but while every other character seems correctly proportioned by anime standards, Nodoka is cursed with breasts that are literally larger than her head (It’s worth noting that two of other main characters of the series are completely flat-chested, another disturbing fetish that makes them appear even younger than they really are. Anything but a realistically proportioned character I guess, wouldn’t want to accidentally remind your viewers of the real women they almost certainly fear and shun). You’d think that seeing a character so blatantly created to appeal to the audience’s basest desires might in some way disrupt the suspension of disbelief, but judging by what pass for critical responses in the anime blogosphere the average anime fan is so jaded he just takes it in stride, or worse yet celebrates the oversized breasts as a selling point for the show.
In general the pedophiles you see confronted on shows like ‘To Catch a Predator’ try to argue that their victims may seem immature but in fact are wise beyond their years and mature enough to make their own decisions about their sexuality. Many even assert, as did Humbert Humbert himself, that the child in fact seduced them, with adult charm and cunning. Honestly this sick kind of self-deception would be preferable to the route Saki takes. Nodoka and Yuki are both shamelessly sexualized and characterized as having the minds of children. Yuki is a blithering idiot who looks and acts like a spoiled 10 year old, but is always wearing scandalously short skirts with thigh-highs and is often the victim of sudden underwear revelation. And although purportedly capable at the game, the ridiculously-breasted Nodoka cannot play mahjong to her fullest ability without her stuffed penguin on her lap. Again, in what world would you expect a high school competitor to bring a child’s toy to a serious tournament? Isn’t this the point at which you would question the entire premise of the show? How are you supposed to take the drama of the game at all seriously when the girl has a fucking penguin in her lap?
Of course that’s not the show’s only glaring inconsistency…
Which brings us to the matter of the game itself. Riichi Mahjong is hugely based on luck, even the best strategy and bluff can only get you so far against a good deal. So of course the members of the Kiyosumi High mahjong club each have a distinctive ‘style’ based on nothing but luck. Saki herself often tsumos (draws the tile she needs to win) after kan (completing a set of 4 tiles), a ridiculously uncommon event that somehow demonstrates her semi-mystical powers of perception. The explanation for her incredible ability is that as a child she was forced to play mahjong with her family but would be punished for either losing or winning, and therefore developed her talents in order to pick hands that would always place her in the middle. The other members’ powers are even less sensical, with the exception of Nodoka, who supposedly has a perfectly logical style of play that she can only execute, as mentioned, with her plush penguin. Does your brain hurt yet?
Of course when the game is so hugely reliant on the luck of the draw and the characters’ only powers are to influence that luck, you have to spice things up to keep things interesting. That’s where Gonzo brings in the big guns: visual metaphors. In these strange, dream-like sequences, the skills of a player are somehow translated into fantastical representations of that player in the imagination of the viewer. Consider: a character smacks a tile down on the table SO HARD that they become surrounded by a nimbus of blue flame.Or maybe their skill at playing a tabletop game is so great that they actually appear to grow huge glowing wings and attack each other in the minds of onlookers.Can you imagine watching someone play a boring game for old people and thinking to yourself “Oh my God they are playing that game so well that I envision them as powerful magicians and beings of light doing fantasy battle atop a ruined castle set against a stormy sky”? Please try to conceive any circumstances in which you would imagine people shuffling tiles around as a life or death battle between imaginary creatures. The animation convention of using a visual metaphor to turn a boring contest into a much more interesting one is lame as shit even when it’s used for situations that are vaguely comparable, but Saki applies it to what’s basically a card game for Asian grandmothers.
It bears reminding that all over the world people who consider themselves adults are watching this show and being entertained by it at face value. God help you if you are one of them.