Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: Hikaru No Go

Summary: An intelligent and emotionally gripping anime series about the ghost of an ancient Go player who visits, befriends, and trains a contemporary Japanese boy in the art of Go. 75 episodes and a holiday special (all are currently available on YouTube).

Hikaru No Go on IMDB.


Shindou Hikaru is a small boy who knows nothing about the game of Go. The game is taken seriously and played professionally by players across Japan, China, Korea, and the rest of the world. Several newspapers follow tournaments and professionals. The game has its own jargon, history, famous plays and players, and schools.

Shindou lacks both grace and seriousness, but one day he falls in with a ghost of an ancient Go player, Sai, who was once wrongly accused of cheating while playing for the emperor, and now on his second visitation and still trying to play "the divine move". He begs Shindou to play, and together they learn about the modern world of Go. Shindou meets another boy his age, Touya Akira, an exceptional player in his own right, as well as many, many other players both young and old.

Shidou's interest in the game begins while letting Sai play, and he eventually embarks on the road to professional Go after discovering his own incredible talent. Meanwhile, Shindou's shifting attention to his own Go play means less time for Sai to play; how will Sai ever achieve his goal of playing "the divine move"? Sai and Shindou both learn about respect, continuity, life, loss, meaning, friendship, and above all, the incredible game of Go.


My exposure to anime has thus far been limited to Akira, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, and the series Serial Experiments: Lain. All fantastic, by the way. I learned a lot about the form from watching this series, both the good and the bad.

The good: The themes and plots of this anime series are adult, even though the protagonists are primarily children. I have never seen Western cartoons come even close to covering the deep lessons that are covered here. The plots also don't follow the usual "I'm happy, here's an encounter, I'm angry, I overcome, I'm happy" format that so plagues the cartoon format I am used to.

Instead, Shindou, while finding incredible potential within himself, starts and ends the series in pursuit of his dreams; one player in a long link of the Go tradition. In fact, that is the ultimate message of the series. There are no wholly evil or good people, no enemies or perfect friends. There are well over fifty characters with well developed histories, faults, assets, and personalities.

The animators draw the same characters in different ways to reflect the character's moods. Sai changes between a regal thousand year-old man of ancient wisdom, looking tall and sharply defined, to a childlike figure begging to play Go or sharing a joke looking short, noseless, and with big round eyes and mouth. It's a very funny transition to make, and sometimes I burst out laughing, such as when a round, noseless Sai leads Shindou in his stretching exercises.

Several hundred games of Go are played over the course of the series, and they are all real games. Not only are they real games, but the very specific nature of each game: a teaching game, a particularly well-executed move, and sometimes moves even more subtle than that, are all demonstrated in great detail. It is a treasure for Go lovers to see.

The bad: As far as actual animation goes, anime is really pathetic. While the background drawings are sometimes beautifully illustrated, a large amount of time the film technique is to pan slowly over completely static pictures of people who are absolutely frozen.

Seeing all 75 episodes in a row, you also have to endure a number of scenes that pretty much repeat from show to show; this woudn't have been as noticeable when the show was first broadcast, probably. I had the same issue when I saw Serial Experiments: Lain.

Shidou can be really obnoxious, sometimes, and he's the main character. And with so many other characters appearing, you sometimes wish the story would get back to what you want to see, rather than have to endure another side tangent. But for the most part they are all fascinating, so it's not much of a problem.


Overall, it is a great experience, and liable to surprise many people who wouldn't believe that there can be a tense, gripping, and meaningful show based about a kid playing a board game.

I especially enjoyed the few details about Japan which I picked up while watching the show. The etiquette of how to play and some of the Japanese words that are repeated ("Good luck", "I resign", "Thank you for the game"). The vast number of places where everyone takes off their shoes. The existence of "NcDonalds" fast food alongside the ramen and sushi bars. And the vastly varying hair styles and colors of the children.

As a final note, while Shidou treats the girls around him with contempt, especially the one girl who continues to like him even while he does so, generally speaking the women on the show are accorded a good amount of respect. Although the women don't seem to be able to complete with the top professional Go players.

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