story by Yumi Hotta; art by Takeshi Obata; adaptation by Andy Nakatani
published by Viz; $7.95 US
This competition manga features a student learning to play go and appreciate all the tradition that comes with it. Although firmly within the expectations of its genre, the characters are so likable, the art so well-done, and the competition so compelling that it’s an addictive read.
Fujiwara-no-Sai was an instructor of the Emperor a thousand years ago until a rival Go teacher’s cheating drove him to suicide. Sai’s yearnings to continue playing the game were so strong that his spirit became trapped in the Go board, bound to remain there until the “Divine Move” is played. While searching through his grandfather’s storage room, Hikaru finds this game board, which leads to him being possessed by Sai’s ghost.
Sai hopes that this connection with Hikaru will provide a way for him to once again play the game he loves, but Hikaru doesn’t care about a game he thinks is for old folk. Unfortunately, Hikaru also feels Sai’s emotions, and Sai’s intense sadness at the idea of never playing again makes Hikaru so sick that he gives in. So the stage is set for a creative generational conflict. Hikaru feels forced into learning something he has no interest in, although the discipline will do him good. He’s forming a connection to a tradition much larger than he is, the way American boys feel part of a bigger sportsmanship of football or baseball.
Sai not only upholds the rules of the game but also defends the way the game should be played, using skill to teach a rude or overbearing player a lesson. Conveniently, Hikaru has also been having school trouble in social studies and history, areas Sai can help with from personal experience. The age of the ghost points out an interesting cultural difference. If this story were set in the US (perhaps with the sixth-grader learning to play bridge), then the ghost would be at most half Sai’s age. Japan, however, is much more ancient, with a longer lineage of tradition.
Sai has an ethereal, feminine look, accentuated by the little hearts that appear whenever he gets to play Go. Hikaru’s body language, in contrast, is perfectly suited to a preteen with attitude, staring into space or twiddling his pencil instead of paying attention. He’s a cute kid whose wide eyes emphasize how much he has to learn, and his two-tone hair accentuates his desire to rebel. Even when his self-centered thoughtlessness is annoying, the reader knows he doesn’t mean to hurt others.
In later chapters, Hikaru meets Akira, an expert Go player his own age, and tries to compete in a tournament. The stories capture well the excitement of competition. There are enough Go rules and strategy to build the reader’s knowledge but not so much that the story loses track of the drama. The emphasis is on Hikaru’s growth process. The way others react to his skill (provided by Sai) shows that pure knowledge (attributed by observers to a natural talent) doesn’t get you very far if you’ve annoyed everyone else so much that they won’t play with you.
Akira is the son of a Go champion, and he’s been raised to carry on the tradition. His encounter with Hikaru shakes his confidence, calling into question everything he’s known about his life so far. Hikaru is concerned that his growing involvement with the game will give Sai an opening to take more of him over. This fear nicely symbolizes the struggles teenagers face in setting their own paths, separate from their parents’ control of their lives.
After he’s impressed by the magnetism of a Go master, Hikaru has to balance the desire for independence with wishing to belong. The community of Go players becomes more attractive to him as he begins to understand why they are so dedicated to a simple, classic game.
In the second book, a shogi (Japanese chess) player named Tetsuo acts like a punk due to a grudge against Akira. He plays Hikaru, but Sai’s skill is no help when Hikaru gets distracted by his friend Akari — and I don’t blame him, since she’s absolutely adorable with her bangs, bright eyes, and pigtails.
After a showdown, Tetsuo and Hikaru wind up forming an underdog school team with Kimihiro, a boy whose Go playing is book-dependent. Hikaru shows hints of previously unexpected talent on his own, and Sai’s comments, although unheard by the other characters, provide a useful additional source of information to the reader. This book also includes pages that explain the basic rules of the game.
Book three opens with Akira facing some bullies at his school Go club, forcing him to play blind games. Other students don’t want him there, because they think with his exceptional skill, he’s only showing off. Really, it’s the only way he can make Hikaru play him again, in school tournaments. Meanwhile, Hikaru is searching for a third player for his school team. He finds Yuki, a tough kid who’s been playing adults for money, which he wins by cheating. Hikaru has to encourage Yuki to follow the more honorable way to make him ready for the next competition.
And the tournament continues in book four. Akira’s been making sacrifices in order to play Sai, but first, Hikaru has to decide whether to let Sai play through him. Afterwards, Hikaru and Kimihiro visit a professional Go tournament; it’s similar to an athletic event, with a large number of attendees and screens to show the plays. There, Hikaru discovers online Go playing, engaged in by many who are preparing for an upcoming international amateur competition. His presence, under the username “Sai”, rocks the internet community, starting rumors wondering who he is and whether he’s a pro. At the contest, players from the US, China, Korea, Japan, the Netherlands, and others compete while trying to figure out who Sai is.
Book five opens with Sai and Akira playing online, seeing what they can learn about each other through the game. With all his practice, Hikaru’s becoming a stronger player on his own, and he talks his grandfather into getting him his own board and stones. He’s discovered his passion for the game, and he struggles with the decision over whether or not to follow Akira’s path and try to become a professional Go player.
In book six, Hikaru is exposed to a new group of more serious Go players his age, many of whom are also motivated by competition with Akira. Hikaru is beginning to see the beauty in a well-played game, viewing Go as an art form as well as a competition. The need for discipline to improve his craft is helping him grow up. He’s become an “insei”, a dedicated student of the game, but like any child, he sometimes misses the more comfortable area he had to leave behind to make a new step.
Hikaru attends his first study group, a gathering to analyze matches, in book seven. His burning motivation to play against Akira may be getting in his way, but it certainly makes him notable to the adult players. They’re inspired by his single-minded dedication and his “fighting spirit”.
However, Hikaru’s finding himself handicapped by his growing knowledge. When he operated on instinct and natural talent, he didn’t know how much didn’t know. Now, his increased learning has made him too fearful of losing to take the risks he needs to win. And he needs to win in order to qualify for an upcoming student/professional tournament.
As book eight begins, time is passing, and the theme of age and generational conflict runs throughout the volume. Both Hikaru and Akira are advancing in their skill through practice and experience. With his “secret weapon” of Sai, Hikaru winds up inspiring players he doesn’t even know to work harder and be more serious about their advancement.
He himself is competing in the pro test. It’s the next major step in his career, and he’s surprised to find that he’ll be playing against adults. At the same time, an incredibly prestigious tournament title is in competition between an aged, respected champion and a man who wants to lead a “new wave of young players”. Their battle demonstrates that winning isn’t just about the moves, but that strategy can take place off the board, mentally.
Hikaru sets out to get some well-needed training in book nine with team play, again against grown-ups. He’s learning more control. Instead of just winning, he aims for getting precisely the desired score result. Games are arenas for learning whether you win or lose; it’s the competition that counts.
Meanwhile, Akira is learning one of the more adult trade-offs necessary in his professional career: the need to throw a game to a boorish local politician with a touchy ego. Just because someone’s older doesn’t make them wiser or more experienced; it’s not age that matters, but maturity. Akira acts professionally in a more subtle meaning of the term, by demonstrating proper behavior through his actions.
The professional test matches continue in book ten. In looking back over the series so far, it’s astounding how far Hikaru has come, showing the amazing capacity of the young to absorb and grow. Some of the characters he’s been playing are noticing the same thing. Hikaru even considers the possibility of beating Sai in a game, an idea that shocks the ghost. Hikaru is relying more on himself instead of his special advantage of his spirit companion.
Yet he’s still young, and he struggles against other experienced players. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes drama, with various characters speculating on outcomes and struggling to improve their position. We’re rooting for Hikaru, but other players have their own drama, with this being the last chance for some. Plus, the students are learning that a game may not be over when it ends. Memories of their performance continue to haunt them, affecting their next match.
Akira is tutoring another of the young players, hoping to gain additional insight into Hikaru’s skills. That particular player struggles with ego, determined not only to win the competition but to do so undefeated. Hikaru was originally inspired by Akira, but now the positions are reversed, with Akira preparing for the eventual day when he will play against the person Hikaru is becoming. Akira also learns that people aren’t pieces. The student he’s tutoring isn’t interested in being part of his plan and resents being treated as just a way to get to Hikaru.
The competition that began in book eight finally concludes in book eleven. (And you thought superhero comic crossovers were lengthy!) The students are battling determinedly for placement. Only the top three will be able to become professional players, and as the tournament comes to a close, no one’s willing to give up.
Ochi, the student tutored by Akira, clinches his position early with the best win/loss record. Hikaru, meanwhile, pleases Sai by acknowledging how much he’s learned from him. Hikaru models himself on his tutor, using knowledge of his play to inform his own. Sai’s already wondering about what will happen when he’s no longer needed; every teacher has to accept that at some point, their student will move on.
The final match comes down to Hikaru vs. Ochi, both of whom want more than just to win the game. They want to be acknowledged as Akira’s rival, craving the recognition that they’re capable of playing at his level. Thanks to the magic of comics, the reader is reminded of their teachers during the battle, as they’re drawn with their influences standing behind them. Their mentors accompany them in spirit, affecting their style of play.
The expressions of all of the competitors are perfect in showing every emotion they feel, keeping the reader involved and feeling like they’re playing along with them. I also enjoyed the end of the volume, where Hikaru’s mother and teacher are discussing what becoming a pro might mean. Neither one of them really knows, and neither do I.
In book twelve, Hikaru begins to acknowledge his new status and the changes he’s facing. Some former competitors who lost the tournament have left. More work is ahead for those who became pros. Hikaru’s chomping at the bit to finally play against Akira, not realizing that they’re still miles apart in level, and match pairings are often determined randomly. And Sai is coming to understand that the more Hikaru plays, the less he gets a chance at the game.
There’s a weekly newspaper that covers just the game of Go, and Sai tries to read them to encourage Hikaru. Since Sai’s a ghost, this means lots of “turn the page now” instructions, and the resulting spread-out mess makes Hikaru’s room look like he’s paper-training an invisible dog.
The meat of this volume features a tournament that pits rookies against veterans. Hikaru is selected to go up against Akira’s father, holder of five titles, as many with an interest in his game watch. Hikaru also visits a go convention, where he runs into trouble against a pro with a shady merchandise business.
Most of the time, the artwork is straightforward and clearly delineated, but it’s also lovely, powerful in its simplicity. The artist has room to really show off at the chapter openings. As with album covers, he creates one key image that emphasizes a core emotion of the story. Chapter 39 (in book 5), for example, plays with extreme shadow and close-up to illustrate conflicting emotions between three boys in the Go club.
As Hikaru progresses in book seven, his matches with Sai are illustrated with swordfights symbolic of their competition. It’s a dramatic visual that shows the reader how important Hikaru’s games are to him. The character designs are wonderful and animated. The masterful art is so skilled that it never calls attention to itself but rewards detailed study.
The American Go Assocation will teach you how to play Go.