story by Yumi Hotta; art by Takeshi Obata; adapted by Naoko Amemiya
published by Viz; $7.95 US
It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with this entertaining game competition series. (In part, that’s because of a Diamond hiccup soliciting Book 14, which meant I had 15 but had to wait to get the books in order.) I’m glad I could read all three of these volumes together, since they make up a major turning point in Hikaru’s life.
Hikaru has become a professional go player, and as the book begins, he’s dressing up for the recognition ceremony. He’s still learning how his new occupation works, who plays whom when and what it all means, but he’s still focused on catching — and passing — Akira Toya, son of the reigning champion.
They’re all so indoctrinated in the rules and roles of the competition that a slight or inadvertent insult becomes grounds for a vow to win against them in a match. That keeps the games emotionally involving both for the characters and the reader. Yet the characters recognize how much they all, as go players, have in common, as part of a tradition much bigger than they are. There’s also a mysticism about certain people sensing something special about Hikaru that fits right into a story that features a ghost.
Also in competition are Hikaru and Sai, since both want to play using Hikaru’s hands. Hikaru’s become a strong enough player on his own that his rise in professional ranking is believable, but he needs to continue making his own decisions in order to really learn the subtleties of the game.
Given how long Hikaru’s been chasing Akira, their match isn’t to happen yet. (The reader will remain in suspense even longer.) Akira is kept away from the games when his father, holder of five championship titles, has a medical emergency that hospitalizes him. Coincidentally, that wraps back to a previous plot point about playing go on the internet, an outlet that allows Sai to compete without others becoming suspicious. The champion player takes up online gaming when he must stay in the hospital, bringing him back into contact with Sai and Hikaru, whose childish exuberance and lack of thinking result in an unexpected wager with major consequences.
I realized in this volume that I really missed seeing women in major roles. Most of the competitive players and observers are male, so it’s only the rare wife or female assistant who gets to speak. I suppose it’s realistic that Hikaru no longer keeps in touch with his schoolmates, since his life has gone in a different direction, but I loved seeing his cute little friend appear again.
I haven’t said much about the art because it’s so excellent. Beautifully rendered, clear expressions, dramatic shots… the standout sequence, though, has to be when Sai plays on the internet. The game is staged with the two players, their board, and nothing else, just surrounded by black space. Sai’s presence comes into view behind Hikaru and then subsumes him as the ghost begins directing the play, one of the most important games of his (after)life. It’s impressive and intimidating, focusing only on the showdown between two giants.
The online game, watched by curious players all over the world, continues in Book 14. Hikaru sees something very important during the game, demonstrating to Sai that the boy has reached a whole new level of play. This is the most significant turning point in both of their lives. The way the match was arranged also causes some to be curious about Sai’s connection to Hikaru, causing him additional consternation.
Although Hikaru and Sai’s relationship is non-traditional, there are some very universal aspects to it. This turning point marks where the father figure gives up on his own plans and instead does what he can to see that his child will carry on into the future to become the best he can be. While Sai and Hikaru have this transition spiritually, Akira and his father face it physically. In both cases, they’re chasing their destinies.
Book 15 is where the most important change occurs. I don’t want to say too much about it, for fear of spoiling anything for readers, but I will say that I never expected the series to go in that direction, although it’s a stunningly good choice in retrospect. (According to one source, this is 2/3 of the way through the overall series, which ran to 23 volumes, so it’s a good time for it, too.)
The event shows how Hikaru is growing up while reminding us in many ways that he’s still a young boy, with a lot to learn about life and behavior. His enthusiasm and energy need tempering before he drives everyone around him crazy. And he doesn’t realize the truth of what he’s got until it’s gone.
Also in this volume is a tour of significant go history sites and shrines, reminding the reader just how long this game has been played and revered.