This is a wonderful development. Three years ago, I totally enjoyed the tension and shounen feel of a board game-based anime of which I still don’t know how to play even to this day. That anime was Saki, and with its ridiculously large but effective girl cast, a light touch of yuri, and with the exciting presentation of impossible mahjong, it was a surprisingly good watch for me. I thought I’d never ever see a sequel because of the animation studio dropping off the production during its run, and that the anime then has totally caught up to the manga. Little did I know, the manga continued to be so popular, that its author actually sidetracked the series into another sidestory, a separate manga series! And now we have Saki Achiga-hen: Episode of Side A. Quite a mouthful of a title, but it is a sidestory that provides another view of the impending Nationals team tournament. It may not have the same insane mahjong intensity that the original series had, but it retains the same world and the same knack of adding more and more wonderful characters, which is more than good enough for me.
We focus on another school, Achiga Girls’ Academy. Their location is Nara, which is a separate prefecture where the teams from mainline Saki were located. This means that this is a completely different area at first, with their own prefectural tournament. We follow the story of Ako, Shizu, Kuro, Yuu and Arata, the five girls who would eventually form a mahjong club and be able to compete in the tournament. In a nod to the mainline Saki story, the story in Achiga-hen actually starts during middle school, where Nodoka Haramura (the second main character of Saki) became friends with Ako, Shizu and Kuro. They had their time together playing mahjong, but then some time later Nodoka had to transfer to another school, and so they parted ways, along with the mahjong club being disbanded. But then some years later, Ako and Shizu saw Nodoka on TV being extremely successful in middle school mahjong. With that, along with Kuro’s patient wait in their mahjong club room, and their old mahjong mentor Harue coming back as coach, the gang decided to reform the mahjong club and compete in the team tournaments.
This sidestory has quite a different theme compared to the original. At first, it had to catch up to the main story, but it did so in quite a speedy fashion. The plot introduction I explained above? That thing’s over and done in just one episode. The trainings and then the prefectural tournament, where the original devoted almost 19 episodes towards, here it is finished in two episodes. Yup, in just three episodes, we already exceeded the timeline of the first Saki anime! I guess the main focus of this anime is the Nationals tournament, in the Side A of the bracket, where Kiyosumi (the main character team in the original series) is in the other bracket (Side B). This serves as a preview of a certain hyped team in the original series, Shiraitodai. If you recall, Teru Miyanaga is Saki’s sister, deemed to be a monster mahjong player, and she belongs to Shiraitodai. At this point, we’re at the Side A semifinals now, and that’s when things finally slowed down in order to attempt to provide the same meticulous mahjong action of the original.
I should say, it’s quite a jarring transition. Compared to Saki, it’s so fast in the timeline, yet so uneventful in the mahjong. This led to a number of caveats in the presentation, mostly of the characters themselves. Despite being the main team, Achiga has been given little focus in characterization at any point, and we could even argue that another team stole their spotlight in terms of character development, just when the timeline started to slow down. That team is Senriyama, and as per typical Saki-fashion, they’re great characters. Toki especially, is a prospective monster player with a specific skill that you may consider as a hax, but well within the bounds of impossible mahjong skills that any character may possess in the Sakiverse. Not to mention that she’s lolicute, and she’s yuri-paired with another character from Senriyama.
But as I mentioned, the main focus of the anime is to preview the Shiraitodai team, and that means Teru basically steals… actually “destroys” the show in terms of mahjong skill. The original Saki hype was worth it, she is indeed the Champion. This is when the Achiga-hen anime started to focus more on the mahjong. While admittedly not as great in presentation as opposed to mainline Saki, it holds up quite well. The tension of the game is arguable, since it isn’t even a fair fight when Teru and Shiraitodai are around.
This does not mean that it’s all-new characters running around in this side of the story, as we also see cameos from almost every character that got majorly introduced in the mainline Saki anime. This probably now makes Achiga-hen the biggest ensemble cast of moe seiyuu ever in an anime. It’s quite a large cast indeed, albeit sadly underutilized. It can’t be helped, each Saki manga chapter only runs once or twice a month, but it’s really surprising how popular the series is considering the slow pace in story. You could only wish there’d be more sidestories, or faster releases.
In any case, this is a good prospect for the franchise. We can totally expect another anime covering the mainline side very soon (the mainline manga has just finished the quarterfinals arc for Side B), and hopefully not too long after we finally go to the finals (in a decade’s time maybe j/k), where you’d expect Shiraitodai, Kiyosumi, Achiga, and _______ teams meet, and the most explosive mahjong action will finally happen.