There’s a certain way of feeling in my watching of anime that I dub as the “shounen feel”. It’s a bit hard to explain, but you kinda feel this whenever you are hooked into a certain shounen anime so much that you just had to watch that next episode or read the next manga chapter. In some cases, this feeling will hook you into the anime even though you don’t know much about the actual subject matter at hand. One of my personal best examples of this oddity would be the anime Hikaru no Go. From the start until the very end of the anime, even with the bonus video lessons they show, I learned and knew JACK about Igo as a board game. Yet, I regard that as one of the best shounen anime I have seen. Similarly, Saki brings me into the world of mahjong. While mahjong is a bit easier to understand, I still had problems keeping up. Yet, despite the lack of mahjong knowledge and my hate towards useless fanservice, Saki keeps the shounen feel strong.
This is not your usual shounen anime (seinen actually), because it’s clearly aimed for those who like moe~ rather than GAR. The cast of characters are almost completely composed of girls, with the usual variations and types you see in bishoujo games and harem series. Plus, it has a yuri angle that has girls blushing towards each other everytime they do something even remotely casual. Thankfully, this is never full yuri, as it’s more on the friendly side rather than romantic. So we follow the story of Saki Miyanaga, a seemingly normal girl with a powerful mahjong skill, which is the usual thing in shounen lead characters. Make an underdog with a killer monster style which makes the pros wonder where the hell she came from. She started her devastation by being pulled into the mahjong club. And so after making friends with the rising star of mahjong at school, the well-endowed Nodoka Haramura, their school started their long journey towards the Nationals. Shounen always go to nationals after all, especially sports and other forms of tournaments.
The series never really picked up steam until 1/3 through the series, when the prefectural mahjong tournament is underway. Here, we got introduced into a slew of new sets of characters from other schools, and let me tell you, they are freaking AWESOME. All of them. I finally felt the shounen feel then, as the way it should be in this kind of anime, even if I don’t know much about the game itself. I went through the entirety of the anime without learning about the Japanese scoring system and ruleset being used. Even if I only know little mahjong, the way the anime presented it is pretty entertaining. I can feel the tension in each game. Well, there are times when they go absolutely overboard though, like when visual representations of magical girls in action appear. Also, there are mystical auras and beams as they make their hands. Still, the pace is unrelenting. Interesting backstories abound as well for some of the characters, and really, they are as unique as their archetypes can allow.
The seeming disappointment begins as I realize that the manga from which the anime derives from is not actually over. Saki ended manga coverage at the exact point of the end of the prefecture tournament. Heh, and so Nationals won’t happen yet again. But the rest of the episodes which were composed of a filler individual tournament were still watchable, primarily because of the wonderful cast of characters. I already developed a liking to them despite the low episode count of 25, especially when compared to long-running shounen anime. I remembered I said on Twitter that I can take an entire cour of filler episodes with these characters just being themselves. Specifically, Stealth-su Momo and ah-ha-ha kappa-face are the best for me, followed by the awesome captains and leaders of each school, main yuri pair Saki and Nodoka, and monster loli Koromo, among others.
This is GONZO’s second modern hit for me since Strike Witches. This animation studio is in total recession of late. Even Saki as an anime had dropped from production by GONZO themselves! The latter third of this anime had Picture Magic as primary production studio, with GONZO only providing assistance. This is one of the first times this has happened, and is such a shame. Still, it had good production values despite the transition. The animation is good and constant all throughout. The useless fanservice consisted mostly of boob jokes and onsen scenes aplenty, which I was able to tolerate mostly. I didn’t mind the music but they add to the mood of each scene. I didn’t like any OP/ED oddly. And the entire cast is backed by mostly big-name seiyuu, which adds to the charm of each character in the show.
Saki is one of the strongest anime of its season, and it’s quite sad for me to let it go. With the manga playing catch-up, and the production studios in limbo, I wonder if we can still see a second season of this. I really want more of this. The last episode came with an absolute teaser of new characters supposed to appear in the Nationals. Maybe if DVD sales become brisk we could see it coming, eh? Whatever the case in the future, Saki entertained me like a proper shounen anime can. With great characters and a shounen feel, with a light touch of yuri and a unique theme of mahjong, this anime is a highly recommended watch.