Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Manga/Anime Review: Hikaru no Go, by Yumi Hotta

A children's series about a traditional board game manages to be compelling, if uneven, and drew me into go like it did thousands of other fans.

Hikaru no Go

Shonen Jump, 1999-2003, 23 volumes of ~200 pages each in the English Viz editions

The idea behind Hikaru no Go began when Yumi Hotta played a pick-up game of go with her father-in-law. She thought that it might be fun to create a manga based on this traditional board game, and began the work under the title of Nine Stars (九つの星 Kokonotsu no Hoshi), named for the nine "star points" on a go board. She later worked with Takeshi Obata (the illustrator) and Yukari Umezawa (5-Dan, the supervisor) in the creation of Hikaru no Go. She won the 2000 Shogakukan Manga Award and the 2003 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for Hikaru no Go.

Spoiler Alert: I will be talking about the entire series here, including the ending, so this review is full of spoilers for events that happen over the course of the series.

How a manga made me take up the game again


One of my better recent games against MFOG.
I was black; the computer was playing at the 12-kyu level.
Hikaru would laugh at me.

I learned to play go in college. Off and on over the years, like many of my hobbies and other interests both athletic and intellectual, I have dabbled in it, told myself I was going to get serious about it one of these days, and even acquired a shelf full of go books that were mostly just skimmed. But the fact is, I never played more than a few dozen real games, certainly never became formally ranked, and my chances of becoming a professional go player at this point are about the same as my chances of becoming an MMA prize fighter.

Go is a fascinating game. The rules are actually simpler than those for chess, but it's mathematically more complex and has more strategic depth than chess by an order of magnitude. And for those of you who fear the coming robot apocalypse, it is comforting to know that while the chess app on your smart phone can beat anyone but a grand master, and even grand masters can no longer beat supercomputers, the very best go computer still can't play at a professional level.

Like chess, becoming a true go master requires both intensive study and natural talent. As portrayed in Hikaru no Go, kids who've only been playing for a couple of years have been known to surpass adults who've been playing their entire lives. Of course, not every kid can do this - only those who have that indefinable, precocious talent that makes someone a go champion. It's not genius by itself, because there are plenty of geniuses who play go and never reach the top ranks. It's not study alone, either, though it's certainly true that no one becomes a go champion without spending many years of serious study. (In Japan, Korea, and China, there are schools for young go prodigies, whose lives pretty much revolve around becoming professional go players.)

So, go is one of those things I've always wanted to be good at without spending the time necessary to become good. And then I picked up this silly manga series, Hikaru no Go, and as I read it, I broke out my go books. And then I reinstalled my old version of The Many Faces of Go and started playing the computer, despite remembering how badly it humiliated me in the past. I even created an account on a go server again.

Well, I won't be competing in any tournaments any time soon, but they say if you're serious, you can go from beginner to amateur shodan (1-dan, or "first degree black belt" - go is ranked like a martial art) in a couple of years, and that is my goal. I want to be the very best, like no one ever was-- oh, wait, wrong theme song.

Fight! Get Stronger! Fight again! Get stronger!

Hikaru and Sai

The premise of Hikaru no Go is identical to every other "boy's fighting series" - Dragon Ball, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and all their various imitators. The protagonist starts out as a directionless novice and progressively becomes better and better by battling more powerful opponents, but each time he breaks through to a new level, there is always a new and more potent challenger he must overcome.

What distinguishes this series is that it's based on a real game and the story stays more or less realistic. While being limited to a go board takes away some of the tricks available to a more fantastic series (there are only so many ways you can screw with the premise of a thousand-year-old game), Hikaru no Go makes up for this by establishing a fairly stable, though always growing, cast of characters who represent benchmarks in Hikaru's maturity and the way he plays go.

You don't actually have to be a go player to follow the story. It does help, but at least in the early volumes, there's not much you need to know beyond a vague idea of how the game is played. (In Japan, most everyone is at least familiar with go even if they aren't fans, just as most Westerners will recognize chess terms even if they don't play.) Later, as Hikaru ascends to professional ranks, there are some chapters in which an appreciation for go tactics will let you understand what the characters are talking about when the go boards themselves are illustrated, and there is more use of go terms like peeping, cutting, extensions, making life, tiger's mouths, and so on. However, at no point do these illustrations go over the head of a very low-ranking amateur like me. (Hikaru no Go was obviously a labor-intensive manga, as every go illustration had to be checked by a professional go consultant)

Oh, the Go Foe-Yay

Manga page

The series starts when eleven-year-old Hikaru Shindo, a typical sixth grader, discovers an old go board in his grandfather's attic. He is able to see a blood stain on the board that his friend Akari can't, and thus becomes haunted by the ghost of Fujiwara-no-Sai, a Heian-era aristocrat who was the Emperor's go instructor.

Sai has a somewhat interesting back story involving a dastardly rival in the Heian court whose cheating drove Sai to commit suicide. Sai returned to incorporeal existence in the 19th century to mentor a boy who became known as the great go master Hon'inbo Shusaku. (Hon'inbo Shusaku, incidentally, was an actual historical figure.) Sai's greatest wish is to play the Divine Move. Unfortunately, he now finds himself bound to a bratty little kid with only average smarts and no interest whatsoever in go.

After Sai mopes and cries for a while, Hikaru finally agrees to go find an opponent to shut him up. He goes to the nearest go salon (establishments which are common in Japan, kind of like bowling alleys) and finds a boy his own age playing there. Brash, clueless, and not even knowing how to hold the stones, Hikaru challenges the other boy, who graciously accepts, even after Hikaru tells him he's never played before but insists he doesn't need a handicap because "We're the same age!"

Of course it's actually Sai playing, telling Hikaru where to place the stones. Sai mops the board with the other boy... who is, in fact, a go prodigy named Akira Toya, whose father is the reigning go champion of Japan.

Suffering such an ignominious defeat from a supposed beginner, Akira becomes obsessed with this mysterious "rival." Meanwhile, between Sai's pestering and Akira's obsession, Hikaru gradually begins to take an interest in the game himself. After he finds out just how badly outmatched he is by Akira when Sai isn't playing for him, Hikaru resolves to "catch up" to Akira Toya. And so proceeds the rest of the series, driven in large part by this rivalry between Hikaru and Akira.

(And just as at one point 90% of Harry Potter fandom seemed to be made up of Harry/Draco shippers, Hikaru no Go fans apparently slash Hikaru and Akira like crazy, despite the fact that both boys are about as asexual as can be in Hotta's story.)

I want to be the very best, like no one ever was...

Shonen Jump

Sorry, once I clicked that YouTube video, I can't get the damn song out of my head.

So anyway, on one level, there isn't a lot of "plot" to this series, it's really just a series of encounters with Hikaru steadily climbing the ladder of go, from someone who can barely hold his own against other middle school students to a serious student who becomes an Insei (full-time go students who are candidates to become professionals), and finally a professional. Periodically new characters are introduced, and the sequence is pretty much the same each time: they play Hikaru or watch him play, conclude that he sucks, and then he does something that amazes them. Initially this is usually because Sai is playing for him, but since the series is about Hikaru's growth, eventually he has to break free of his ghostly mentor and start playing for himself.

The fact that this series was able to run for 23 volumes in a manga (and 73 anime episodes) with almost every episode centering around a go game, is pretty remarkable. As I said above, you don't actually have to know go to follow Hikaru no Go, though I think an appreciation of the game is necessary to really enjoy the series. But Yumi Hotta tries to imbue each game with the same pulse-pounding excitement of a ninja-dragonball-pokemon ultimate battle. While it may be stretching the imagination a bit to portray a stone being slapped down on a board with the drama of a nuclear-powered ninja-punch, Hotta does a pretty good job of making the games suspenseful, either because of the stakes or the special circumstances in which they are played. Furthermore, go is a lifetime study, and so the characters talk about the games and the moves with the vocabulary of lifelong students. And I admit... it infected me. I got caught up in it. I want to be able to marvel at the genius of a single brilliant move, or witness a stunning turn-around from certain defeat. I want to be able to grasp the nuances of developing positions when most of the board is still empty space. I want to be someone who can look at a game in progress and tell at a glance if this is an epic battle between two masters or a couple of beginners cluelessly throwing stones around.

The wonderful thing about go is that the number of levels is infinite. If you are the best go player in your local club, you'll still get stomped at a regional championship. Most regional champions aren't serious contenders for a national title. And if you are a go professional (the best of whom are still from Japan, Korea, or China), you enter a whole new multi-level hierarchy, where the difference between the truly great and the merely good is night and day, even though the most mediocre professional could walk all over an amateur who's locally considered to be really good.

Hikaru no Go does a good job of representing this. As more players are added to the cast, there are plenty of stories that are basically about sorting out who's better than who. Hikaru starts off being easily beaten by middle school go sharks, who at this point in his career are his major boss fights. By comparison, his "rival" Akira Toya is occupying a plane somewhere up in the heavens, and Akira is still a relative small fry in the real go world.

And then Yumi Hotta drove off a cliff

Hikaru no Go #23

That's probably a little harsh.

The problem is, this is a bildungsroman about a young go player, and Hikaru can't really earn his place if he's got an ancient go master always with him. Even when Sai doesn't play for him, he's still always there, always the superior presence whom Hikaru can never live up to. Early plots were often driven by Sai playing through Hikaru against players who needed to be taught a lesson or to see just how great great go could be. But once Hikaru is an aspiring professional himself, it's kind of cheating to have one of the greatest go players who ever lived hovering over your shoulder.

So, Hotta wrote Sai out of the series.

It was a gutsy move, since Sai emerging from his haunted go board was the premise with which the series began. And the volumes where Sai vanishes, throwing Hikaru into despair, were touching and poignant, though perhaps a bit overwrought considering that until then, Hikaru had been rude and dismissive of Sai more often than not. It was a necessary stage in his personal growth, but... shortly after the "Sai vanishes" storyline, Hikaru truly takes his place among go professionals, finally plays an honest game against Akira Toya, and there's a fair amount of resolution.

Only problem is, that was in volume 16, and the series went on for another 7 volumes.

I wouldn't say the series completely lost momentum after this, but Hotta was clearly struggling for a while to regroup and figure out what to do next. There was a "filler" volume made up of side stories about minor characters before she settled on an international tournament consisting of young go professionals from Japan, Korea, and China all playing against each other. This let her bring back some of the characters she had introduced in earlier volumes, such as the pint-sized Korean go prodigy Hikaru played as an Insei, and some Chinese players whom we met in another "filler" volume in which another secondary character went to China to study go. That storyline carried the series through to its end. (And allegedly in Korea and China - where by now Hikaru no Go was very popular also - there was some uproar over how those country's professionals were represented in the series. Go players take their national rivalries as seriously as any football fans, though with fewer riots.)

And then the series... ended.

We never did see the Divine Move. We never see Sai return to do battle with Koyo Toya, Akira's father. We never see Hikaru actually catch up to Akira - by the end of the series, they are friends, but it's clear that Akira is still much the better player. And that plotline that was hinted at in the first volume, involving Sai's ancient rival? Like so many subplots that seemed to have been foreshadowing future developments, nothing ever happened with it. Likewise, there are abandoned characters scattered throughout the series - Hotta occasionally lets them have cameos, but for the most part, none of them ever matter much.

So, Hikaru no Go went out with a whimper rather than a bang, and Hotta never gathered up the threads of her subplots to weave a true epic. It showed promise at times, just enough to make me feel like I was reading something more sophisticated than Pokemon or Naruto. And it rekindled my love of go. But frankly, Hotta's storytelling never approached genius and she's no great writer. Hikaru no Go is an eminently enjoyable series, one that even a grown-up can appreciate, but it endures largely on the strength of its premise.

Hikaru no Go #18

I don't care how obsessed you are with go;
a real boy would notice she's kind of hot.

Hotta is also worse than Rowling when it comes to writing believable boys: she gets the pissiness and the immaturity right, but Hikaru is even more sexless than Harry Potter. Although it's pretty clear from the beginning that his childhood friend Akari has a crush on him, he never shows the slightest interest in her (or anyone, really, including Akira - sorry, slash fans). Of course Hikaru no Go is a boys' manga series, so I wouldn't expect romance to be a significant element, but since Hikaru grows up over the course of the series (and Hotta has him turning into quite the fashionable clothes horse), you'd think that somewhere along the way, he'd, you know, notice girls.

Actually, though, none of the characters seem to think about anything but go, which I suppose is better than suffering through an awful "chest monster" plot, but leaves the unfortunate impression that you have to be pretty much asexual to be a serious go player.

Each volume of the manga has short introductory sketches and interludes by Yumi Hotta in which she talks about her own experiences learning go, writing the manga, seeing it turned into an anime, etc. Some of these were amusing, though most were pretty banal. I thought it was kind of unfortunate that, considering she mentions how excited she was to see more girls playing go, Hotta treats her female characters pretty shabbily. Akari, who joins the go club to hang out with Hikaru, is depicted as still being a hopelessly inept player long after Hikaru has become a professional. (Since Hikaru is the protagonist, of course she's not going to keep up with him, but after years of playing go herself, she could at least be competent...) There is only one regular female character in Hikaru's circle of peers when he joins professional ranks, and it's clear that she's a second-rater, not a serious rival to anyone. Also, in the one storyline she gets, she goes on a date, her date is completely turned off by the fact that she can beat adult men at go, and rather than deciding that maybe she should find a guy with a less fragile ego, she reconciles herself to never having a love life. Smart girls: no boys for you!

Hikaru no Go (The Anime)

Hikaru no Go (anime)

Hikaru no Go became a best-seller. It was made into an anime that ran from 2001 to 2003. The anime was also highly successful, and sparked a surge of go enthusiasm in Japan, just at a time when the game was in need of younger players. It was a genuine phenomenon; Yumi Hotta is credited with making go popular again.

The 73-episode anime follows the manga pretty closely, at least from what I saw of it. I started watching Hikaru no Go on Netflix; for a while, all 73 episodes were available for streaming. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of Netflix's ever-changing license agreements, when I was only about halfway through the streaming option disappeared, and it appears that only the first 45 episodes are available on DVD. WTF, Netflix? So, I've only seen the anime up to about the point where Hikaru becomes an Insei.

Some of the plots are even sillier while watching them instead of reading them, like the SINISTER PLOT TO MAKE AKIRA PLAY TWO STUDENTS AT ONCE. (Actually, this episode had some subtleties that might go over the heads of an American audience unfamiliar with the bullying and the absolute deference expected of younger students towards older ones that goes on in Japanese schools.) The characters also generally act a lot more emo, trembling with emotion over every move on the go board.

It's a fun series to watch, though it's obviously a children's show, and doesn't add anything to the manga, so I got too bored to go to the trouble of watching the rest when Netflix cut off the streaming episodes.

Each episode of the anime was followed by a short go lesson. This series, called "Go! Go! Igo!" helped introduce many Japanese children to go. The first few episodes are pretty rudimentary, but by the later episodes, the teacher, Yukari Yoshihara, is explaining fairly sophisticated (for younger players) concepts. You might even pick up a thing or two from watching it!

Hikaru no Go

Verdict: I only got into this manga because of my old interest in go, and reading it actually made me take up the game again. Apparently I was not the only one, as Hikaru no Go was a hit across Asia and just about everyone in the go world is a fan. Yumi Hotta, despite never being a particularly adept player herself, is a go celebrity. So this is one of those series with some indefinable quality that transcends the perfectly traditional premise and the mediocre plotting. Start reading it, and maybe you'll find you want to play the Divine Move too!

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Tags: anime, books, igo, manga, netflix, reviews

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