Friday, August 1, 2008

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 12) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art)

Hikaru is now a professional Go player, and the many people whose interest he has unknowingly attracted are eager to see how he does in the Shinshodan Series, where new professionals play against experienced professionals with titles. Hikaru, to his great excitement and shock, discovers that he will be playing against Toya Meijin, the father of his rival. Unfortunately, Sai is also eager to play against the Meijin. Hikaru is torn between his desire to play against a skilled opponent and his desire to make Sai happy. In the end, Hikaru lets Sai play, but tries to hide Sai's skill by having him play as though he were facing a 15-point handicap, rather than the actual 5 1/2-pioint handicap. Later, after the match, Sai and Hikaru go to an Amateur Go Festival, deal with an unethical salesman and the professional who backs him, and attract the attention of Kurata, an arrogant and fairly young (I think he's in his twenties) professional Go player.

I love this series so much that it actually inspired me to join a Go club for a while in college. I played for about a semester and ended up quiting because I was the only person attending regularly. The person in charge of the Go club was always up for a game, but he wasn't very good at giving advice to help people improve, so the only time I felt I improved was when I played a game against a player who was much, much better than me. The guy had a 9-stone handicap and still managed to destroy me - I think he felt pretty bad about it, because he actually stopped the game at a few points to explain different strategies to me. Aside from him and the person in charge, however, I mostly played against people who were even greater novices than I was. It helped me understand the desire one can have to either play against people of similar skill or people who are better and who can help you get better.

I have to admit, I've actually already watched all the anime episodes of this series - I own them on bootleg DVDs, and I hope to one day buy the legal US DVDs (I adore the Japanese language track and hate the English dub, but I like the higher quality and extras you get with official, legal versions). Knowing what I know about the series makes reading this volume all the more sad and nerve-wracking, because I know where Sai's worries about not being able to play lead. Although it's true that Hikaru is the one who's alive and deserves to live that life, Hikaru would never have become interested in Go without Sai. I can't help but read about Sai and the Meijin's game without being happy that Sai got to do it and sad that Hikaru didn't. I would've had the same feelings, in reverse, if Hikaru had been the one to play.

The game between Sai and the Meijin was very exciting. Since only Sai and Hikaru officially knew that they were playing the game with a huge handicap, it was fun seeing how everyone reacted to Sai/Hikaru's apparently reckless playing. As someone who played Go but never got very good, it's always amazing to me when I read about how deeply certain characters can read games, and this game is no exception. Despite Sai and Hikaru's efforts, there are still people who manage to figure out that they were playing with a handicap.

After those wonderful/exciting/amazing moments, Hotta tones down the intensity and emotion a bit with the scenes at the festival. Although Hikaru (actually Sai) plays an amazing game, finishing an amateur's game against an unethical pro, the game isn't shown, so most of this part of the volume is about lightening up the mood again, providing a few opportunities for humor, and introducing Kurata.

This particular volume has a lot of pages involving adult male characters - although I tended to enjoy these (I loved the bit where Ogata and Kuwabara bet on who would win, Hikaru or the Meijin), I wondered how younger readers feel about these scenes. Actually, that's something I've wondered all throughout this series, since adult characters show up a lot, as friends, mentors, minor enemies (the unethical pro, for instance), or watchful future rivals. If I were given the task of starting a library's manga collection, this is one of the first titles I would buy, because it's appealing to both boys and girls, has very little that might offend people (many of the adults smoke, but that's about the worst of it), and is practically tailor-made for library programming (begin a Go club, invite someone to teach the game, talk about resources in the library and on the Internet that can teach Go strategies and rules, etc.). However, I'm looking at this series from the perspective of an adult, so I wonder how teenagers actually feel about this series. It's a hit with kids in Japan, but that says little about how American kids and teens react to it.

When I first started this series, I wasn't sure how I would feel about it, since it focuses on a board game. However, Obata's beautiful, clean artwork grabbed my attention and the surprisingly exciting Go matches kept it. I continue to read this series to see how much better Hikaru will get, to see what new and amazing Go matches are played, and to see how various characters interact and grow. Hikaru changes and matures a lot in this series, and Hotta is not afraid to break readers' hearts in order to make that happen (for those of you who don't yet know what will soon be happening in this series, make sure to keep reading, there are going to be some tough changes coming up). Obata should get an award for managing to make a manga about Go look exciting without making matches look silly and unrealistic.

As far as the extras in this volume go, there are a bunch of Hikaru no Go-related poems written by Japanese fans (although, sadly, only a few were chosen for translation) and a few four-panel gag comic strips involving Hikaru, Sai, and the main character of Cyborg Jiichan G (a series that used to be serialized in Shonen Jump, the Japanese magazine that published Hikaru no Go - I couldn't find any information about it in Anime News Network, although it does turn up in Google searches).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Whistle! (manga) by Daisuke Higuchi - In this series, a hard-working boy named Sho transfers to a new school just so that he can get a better chance to play soccer. Although he isn't very good at soccer, he practices long and hard and gradually improves his skills. Others begin to notice him, and Sho becomes part of his school's team. Even though he isn't usually the best player, people notice him because his cheerful, determined presence tends to improve moral and his flashes of brilliant playing hint at future greatness. Those who'd like another series featuring exciting competition that is represented in a realistic way might like this series.
  • Dragon Drive (manga) by Ken-ichi Sakura - Reiji has never played a game that has managed to capture his interest, at least not until his friend Maiko makes him try Dragon Drive, a virtual reality game in which players team up with dragons to fight one another. Reiji's dragon, Chibi, seems worthless, but it's actually very rare and may be much more powerful than Reiji realizes. Those who'd like to read another manga in which a boy reluctantly begins to play a game that soon grabs his attention might like this series. As with Hikaru no Go, there are lots of exciting matches between players.
  • The Prince of Tennis (manga) by Takeshi Konomi - Ryoma Echizen is a tennis genius and a new student at Seigaku High School. He soon becomes a member of his school's famous tennis team and proves that he's capable of beating 2nd and 3rd year students. Those who'd like another series featuring exciting competition that is represented in a mostly realistic way might like this series.
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Naruto, a young ninja, is determined to become the best ninja in his village, but he must first learn teamwork and better fighting techniques in order to survive all the tests he needs to pass in order to become a full-fledged ninja. As with Hikaru no Go, this series has a lot of competition (battles between ninja), and characters who want to be the best and rise to the top (Naruto wants to become Hokage, the leader of his ninja village - Hikaru wants to play against and beat better Go players). Mixed in with all the action is a lot of emotion and inner turmoil - just as Sai spends time agonizing over the balance and relationship between himself and Hikaru (who gets to play Go, and is it even fair for Sai to want to play?), many characters in Naruto spend time before, during, and after battles thinking about their pasts and personal issues.

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