Saturday, November 24, 2018

REVIEW: Hikaru no Go (manga, vols. 13, 15-23) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya

Hikaru no Go is a series I used to love and recently realized I'd never finished. Unfortunately, it's difficult for me to describe it in a way that makes it sound as interesting as it is. It's based on the game Go and stars a boy, Hikaru, who knows nothing about Go but finds himself the sudden companion of the ghost of a former Go instructor, the elegant and often silly Fujiwara no Sai. Over the course of the series, Hikaru learns about Go, begins developing his own skills and playing style, and eventually becomes a professional Go player with his own rivalries. His longtime rival is Akira, a young Go prodigy who was a bit lonely at the start of the series and then found himself chasing after Hikaru, not realizing that the person he'd really played against was Sai via Hikaru.

Sai's desire to improve his Go and attain the Divine Move (a perfect game of Go) has kept him around all this time, and he previously played via a famous Go player named Shusaku. Although Shusaku was an accomplished Go player in his own right, he allowed Sai to make all his moves for him after Said appeared in his life. Hikaru, on the other hand, did not do that, and it both allowed Hikaru to grow as a player and added some conflict as Sai began to worry about not getting to play the games he'd hoped to play.

According to this blog, I stopped reading this series at volume 12. I had a fairly good idea of what happened after that, due to having been gifted a bootleg version of the anime by someone who insisted I'd enjoy it (she was right), and I'd leafed through a Japanese edition of the final volume, matching it against text-only fan translations as best I could. Official translations were definitely a better way to go, though, and I'm glad I finally got to finish this series...even though I had to skip volume 14 because the library no longer owned it.

As usual, since this is one of my vacation reading posts, you can expect major spoilers from this point on.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 13) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Hikaru learns that he's going to be taking part in the Oteai, the rank promotion tournament, and his first opponent is Akira. Unfortunately, Akira has to forfeit - his dad, the Meijin, had a heart attack. Toya Meijin recovers enough to win his last match against Ogata. Then he keeps a promise to Hikaru to play against Sai online, even though he believes that Sai's decision to only play online is cowardly (he has no idea Sai is a ghost). Toya Meijin takes this match seriously and declares to Hikaru that, if Sai wins, he will retire.

Now that I make sure to record translators, I end up taking a closer look at the folks involved in creating manga, and one of the things I was pleased to discover was the Viz took this series seriously enough to hire a Go consultant, Janice Kim (3 Dan), for their English translation. Nice job, Viz!

It's weird going back to this series after so long. There are even more adult (middle-aged and older) characters than I remembered. In this volume, their faces occasionally looked a bit odd to me. Obata might have just been a bit off, because every volume after this looked fine. The artwork at the beginning of Sai and the Meijin's match was gorgeous.

I wasn't sure how I'd do, jumping into the middle of this series after a 10-year break, but I got swept up by Sai and the Meijin's match pretty quickly. It was fun seeing all the other Go players all over the world get excited about Sai and Toya Meijin's online match (getting up early, in some cases), not even knowing what the stakes were.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 15) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Sai desperately wants to play a game against Hikaru, but Hikaru figures they can play anytime. He does let Sai play against a drunken Ogata (figuring Ogata would be too drunk to notice Hikaru playing like Sai), but then he's too tired to play what turns out to be Sai's last game against him. When he wakes up, Sai is gone. He hunts for him at every possible place Sai might be - all the places associated with Shusaku - but he's nowhere to be found. Finally Hikaru realizes Sai's not coming back. He decides to quit Go, promising that if Sai ever does come back, he'll let him play all of his games and never play on his own again. Akira is confused and worried about Hikaru.

Oh man, it sucks that I had to skip volume 14. The "story thus far" section in this volume helped, but I really wanted to see the full match between Sai and Toya Meijin.

It still surprises me how soon Sai's disappearance happens. There are still eight volumes to go, and one of the series' most prominent characters is gone. I loved the way Hotta and Obata depicted his last moments, though. Very beautiful, sad, and startling. Hikaru's grief was well-done, too.

The flow of this volume was occasionally a bit odd, and Hikaru's hunt went on longer than I'd have liked and came across like a Shusaku tour in manga form. Overall, though, this was an excellent and sad volume.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 16) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - A very Isumi-heavy volume. Isumi is trying to gain confidence and experience in China by playing against young Go pros. Although he's initially worried that he might be accomplishing the opposite, he struggles and sticks with it, and the experience pays off. Then it's back to Hikaru, who's still resisting Go to the point of refusing to help his former Go club friends. Isumi comes back to Japan and asks Hikaru for a rematch, during which Hikaru breaks down in tears: "I couldn't find Sai anywhere I looked...and now I found him here." (In a move he played against Isumi.)

I hate to say this since I know so many people, particularly professional Go players who've read this series, love him, but Isumi isn't really one of my favorite characters. I suppose it was nice seeing him again, working hard to build up his confidence, and his struggles are likely much more realistic than Hikaru or even Akira's experiences with Go. Still, it was a relief when the volume turned back to Hikaru, despite Hikaru's guilt and grief.

That said, the damage Hikaru was doing to his professional Go career by continuing to forfeit matches made my stomach hurt. Could he catch up to Akira at this rate? Could he be fired at some point, and how many more matches could he forfeit before that happened?

But man, that ending elevated the volume. Isumi tends to come across to me like a "reliable big brother" type, so it was kind of nice that he was the one to see Hikaru break down. While I loved that Hikaru found Sai in his own Go playing style, I still really want Sai back...

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 17) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Playing against Isumi helps Hikaru realize that Sai is now in his Go - if he wants to see Sai, even just a shadow of him, he must play. And so he does, and proceeds to win. There are rumors of a Japan-China-Korea Junior Cup, and players like Akira, Hikaru, and Ochi would be Japan's best chance. Meanwhile, Hikaru has his first match against Akira in two years and four months. Hikaru loses, but it's a good match, and Akira sees Sai in his game, leading Hikaru to say that he might tell him the whole story about what happened to him one day. That night, Hikaru dreams of Sai.

Oof. This is technically a slow volume, and I got a bit tired of older dudes talking about the up-and-coming youngsters, but the beginning was great - seeing Hikaru cry and realize he must play in order to see Sai (if I were Isumi, the way Hikaru was acting would have made me assume there was a death in Hikaru's family). So was the ending, with Sai silently passing his fan on to Hikaru.

I loved that Akira could see Sai in Hikaru's playing style but also appreciate Hikaru as his own player. He's no longer chasing after Hikaru because of the player he thinks he is (Sai) but truly seeing him as he is. If I remember right, this is where the anime ended (not counting the special), and it's a nice stopping point for those who liked Hikaru and Akira but also really liked (and really miss) Sai.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 18) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - This is the series' "short story" volume. It's an anthology composed of shorts focused on particular characters.

"Akira Toya" takes place just before Akira first met Hikaru and shows his loneliness at not having kids his own age to properly play Go against. He plays against a kid who has a high opinion of his own skills only to utterly crush him.

"Tetsuo Kaga" takes place after all the original Go club members have left. Kaga, the kid who was good at both Go and Shogi, goes back to his junior high and is accidentally mistaken for Tsutsui, a misunderstanding that he uses to gather up new members for the school's nearly dead Go club.

In "Asumi Nase,"Asumi considers quitting being an insei and skips out on Go in order to go on a date. They end up at a sketchy Go salon, where her obvious skill and comfort in that atmosphere end up scaring off her date.

"Yuki Mitani" takes place at some point in the past (I remember him less than Kaga, which is a bit sad considering I think Mitani was around more). Mitani cheats at Go for cash but isn't as slick about it as he thinks he is.

"Atsushi Kurata" takes place prior to Kurata becoming interested in Go. When he was a student, Kurata used to collect horse-racing data and guess winning horses, becoming increasingly good at it, although he never placed any bets.

The final story in the volume is "Fujiwara-no-Sai," which obviously takes place in the past. Hikaru and Sai play a game of Go in order to win back a prized Keicho vase that has a "floating" flowers optical illusion when you fill it with water.

This was okay, I guess. The best stories were Sai's and Asumi's - they felt the most complete. Sai's gave me a little Sai fix. It was lovely to see him again, and Hotta basically made him go through his full range of emotions in a single story - adorably earnest, goofy, serious, and a bit nostalgic about the past. Asumi's story made me wish the series focused on its female Go players a little more. It was nice seeing her actively choose Go over a "normal" life (although, granted, the guy she was out on a date with wasn't exactly a winner).

Kurata's story was nice, too, I suppose, a glimpse of what he was like before he got into Go. I just didn't find it to be as interesting as Sai and Asumi's stories. Most of the other stories, unfortunately, felt more like outtakes from the original series than complete stories in their own right. Mitani's was particularly annoying, since it ended just before the game that was supposed to teach him a lesson about his behavior up to that point.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 19) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Hikaru plays against other Shodan, even though he's far stronger than they are, and we're repeatedly reminded that everyone has to start at this point and work their way up. In his free time, Hikaru analyzes his and Akira's games with Akira. Akira is now playing against higher ranked players, and Hikaru wishes he could too. Hikaru's first higher ranked opponent is Gokiso 7 Dan, who he beats. Hikaru finally learns about the Japan-China-Korea Junior Cup...and that Akira is already part of the team and won't need to try out. The volume ends with Hikaru doing a rematch against Kadowaki while Isumi is playing against Kuwabara.

This volume felt a bit scattered and lacking compared to some of the past ones. Even the short story volume worked better for me. The best parts were Hikaru buying himself a fan like Sai's (I was a little surprised that no one poked fun at him for what would have appeared to others like a sudden new affectation) and Hikaru and Akira arguing over Go. I could imagine them continuing to argue like that after having spent decades as friends and rivals.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 20) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Hikaru finishes his game with Kadowaki, which he wins. Kadowaki admits that Hikaru is good but thinks that Hikaru was somehow better the last time they played (I'm pretty sure his last time was actually against Sai). He's shocked when Hikaru cheerfully agrees with him. A new character, Kiyoharu Yashiro from the Kansai Go Association, is introduced. He plays wild/risky Go, beginning with the middle (tengen) in one of his games. Hikaru plays against Morishita (his teacher in his study sessions) and Akira plays against Ogata (his father's student), resulting in two emotionally charged matches. Akira and Hikaru both lose, but they establish themselves as players to be watched. Then it's time for the Hokuto Cup qualifiers. In his second round, Hikaru plays against Yashiro, a game filled with risky and unexpected moves.

This was a fun volume. Again, a bit scattered, and I honestly have no clue what any of them are working towards anymore. Even Hotta admits that pros' schedules and tournaments are confusing and complicated. I'm better off just focusing on individual matches and their outcomes rather than trying to figure out the big picture. One thing I do know is that the Hokuto Cup qualifier determines who's part of the Japanese team in the big Japan-China-Korea tournament.

Yashiro and Hikaru's game is exciting, even though I suspect it's unrealistically reckless.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 21) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Ochi beats Waya, qualifying for the Hokuto Cup, but when he sees Hikaru and Yashiro's game, he knows it's several levels above his and Waya's. He asks to extend the Hokuto Cup qualifiers so that the can play against Yashiro, who lost against Hikaru, and prove to himself and others that he deserves to be at the Hokuto Cup. Unfortunately for him, Yashiro wins and becomes part of Japan's Hokuto Cup team. Yashiro, Hikaru, and Akira stay at Akira's currently empty home for a while, playing nonstop practice matches against each other until they drop. Meanwhile, Akira's dad is playing as an "amateur" in Korea, attempting to become stronger for a rematch against Sai (that's never going to happen *sob*). Also, one of Korea's professional Go players, Ko Yong Ha, disses Shusaku, resulting in Hikaru seeing him as someone who must be beaten.

Another fun volume, although, again, I deeply miss Sai. It hurt my heart that Akira's dad was working towards a rematch that he didn't know could never happen. I'm not sure that even a match against Hikaru after he's had a few years to acquire some experience would be good enough.

Oh man, Ochi. If it hadn't been for his pride, he'd have gone to the Hokuto Cup. That said, I think Hikaru, Akira, and Yashiro were a more fun group than Hikaru, Akira, and Ochi would have been. I liked that Yashiro's unsupportive parents made Hikaru more aware and appreciative of his supportive mom. She may not understand Go in the slightest, but she does her best to make sure he has the time to concentrate on it.

One quote I liked from this volume: " must be lonely to be the God of Go. You'd have no equal, no rival." (Hikaru to Akira and the people at Akira's Go salon) I still wonder about Sai. Did he disappear because he'd finally found his perfect rival (Toya Meijin?), or did he disappear because he'd helped lead Hikaru down the path of playing his own kind of Go? Considering the series title, the latter seems likely, although maybe there's an element of both.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 22) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - Suyong suspects that Ko Yong Ha did not diss Shusaku and goes to him to confirm this. It turns out to have been a terrible mistranslation, but Yong Ha decides to roll with it and publicly needle Hikaru some more. Hikaru, in response, begs to be first in the match against Korea, even though he knows Akira is the more likely choice. Kurata says he'll do it if Hikaru can impress him against China - he figures this will fire Hikaru up enough to help him win. In Japan's match against China, Yashiro loses, Akira wins, and Hikaru loses (but makes his opponent fight to the very end). Kurata decides to let Hikaru be first against Korea despite his loss, shocking everyone but Akira, who wonders what Hikaru's connection to Shusaku is.

Hikaru's mom attended the China game! Which went disappointingly. Dang it.

After so many less focused volumes, it was nice to have one solely devoted to a single tournament. This volume really ramped up the tension and kept the focus on the series' younger characters. I just wish things had gone better for Hikaru. I know that, story-wise, he was due for some losses, but right near the end of the series wasn't really the best time for it.

Akira was so very close to figuring out the whole Hikaru and Shusaku thing on his own. He even remembered that, in his first game against Hikaru, Hikaru used a few archaic moves. And at the end of the volume, Hikaru came so close to explaining why he got into Go and why Shusaku is important to him. Publicly, even! Akira was visibly disappointed that Hikaru was cut short. Me too, Akira, me too.

Hikaru no Go (manga, vol. 23) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata, supervised by Yukari Umezawa (5 Dan), translated by Naoko Amemiya - It's the final volume, and time for the final Hokuto Cup matches. Akira wins, Yashiro loses, and Hikaru loses (by 1/2 point, ugh). Hikaru finally finishes saying what he was going to say earlier, about why he started playing Go: "I started playing Go so I could link the distant past to the far future!" Yong Ha responds that he isn't alone in that, and another player comments that this isn't just what drives Go, but also life. The volume ends with seven bonus sketches of prominent characters in the series, a short flashback manga called "Fujiwara no Sai vs. Akira Toya" (Sai and Akira's second game? Akira bites back and surprises Sai, even though Sai wins in the end), and a short manga that takes place after the end of the series, "Shoji! Oka!" (Young Lions, two insei characters play matches against Hikaru and Akira and are inspired).

The artwork is beautiful, but I really, really missed Sai. I think Hotta must have too, or Sai wouldn't have kept appearing in dreams, flashback manga, etc.

While this certainly wrapped up the series and gave it a proper ending, I still can't help but feel a bit disappointed. I wanted Hikaru's desire to face off against Ko Yong Ha to actually result in something. I know his loss wasn't the end of the world, or even necessarily his last time facing off against Ko Yong Ha - the series, particularly the final extra chapter, did a good job of showing that the life of a Go pro goes on and there are always more matches to play. But man, I'm disappointed.

I both liked and felt sad about Akira's dad's theory that, if Shusaku came back in the form of Sai, then he came back to face him. And this is certainly the closest any characters have come to guessing, on-page, what really happened to catapult Hikaru into the world of Go.

Well, that's that, I'm finally done with this series. Now I kind of want to rewatch the anime...


  1. Thanks so much for posting this! I am a big fan of the anime, and every few months I go back and rewatch it. While I appreciate the ending, I always wondered how the manga turned out. Based on your post, as you said, it seems like the anime ended at a nice point. I wished there had been a little bit more closure with Sai though. I really missed Sai when he left and the several episodes after he leaves can be hard to watch at times because of the turmoil Hikaru experiences throughout. I found it interesting though that a few short stories in Vol 18 appeared as filler episodes throughout the anime. Thanks again!

    1. You're welcome! Sai's disappearance wrecked me the first time I watched the anime, and I agree, some more closure where he was concerned would have been nice. Although I'm not sure anything could ever make me okay with him just up and disappearing.

    2. I agree with you about the way that Sai left. At least it was not his own choice to leave the way he did. I would have loved if he could have talked to Hikaru in the end, or at least told him that he was not upset when he left. :(