Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Saki Zenkoku-hen 1

So begins the reunion with the much beloved cast of one of the craziest mahjong anime out there. I hope to cover this series regularly, with my impressions coming out later into the week for scheduling reasons.

Did I like the opening episode? You bet I did.

Some people were dissatisfied with the lack of mahjong battles in the first episode, but personally I was actually impressed with how the few seconds of mahjong action in the episode were used to provide basic characterization for the characters and teams involved. Hacchan (loli miko) makes someone drop below zero without going into the captains' round through some obviously occult combination, and we immediately know she's one to look out for in the coming matches. Awai goes double riichi -> kan -> dora 4, and we know it is not just "luck".

On the other hand, Himematsu is shown buying their way into the tournament through a paltry 2000 point ron. Coupled with the down to earth character designs, we may begin guessing that Himematsu is a team of (mostly?) normal humans who win their matches through reasonable choices and good, if non-spectacular, mahjong - a counterpoint to the teams who wear their occult weaponry on their sleeves. Can such people put up a fight against the legions of superpowered mahjong girls? Or does Himematsu have some secret weapon of their own?

I expect Himematsu to get more time to shine in the coming episodes. In the meanwhile, we can get a good look at some other teams.

Eisui - within just a few short scenes and lines of dialogue, we are left wondering not only who those girls are, but also what they are. The princess in particular deserves attention, as it is not just a nickname we are dealing with, as the other members openly address her with honorifics reserved for nobility. With a rigid distinction between the main house and the branch houses, we see that Eisui is not so much a school team but a team made up of the members of a single family - one which might have other purposes in mind for the tournament other than just having fun playing mahjong.

The divide between the princess and the other members lies not only in their respective social positions, though. We see the princess resting within the darkness, illuminated only by the light of candles, and she seems to be a part of a completely different world from the cheerful waiting room the rest of the team is gathered in. What is the mystery behind her? What is the reason for the reverence the other team members hold for her. Jindai Komaki - her last name meaning god-representative or vessel of gods - is likely to surprise us in the coming episodes.

But true to the tradition of Saki, the respectful terms Jindai's teammates use are mixed in with informal and friendly speech patterns, and when Hacchan declares they are not letting the princess shoulder all the burden this year round, you can tell there is an undercurrent of true affection to the respect and hierarchy of this mysterious family. For all the questions surrounding them, the Eisui girls might actually only be out there for the fun for it. (Maybe.)

While the pro and his partner commentator discuss Hacchan's kimon (literally demon gate, but also a different way of saying "northeast" - the direction considered most unlucky, from which disasters were believed to come) the term is not supposed to make much sense to the viewer at this time - and neither does it have much to do with mahjong. In fact, this short conversation hints that many of the pros in the Saki world might be more akin to the ghost busters we know from series like Bakemonogatari than mahjong pros in our world!

While Hacchan will have more than enough time to show off her occult tricks in the future, the first episode introduces what will be a central theme in this season of Saki - information warfare. The miko team are not afraid to reveal some of their cards during the prelims, but that confidence comes at a cost. If a pro can analyze an ability and possibly find a way around it, there is a very real possibility that one of the other teams in the tournament will do the same.

The same could be applied to Saki, of course, who held nothing back during the Nagano finals, but then again, she hardly had any choice but to go full out against Koromo if she wanted a chance to win. This cannot be said of Shiraitodai's Awai, who revealed some of her ability in the match presented in this episode for a pretty reasonand those of you who have seen Achiga-hen know how that ended up for her.

The question is, are all the teams alike in this matter - holding nothing back in their battles and ready to take the risks involved with that, or are there people waiting for the right time to strike ?

Miyamori - it is easy to see they are nobodies, out of place among the other schools. Their past history in the tournament is not mentioned in the episode - they have none. Heck, one look at the empty mahjong clubroom tells stories of the (nonexistent) prestige Miyamori enjoys. Eislinn sticks out as a transfer student, but do not mistake her for a mahjong genius brought from abroad like the Rinkai girls - when she first came to Japan, she probably barely knew what the game was about.

Five friends and a granny with a vision. All members of the team are third years - all comrades and equals taking their one and only chance at the mahjong tournament. Sae declares they will enjoy mahjong more than anyone, and thus reach higher than any other team. But is there anything they can do against the might of the schools standing against them? Or is it that nothing is impossible with the power of friendship?

And Rinkaijust Rinkai. They are like Shiraitodai done right. They are like Teru five times over. They are likely to be the only team in the entire tournament without a single weak link. I am sure they eat babies for breakfast. Someone please confirm that for me.

Just look at Myeonghwa. Putting aside the fact that she is French and still manages to have an eastern name impossible to spell, her hair billows in the windindoors! Someone call Mulder and Scully, quick!

I loved how the episode also found the time to give us a glimpse of teams from all over - even those that had their chance to shine in the Achiga-hen spinoff and will not be taking an active role in the episodes to come. In a sense, Achiga-hen limited itself to the story of two teams - Achiga and Senriyama. This season stays true to its title and takes responsibility for the event as a whole - a gathering for mahjong lovers from all across the country. This is only supported by the appearances from the cast of the previous season.

The appearances from Kazekoshi and Ryuumonbuchi are not merely a rehash of what we have already seen and know. Relationships have progressed and lessons have been learned - which this episode manages to tell us through just a few stills at the end. Particularly heartwarming is the fast-developing friendship between Koromo and Kana, something which was difficult even to imagine during the first season of the show.

Other tidbits include Hisa and Mihoko going shopping together, with Mihoko keeping both eyes open for a change. Is the girl fishing for compliments, or is it just that she feels that much at ease next to the Kiyosumi captain? Your call.

This episode also marks the first appearance of the Ikeda family in all its glory (sans the parents of course). Ikeda's three little sisters show up often enough in the Saki Biyori yonkoma manga, but might have been something of a surprise to anime-only viewers. Kana-oneechan~.

I was also glad to see Kazekoshi more at ease with their coach, as that was one of the more strained relationships presented in the first season. Has Kubo changed, or was she always only tough on the outside, wishing for the best of her team inside her heart?

Closing the episode with this image of Saki quietly reading a book is most fitting. Besides mahjong, their penchant for literature is one of the biggest common points between the two Miyanaga sisters, and it serves as a subtle reminder of what Saki is here for - to reestablish that long lost connection.

By the way, Saki appears to be reading some kind of parody of the Lord of the Rings. Since the Japanese fans tend to call Saki "Maou", or evil overlord, I have to wonder which side she would be cheering on when reading Tolkien's work

Other places covering this season of Saki:
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