Friday, February 8, 2013

Hikaru no Go - Review

Year: 2001
Studio: Pierrot
Genre: Sports, Supernatural, Drama

Synopsis: [ANN: Hikaru no Go]
Hikaru Shindo is just a normal 12 year old boy, but one day he's rumaging through his Grandfather's things to see if he can find something to sell and pulls out an old Go board. A ghostly apparation appears out of the board and tells Hikaru his sad story. His name is Sai Fujiwara, a man who was a Go instructor to the emperor of Japan a thousand years ago. However, because of bad sportsmanship of his opponent during a game, Sai was accused of cheating and banished from the city. With no livelihood or any other reason to live, Sai commited suicide by drowning himself. Now, he haunts a Go board, and wants to accomplish the perfect Go game, called the "Hand of God" which he hopes to do through Hikaru. If Hikaru will be able to do it or not (or even wants to) will have to be seen.

This anime sure brings back some very fond memories. I'm not sure what prompted me out of the blue to rewatch this show after 8 years, but I dare say the experience was no less spellbinding than the first time around. I laughed and I cried, the same emotions that engulfed me years before were evoked once again, only this time I was more aware of the qualities that make this show so captivating. 

Hikago has all the essential pieces of a typical Shonen series. It is a journey of a nobody to somebody, but at the same time, it transcends the genre by also asserting itself as a coming of age story. At the outset, with all his childish whims and ignorance, Hikaru was really just a bratty boy living a carefree life. The fateful encounter with Sai brought him into the world of go and Touya inspired him in a way he never expected. What's fascinating is that Touya's obsession with Hikaru had everything to do with Sai's godly skills and little to do with Hikaru. His expectation gets brutally crushed when Hikaru plays against him during the tournament in place of Sai and loses by a shockingly wide margin. To be honest, I would have been rattled too if I was Touya – I mean the person who easily crushed you at something you've been perfecting your entire life up til that point suddenly fared no better than a novice. At best, he was having a bad day, at worst, he was just trolling you out of amusement. On the other hand, Hikaru was confronted with the unforgiving reality of the immeasurable gap in skills between him and Touya. In a scene overflowing with tears, shame, confusion and anger, we arrive at a major turning point in the story, where both characters are forced to reassess the situation. So there we have it, Touya steadily climbing the ladder in the go universe, chasing after the Hikaru – who is actually Sai –who obliterated him on the go board at their first meeting, while Hikaru is determined to catch up to Touya and be his equal one day. This strange, yet powerful dynamic between characters is what drives the plot. 

Unlike many shonen characters who often receive power-ups at the convenience of the plot, Hikaru's growth is well paced and believable. Even though he clearly has potential, his talent gets slowly cultivated through numerous games with different opponents, and he comes to discover his connection with the game. The process of growth is well captured in the narrative and the animation, Hikaru not improves as a go player, but also matures as a person, both physically and emotionally. This multifaceted character development is one of the most defining aspects of Hikaru no Go that set it apart from other shonen titles. 

For a show about a board game, there is no shortage of drama and suspense. In every important match, I find my eyes glued to the screen and my hands gripping the edge of the seat. The lack of go knowledge didn't seem to tamper with enjoyment, the tension in the atmosphere is enough to arrest my attention. Intertwined with the main plot, the rivalry between Touya's father and Sai is another crucial thread in the story. There is mutual respect between the two since Touya Meijin is arguably the only player that could go against Sai. And indeed, the battle of the mind is nothing short of exhilarating, the intensity of the game rivals the most epic hand to hand combat. It is also through this match that Sai reaches a realization for his spiritual existence. 

I have to admit, I really got a kick out of everyone's confusion about Hikaru's wildly fluctuating ability.  It was such a "Ha, suckers" moment. I'm sure even Akira contended the possibility of Hikaru having Dissociative Identity Disorder at some point, I imagine it is certainly a more plausible explanation than being haunted by a one thousands years old ghost. The secretive nature of the relationship creates much of the excitement in the show. Sai is without a doubt one of my favorite characters of all time. I mean who wouldn't love a genius with a gentle soul? To Hikaru, he's not only a mentor, but also a friend and perhaps a father figure. He guided Hikaru with much patience, always standing by him (well, not that he has much choice in that regard), comforting him when he falls down and gently points out his weakness when he needs someone to give him a push. It is all the more heartbreaking when he disappears without given an opportunity to bid a proper farewell. I was literally screaming for Hikaru to wake up. No, seriously, that boy deserves a few slaps and a good whack on that dense head of his. He was entirely oblivious to Sai's insecurities and his final plead, even when he explicitly warned him that he doesn't have much time left. I guess from Hikaru's perspective, Sai had grew to become an integral part of his life and he can't imagine living otherwise, even in the face of evidence – the fading blood stain on the go board – the power of denial trumped logical reasoning. My frustration turned into empathy and consuming melancholy when Hikaru frantically searches for Sai by visiting every Shuusaku site there is, refusing to accept that he is gone for good, even though I get the feeling that deep down, he already knew. I must applaud the writer for creating such an emotionally genuine scenario, it was devastating. For the next few months, Hikaru moped and seemingly lost all motivation for go. He was incapacitated by guilt and regret, he blamed himself for Sai's disappearance. And the worst part? No one can really be there to share his pain, it is up to himself to crawl out of his misery. It is when he finally loses one of the most important relationships in his life that he learns the lesson of not taking people for granted. This is another important turning point in the story, as Hikaru matures from the impact of the loss. He finally came to terms with his feelings when he became aware of Sai's presence in the way he plays go and it is on the go board that Sai will never cease to exist. For sure, it was a sentimental moment. 

Another thing I like about this show is the development of the supporting cast. Some of the characters have very rich background and side stories, rather than inserted as plot devices to propel the main character into success, they are all motivated individuals with distinct identity. If there is one complaint I want to make, it's the lack of influential female characters. For the most part, the existing female characters are the weakest links in the narrative, they don't have much of a presence beyond their occasional interaction with the main character, which in itself isn't very impressive. 

The animation is not jaw dropping, but it's quite sufficient in producing the intended effect. Any other time, I would scoff at the use of recycled frames and speed lines during intense scenes, it is considered "lazy animation" in my book, especially after have been spoiled by some of my favorite series from BONES. But Hikago gets away with it with the excellent editing and sensational music score that really hit the spot every time. 

What is curious to me is that the story never progress to the point where we get to see Hikaru beating Touya in a formal game, but they do overcome their bitter rivalry and become mutually dependent friends who match one another in intellect. Though I suspect the wife/husband bickering will never stop, at least not in the fantasized universe of the fans. I don't blame the avid fangirls, this series is a rich source for slash fanfics, many of the Touya/Hikaru exchanges could be well twisted into something romantic in nature. I even suspect the author herself may have intended for the implication. The ending exemplifies the idea that the journey is more important than the destination. I know many fans, including myself, desire a more conclusive ending, but I think it is well justified for what it is. Hikaru no Go is a stellar series that will always have a place in my anime hall of fame. 

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