Hikaru no Go Vol. 1

Mr. Goss taught me chess. Before 5th grade, I knew how to play; always having been a bit of a nerd, I suppose, I enjoyed indoor recess and taking on unsuspecting victims occasionally. But it wasn't until Mr. Goss in 5th grade that I really learned the game. He was determined that we should start pursuing activities that would really challenge us, and a few of us were up to the task. Every day, whenever we had the chance, chess was on. Though I don't play often in the midst of seminary studies, it's still a brilliant game that I truly appreciate, and I'm thankful for Mr. Goss and his mentorship. Games like chess are more than endeavors of chance. They can stretch us and grow us as individuals.

But how the heck do you make a board game into an exciting anime program?

Amazingly, Hikaru no Go does exactly that. Sure, the show centers around Go, not chess, but Go is a game with an even longer history of enthralling and bewitching its fans throughout the eastern world. Without understanding a single rule going into the first volume recently released through Viz, I came out fascinated with the game and also with this simple yet utterly engaging anime. Although there are a few minor quibbles I have with the show, mostly having to do with the pacing of programs of this nature, I must say that this was a return to the core of anime goodness.

Hikaru is a pretty typical 6th grader until he and a friend find an ancient Go board amongst his grandfather's things, and he finds himself confronted by Sai. Sai's the spirit of an ancient Go master who drowned himself after being wrongfully stripped of his responsibilities as a Go teacher centuries ago. Sai's soul is trapped in the Go board that Hikaru happend upon. Only one other time has he been released from his dark prison -- by a man who grew to be a legend at Go only to die at an early age. Hikaru has the ability to see and hear Sai, though no one else can. Really, all Sai is interested in is playing Go, but it seems like an old folks' game to Hikaru. But he concedes to Sai and finds a competitor his own age. Sai walks him through a match, but Hikaru really has no idea what he's getting himself into -- since the moves Sai plays are those of a grand champion. As the first four episodes progress, we see Hikaru becoming interested in Go himself, and though he's a rank amateur, with Sai on his side, he could potentially become the greatest modern player of Go ever. But the competition will be fierce, and not just on the Go board...

Hikaru no Go is a relatively new show, and it is a colorful extravaganza. Although the animation isn't special in any way, it's clean and consistent, and it's done in a manner that really catches your eye. Unfortunately, this first volume is pretty dodgy when it comes to the picture quality on the DVD. On both my computer and my standalone player with a 27" TV, there is a huge amount of line noise. Granted, part of the problem is that a Go board with all of its lines is a real pain for DVD to render. But even in some less complex sequences, the lines seem to "blink." That's really the only way I can describe it, and it's very annoying. It does become less noticeable in the third and fourth episodes, but I haven't been this frustrated by a DVD picture in quite some time. (Having checked out a few other reviews on the web, the problems are mentioned by a couple of folks, but they didn't seem to be as bad or as noticeable on their setups. You might try a rental just to make sure these problems don't appear significant on your own system.)

Thankfully, the show is such an attention-grabber that I was quite willing to press forward. I can't completely explain why, especially since the plot isn't all that stunning or creative. But what I can say is that it roped me in thoroughly. There're a number of reasons for it, I believe. Go is presented as a somewhat foreign game within the show itself, and the audience isn't expected to know much about it. Hikaru certainly doesn't! But the matches, even for the uninitiated, are exciting and well-paced. The music employed is not catchy per se, but it is utterly effective at generating a real sense of tension throughout the gaming matches. And besides the supernatural element of Sai, the show is surprising in how exciting it makes what most would consider mundane.

Another way the show ingratiates itself is through Sai. At once extravagant grand master, goofy sidekick, and faithful friend, Sai is the core that makes Hikaru work. His situation is tragic; because of his winning disposition, I immediately felt sympathy for his plight and hoped that it might somehow be solved. During the first volume, you may like Hikaru, but you're rooting for Sai. Because of his age, Hikaru hasn't developed a huge personality as of yet, and so he's intriguing more for his predicament (his attachment to Sai) than for his person. But the two together make a good team, and I really expect to enjoy watching their journey together in the world of Go tournaments. They're the best dynamic duo I've seen since the Elric Brothers in Fullmetal Alchemist.

My two reservations about the show are really quibbles, but they may affect the rest of the show. The first revolves around Sai's suicide. Although the show is aimed at young teens, this element is a bit disturbing. In the Japan of Sai's day, he was utterly ruined: disgraced, dishonored, and exiled. Contextually, one would wonder if Sai had any other choice in his society. However, because the show takes no stand on the morality of Sai's decision, it could be seen as acceptable, and that bothers me, especially since Western youngsters don't know the milieu of Sai's worldview. And if you don't like the concept of returning spirits, this could really bug you. Sai is just a guide -- it's stated straightforwardly that he cannot possess Hikaru -- but again, we are talking about dead guys speaking through the living. As someone studying for Christian ministry, I accept it merely as a form of storytelling, not a reflection on the real world. Nevertheless, it's a concern to note.

The second issue deals with whether or not the show will evolve or simply be a bunch of Go matches with new challengers. Even if it is creative and in some ways realistic, the world does not need another show that essentially is a video game bouncing from boss match to boss match. If the show makes Hikaru into a genuine Go champ on his own terms, even without the guidance of Sai, that could easily sustain a show that lasts for 75 episodes. However, the puppet routine we see in this first volume can only hold my interest so far.

But I must admit that this show peaked my interest in a way I never expected possible. In a way, I was transported back to my chess playing days. Watching the show seemed to take no time whatsoever, I was so enthralled. And before I finished this review, I had to go online and play a game of Go for myself. (I was trounced miserably, but that's another story.) I'm really interested in seeing more of Sai and Hikaru and watching their story develop, perhaps even learning more about the game in the process. This first volume easily qualifies as my own personal "favorite show I thought would be a snooze," and I hope the show continues to be this entertaining throughout the run.

Hikaru no Go Vol. 1 -- one mild profanity (in the Japanese version), mild spiritism that parents might want to review with their kids -- A