Japanese Title: Hikaru no Go
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 75 episodes & 1 movie
- Go is interesting and portrayed well
- Sai is a fun character
- Low production values
- Loses steam in the finale and remains incomplete
The East Asian game of Go has made many appearances throughout the medium of anime, yet I never had any idea what it was about. Unlike chess or shogi, where you get a sense of how the game works just by looking at the board, Go looks like a mess of black and white dots to the untrained eye. My greatest concern going into Hikaru no Go was the game itself. Being a shounen sports anime (the focus is on the sport), would I lose interest because I knew nothing about Go?
The story begins when Hikaru, a young boy, stumbles upon a Go board with a bloodstain in his grandfather’s attic. Weirdly, his friend can’t see the blood. Touching the board awakens the spirit of Sai, an ancient Go master wronged in his time by a cheater during a show match before the emperor. He only has one goal – to play Go! Unfortunately, Hikaru has no interest in the game. Fortunately, Sai is a ghost that only Hikaru sees and can pester him all day to play. Sai plays his first game in this era – by telling Hikaru what moves to make – against the Go prodigy Akira Touya of Hikaru’s age. Sai wins. From the outside, this looks as if a total novice beat the best junior player in his first game. Touya grows obsessed with this kid and the secret to his talent. Meanwhile, an interest in the game begins to blossom within Hikaru.
The first thing to draw attention with Hikaru no Go (apart from Hikaru’s ridiculous hair) if watching it today is the poor art. This is a budget kids’ anime, so you know what to expect. It’s almost enough to make non-Go enthusiasts turn off the series. Then you meet Sai. What a delightful character. As you would anticipate from a tagalong ghost sidekick, the writers played much of his character for laughs. He’d be pestering Hikaru about something only for Hikaru to shout at him, appearing to yell at the wind from a spectator’s point of view. His enthusiasm for the modern is great. His love of Go is even better. Since he can’t interact with anything, he relies on Hikaru to make the moves for him and is like a nagging child when Hikaru won’t play for him. He’s not annoying though.
Sai also plays the role of mentor, providing Hikaru – and the audience – a commentary on the game, like an analytical shoutcaster, while also teaching rules and strategies. It’s a natural way to convey such information without seeming like a stilted info dump. Other mentors enter the story to teach more about the game when Hikaru attends classes or seeks tutoring later on. All of this makes it easy for the unaware (like me) to understand the complexities of the game and follow the action. After each episode is a live action segment with a real Go teacher explaining the finer details of the sport to kids. Hikaru no Go take the game seriously.
I am a major strategy player across video and board games (one of the things I’m known for). However, I have never had much interest in chess and I assumed that Go was in the same vein. It couldn’t be more different. To give you a basic idea of Go, think of it as territory control meets 2-player Snake (the mobile game). Players each take turns placing pieces (called “stones”) with the objective of surrounding the opposing stones. Once you’ve “fenced off” a section of the board, any stones within that section are yours. The game seems so interesting to play.
It was a smart move to make the first game between Hikaru (a.k.a. Sai) and Touya, giving the audience a taste of high-level play and the depth inherent in Go. This match engages you from the start. Then the story has time to rewind Hikaru back to the basics as he learns to play without Sai’s help. That reminds me of my major concern following the Sai-Touya match. I was worried that we would have a Yu-Gi-Oh situation, where the protagonist relies on an ancient spirit to win for him. In other words, cheat. I am happy to report that Hikaru no Go does no such thing. When Sai plays, it’s clearly a Sai game against other high-level players. Hikaru, on the other hand, pairs up with players around his level. He does have the advantage of an excellent private tutor, but he wins matches on his own merit. The only times Hikaru “cheats” are against nasty opponents, such as scammers.
The story spans a few years and goes in depth with the world of Go – tournaments, ranking, practice, etiquette, and so on. Should you watch a few episodes and not find Go engaging, I recommend dropping the anime. It’s not worth it otherwise. If you stick around, you should know that Hikaru no Go is incomplete, the anime ending shortly after a significant turn and from what I hear, the manga is incomplete and shelved. It’s a shame. Regardless, I enjoyed most of my time with Hikaru no Go.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Even if you’ve never heard of go, give Hikaru no Go a shot. It is beginner friendly and the strategy makes for great duels.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)