Hikaru No Go – translated simply means Hikaru’s Go, so this anime is all about a boy called Hikaru and it’s his go. His go at what? An ancient game called Go, nice pun eh ;-)
Hikaru is a somewhat brash, argumentative young boy who has been thrust into the glorious world of Go, a world that he and apparently most viewers of the show knew little about but once it finished there was an international upsurge in keen learners!
Do you have to know about the game to enjoy this?
No. Though for the sake of introduction…
The origins of Go, like chess, are unclear but unlike Chess many think it’s more than likely that China was the starting place (with chess it’s thought either India or China) and dates back thousands of years. In modern times it fell in popularity behind the likes of Mahjong and Shogi (‘Japanese chess’), and thought of as a ‘grandad’s game’ i.e middle aged upwards men playing in Go clubs/salons. However this show gave the game a new lease on life reaching out to other age groups and genders. Professional Go was and may still be male dominated and the anime reflected that with mostly male characters, the few females were lesser players or family members ignorant/disinterested to the game but interestingly enough the manga (graphic novels/comics) was written by a novice female player Yumi Hotta and supervised by the ‘Princess of Go’ Yukari Umezawa. Yukari then acted as consultant to the tv series and at the end of each episode hosted a short segment teaching two children (and hence the audience) the basics of Go. So realistic but progressive.
Go is traditionally played on a 19×19 square board with Black vs White stones/counters. That’s a big board and so each player has a pot of stones rather than just a small excess for the squares. The primary objective is to surround your opponent’s counters and take/kill them; the stones aren’t placed inside the squares but on the corners. It sounds straightforward and I’ve come across similar games notably on graph points/grid lines instead of coloured checkerboard style but there’s a lot more to it so beginners often start on much smaller boards. Thankfully the storyline cleverly charts the learning curve and passion of the characters thus making looking at a board you don’t fully understand both interesting and immersive!
A couple of notes before the plot
Hikaru no Go has 5 seasons over 75 episodes + 2 special episodes.
It’s a family appropriate show based on Japanese specialist Go teaching but it is part of a worldwide, fiercely competitive syndicate; other countries and some of their training methods, mostly East Asian, are shown. Amateur Go players and associations are given honourable mention.
Plot, Characters, Commentary – Mixing fact and fiction and traversing time
Ghost in a Go board
Hikaru Shindo is a sixth year primary school student and upon visiting his grandfather comes across an old freestanding Go table/board with what appears to be a blood stain that only he can see. From that stain an amazing apparition actualizes named Fujiwara-no-Sai, Sai for short. Sai is an impressive spectre; a beautiful, well mannered adult male in traditional dress with fan, long hair and makeup in keeping with the more artistic portrayals of aristocratic personages from the past. He tells us that he was originally from the Heian era (approx 794–1185) and was a Go master in the emperor’s court but after being accused of cheating and ousted from his position he couldn’t live with the dishonour and killed himself. The name Fujiwara may refer to one of the most important ‘noble’ families in Japan’s history.
His passion for the game along with his suicide/leftover regret is apparently why he was stuck in the Go board even though he didn’t die near it. Then there’s his ambition to play the ‘divine move’ an elusive play only possible for players at the highest level. But perhaps it’s his ability as a teacher that is also keeping him, as he was released from the board once before which led to the name Honinbo Shusaku of the Edo period (approx 1600 – 1868) becoming legendary in Go circles with many of his games being preserved for posterity and one of the major professional tournaments being named after him. (Honinbo Shusaku was a real person, Sai is fictional.) The difference between Honinbo and Hikaru? Honinbo allowed Sai to play Go all the time (we don’t know whether by possession or dictation) and Hikaru wants nothing to do with the game, at least not yet…
Sai’s despair, pleading and agreement to never control Hikaru’s body finally persuades Hikaru to go to a Go salon and play a game with Sai telling him which moves to make, but what happens is no laughing matter.
The Go Prodigy who had no Rival
Akira Toya has been taught Go by his reigning champion father since he was old enough to put stones on a board with some comprehension and as such his prowess developed with consistent practice and exposure to other expert players. He is the same age as Hikaru but his upbringing means he’s far more intense, focused and is used to pressure. If you’ve been/known amateur (more than hobbyist) and professional chess players (or any singled minded-goal oriented person) you can imagine the difference between Akira and Hikaru.
Akira is the only child in the Go salon Hikaru walks into so Hikaru wants to play him, the receptionist is reticent but Akira accepts and expects to play a beginners game, what he wasn’t prepared for was to be the recipient of a teaching game and by a formidable presence. He’s shocked, panicked and almost crushed but his desire to know more about Hikaru and discover his secret spurs him on to the point of desperation.
Novice to Professional – Obsession
Whilst Akira is on the fast track to the pros and not usually allowed to play kids or in school and amateur tournaments for fear of outclassing others and putting them off, Hikaru is introduced to Go in dribs and drabs, each step eagerly latched onto by Sai as an opportunity to play his beloved game. Hikaru finds other interested kids at his school, forms a club and plays in a team against other schools. He signs up to beginner’s classes, visits tournaments and conventions to appease Sai and his interest grows but other’s interest in him also grows. He’s catching the attention of sharp eyes, of those looking out for up and coming players/threats and potential weapons for their own rivalries.
Akira is pushed into and his father finally allows him to join his school team for the sake of his social development; his peers see him with awe, fear and jealousy but he’s only interested in playing Hikaru again. The next time he does he’s bitterly disappointed because over time Hikaru let Sai play less and less against other people and so it’s not Sai that Akira plays against.
It’s a long time before Akira and Hikaru play again – can Hikaru close the gap between them whilst Akira ploughs ahead all the while harbouring suspicions about Hikaru’s ability?
A lot to Learn
Hikaru becomes an ‘Insei’ which is the title for a Go student studying for professional exams. The exams are tournament style with arbitrary rules and only a handful are allowed through each year. Many fail repeatedly, some re-trying until the maximum age of 30 but most give up to life’s other obligations before then. If/When children and teens become professionals their compulsory education is sidelined and depending on the country sometimes moved in-house of the Go Association akin to young actors. The Japanese Go sphere is shown as less gruelling as those of Korea and China where students are presented like ‘purebred’ athletes, some living on site training almost all day every day. Some students go on to be pros full time but others continue to college and/or university either part time or take a break from Go for other careers. The show implies that they tend to become successful in business and ‘prestigious’ professions due to the determination and calculation they’ve learned.
Being approx 1000 years old Sai also has a thing or two to catch up on in gameplay but he does so with ease and seems comfortable in the modern setting especially playing online as that allows him to remain anonymous (for only a short time though since the Go world is small and he’s a big fish in a little pond) and play against others he wouldn’t normally access. His personality is ‘loveable’ and was apparently a big factor for the upsurge of Go interest after the show; he’s gentle, sweet and high strung, together he and Hikaru can seem immature but also refreshing in the serious situation. Sai fosters Hikaru but the sacred bond between teacher and student isn’t really appreciated by the latter who wants to outdo his sensei at every turn. There isn’t really mutual respect and Sai isn’t a ‘master’ personality but Hikaru is young and Sai dependent plus they’re in each other’s faces all the time so their relationship is understandable but tiring to watch at times.
With Sai’s coaching Hikaru’s natural talent shows as he picks it up quickly and learns many methods that take years to learn such as memorizing games being able to place each stone on an empty board from start to finish or Speed Go where in the time it takes your opponent to play their turn you’ve already figured out your possible moves and place your stone immediately after theirs. Counting stones/keeping score is essential both mentally and on record to even being able to finish games with a desired amount of points against one or many players simultaneously. Then there’s One Colour Go where only Black or White stones are used and you have to remember (or bluff) which ones are yours!
It’s not all Kill or be Killed
Despite the hierarchical and exclusive nature of the game there is focus on friendship, camaraderie and equanimity between equals. When you spend a lot of time with or thinking about particular people there’s bound to be both strong bonds and quick switches; a situation you might be able to deal with ‘normally’ with a stranger can turn to loggerheads in no time with someone close and vice versa. There’s a lot of pain and soul searching in such a journey/pursuit so there is also or should be sympathy and empathy. In a close knit, cut throat world players have to learn that it’s best to not always compete at high stakes costing personal relations. Hell it’s hard enough without sucking all the fun and fulfillment out and making it a chore, right?
Dubbing & Art
I’m reviewing the English dub here and haven’t seen the sub-titled version. Usually I prefer subs because you get a closer translation of the dialogue and sometimes when anime are aired/released to Western fans scenes are edited plus it seems we have a shortage of voice actors so end up hearing the same voices over and over again. There’s a few animes where I’ve preferred the dubs as I thought the voices used suited the characters better but this is a case of ‘I don’t know’ unfortunately. From other reviews it seems the Western voices changed the persona of the main characters. From my limited point of view the voices are distinctive and not instantly recognizable for the voice actor instead of the”’ ”’character; Hikaru’s is loud and impatient, Sai’s is soft toned and plaintive and Akira’s is pure and forceful but other reviewers”’ ”’have noted that none of the characters are supposed to sound whiny yet they all do in English.
In regards to the artwork I personally find the style very dated (the show was aired from 2001-2003), both in colour scheme/shading and clothing/hairstyle fashions. The colours are solid and matte, no shine/sheen or beautifully blended/’arty’ looking backgrounds with flatter characters in the foreground which is popular nowadays nor overall clarity from thin outlining, strong colours and realistic use of light and dark. That said some have noted Hikaru No Go for its artwork, indeed saying it was one of the best features – I’d describe it as heavily outlined, characters having a signature look and stylized shading e.g. obvious, non-semi transparent ‘lightening strike’ or ‘banding’ on the hair depicting glossiness. The original illustrator was Takeshi Obata for whom the manga brought fame but he is also known for Ayatsuri Sakon, Death Note and Bakuman.
Fancy a Go?
This is a simple teaching website where you can get an idea of the game:
The Interactive Way To Go
and this is the British Go Association
Chihayafuru – Subbed – A girl called Chihaya Ayase learns to play the card game Karuta (based on Japanese poetry) meets friends, teammates, mentors and has to learn hard lessons about talent and working hard.
Shion no Oh – Subbed – Shion tragically loses her parents, is then adopted by a couple where the father plays Shogi and on her path to becoming a Meijin (master of the sport, like in Go) her parents murder unravels and Shion is in danger.
Akagi – Subbed – A death match of Mahjong vs Mafia, a boy called Akagi wanders into the parlour as its taking place and takes the place of the man currently playing for his life. The yakuza think it’s going to be easy…
Phi Brain – Dubbed – There’s two types of people in this world; puzzle givers and solvers. Any type of puzzle from handheld to Indiana Jones run-for-your-life type puzzles. Shady organizations, ancient mysteries and character psychosis galore.