When you first look at an anime like Akagi, there might not be much to grab you especially if you’re an anime fan. The art style is very unusual, some would even say “awful.” You’re not even entirely sure what the show is about, and all you’ve seen of it are screenshots of a guy with a chin so pointy he could use it to assassinate people. But that’s when you look at the full title and realize that’s all you need: It’s not just Akagi, no it’s Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended Into the Darkness.
Akagi is based on a manga about mahjong by Fukumoto Nobuyuki. This might be an unusual topic for you. “Who would make a comic about mahjong?!” However, unlike most cases where this might be shocking (“Who would make a comic about breadmaking?!”), what you have to know here is that mahjong manga are actually quite common in Japan. There are entire magazines devoted to the subject, like if you took Shounen Jump or Shounen Magazine and instead devoted all of the content to how-to-play mahjong guides and mahjong comics. This is the world Akagi comes from.
The titular character is Akagi Shigeru, who when we first see him is a boy in his early teens, who the narrator (voiced by Furuya Tohru i.e. AMURO RAY) tells us will “some day” be a legend in the underworld. Akagi is a lad with a penchant for deadly games which push his body and will to their limits. At this point, Akagi has never played mahjong in his life, but his intelligence, fearlessness, and incredible capacity for gambling with all of his soul without succumbing to pressure make him a perfect match for a game like mahjong, a game where your entire psyche is mapped out in the actions you take. Needless to say, the entire show revolves around Akagi playing Mahjong with a) Yakuza b) people known by the Yakuza c) Yakuza-esque people, and every moment at the mahjong table is filled with the kind of intensity you can only get when your life can be decided by a single, seemingly insignificant action.
You might think that with all this talk of mahjong, you would need to know how to play the game in order to properly understand Akagi. This is not the case at all, and I will attest that I watched the whole show before ever learning anything about mahjong. There’s a lot of strategy involved, but it has little to do with the actual rules of the game and everything to do with human psychology. The way the show is presented makes every moment as tense as possible, as the characters’ minds are assaulted by doubts and fears that come from trying to read another player’s moves.
The art style for Akagi is pretty unusual, but my only complaint about it is that the anime doesn’t quite match up to the art style of the manga. Neither one is very conventional, but when you look at the manga, you’ll see that it has a vibrancy and “ugliness of the world” that is lessened due to the consistency of the animation in the anime adaptation.
The Akagi manga practically looks like a gag manga, but it only makes the comic better, especially when combined with the game of mahjong. One advantage of the anime though is that they were able to create a CG set of mahjong tiles to use throughout the show, and are able to do some pretty creative things with it.
It does seem like the animators got a little bored with the show after a while and began to do more creative things. In the early episodes, Amuro Ray would describe a metaphor for how a character was feeling at the time and that was it. Towards the end however, it ends up being a situation where the narrator will describe a metaphor, and then the anime will shift to a visual scene to accompany the metaphor. So if the narrator says, “AKAGI’S SITUATION IS SIMILAR TO BEING A COBRA IN A DESERT WITH ONLY A CAN OF PICKLES AT ITS SIDE,” you will be sure to see a scene with a cobra, in the desert, with a can of pickles. Some might call it stalling for time, I think it’s the animators wanting to do something special. This would continue into the next anime adaptation of a Fukumoto work, Kaiji.
Ultimately, Akagi might be about mahjong but what they’re playing matters less than how they’re playing it. Again, if you’re worried about not understanding it, do not let that stop you. This is Initial D with mahjong tiles instead of cars. This is Yu-Gi-Oh! for 40 year olds (especially the early chapters of Yu-Gi-Oh!). If either of those descriptions make you hesitant, don’t let them stop you either. Watch this show.