Saki is special to me. While I certainly was no stranger to anime and manga when it first aired, Saki (along with Akagi) formed the foundation of my interest in Japanese mahjong. As I learned and improved at the game, my experience with Saki also changed, going from not understanding the nonsense going on to realizing how much Saki mahjong is nonsense (fun, but nonsense nonetheless). I’ve had a lot of fun throwing panels about mahjong and analyzing the amazing powers that crop up in Saki. I also know I’m not alone in this respect: Saki is known for changing the genre of mahjong manga from the exclusive domain of yakuza narratives and hard-boiled intensity to girlish yuri and high school competition. They even made a tongue-in-cheek parody manga about the author!
With that in mind, I recently picked up the first two volumes of the English digital release of Saki by Yen Press. Had I realized the first volume was already out for two months I probably would’ve nabbed it sooner.
Saki is the story of a young girl named Miyanaga Saki who, similar to Takumi’s role in Initial D, has an immense talent for mahjong but is not a fan of the game. She gets roped into her school’s mahjong club, where the class president notices her absurd strength at the game despite Saki’s best efforts to hide it. She eventually joins the mahjong club and starts their path towards the high school championships.
Going over these early chapters (which I had really only seen in anime format), quite a few things strike me as noteworthy, all of which can be summed up by the fact that, at this starting point, Saki is still trying to find its way.
To say that the series did not have any basis in the yuri genre this early would be a baldfaced lie. In fact, the first thing that happens in Saki is Saki remarking on the beauty of her eventual teammate and best friend, buxom digital mahjong warrior Haramura Nodoka. One thing that does fade into the distant background, however, is the sole male club member Kyoushirou, who seems to start the series as a kind of male audience stand-in but eventually becomes all but fused with the background. I think at this point the series was trying to decide whether it would be more of a harem or more of a girls-only world, and it’s come to lean clearly in the direction of the latter.
Another aspect that’s changed significantly would be the artwork. As creator Kobayashi Ritz’ style has developed, the girls have gotten softer, their features more simplified yet pronounced, and I don’t even mean that only about Dragon Ball Z-esque chest size power creep that has occurred over the years. Some of the girls look very different here than they do in the current chapters of the manga, and both look quite different from the official anime character designs. I personally don’t have a preferred style for the characters.
I also noticed that the manga actually sets up one of the major opponents for Saki and the rest of Kiyosumi very early on. As seen in the page above, one of the players is clearly Tsujigaito Satoha from Rinkai, which is a really strong school from later in the manga. There are no details about how Satoha basically dismantles opponents with pure skill as opposed to mahjong magic, but she’s there nevertheless.
The last thing I want to say is, as someone who’s approaching Saki with a firm grasp of mahjong now, I can’t quite say how reliable the translation is for those who don’t have a clue. What’s notable is that it mixes official English terms from mahjong in general with a few Japanese-only terms, and I wonder if that helps or hurts, say, people who are only familiar with Chinese or even American-style mahjong. Does that matter at all? I certainly enjoyed the series in its anime incarnation despite a lack of knowledge, but do the still image flourishes of manga have the same impact as seeing the titles fall? Does the electricity of a riichi call work in panels as it does on screen? That’s something for a new generation of Saki readers to decide.
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Saki is a guilty pleasure for me. I tried to use it to learn Mahjong at first but gave up to enjoy the relationships. The HxM and YxM pairings are two of the most pleasantly romantic relationships I am aware of in manga and anime. Both of those pairing are presented as falling into place in a very natural mater of fact way.
Saki has now been serialized for ten years and I think it’s starting to show how moé imagery has changed. Those waitress uniforms when Fujita-pro appears at Mako’s mah-jong parlor are kind of retro at this point.
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