Akagi Shigeru’s “Generosity”

Akagi recently made its official English-language debut on Crunchyroll. In light of this, I’ve begun to think about the character of Akagi Shigeru and his peculiar sense of ethics.

For the most part everything about Akagi revolves around the “gamble,” experiencing that life or death scenario where not even your wits may be enough to save you. He cares little for the law, for love, or even money, and in his pursuit of death he’ll even run out in the middle of the night and beat thugs senseless without any regard for concepts like “justice.” What’s strange about Akagi (aside from the obvious) is on a few occasions he will actually come to the aid of some poor individual who’s usually stuck in some terrible gamble where they’re losing money to unscrupulous vultures. This seeming sense of compassion appears somewhat inconsistent with Akagi’s amorality, but I think there is a definite logic to the character.

In order to understand why Akagi will help others, I think it’s important to also understand why Akagi will go to great lengths to break someone’s spirit. When Akagi sees someone getting taken to the cleaners, he sees not only the man being grifted but the grifters themselves, and in those manipulators he sees people who think they’re guaranteed to win no matter what. The idea of a zero-risk wager goes completely against Akagi’s ideal for what gambling should be. In his eyes, something is only a gamble when everyone has to put their lives on the line either figuratively or literally. It’s why he’s so disgusted with Fake Akagi, who uses number-crunching and probability to take the safest route and minimize loss.

This is what drives his major matches throughout the series, as Akagi finishes his opponents when they’ve given up the gamble and are going for guaranteed scenarios. Against the blind man Ichikawa, Akagi sees how he is willing to swap tiles out to create a safety net, and so severs those ropes through mind-boggling moves. Urabe tries to find a point at which he could simply run away almost risk-free, so Akagi moves to topple him by making Urabe doubt his own discards. Washizu is blessed by the gods with both luck and wealth, and Akagi takes it upon himself to instill fear in him.

When I analyzed the other major Fukumoto hero Itou Kaiji, I said that Akagi would probably be a little jealous of Kaiji because Kaiji may be closer to the gambling ideal than Akagi can ever be. In that situation, you cannot even rely on your own strengths, and Akagi, with that pesky thing called talent, requires more effort to walk the tightrope between life and death. Getting back to the downtrodden sad sacks of the world, Akagi doesn’t need to teach them what it’s like to fear or suffer. Life has already given that lesson better than Akagi ever could. So instead Akagi tries to teach them what it’s like to stare death in the face, because being a gambler isn’t about guaranteed failure either, but the willingness to move ahead, even if it’s one small step.

A Dramatic Interpretation of American Mahjong

Ever since I thought of a mahjong manga where the hero would have to travel around the world and experience different variations of the game, I’ve thought about how the different types of mahjong that exist would be conveyed to readers. Previously, I had analyzed Singapore Mahjong (which turns out to be quite similar to Malaysian Mahjong), and even thought of things that could be emphasized in an arc featuring Singapore Mahjong.

This time, I want to talk about American Mahjong, also known as the official style of the US-based “National Mah Jongg League.” In terms of comparison with other forms of mahjong, it has a number of unique features, such as joker tiles (essentially wilds), and an exchange of tiles between players known as the Charleston. The scoring for the game changes annually, with hands coming and going, and it requires players to buy a new card every year to keep up, sort of like expansion packs for a TCG in the sense that it forces its players to pay up if they want to stay relevant. The most recent one was $7.00.

I must emphasize that I have not had the chance to play American-style Mahjong, and so there will be no real gameplay analysis in this post. That said, I have taken a close look at the rules (and even went out of my way to buy one of their cards), so if you’ll let me indulge for a day, I want to try and write what I think an Akagi-style narrator would say if presented with American Mahjong with respect to Japanese-style Riichi Mahjong.

Mah Jongg!

The American style of mahjong is spelled in English as “Mah Jongg,” with two G’s. It is a simple change which hints at the vast differences lying within.

Where one might assume certain universal truths of mahjong, such as the formation of multiple sets of three tiles, or for irregular hands such as “Kokushi Musou” and “Chii Toitsu” to be the rare exceptions, American “Mah Jongg” defies expectations. Instead, every possible winning hand is like a Kokushi or a Chii Toi unto itself! The fundamental structures of mahjong vanish leaving barely a trace, and the only thing that matters is the entire hand as a single and unique entity!

Indeed, if each round of mahjong is like a fierce battle in a greater war, then American “Mah Jongg” can be said to exist in a world that has not only abandoned conventional firearms and vehicles, but has forgotten about them entirely.

Guns! Cannons! Tanks! Planes! All are part of a history lost to the ages. Instead, each player is like a team of scientists trying to assemble their own nuclear bomb to launch at their enemies! The blueprints are complex, the research intense! Knowledge of bullets and boats do not matter! Everything is for the sake of completing that deadly atomic weapon.

However! That world is also subject to different physics from our own, and with each revolution around its sun, the construction of those weapons must also change! Every year, there comes a time when the old rules no longer matter. The scientists must then realize where their existing knowledge still applies, and where it will inevitably lead to a technological dead end!

“Mah Jongg!”  What that second G stands for is unclear, but it may very well mean “galaxy,” for compared to Japanese mahjong the American style is millions of light years away!

More Powerful than Freeza and Aizen Put Together

Manga and anime can be known for having some plot arcs that seem to go on forever.

Namek? Probably the most notorious long arc ever in anime and manga.

Soul Society? Hueco Mundo? Also pretty long.

But none of them are any match for Akagi‘s “Washizu Mahjong.”

For those of you who’ve never read the manga or watched its anime adaptation, Akagi is the story of a genius/psycho who risks his life in high-stakes games of mahjong, where his superior gambling ability, keen perception of the psychological, and his blatant disregard for his own life make him a legend from as young an age as 14. Eventually, he ends up playing an extremely wealthy and sadistic man named Washizu Iwao, pitting his own blood (literally) against Washizu’s vast fortunes. To top it all off, the game is played with 75% of the tiles transparent. Imagine playing Poker or Yu-Gi-Oh! with 75% of your hand showing at all times.

The anime devotes its entire second half to Washizu. That’s 13 episodes, or 1/4 of a year. When you look at the manga though, the Washizu arc began in 1997, and it still hasn’t concluded even to this day. That’s 15 years on the Same. Exact. Opponent.

While it’s easy to call this filler, it’s probably not so simple. One rumor I’ve heard is that Akagi is so popular that it’s the main reason the magazine it runs in (Kindai Mahjong, home to many, many other mahjong-related titles) is able to stay afloat.  Also, when your long arc is one and a half decades, it goes from being a stalling tactic to probably what the readers actually want.

Now what I find kind of amazing about this is that Akagi actually does quite a good job of keeping the Washizu mahjong interesting. It probably shouldn’t, but like Akagi and the magical sands of hell, it can reverse fortune in an instant. And I think the reason why it’s able to stay readable far longer than any single arc probably has any right to is that the manga can rely on the rules of mahjong (albeit modified with transparent tiles) to keep it grounded in some sense.

Bleach can come up with an ultra final bankai, and Yu-Gi-Oh! can make up cards on the spot with never-before-seen abilities. There’s no such thing as inventing new hands in mahjong. Akagi can play somewhat fast and loose with how the game turns out due to the luck factor (just like when Yugi pulls out the Black Magician at the right moment), but he can’t pull out something which doesn’t exist in the game of mahjong, otherwise it would ruin the integrity of it. Keep in mind though that this is the type of “integrity” where cheating is A-OK, as I think that also explains the appeal. Even in a never-ending game of mahjong, the thrill of Akagi the deceiver is still ripe.

The End of Kaiji 2 and…Akagi???

Kaiji 2 has ended, and while I won’t spoil any of the things that happen in the show, I want to point your attention to a particular moment in the final episode.

Here you have what looks to be a bunch of messages from artists/staff members/etc. with stuff related to Kaiji. But take a closer look up above.

Two Akagi images! And not just that, but the drawing on the left has some writing.

アカギ再び!!

or

Akagi Once Again!!

Is that a message of desire, or is it a hint of something to come?

I don’t want to get my hopes too up, but the possibility is there…

I was also amused by this:

Mahjongs at Dawn

Friend, mahjong ally, and translator kransom is currently in Japan, and in a conversation online he mentioned to me the fact that Texas Hold ’em has a similar reputation in Japan that Japanese-style mahjong has in America. In other words, it has a small but devoted following where if you say to someone that you know how to play Texas Hold ’em, they’ll get really excited and invite you to play, possibly showing off their Real Authentic poker set in the process. Having a passing familiarity with Texas Hold’em and more of an understanding of mahjong, I can see why they would have a similar exotic and wild appeal. They’re both games where you have to manage your luck.

The only thing that’s missing for Japan is an Akagi equivalent, an intensely dramatic series that thrills you into loving poker. If such a thing could be produced in the US, then the circle would be complete.

Thinking about mahjong as a storytelling device however, I realize that there is an inherent “flaw” of sorts with the game that doesn’t quite exist in Texas Hold ’em, and that is mahjong’s inability to naturally come down to a one-on-one situation. That’s not to say that a 1v1 battle is impossible, but mahjong is inherently a four-player game, with a strange three-player variant if you’re one man short, but no long-standing rules for two players. As a result, mahjong stories have to go through great efforts to transform the game into a duel, whether it’s coming up with an entirely new (and untested) rule set (Ten, Shin Janki), pushing two of the players into supporting or even essentially non-existent roles, or modifying it into a 2v2 game. Texas Hold ’em however can start with a large group and as more and more players lose all of their money, the game can end up in a 1v1 with no wild changes made to the basic rules of the game.

So Texas Hold ’em has potential, though I think anyone who’s seen games knows that. Make it a series about female poker players who really enjoy each others’ company if you have to.

Speaking of, I realize that Saki prefers to have all four players in a mahjong game be their own characters, as opposed to lackeys for more prominent figures in the story, and is kind of an exception as a result. That route is, of course, also a good one.

Why Itou Kaiji is Awesome

What I’m about to write is pretty obvious to anyone who has seen the life-or-death gambling manga and anime Kaiji by Fukumoto Nobuyuki. That said, I still want to write about what I think makes its titular hero such a fascinating character. Maybe those who haven’t been exposed to Kaiji yet might find a reason to start.

Itou Kaiji can’t hold a job. He’s lazy and greedy and prefers to lash out at the world instead of doing anything to improve himself. He can be a nice guy, but it often comes back to bite him in the ass, making him extremely bitter. Kaiji is, in a word, flawed. But when push comes to shove, and shove comes to deadly knife fight, Kaiji begins to show his full potential. In a desperate situation, Kaiji is brilliant. His mind is sharp and focused, his ability to read others is top-notch, and his desire to survive exceeds all others around him. Amazingly however, this survival instinct does not take away his human compassion, and he is often seen helping the lost and downtrodden. Deep down (and I mean deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down) Itou Kaiji is a good man.

That’s fairly impressive, but I realize it doesn’t sound particularly special compared to any other similar character. What makes Kaiji special though is that not only is he at his very best in a life-or-death situation, but that he is only ever any good at all when his life is in peril. Most other characters like Kaiji will live a sad life, then fall into danger, and then come out of it stronger than before, now fully aware of their potential as a human being. Kaiji, however, shines brightly when backed into a corner, but as soon as he takes a few steps towards the exit, his star diminishes into near-absolute darkness. It’s somewhat of a classic trope to have someone who is only comfortable in a certain situation, the soldier who excels at war but is at a loss in peacetime, the wrestler who captures a devil shark but has to let it go because he has no other purpose in life but to pursue it. Kaiji is like this, but his “ideal” situation is when his life completely and unequivocally sucks ass. Put back into a comfortable position, Kaiji immediately starts wasting his life again.

Inevitably, Kaiji draws some comparison to the other great Fukumoto hero, Akagi Shigeru, who is in many ways his opposite. Whereas Kaiji is a perennial loser, Akagi is an unparalleled genius who is not only smarter than those around him, but can see deep into their psyches and pick them apart psychologically. Both often find themselves in seedy underworld settings, but Akagi almost never makes mistakes, while Kaiji is almost nothing but them. In this respect, they’re about as far apart as you can get, but one similarity is that they are both at their best when their lives are on the line and they risk dying meaninglessly. As Narutaki from the Reverse Thieves pointed out to me though, while Kaiji inevitably ends up in those scenarios, Akagi has to actively pursue them, because he is too intelligent and talented otherwise to fall into them. Kaiji will lose all of his money instantly and rack up a huge debt on top of that. Akagi will strike it rich and then purposely give away all of his money so that he can never rest on his laurels. In a way, I think if Akagi ever knew Kaiji, he would actually be kind of jealous, because Kaiji’s life naturally puts him at the gates of hell, while Akagi has to always find it.

Kaiji is awesome because of how he is capable of representing humanity at its best, but most of the time is an example of humanity at not its absolute worst, but not something you’d present as an exemplar of mankind. There is a flickering spark of inner strength and greatness in him, but it’s his sad fate that it is only truly visible when all other light has been snuffed out.

Aokimura Would Be Proud of My Mahjong

Three months after my unceremonious descent in online mahjong rankings, I have managed to not only claw my way back to my original ranking, but also surpass it and move up to the next level. I am now a “3-Dan” on Tenhou, and I’ve learned a few lessons since September. Hopefully I keep them in mind so I don’t drop down again.

As much as it would appall Akagi, trying to go up the ranks on Tenhou encourages fairly safe and conservative play. The only way to actually lose points and risk dropping down is to get last place, so while being 1st is ideal, being 3rd isn’t so bad either as it means you are as far as you were last game. At the end of the day, if 1st place is way out in front, it’s generally not worth it to try and make a desperate counterattack, as it might just land you in 4th, something that has happened to me on many, many occasions.

In one match I was in 4th place in the last round. However, I was less than 1000 points behind 3rd place, and in this final round 3rd place was also East, meaning that if he wins he gets more but if another player wins by self-draw then he pays a higher price. So after seeing another player Reach, I simply abandoned my chances of winning and counted on that player drawing his winning tile, as it would allow me to barely get 3rd without doing anything. That’s exactly what happened in the end and I got away without losing any ranking points just by, as Sub likes to put it, “playing to not lose.” It was kind of dirty, but that was the reality of the situation.

Watch out though, as aiming for not-4th can be a trap in itself, as you can end up in a situation where you’re behind and desperately aiming for anything to keep you in the game, which in turn can make you prone to rash decisions. This is pretty much what killed me when I first dropped back down to 1-Dan, as you have the disadvantage of not only of letting your emotions get in the way but also giving up too soon. Doing so may even blind you from the fact that you could win if only you had the patience and clarity of mind to see that.

Though it might seem to contradict what I said about aiming to not lose, it’s actually all just a part of gauging your situation at all times. Let’s say you’re in 4th place. Ask yourself, in my current situation, what would it take to get in 1st? What’s the point difference? How likely is it for me to get a hand that can overcome that difference? If there’s no hope, what are my options then?

Now keep in mind that this is doesn’t have to be cold, hard logic. You don’t have to be calculating statistics, and can even be based on how the game feels at the moment. A small loss in points isn’t as bad as losing a lot of points, and if you’ve lost a lot of points you could always potentially drag down 3rd place. And if you drag down 3rd, you might be in range to get 2nd. There’s room for optimism, however small.

So while Akagi obviously scoffs at “digital” mahjong, that is, a style based on analyzing ratios instead of playing based on “feel,” it’s clear that going up the ranks in Tenhou isn’t all related to probability. Just as you’re trying to claw your way up to 1st, so is everyone else, and inevitably there are human traits to exploit, be they greed, fear, or even relying too much on statistics.

Though deep down, I feel like this is my limit when it comes to online mahjong. At 3-dan, getting 4th place actually makes you lose more points than you would gain if you had gotten 1st. Whether I can overcome such odds is something I’ll just have to see. Still, that I’m here in the first place is something I can be proud of, even if I’m not the best mahjong player out there.

Lastly, to celebrate:

If Only It Were a Ra Tilt Instead

A few months ago, after many hours of intense not-actually-gambling gambling action, I managed to graduate to the next level in the online mahjong client Tenhou. Then, two weeks ago, I squandered all of that and lost so much that I got demoted. From this experience I have learned many things.

When I was telling esteemed Anime News Network columnist and mahjong co-panelist Dave about it, he said that I must be “going tilt,” which I learned was poker lingo for someone whose emotions are clouding his or her ability to play well. At first I denied that this could possibly be happening to me, but in hindsight that was exactly the problem.

It all began when I actually became aware of the points system on Tenhou. On Tenhou, in addition to the scoring in the game itself, between matches you gain or lose what are essentially experience points. The better you do, the more points you receive, until you manage to break into the next level. Lose, however, and points are deducted from you. In my situation, I was just one point away from reaching the next rank, where even barely placing 2nd in a game would have been enough. Conversely, I lost the match hard and then proceeded to lose pretty much every other match following. I kept thinking to myself, “You were so close to moving forward! Just keep at it!” This eventually turned into desperation where I was trying to just win something, which pretty much had the opposite effect. And all that while, I was constantly looking back at my points. I became too obsessed with seeing those numbers go up and it completely affected my skill and it cost me.

While my life was not on the line, from this experience I can relate to Nangou in the first episode of Akagi. Nangou is in deep, deep debt to the yakuza, and in his mahjong game against said gangsters he is desperate for any sort of win, but this desperation also prevents him from accomplishing anything. He is too afraid to take risks when he should, and so behind that even a glimmer of hope for a high-scoring hand means he’ll go for it even when he has almost no chance of accomplishing it. It is not until Akagi himself arrives that Nangou is able to break the self-induced spell and play as he should, foregoing his frantic scurryings for a confident charge forward. For me, the realization hit when I ended up dropping down a rank.

From that, I looked at myself and figured out some of the tendencies that arise in me when I’m desperate. The first is to be bothered when someone declares riichi very early in the game. When one goes into riichi, it appears a bold declaration that they are about to win. Under normal circumstances I welcome the challenge, but when I’m going tilt it becomes almost nerve-wracking, and I get so eager to finish a hand that I easily throw away tiles I shouldn’t, as opposed to when I’m right of mind and am able to alter my hand much more readily. That leads me into the second sign, which is that I get too attached to achieving certain hands, and become too unwilling to deviate. This is more than just a matter of going for high-risk hands when I shouldn’t, because even the cheaper, easier to assemble hands can result in the same trap. When you’re aiming for pinfu (a hand that is special because there is absolutely nothing special about it) no matter what, pinfu starts to feel surprisingly distant. Even my favored ikkitsuukan (full straight) does its best when my hand gradually morphs into it, as opposed to when I am consciously aiming for it.

Although this can be attributed to simple probability, I have a rather occult feeling about it, which is that fear is a big problem in mahjong. Without the ability to overcome fear, the hand is often unable to progress and transform. Sometimes I have to be able to abandon a seemingly grand potential because in reality it is a stifling noose that keeps me and my hand from growing within the game.

Take My Place, Fair Citizens, at the Mahjong Table

So a bunch of stuff has come up all of a sudden in my life, and this will prevent me from going to the monthly Riichi Mahjong sessions held by the US Professional Mahjong League in New York City.

But while I am unable to go, another continues to champion the cause, and you can join him in his endeavors to bring on the “its.” If you barely know how to play, that’s really not a problem, as it’s a friendly learning environment, and you get free snacks and soft drinks to soften the blow to your fragile ego. You’ll reach Akagi level someday. Or at the very least, Kanbara levels.

Wahaha.

This month’s Open Play session will be this Sunday, April 25th. The address is below.

Simple Studios
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001

I’ll see you there.

What to Buy, Man? Why, a Mahjong Set of Course!

The March gathering of the US Professional Mahjong League was possibly the most exciting yet.

For those who don’t know the USPML is devoted to playing Japanese-style mahjong, which is probably best known for the ability to declare a hand as “ready” or “riichi” in order to score extra points and to clearly reveal yourself as the aggressor. While I was without my usual accomplice on this occasion, I was joined by thedigitalbug, who I believe had heard of these mahjong sessions from my previous posts on the subject.

We played two games total, one east + south game and a quick east-only game after that. The first game was quite intense, with people declaring ron and tsumo all over the place, and not a single round ending due to all the tiles being drawn. I was the first to lose points in the match, getting hit for a decent amount, but my fortune was reversed as I managed to win using a high scoring hand which turned the tables of the match and put me in the lead. Actually, at first I thought my hand was worth less than it actually was, misreading my “junchan” (All sets have at least a 1 or 9 in them) hand as the similar and less valuable “chanta” (All sets have at least a 1, 9, or “honor” kanji on them). On top of that, by declaring riichi and winning instantly off of it, my hand’s score increased further. In total, I netted 12,000 points. To give an idea of scale, for these sessions we start with 29,000 points each and games typically use 25,000.

By the final round I was about 17,000 points in the lead, and the other players were scrambling for second place. With such a comfortable lead, I could have very well ended the game by intentionally dealing into another player’s hand, but thanks to a mix of luck, greed, good reading of the game, and even a fortunate accident, I managed to end the game on a very high note.

For this round, I started my hand with two 8-su (bamboo), which was the bonus “dora” tile. If you have seen Akagi, the “dora” tile was the centerpiece in the final battle between young Akagi and the blind player Ichikawa (in that instance it was the pure white “haku” tile). Seeing another 8-su discarded, I called for it, which, while improving my potential score, also limited its freedom by removing the only pair I had in my hand. Having a pair in your hand is a vital part of winning at mahjong, and I could have very well thrown my only opportunity away.

Things were looking good however, especially because I had two of the “south” wind tiles which in sets of three are worth extra, provided you are playing in the south round, or alternately if you’re sitting in the south position. Both of these criteria applied to me at the time so I would score off of both of these if I won. However, when I looked down, I realized my opponent had already discarded a south tile and I had simply failed to notice it. Silently cursing, I waited for the next opportunity, hoping that the last south tile (there are four total in a set) would fly out of someone’s hand. As luck turns out, the same player who had discarded it previously believed it to be a safe tile and decided to toss it out again. Seizing the opportunity, I called for it, and was one step closer to completing my hand. Now the open parts of my hand looked truly threatening, and the other players were surely aware of it.

In the end though, they were unable to stop me, and with a shout of “Ron!” I won off of a player’s discard. My hand ended up being the following:

Toitoiho (All triplets)
Honitsu (Psuedo-flush)
Bakaze (Round wind)
Jikaze (Seat wind)
Dora 3 (3 bonus tiles)

Which all together looks like this:

A demigodly hand

In total, this hand was worth a “Baiman,” or 18,000 points. Winning like this was a rare and wonderful feeling, like I was actually in a mahjong anime and lightning and thunder had come crashing down as I revealed my hand. Actually, I once again did not initially notice just how much the hand was worth, and had to have someone tell me its true value.

What’s funny about this win was that had I paid more attention in the match, I would have probably called on the first discarded south wind tile, which would have then changed the flow of the match considerably. It was possibly my brief lack of concentration which let me win so gloriously.

After some mutual handshakes and a quick break, we started the next game. Here, I did not do so well, scoring dead last, but I did manage to get one good hand in, and I had better concentration than last time. Previously, I had made the mistake of drinking too much soda, which dehydrated me and wore me down and hampered my ability to focus, but this time I went with a non-caffeinated root beer as well as a bottle of water. I still lost, but at least felt alert the whole way through.

I had a great time, as I do every time, and I don’t mean that simply because I won so hard that I accidentally impregnated a woman half-way around the world. It just reminded me that while online mahjong is certainly fun, the direct human element is irreplaceable.

As for the Pringles, they were available once again, but this time I ate them with a pair of chopsticks. Yes, it was rad.