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.

The Effects of Visual Falsehood

In the Anime World Order review of Nobody’s Boy Remi, Gerald Rathkolb discusses the way in which the narrator plays with the expectations of its viewers by saying things that turn out to be completely false a short while after. If the narrator says that Remi found some money and spent it happily, there would likely be a scene shortly after where he accidentally drops the money down a sewer.

Generally, identity-less narrators are seen as omniscient, so either the narrator does not actually know everything, or is actively deceiving the audience. A similar effect happens with misleading episode titles. How many times does Chiba Shigeru in Hokuto no Ken declare in the next episode that a major character is definitely going to die but actually doesn’t? It makes a person begin to doubt the authenticity of words in fiction.

But words are easy to ignore as lies. The very idea of lying is tied closely to the use of words. If someone says you’re lying, it usually has to do with what you’ve said and not what you’ve done. What happens then, when the lies are not words but pictures?

Ambiguity in a given scene is a common technique used in anime and manga to create a sense of tension and drama. In Dragon Ball Z, a character attacks an enemy with so many energy projectiles that a giant explosion occurs where the target was standing. This ambiguous moment is meant to leave the viewer in anticipation as to whether or not the attack worked, though the explosion itself begins to take on a symbolic identity as a red herring and leads the viewer to assume that the opponent did not in fact die. What I’m referring to with visual falsehood though is something far more sinister.

While I cannot speak for everyone, I tend to believe that what is presented to me on the screen or on the page is what has happened in the story. In other words, there is a certain degree of “truth” to the visuals of a manga, because without them how are we supposed to know what has or has not happened?

One prominent manga author who uses visual falsehoods to their utmost advantage is Fukumoto Nobuyuki, creator of gambling series such as Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: The Suffering Pariah -The Ultimate Survivor-, and Gambling Emperor Legend Zero. In Akagi and Ten for example, mahjong hands are displayed right on the page and presented as what a given character has to work with. In the anime for Akagi, the hand is generally displayed by itself floating in a space, as if to say that this is an objective view of the mahjong hand. Of course, it turns out not to be, and we are presented with what is really there.

This is a scene from Zero where the main character is faced with a scenario where he cannot see who is behind the wall. Fukumoto lets us the readers take a peek at the person behind the wall. Then he reveals the truth!

What are we to believe? Reveals like these are downright disarming.

A non-anime/manga example of this comes in the form of Megaman 9. In this game, there is an enemy that disguises itself as a 1-Up icon. Attempting to get a free life will of course result in an unpleasant surprise.

Though the enemy is not difficult to defeat, it creates some paranoia in the player. Just which 1-Ups are real? Does that 1-Up seem too good to be true? The game has challenged your perception of what “should” be.

I do not believe these visual lies impact these works negatively, but when the images themselves are untruths, it can create a sense of imbalance, a distrust for what is in front of you. Keep in mind that in Fukumoto’s case, this never damages the “gambling” or “mystery” aspects of his stories, so you are also unable to just doubt everything and view his works from a position of absolute superiority. It adds a new layer to reading manga, one where you are in a sense competing against the creators themselves.

Fukumotoverse, or “Zawa-rld”

Recently I’ve been wondering, or should I say, hoping that the works of Fukumoto Nobuyuki all take place in the same universe. We already know that Ten and Akagi take place in the same timeline, with the latter being a prequel to the former, but what of everything else?

Can Japan have enough room for the SHADOW PRIME MINISTER OF JAPAN (Washizu from Akagi), the RICHEST MAN IN JAPAN (Zaizen from Zero), and the KING OF JAPAN (Hyoudou from Kaiji)?!

Is there not just one horrible conspiracy controlling Japan, but several, and they all have to be taken down by incredible gambling heroes? Are all of these evil old men actually in competition with one another, vying to see who is truly the ruler of Japan and its seedy gambling underworld? Do they compete to see who is the most ruthless and murderous of them all?

And is there an even stronger hidden ruler above THEM? Could there be a SHADOW DEMON EMPEROR GOD OF JAPAN that would unite the forces of all of our heroes together into 地上最初の賭博軍団, the world’s first Gambling Army?

So basically what I’m saying is, we need to get Imagawa Yasuhiro to make an anime based on Fukumoto’s works.