Return to Saki Vols 1-2: A Yuri Mahjong Retrospective

saki-reign

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.

saki-yuri 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.

saki-haremAnother 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.

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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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[Anime Secret Santa 2015] The Possibilities of Adolescence: Simoun

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My first exposure to Simoun came about 10 years ago, when many of my online friends had been discussing the series. As my friends were fans of cute, sexy girls, and girl-girl relationships of both the Ikkitousen and Maria Watches Over Us variety, at the time I had felt it difficult to genuinely gauge the series based on their positive responses. Though my wariness caused me to set aside Simoun as an afterthought, more recently it was chosen for me to review as part of the 2015 Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa. Having finished the series  I realize now that I had unfairly judged Simoun for its surface qualities, and that is in fact a very strong, emotionally-oriented science fiction story that fits in and exemplifies a long and evolving tradition of science fiction anime and manga.

In the world of Simoun, everyone is born a girl and choose their genders when they become adults. The main character of Simoun, a teenager named Aer, joins the Sibyllae, priestesses who fly divine vessels known as Simouns. The Simouns and the priestesses, normally meant to fulfill a religious role, are also thrust into conflict because their vehicles can be weaponized, though unlike conventional crafts they fight primarily by inscribing patterns across the sky that trigger magical effects. The key to the Simouns, and why Aer and the others are chosen to be Sibyllae, is that they can only be piloted by those who have yet to become adults. Simoun Sibyllae form close bonds with their co-pilots, signified by a kiss before they take flight.

Sometimes there will be an anime where where you can maybe argue that it’s concerned with gender and sexuality, women’s rights, and other similar topics, but that requires a fairly loose reading. Simoun is not one of those anime. It is a work, and a world, where questions about sex, gender, and sexuality are front and center. For example, while it’s not difficult to see why Simoun is labeled as a yuri series, in many ways it defies that categorization. Though everyone enters the world as a girl, the paths they make towards their ultimate choices are contingent upon the circumstances of their world, who they fall for, and how they go about navigating their lives in general. Children who fall in love as girls might both become women, or men, or any combination.

I have to stress how much this series plays with the ideas of gender and sexuality, because it’s such a major factor in Simoun. Girls, as they become adults, slowly transform into their new bodies, so a girl, even a buxom one, will only start to resemble a man after a few years. While the idea of transitioning between sexes is nor considered the norm in our world, in Simoun this is just the natural way of things, both physically and culturally. One interesting choice Simoun makes to emphasize this fact is that all characters, from children to bearded old men, are voiced by women.

Simoun features a very emotionally and environmentally robust science fiction narrative that interestingly is tied strongly to the emotional weight of its characters. Romance is a part of their world, but it’s not their entire world. Other countries attack Kyuukyoku because the Simouns do not pollute the sky like their own aircraft. The war itself is ever-present, and the Syballae put themselves on the line, but they’re shown to also be somewhat disconnected due to their positions as religious figures. The girl-girl kissing that happens before every battle might be seen as a thrilling yuri moment, but it’s not necessarily the case that the characters need to form romantic relationships to fly their Simouns.

The very power afforded those who have yet to become adults, the power of potential, is integrated into the very core of the narrative and its explorations of this alternative universe. Even the Simouns themselves have a certain bizarre quality in their designs that make it difficult to ascertain how much they’re truly divine aircrafts and how much they’re simply highly advanced technology.

Part of the reason I had my slight misgivings over Simoun back then were that the character designs are very reminiscent of more fanservice-oriented series. While I myself like the designs, and Simoun does not have a great amount of sexual allure on display, it’s enough in its promotional materials and its general aesthetic that one could,  even while watching the show, take only shallow titillation from it. This isn’t inherently bad, but I can imagine there are others like myself who approached the series with an eyebrow raised because that was all it appeared to be. Moreover, there are elements that might have come across as merely fulfilling certain fetishes, such as large age differences, incest, and more. However, they are for the most part developed well, and exist as a few of many possible relationships in the world, and just in general I do not feel like they hold back Simoun to any large degree.

Overall, I would highly recommend Simoun to just about anyone, but especially those who want to see an anime that fosters thought and discussion. It presents a unique and robust world of utopian/dystopian imagination full of limitations, possibilities, and unique characters.

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The Rise and Fall of Saimoe

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Who is the greatest moe anime character?

That’s the question that the Saimoe (literally “Most Moe”) Tournament set out to answer, and its long history of competitions, dating back to 2002, are a reflection of not so much the state of anime fandom over the past 13 years, but rather how internet anime fandom has grown, changed, and even arguably moved on past the concept of moe in both the US and Japan.

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If there’s one fact I always find interesting about Saimoe, it’s that its original winner was Kinomoto Sakura of Cardcaptor Sakura. There’s something just so appropriate about her being the first champion, given how beloved she is among anime fans of all stripes. However, Saimoe is also often a snapshot, a look into the zeitgeist of at least a corner of anime fandom, and in that same tournament it might come as no surprise that its silver medalist was Osaka from Azumanga Daioh. These days Azumanga Daioh is viewed as a relic of the Early 2000s, an excellent show for sure, but not as timeless as its fervent fans (of which I am included) would have hoped for.

Other than Sakura, who has stood the test of time as Saimoe champions? It’s okay if you don’t remember who has won Saimoe before, as anime fandom as a whole has a tendency to burn briefly yet passionately for its favorite characters, where in the moment it seems as if her fame will last forever, the sheer memetic popularity of a Suiseiseki (Rozen Maiden) or a Takamachi Nanoha (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha) blinding fans from seeing the long-term. That’s not to say that characters such as Aisaka Taiga (Toradora!) and Rosemary Applefield (Ashita no Nadja) are forgettable or bad, but that the otaku mind can be a fickle thing.

Among these titles, it seems as if Madoka Magica‘s popularity still endures, giving a kind of strength to previous winners Madoka and Mami, but one factor that also has to be considered is that the numbers for Saimoe participation rose rapidly in the mid-2000s, and then declined sharply afterwards. To give an idea, for final-round votes, Sakura won in 2002 with 580, Suiseiseki won in 2006 with 2306, and most recently Saki and Nodoka from Saki tied each other at 187. This can be explained by the fact that the mid-2000s were when Saimoe truly opened up to international participation, but also that the idea of “moe” no longer carries as much subcultural weight.

This is perhaps best exemplified by that Suiseiseki victory. It was during that time that fervent fans on 4chan and other communities figured out how to vote for their favorite characters, and whether they were genuinely voting for who they believed was “most moe,” were backing their favorite characters, were trying to push a running gag forward, or they wanted to rally behind their chosen girl, Suiseiseki embodied all three. She was the center of the DESU DESU DESU meme, Rozen Maiden was generally popular among hardcore fans, and her character does have distinguishable moe qualities overall. The heyday of Saimoe was indeed also the heyday of 4chan, and while it’s questionable as to whether Saimoe had ever been more than a popularity contest, when looking at the “rise and fall” of Saimoe, so to speak, what comes out of the other side isn’t so much as a return to the idea of “moe” from the earlier days when Cardcaptor Sakura won it all, but something new and different that I can’t quite fully describe.

Let’s compare the winners of Saimoe 2012 and 2014, all of whom come from the anime series Saki. 2012’s champion was Onjouji Toki, a character who is strictly moe by all conceptions of the often-nebulous term. Toki is a sickly girl whose ability to peer into the future to win at mahjong set her up as a tragic figure that overshadowed even the protagonists of her story (the ending theme to Saki: Episode of Side A, “Futuristic Player,” is actually a reference to Toki). It’s hard to describe her as anything but “moe.” In contrast, while there are cutely tragic elements to Saki and Nodoka, their dual-victory in Saimoe carries a very different set of meanings. First, it can’t be ignored that Saki dominated the overall bracket, to the extent that it could be argued that the fans who care most these days about “moe” overlap significantly with Saki fans. Second, and I think this is more important, Saki has a major yuri component, and I believe that is the true meaning behind the tie. In fact, Toki, Mami, and Madoka also all attract yuri fanbases.

saki-and-nodoka

Yuri to some extent has been a factor in people’s views of characters as moe (see Nanoha and Fate’s popularity), but the role that the cute girl plays in the aspirations and fantasies of anime fandom seem to have changed. Moe as an idea was arguably overwhelming and overpowering at its height, but now it seemingly has begun to secede, and in its place is a network of interests of which yuri is a part. I put it that way because I don’t think “yuri” supplanted “moe” as if that would even be possible. After all, yuri as a vocabulary word predates the solidification of moe by at least a couple of decades, so if anything moe was the young upstart terminology. Rather, moe may have gradually melded itself back into the fabric of anime’s iconic characters, to the extent that trying to ask who is the “moest” has become a more difficult and less directly appealing proposition overall.

The Fujoshi Files 117: Sakuraba Midori

Name: Sakuraba, Midori (桜庭緑)
Alias: N/A
Relationship Status: Single
Origin: Gakuen Polizi

Information:
Sakuraba Midori is a student at Hanagaki All-Girls’ High School and a long-time member of the undercover inter-school student police force “Gakuen Polizi.” Having transferred from another school, Sakuraba is paired up with a new agent named Sasami Aoba. Though often exasperated with Sasami’s enthusiasm and rookie mistakes, the two work to solve various issues pertaining to the student body. Cool and reticent, Sakuraba is also a member of the manga club and often draws BL manga in her spare time, though she tries to keep it a secret from others.

Fujoshi Level:
Sakuraba’s manga appears to be solely dedicated to yaoi. Though she argues that BL manga is just a hobby for her, she also devoted a considerable amount of attention to it.

Saki 08th Mahjong Team

As a promoter of mahjong anime alongside my comrade-in-tiles Sub, it was inevitable that I would follow the new series, Saki: Episode of Side A (aka Achiga-hen). Taking place in the same setting as the original Saki anime and manga, the series follows another set of girls working together to take down their fellow tile slingers with yuri subtext so heavy that it might as well be called yuri supertext. Despite its origins and the many similarities between the two Saki series, however, they end up feeling quite different.

I know that this has very much to do with the fact that the manga for Episode of Side A is not drawn by the original artist, Kobayashi Ritz, but by Igurashi Aguri of Bamboo Blade. The girls in Achiga aren’t quite as exaggerated in terms of their personal attributes, which lends them more of a well-roundedness to their characters. In a certain sense, this can be seen as quite a good thing, as Achiga does come across as simply a more tasteful, somewhat more subtle form of Saki (though the yuri is decidedly less subtle), but at the same time I’ve noticed that it becomes more difficult to pick and choose favorites compared to the original series, to think of the characters as iconic extremes. As a quick and informal experiment I asked people on Twitter who their favorite Achiga characters are, and while I received a few responses here and there, it seemed like people thought they were merely okay and much preferred that original cast, and I think that says something.

If you look at the differences between the characters of Saki and Achiga just merely in terms of how they show their mahjong, the original cast of Saki just has way more characters with specific gimmicks and powers. If you look at the main crew of Saki, every single girl in Kiyosumi hassomething. Saki has her tendency towards kans. Nodoka is the pinnacle of the “digital-style” player. Yuuki has tacos and an affinity for the East Wind. Mako can access her memories of mahjong matches like a data bank. Even Hisa, who is the most normal of the bunch, still has her easy-to-summarize gimmick of “intentionally making bad waits.”

In contrast, three out of the five Achiga girls have no identifiable gimmicks. The main character Shizuno appears to just have “tenacity,” and even the Matsumi sisters’ abilities aren’t as wild as Koromo’s ability to always win off of the last tile. Taking this into consideration, I have to wonder if Achiga was set up to intentionally show the “common man,” the more down-to-Earth players.

One of the side effects of having less bombastic characters is that, because Saki primarily conveys its mahjong matches through the use of mahjong super powers, and Achiga‘s characters with their softer abilities can’t be utilized as much in that sense, it becomes harder to clearly identify the attributes that will make a character your favorite. It’s not impossible to pick one of course (Sagimori Arata the bowling girl here), but there’s not much to instantly catch your attention. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I think it’s more than possible to make up for a lack of thrilling game-breaking magic, and in fact I’d probably prefer a series which places the game more in the characters’ psychological states than their special abilities (see the obvious example of Akagi), but Achiga doesn’t really add anything to make up for it in terms of the mahjong, and in fact just blazes through the games, making the yuri aspect seem that much more prominent.

I know there’s this idea that Saki is really just all about yuri, but while I think that it’s certainly a prominent aspect of the series I also think that the mahjong itself as a vehicle for simplified character expression played quite a role in attracting people to Saki as well. I don’t expect people to actually learn the rules of mahjong, and there’s nothing that says tenacity has to be less amazing as a character attribute than using a mahjong Sharingan (and probably shouldn’t be), but the degree to which the mahjong gets skipped over or rushed through in Saki: Episode of Side A sure makes it seem that way.

(But don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying the whole thing.)

K-On! Manga Too Extreme for TV

K-On!! episode 8 kind of disappointed me.

Before anyone knew that there would be  second season, I was reading K-On! manga. In one chapter, Yui is having trouble deciding her possible career path, and everyone else gives some idea of where they’re headed after high school. This includes Mugi, whose response clearly contains an underlying meaning.

If it wasn’t obvious before (and it was pretty obvious), Kotobuki Tsumugi plays for the other team. Not only that, but the sharper girls picked up on it long ago. She’s a lesbian, and others know she’s a lesbian. I laughed pretty hard when I first saw this, and it’s still one of my favorite moments from the manga.

So of course I was looking forward to this very scene in full color and animation once K-On!! was announced. And right when I realized episode 8 would be the episode, I sat there, waiting for the gag to hit.  I waited, and waited, and then… they removed it entirely?!

The only reference to it is that Mugi mentions going to an all-women university, but then it completely bypasses the setup and goes into some thing about the difficulty of the school she’s applying to.

Adapting a 4-koma manga into a full half-hour TV show requires adding extra material, but what gives? Did the K-On! manga cross some line that was unacceptable for Kyoto Animation? Are they worried that it damages Mugi’s image in some way? They animated a scene hinting at Mugi’s preferences in season 1, but in a situation where it’s made almost explicit, they shrink back in fear? Could it be that they think having her so clearly in the other camp might alienate some of her more devoted fans? Or perhaps their vision of Mugi doesn’t line up with the original author’s. It’s almost as is Kyoto Animation saw this and went, “Whoa! Too far! Are you trying to break the illusion?”

Maybe it’s the fact that it pretty much reveals Mugi as a lesbian lesbian, who likes girls, as opposed to just the one girl as you so often see in yuri material (especially yuri material written for guys). There, like in yaoi, the love seems to go “beyond” gender, but with Mugi that’s just how she is. So then I have to wonder if the problem is that it’s just too much to just outright state her sexual orientation in that manner.

Hopefully I’m wrong and they’re just saving the gag for another time. In that case I apologize for ruining the joke for people.

Oh and if you’re wondering, no, Mugi is not my favorite member of the band. I’m on Team Ritsu. But actually my favorite character is probably Nodoka.