While mahjong is a game that is often played with family and friends, it is also a game that is played in the darkest corners of society. Nangou is a compulsive gambler who has accumulated debt over three million yen. In a last ditch attempt to clear his record, he decides to wager his life on a game of mahjong with the mafia. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, Nangou only moves further from the prize and closer to death.
When all hope seems lost, the game parlor is suddenly intruded upon by Shigeru Akagi, a young boy on the run from the police. Desperate to turn the game around, Nangou hands the game over to Akagi after teaching him a few of the rules. The mafia can only smirk as Akagi sits down to play. However, they soon come to learn that Akagi is a natural-born gambler. An imposing figure who does not fear death. One who is destined to become a legend.
Akagi is based around its titular character gambling his way to the top of the underworld, his enigmatic prowess for mahjong often turning the tide of certain defeat into victory. Akagi is a cold, relentless character. He cares little for money or for his own life. In the heat of the gamble he stops at nothing less than completely crushing his opponent's will to win...
Akagi is the first Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga to get the anime treatment and the anime has been executed surprisingly well. It is with reason that I say, 'surprisingly'. When considering Fukumoto's original, while particulary famous in Japan and Korea, you can't
help but think that it would be very difficult to animate it well enough to make it appeal to a wide audience.
Firstly there is the subject matter, Akagi (the anime), as with a number of other works by Fukumoto, basically involves Akagi (the character) playing a couple of games of the Japanese version of mahjong, gambling for keeps. Next Madhouse have kept (thankfully) with Fukumoto's original art style, with all of its unconventional flourishes (read; big noses etc.). And finally, the lead character, Akagi, is not exactly the easiest character in the world to relate to. In short, he is out of this world, nothing short of a true "God of Gamblers".
With all of this in mind it is 'surprising' just how intense this anime is. In the next couple of paragraphs I'll try and breakdown how this anime overcomes all of the above, making it one of the most original, mind-numbingly insane animes in a long, long time.
Firstly the mahjong. I have to admit that when I first started watching this anime I knew nothing about mahjong in general, let alone the Japanese version. The good news is that it doesn't really matter. The basic goal of the game and the rules are subtly explained as the anime progresses, and while it does help learn a bit about the different 'hands' everyone is going for it is definitely not a pre-requisite. You see, mahjong is game based on points so it is always pretty obvious who is in the lead, what kind of a hand Akagi needs to win the game etc. The finer points of mahjong all seem to come in to place as the games progress. The anime's direction involves a lot of internal dialogue. The audience is always privy to each characters' thoughts, allowing them to (conveniently) tell the viewer what kind of tile the character in question is waiting for, the number of points the hand they are going for will land them etc.
Fear not, I can wholeheartedly say that the mahjong in this anime does not form an obstacle in the enjoyment of the anime in any way, shape or form. Like me, you'll probably get really into the game as you watch - The danger associated with having to throw away your tiles (with the possibility of the tile being picked up and used by your opponent as his victory tile) makes the game, and this anime truly absorbing to watch.
The mahjong battles are awesome, leaving you on the edge of your seat the whole time, however the real reason that the mahjong battles draw the viewer in is the interaction between characters, or more specifically, the carefully constructed psychological battles that are played out before our eyes.
The characters cannot be mentioned without some reference to the drawing style, which plays a large role in creating the tone of the series. As with anything Fukumoto, the character designs do take a little getting used to. Yes the characters do possess noses so large that Pinocchio would be put to shame. Yes the characters in general are kind of... angular. Yes there are no busty 2D babes providing you 13 year olds with fan service - Okay, deep breaths, deep breaths... If you watch this anime past the first episode you will (hopefully) realize that these features ARE NOT necessarily bad things.
Firstly the originality really makes it stand out, and as you watch further into the series you begin to realize that the character designs do actually really suit the whole grim, macabre feel of the anime - hey, we're talking about a bunch of men gambling with more than money, with their very lives here - it's not exactly The Brady Bunch... Trust me, by the time the anime ends you will think that the character design presented in Akagi is the ONLY true way you could represent the vile, ugly nature of underworld thugs. Personally, I love Fukumoto's ouevre. The characters are very expressive and the drawing style is perfectly combined with Hideki Taneuchi's brooding score to paint an intensely bleak pictue of the Japanese underworld circa the 1960's. I'm giving art and sound a 10.
Next, on to Akagi the character. He is a prodigy, an enigma - put bluntly, you are going to have a hard time understanding what he is going through. This is both a good and a bad thing. In a way his absoluteness, his superhuman insight wraps Akagi in a veil of mystery and, to paraphase the Fonz, is what gives him 'his cool'. On the other hand, when the anime ends you feel like you still don't really know anything about him at all. His existence in the anime is kind of like that of a mystery film. He reveals a little of his character, answering one question, only to pose two more...
Now I like a piece of entertainment that doesn't completely reveal itself to the audience, making each and every one of us think for ourselves about the story's meaning, about what happens next. With Akagi however, this is taken to the extreme. The anime just kind of ends (mid-match). I know, that this is not really the fault of the animators as the original manga had still not ended its run. (At the time of writing the manga is up to 20 volumes and is still ongoing - the anime version of Akagi ends at the start of volume 13). Having said that though I kind of wished that the animators would have veered from the original manga a bit towards the end, to give it a proper ending.
For me personally it is such a shame that such an epic anime ends with not a bang, but a whimper, and it has a point taken off it for that... I hold out hope that there is a second season (it doesn't look likely though).
While my review does end on kind of a sour note, let it be known that up until the ending this anime is pure gold, definitely a must see. If it is the mahjong or the character design holding you back, I urge you to give it a try - if you dismiss this one on face value you'll only be missing out on one of the most original, nail-bitingly intense anime series around. (No real biggie:)
Akagi. Once again, I'm strung into a series by merely the name and a brief introduction summary.Well yes, "Akagi" isn't all that of an awesome name in itself, but where I came upon it it was named "Touhai Densetsu Akagi - Yami ni Maiorita Tensai"; "Gambler Genius Akagi - The Legend who Descended into the Darkness". Well, with reservation for translation. In any case, I acquired an episode to have a gander at what an Anime mainly about Mahjong could be able to offer...and if I'd be able to learn anything in the process.
Akagi Shigeru, a thirteen year old daredevil with an unknown background,
stumbles in on a Yakuza quarter, right in the midst of a Mahjong battle. This is the birth of a new legend, as the narrator states, and Akagi has never played Mahjong in his entire life - yet, when taught the basics and (by a fluke) given a chance for a test round, he appears to play like a professional already. And this is just the beginning of the story, as it advances hastily through his career life as an underground genius, who uses clever strategies as well as dirty tricks to win his games.
The layout reminded me a lot about strategy Anime shows, such as Death Note, mainly, even though the stories differ greatly. The main character has a very fuzzy alignment; you can't quite put your finger on if he's really good or evil. He uses strategic tricks that the usual commoner would never have thought about, and the show even goes so far as to explain most of the tricks he pull, and how he reasons when reading the other people by the Mahjong table. And we mustn't forget about the thick layer of special effects that makes the simplest game of Mahjong into a battle of life and death (or worse) (see more under "Enjoyment"). Also, it's not solely based on Mahjong, as the main character is an overall gambler, so we're also acquainted with a streak of Russian roulette and the Japanese dice game Chouhan.
Yes, it's an incredible number I'm giving this one point, considering the first thought that probably pops up into most of people's heads as they see the first episode..."these characters are butt ugly." Yeah, that was my initial thought as well. But, it didn't take all that long before I actually got used to this unique drawing style, and came to like it more and more as the show progressed. The rest of the artwork - the backgrounds, the Mahjong tiles - absolutely flawless. When Akagi is faced with a round of the special Washizu Mahjong, where 75% of the tiles are transparent, the rendering of these tiles is simply stunning. And during the dramatic scenes (and there are a few, trust me), the animation goes smooth as silk.
Akagi's voice couldn't be better for the role he plays. Silent, yet sharp. And I imagine his snicker can send icicles down any opponent's spine. No voice actors are especially bad, the music blends in well with the show, and the opening/ending sequences fit very good as well (The opening sequence can sound annoying the first few times, but it really grows on you if you listen to it a few times more). The one thing that racks this score down is that 1)The show has a narrator, 2)He talks a whole lot, and 3)He has a nasal, close to soulless voice. It kinda ruins the effect on the drama that takes place.
It's easy reading the characters out, because each of them has a very distinct style of acting. There's the insane gambler Washizu, the dirty cop Yasuoka, the calm top-player Ichikawa and the young and nervous Osamu, among other colorful and charismatic personalities. And Akagi himself is deceitful, perceptive and willing to risk his life for the game...and probably one of the coolest motherf@$kers I've ever seen in action. </personalopinion>
Man, what can I say. It's been a long time since an Anime strung me in so tightly right from the very beginning. The dramatic effect factor plays a large role here - pauses are elongated to create the perfect amount of tension, the Mahjong tiles crash down on the playing table like meteors when played out, and the camera pans in on the facials to capture every drop of agony and clenching there is. And the flow of the story is as good as it can get...or, well, could have been. However, at the last six or so episodes, it stops to what almost feels like a complete halt, during the last, intense game we see Akagi play. It drags along painfully slowly, each tile taking forever to draw and collect/discard, and cuts off short at the last episode at a very abrupt ending, dislocating the otherwise so nice pace the Anime had. Hadn't it been for this snailing in the end, I would probably have rated the show a ten (yes, even considering the narrator), but I cannot allow myself to such for this.
Overall? A must see. If you're into an Anime with knife-sharp strategy and high stakes, this is your pick. And if you manage to acquire Triad's subtitling, they'll provide you with helpful translator notes along the way regarding the Mahjong games (boy, I dunno where I'd been if I wouldn't have had them), if it's unfamiliar terrain for you. Yes, I learned a few bits and pieces about the game, and experienced a great Anime to boot.
What would you do if you are faced with death? Would you have the guts to make it out alive or would you become numb and frozen in the moment that you stop thinking completely and succumb to death? Well whatever your answer maybe, it seems that Akagi, the series' main focus, always has a way out whether it be a reckless move or a calm and composed one.
The year is 1958, in the dark streets of Japan and in the middle of what seems to be a very long night for Nangou, a neurotic and addictive gambler who is in the verge of
losing his life after the debts stack up against him in a game of Mahjong, versus the shady and infamous Yakuza gang. But unknown to him, in a different scenario a man survives a near death experience after playing a game of chicken, in which two different persons drive a car all the only to brake at the right time in order to avoid falling off from a cliff and lose their life. It happens to be that one of the two participants from the game of chicken has lost his life and the other is on the run after surviving even though falling off from the cliff. This makes the cop, Yasuoka, to go after this survivor in order to arrest him. Back to the Mahjong battle against the Yakuza gang, Nangou only moves even more closer to his death and away his prize money which would clear all of his debt in one go. If something called luck existed, it was completely absent in Nangou's game. All hope seems lost for him with his life lingering in the hands of the outcome of the game and as death seems inevitable, something unexpected happens. The chicken survivor, who is actually our protagonist from the show Akagi, is on the run from the police and intrudes upon the parlour where Nangou is playing a seemingly valueless game with victory nowhere near in sight. There is a knock from the door which gives a momentarily relief for Nangou as one of the gang members stands up and heads for the door. It's a young man seeking refuge from the gang, but is instantly denied entrance and is told to go away at once. But Nangou then disrupts the member saying he was one of his underlings he had called for when he was away from home for a long time, but in the truth it was nothing but an attempt to get hold of as much time as Nangou could to think of a way to get back in the game.
Nangou sits back and relaxes for a while asking who the young man was explaining the circumstances of his seemingly in vain Mahjong battle to him. Akagi tells everything about him and how he was on the run from the police before running into Nangou. He also gives Nangou a piece of advice, saying that all he could sense in his game play was an aura brimming with fear and no real winning sense. Nangou senses something from Akagi as well. From his personality he feels that he might be able to overturn the game on its head and get Nangou away from death. He explains the basic rules of Mahjong to Akagi, who at the time is completely unbeknownst of the rules of the game. Akagi then sits down to play the game while the gang members could only laugh it off as how a thirteen-year old (Oh shit! Did I forget to mention he was freaking 13?! Well if you just started the anime it's not that much of a surprise after seeing the art style. I literally laughed my ass out at first when he mentioned he was 13 years of age for as he looked to me he was over 25+!) could defeat them. However this was just a start of a new legend that would succumb into the darkness. Akagi is able to defeat the Yakuza members and save Nangou off his troubles and in the meantime defeated Yagi, a representative player of the Yakuza gang and with it mark his first ever professional victory as a gambler.
Uptil now you must've learned more about Akagi Shigeru. He is a thirteen year old natural-born gambler who exceeds all expectations and uses any kinds of mean and shrewd tactics to pull off the game. Sometimes he goes to even an extent that he doesn't have any regards for his own life. Nangou is one of the earliest characters in the anime, an addictive but a coward gambler who gets caught in a cat and mouse game against the Yakuza gang members. But luckily for him, Akagi is able to beat them and save Nangou's life, after which he decides to never gamble for money again. A lesson well learnt. Another main character who is featured frequently in the series is the cop-turned-gambler, Yasuoka. He's the cop that chases Akagi into the parlour and witnesses his match against the Yakuza members. He quickly comes to learn that however he maybe young, he is a devil inside that has unthinkable tricks up his sleeve and is a genius in the making.
After the antics of Akagi facing off and winning against the Yakuza members, his next challenge awaits him. Ichikawa is a man in his fifties, blind, yet considered a master in Mahjong. This forecasts an incredible battle between the two with Akagi coming out as the victor amidst extreme tension. This helps cast Akagi as a genius totally unrivaled, unsurpassed and invincible in the format of gambling. Although after his victory against Ichikawa, Akagi quickly disappears into the darkness only to be found five years later by a member of the Yakuza gang. He comes to know that Yasuoka the cop has set up a fake Akagi who seems to be as good the real one, and a showdown against the two awaits. Osamu is another young, amateur Mahjong player working with Akagi in a factory and who keeps follwing Akagi wherever he goes. His main role in the show is to play against Urabe, a gambler who is facing Fake Akagi before his showdown against the real Akagi. Unknown to him that there's a great amount of money involved in the gamble, Osamu actually fares pretty well against Urabe before learning the fact that 32 million yen is on the line. Akagi then interferes him and plays his own battle against Urabe. He is able to defeat Urabe and make him pay his socks off for the amount of money, while making us learn that Osamu was actually made to play to manipulate Urabe and learn more about his skills and habits on the game. He comes to know that Urabe is the type of the guy who waits and see's his opponent through and does not rush towards victory. It's actually a shame that Osamu is nowhere to be seen in the second cour of the show as he had a likeable personality.
Well after his tie against Urabe, Akagi, seeking a game where one would bet his own destruction, now moves forward to face his final opponent, the lunatic Washizu Iwao. Washizu Iwao is a former World War veteran, a retired police sergeant who had made a great deal of money, an amount more than enough required in one's life. He also has the upper hand over all the politicians and has all the means to rule the nation from the underworld. He is a dark leader. Washizu's style of Mahjong play is quite different from the usual. Transparent tiles which can been seen through completely is used for play among a few opaque tiles. Washizu succeeds at defeating various players and attains a legendary status who has never lost in Mahjong. That is before he faces against Akagi.
The anime focuses on the growth of Akagi as a Mahjong gambler, and his earlier and younger days in the first part of the show and also his matches against various oppositions before he faces against Washizu Iwao, his final opponent of the series. Whereas in the next 13 episodes the show completely revolves around the tie against Akagi and Washizu lasting for six sessions. It actually gets kind of repetitive after the 13 episode mark. With all the development from start of the show, they could've made it last a little longer but everything's hurried a bit and ended before the second cour of the show begins. This honestly weights down the show a little, because it has such a gripping story from the start, even the ending is a bit abrupt.
The artwork of the show is quite unsurprisingly the most talked about factor by both the people who have watched it and not yet watched it. However if that's a reason that you're holding back on watching this show I'd suggest you drop that idea at once.
Sure, the art is... well, crazy to say the least. It takes time for you to getting used to but it infact supports the psychological and intense nature of the show. For a protagonist who is 13, but quite obviously looks 25+, you get the idea that this isn't a show in a stage which could be said ordinary. Infact, this is a completely different Seinen from others not only because it tackles about gambling, but does it in a most unorthodox way. This way it's quite true that the art style is the most suitable for this kind of anime.
Even for the transparent Mahjong tiles, the effects are beautifully done. The backgrounds have a perfect synchronization to the timeline this anime revolves around, in the 1960's.
Moving on to the sound aspects of the show. Akagi is voiced by Hagiwara Masato who did the voice acting for Tokuchi Toua as well, the protagonist from One Outs. Akagi's voice has a prominent gambling type of fathom in it. It's as if Hagiwara has a natural-born skill for voice acting gambling roles. His three famous voice-roles that of Kaiji, Tokuchi and Akagi are all protagonists in any form of gambling. The soundtracks in the anime is done pretty well, with tones adjusted to the tense nature of the show. The opening track remains the same throughout the show and is of a traditional japanese accent which only adds to its premise. The first ending is done by Maximum the Hormone, more famously known for the second opening in Death Note. The second ending is glorious as well. The visuals are what I really like from the second ending. They accompany the track extremely well and I would pay to watch that majestic walk on a railway track from Akagi. The next thing I'd like to depict is the voice by the narrator. While not over the top perfect, he does his job of explaining the stuff happening pretty well without over-exaggerating. There have been various anime that have succeeded using the narrator for the most part, and while the narrator for Akagi doesn't add to any further reputations for the show, he works on his part pretty well.
I will finish off by saying Touhai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai is a supreme and classic Seinen about gambling which is executed brilliantly right from the start. A lot of people may not be daring to go into this one because of the concept its made around, the game of Mahjong. While it would certainly help if you knew a little about the game, but even if you are a newbie to it like myself, you'd still be able to comprehend given you give complete attention to the translator notes and the rest of it is explained pretty well by the narrator himself.
For those, who don't know what it majong, it's rather special hazard game, similar to poker, but played with special tiles. There are manzi, pinzi, sanzi, dragon and wind tiles. You must get special hands to win. It's not difficult game and when you play it yourself (either irl or on computer) it's quite addictive.
Story and Characters:
Basically, there is no standard story. Whole plot is about mahjong games, which take few episodes to resolve. Though there is time flow, it's nothing as standard action story. But this story is all about one person. Shigeru Akagi is his name. Whole story twists around him, each
episode shows his greatness. Yes, he is more than human, he is god. You must see it yourself, how gar he is, in each play of mahjong he participate.
Art and sound:
Animation is very good. But character design is very different than usual manga style. First thing you will see is rather big nose. But animation of mahjong tiles is incredible, they totally feel like alive.
I was prejudiced, biased over character design and the fact that anime is about mahjong before I saw it. But I was wrong, sooo wrong. But when I saw first episode later, I knew, it will be the best what I have seen so far (along with Higurashi). Try it yourself, every person who did this, will say the same words as I do.