These five volumes represent the emotional crux of the series and, as such, plot spoilers will be discussed. Proceed at your own risk.
I’m always sorry when I fall far behind on a series that I love, but when it results in half a dozen volumes to read at once, the pleasure of catching up makes the wait worthwhile. These five volumes are the most important and emotionally resonant of the series so far; the story could’ve ended quite satisfactorily after volume seventeen and, indeed, that’s exactly what the anime does.
We begin with the oteai, a tournament to decide players’ ranks. Hikaru is scheduled to play Akira, and is all excited about it, but the sudden collapse of Akira’s father means he misses the match and forfeits the game. After some pestering from Sai, Hikaru goes to visit Toya Meijin in the hospital and, after hearing that the Meijin has been occupying himself with internet go, sweetly arranges for Sai to get the match of his dreams via that medium. The suspense is built up expertly, causing international spazzery amongst the internet go world and attracting the attention of a lot of Japanese pros, as well.
The game between Sai and the Meijin is very beautifully drawn. There’s a lovely sequence where Sai settles onto a chair occupied by Hikaru, and for the rest of the multi-chapter match we only ever see a silent and composed Sai in that chair as they play their lengthy and suspenseful game. I’m so happy to see this longed-for moment get the attention it deserves and to see how satisfied and grateful Sai looks after his victory.
Besides Sai getting his wish, two very important things occur as a result of this match. The first is that the Meijin has been reinvigorated and begins to try daring things. He had pledged to retire if Sai beat him and, though Hikaru pleads with him not to keep his word, it’s actually quite a freeing experience for the Meijin since he’s no longer obligated to keep to a rigid tournament schedule and can now develop his game in innovative ways. The second thing is that Hikaru is able to spot where exactly the Meijin went wrong, prompting Sai to realize that his whole ghostly existence has been to get Hikaru to this point. His work on this plane is swiftly drawing to a close.
I’m really glad that I was able to experience this story arc via the anime first because the back cover and chapter titles of volume fifteen announce far in advance that Sai is really going to disappear—with the anime, I was able to hold out hope ’til the last minute. Even with my prior exposure to this event, it’s still quite dreadful to witness Sai’s jealousy of Hikaru’s future and eventual acceptance of his fate, and even worse when his pleas to Hikaru go unheeded because Hikaru simply can’t imagine that Sai really will disappear, since he’s been around for a thousand years thus far. It’s perfectly in character for a teenage boy to behave this way, so it’s not as if Hikaru’s the villain here, but knowing how much he was going to blame himself later made it much more painful.
Even while Sai’s disappearance is extremely sad, it’s Hikaru’s reaction that is far worse. He desperately looks for Sai at sites connected with Shusaku, getting his hopes up and dashed each time. He’s in denial for quite some time, but when he hits the bargaining stage, the raw grief really pours out. When he discovers records of Shusaku’s games in a remote room at the Go Association, he belatedly realizes the depth of Sai’s genius. Because Shusaku was a seasoned player when he met Sai, he knew when to bow out to a superior talent. Hikaru blames himself for developing a passion of his own and depriving Sai of opportunities to play. He promises not to play anymore if only Sai will come back.
While Hikaru proceeds to frustrate everyone by being a no-show at his matches, focus shifts to Isumi. He’s spent some time alone to recover from his failure to pass the pro test, and is now part of a group going to play goodwill games in China. With some good advice from a Chinese pro, Isumi returns a much stronger and confident player. In the anime, this arc seemed so out of place I figured it must be filler, especially given the bratty little kid who looks like Waya, but it actually goes by much more quickly in the manga and, in fact, reinforces part of what makes Hikaru no Go such a satisfying read: it doesn’t forget its supporting characters and occasionally offers a glimpse of what’s happening in their lives.
Upon Isumi’s return, he seeks out Hikaru, who hasn’t played in months, still thinking he can bring Sai back with his abstinence. Isumi succeeds in cajoling Hikaru into a game and it’s there, finally, where Hikaru finds Sai. It’s such a lovely scene, in which Hikaru breaks down at the simplicity of it all. “Sai… is it… is it all right for me to play?” he thinks, seeking his mentor’s blessing to go back to the world he loves.
Volume seventeen finds a focused Hikaru returning to his matches and showing much more maturity. The second big match-up that needed to happen comes into play here, when Hikaru and Akira face each other in the preliminaries of the Meijin tournament. The build-up is suitably suspenseful, as it should be when it’s been two years and four months since they last faced each other. The game itself is marvelous—“You will be my life-long rival,” Akira thinks at one point—but it’s much more wonderful that Akira figures it out. He realizes that Sai was within Hikaru all this time, and can tell because he knows Hikaru better than anyone. The fact that Akira finds Sai just reduces me to sniffles every time and Hikaru’s happiness about the fact is very moving as well.
The perfect capper to this volume is the dream visit Hikaru receives from Sai, and I find myself torn. Do I wish the manga had ended here, just like the anime? It really feels like a perfectly natural place to wrap things up, though the anime does add a little bit, showing Akira and Hikaru meeting regularly at a go salon to argue over strategy and affording glimpses of many minor characters in the closing credits. Or am I happy that there are six more volumes? I’m a little worried that the actual ending will be less satisfying than if the story had stopped here, but the appeal of such a large chunk of new material cannot be denied.
With these volumes, Hikaru no Go proves why it is no ordinary sports manga (and this is coming from someone who loves the genre). The games are intense and riveting, sure, but the relationship Hikaru and Sai share is the real story. Their mutual support, jealousy, and encouragement ties in with traditional themes of shounen manga, but there’s such love and warmth there, too, that the appeal is universal. This is truly a series with the potential to be loved by anyone and everyone.
Review copy for volume seventeen provided by the publisher.