Hikaru no Go 21-23 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata

Nearly seven years after it began, the English edition of Hikaru no Go has finally reached the final volume. I was originally both curious and skeptical about the final arc of the series, in which Hikaru and long-time rival Akira Toya represent Japan in the first Hokuto Cup (against China and Korea), but this was mostly because I’d liked where the anime chose to bring the story to a close. Having now finished the manga, though, I find it comes to quite a satisfying conclusion, after all.

Volume 21 wraps up the qualifying rounds, with a few final moments of character insight for Ochi—who, even though he wins his game, can’t stand the thought that he’d be the weak link on the team—and Waya, who realizes he hasn’t got Ochi’s pride, and was relieved not to have to play against tougher opponents. Once the Japanese team is set, consisting of Hikaru and Akira plus Yashiro, a player from the Kansai go Association, they spend the days leading up to the tournament crashing at Akira’s house, staying up all night studying game records and devouring the bento boxes Hikaru’s sweet mother prepared for them. (Hikaru treats his mother somewhat dismissively here, but after learning that Yashiro receives no support from his parents regarding his career, he has a change of heart and sort of, kind of invites her to watch him play.)

Right before the tournament begins, Hikaru learns that one of the Korean players, the handsome Ko Yong Ha, has made disparaging remarks about Shusaku, who was actually, of course, Sai. While Akira wonders why Hikaru takes the insult so personally (he will never actually learn the answer), Hikaru gets all fired up and ends up getting in a tough spot in his first game against China. There’s a nice moment where he realizes he’s going to have to stage his own comeback—“There’s nobody else here to do it”—and though he fails, his performance is impressive enough to convince Kurata, the Japanese team leader, to agree to Hikaru’s request to play in first position against Korea, so he can challenge Ko Yong Ha head-on.

For Hikaru, of course, this isn’t about personal glory. It’s about honoring Sai’s legacy. “The whole reason I play Go is…” he starts to say, but he doesn’t complete this thought until later. While he and Ko Yong Ha play a riveting game—and how awesome is it to see a packed crowd raptly following the analysis of the game, including familiar faces like Tsutsui (looking rather foxy, I must add)?—Toya Meijin and Yang Hai, the leader of the Chinese team, talk about Sai, the mysterious player who appeared on the Internet a few years ago, and indulge in some fanciful speculation that he might’ve been the spirit of Shusaku.

It’s kind of neat that they got it right, but will never know it, and it’s wonderful that Sai was responsible for reinvigorating a genius player like the Meijin, and inspiring who knows how many others. Indeed, though Hikaru ends up losing the game by a close margin (I actually love that the Japanese team didn’t cruise to an unlikely victory), his performance is shown to inspire a pair of insei and in this way, Sai’s legacy continues.

As Hikaru explains, he began playing go “so I could link the distant past to the far future.” The conclusion of the series, though open-ended, shows that he is succeeding in this goal, even though his current match ended in defeat. As Akira wisely points out, “It doesn’t end here, y’know. In fact, it’s barely started.” This idea is echoed by the lovely cover to the final volume, on which Hikaru and Akira gaze with clear eyes at the path that lies ahead.

For more discussion of Hikaru no Go, please check out the commemorative roundtable at Manga Bookshelf!

Tidbits: Shonen Jumpin’ Jehosaphat

Sometimes I just crave some shounen manga! Here, then, are a few short reviews of some shounen I have lately read: the third volume of Bakuman。, the 31st through 34th of Bleach, the second of Genkaku Picasso, and the thirteenth through fifteenth of Slam Dunk. All are fairly recent releases and all published under VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint; Bakuman。 and Genkaku Picasso also have new volumes due out in May.

Bakuman。3 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
This was my favorite volume of Bakuman。 so far!

It begins with Mashiro and Takagi struggling to create a mainstream battle manga, over the objections of their editor, because they believe this is the ticket to popularity in Shonen Jump. They improve a lot between attempts, but in the end, Takagi requests some time alone over summer break to think of a new story, leaving Mashiro free to work as an assistant for Eiji Nizuma, their rival.

MJ adores Eiji, and when he first appeared in this volume I was wondering how that could be, since he comes across as bratty and weird. Once you get to know him, though, it turns out he’s actually kind of endearing. He simply says what he thinks, and is incapable of being malicious or devious. After watching him happily and genuinely soak up feedback from his assistants—apparently his editor at Jump is too in awe of his genius to offer any useful guidance—I kind of love him, too!

To top it off, we see some growth from the female characters. Miho makes some progress in her dream of becoming a voice actress, although right now she seems to be succeeding mostly on account of her good looks. Miyoshi comes up with the goal of being a novelist, though her primary function in this volume is to captivate Takagi with her general awesomeness and make Mashiro doubt that his partner is working on the promised story at all.

In the end, the future of the partnership appears to be in jeopardy, even though both guys have independently hit upon the idea of a detective manga as the way to go. I’ve always found this series interesting for its inside glimpse into the publication process, but now I’m starting to find it interesting for the characters, as well. I eagerly await volume four!

Bleach 31-34 by Tite Kubo
You might not think that battles against creepy supernatural foes with bizarre powers could be boring, but it turns out that Bleach somehow manages it.

Volumes 31 through 33 are chiefly comprised of fights against weird-looking dudes during which nearby structures often go “boom” and crumble. It’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s going on, so I just sort of coast along until there’s a panel that shows someone actually being hurt by something. There are but two bright spots in these volumes. One is the predictable but still gratifying revelation that Nel, the toddler who’s been accompanying Ichigo in his journey across Hueco Mundo, is actually a badass (and buxom) former Espada. The second is an honestly riveting scene in which a hollowfied Ichigo appears before Orihime for the first time and terrifies her.

Things improve a bit in volume 34 with the timely arrival of some Soul Reaper captains. Okay, yes, their explanation for their arrival is pretty flimsy, but I will accept any excuse if it means Byakuya will be around. This also leads to a crazy battle of one-upsmanship between one of the stranger Soul Reapers, Kurotsuchi, and his Arrancar opponent. It goes something like this:

Arrancar: Fear my leet skills! I will turn your innards into dust!

Kurotsuchi: Oh, actually, I infected [Uryuu] with surveillance bacteria the last time we were fighting, so I’ve been watching your battle and, aware of your abilities, have replaced all my insides with fakes. Too bad. Now my gloopy pet will eat you.

Arrancar: Lo, I have been et. But before that happened I implanted [Nemu] with my egg, which will hatch and grow a new me! Plus, there are bits of me still in your pet, which will allow me to use it to attack you.

Gloopy pet: *splat*

Kurotsuchi: Oh, but before you did that I programmed my pet to self-destruct if anyone ever tried to use it against me. Also, I filled Nemu’s body full of drugs for the same reason, so now you’re going to see everything in extreme slow mo while I kill you.

Arrancar: Crap.

Honestly, it’s so outrageous one kind of can’t help admiring it!

Genkaku Picasso 2 by Usamaru Furuya
I really wish I could like Genkaku Picasso more. Mostly this is because Usamaru Furuya’s art is really impressive—true, in their normal states the characters don’t look all that exciting (and the lip-glossy sheen on the boys’ lips is somewhat distracting) but the illustrations created by artistic protagonist Hikari Hamura are detailed and gorgeous, and I like that Furuya continues drawing in that style when Hikari and his ghostly advisor, former classmate Chiaki, enter into the drawings in order to help solve the problems plaguing their classmates.

The problem is that I just don’t like any of the characters! Hikari is creepy, anti-social, and perverted, and is always reluctant to help out his classmates, putting Chiaki in the role of always being the one who reminds him that he has to help them, otherwise he’s going to rot away. (He cheated death in volume one and this is the manner in which he must pay for that.) I could possibly like Chiaki if she were given something to do besides pester Hikari all the time, but that’s not the case.

The manner in which the classmates are helped by Hikari and Chiaki is also odd. The pair enters a drawing based on the “heart” of said classmate and attempts to figure out what is worrying them. One boy has created a fictional girlfriend, for example, while another girl sees herself as a mecha rather than an actual girl. While inside the drawing, Hikari and Chiaki attempt to reason with the classmate, while in the real world, the classmate answers them aloud, making them look totally freaking crazy to the people who happen to be around. If I was hanging out with my friend and he began to break up with his imaginary girlfriend right in front of me, I think I would be quite alarmed.

That said, there is one bright spot in this volume—the tale of Yosuke, a girl born in a body of the wrong gender. Perhaps it’s a little too optimistic, but I liked it anyway, especially the fact that the “heart” of the transgender kid is the calmest and healthiest place we’ve seen yet.

If Genkaku Picasso were any longer, I might not continue it, but since there’s only one volume left, I shall persevere.

Slam Dunk 13-15 by Takehiko Inoue
Ordinarily, if a series took two-and-a-half volumes to cover less than an hour of action, I might be annoyed. Not so with Slam Dunk, which takes that long to finish Shohoku High’s exciting prefectural tournament match against Kainan, a team that has made it to Nationals every year in recent memory.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one reads Slam Dunk. Hanamichi Sakuragi, the hot-headed protagonist, has matured somewhat since the beginning of the series, though he’s still inclined to proclaim himself a genius at every opportunity. Hence, it’s pretty satisfying to see him humbled, and to watch him realize that he hasn’t yet got the skills to carry the team or hog the spotlight. And yet, there comes a point where the humbling has been sufficient, and one wants to see him triumph.

When Captain Akagi sprains his ankle during the game, Sakuragi, realizing how immensely important this game is to Akagi, does his best to fill the captain’s shoes. How can you not root for someone trying so hard to make someone else‘s dream come true? Yes, it’s the talented Rukawa who is single-handedly responsible for tying up the game by halftime, but Sakuragi is just trying so damned hard that his bluster actually becomes a source of strength for his teammates. When he finally makes an impressive slam dunk in front of a cheering crowd, I convince that I got a little sniffly.

Shohoku ends up losing the game, though this doesn’t put them out of the running for Nationals just yet. The disappointing experience makes Sakuragi more serious than ever before and he returns to school with a shaved head (as penance for an unfortunate mistake during the final seconds of the game) and a fierce desire to improve.

Why do I love sports manga so much? I’m honestly not sure I can articulate it, but with Slam Dunk part of it is the fact that the hero, who previously had no goals in life, has found a place to belong and something to care about. That kind of story pushes my personal buttons in a big way.

Review copies for Bakuman。, Genkaku Picasso, and volume fourteen of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

Bakuman。 2 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: B+

From the back cover:
Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world?

After Moritaka and Akito collaborate on a manga together, they venture to publishing house Shueisha in hopes of capturing an editor’s interest. As much potential as these two rookies have, will their story impress the pros and actually get printed?

The second volume of Bakuman。 picks up where the first left off, with artist Moritaka Mashiro and writer Akito Takagi taking the final draft of their one-shot manga to Jump headquarters for consideration. This kicks off a series of fascinating meetings (spanning from summer vacation to the start of the next school year the following spring) in which the boys receive feedback from their editor, Hattori, and try to create a story that will be popular enough to merit serialization.

I loved all the meetings with Hattori, especially how specific he was about story and art requirements for Jump and how, as the boys improved, he went over their storyboards panel-by-panel with useful suggestions. As befits shounen protagonists, Mashiro and Akito are both very talented, but they’re not instantly the best around and go through many ideas and an immense amount of work before they’re able to craft something that is worth publishing.

When they finally do manage to get a story published, it takes third place in the popularity poll for that issue. The winner is Eiji Nizuma, a fifteen-year-old mangaphile who has been drawing since the age of six and practically does nothing else. He’s an exceedingly weird kid, but he fulfills the Akira Toya role here of “genius rival of comparable age.” He’s the first obstacle our leads will have to overcome, and I think it’s pretty fun how this is shaping up to be a sort of tournament manga.

Unfortunately, I’m still bored and fairly annoyed by Mashiro’s relationship with classmate Miho Azuki. They’ve pledged to marry once their dreams come true, but in the meantime aren’t even going to date. To some extent I understand—it’s suggested that Miho’s in favor of this because she wants to be able to focus on her dream without being distracted by Mashiro—but they still hardly know each other. Thankfully, Miho’s friend, Miyoshi, finds this just as bizarre. Also, while the overt, spoken sexism is absent from this volume it’s not exactly absent from the characters’ behavior. At one point Mashiro informs Miho that they’re going to be together when he becomes a manga artist, whether she’s realized her dream (to be a voice actress) or not. Nice, kid.

Though Bakuman。 has some flaws, it’s still an utterly captivating look at the manga-creating experience. I can overlook a banal relationship plotline if it means getting a glimpse inside the editorial process at Jump!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Bakuman。1 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: B+

Moritaka Mashiro is bored. For his fourteen years of life he’s merely gone along with the flow, a path which is destined to end with him becoming a normal white-collar worker. He doesn’t want this, but sees no alternative until Akito Takagi, the top student in class, notices Moritaka’s artistic skills and proposes that the two team up to create a manga. Moritaka is resistant at first—he’d much rather loaf around and play video games—but when the object of his affections (and aspiring voice actress), Miho Azuki, agrees to marry him when his manga becomes an anime, he is suddenly unstoppable.

Moritaka expects resistance from his family—after all, his uncle essentially killed himself by trying to become a successful manga artist—but they’re surprisingly supportive and it turns out that his uncle’s studio has been preserved, untouched, since his death. I absolutely adore the chapter where Moritaka and Akito rush to the studio for the first time—it is seriously a manga-lover’s dream. Not only are there plenty of artistic supplies, but there are shelves upon shelves of manga (“for reference”) as well as neatly organized boxes of storyboards and final drafts. All of the scenes with the boys working on their story—they decide to submit a final draft for consideration by the end of summer break—are absolutely fascinating and bring home just how grueling creating comics can be.

There are a couple of problematic things about Bakuman, however. Moritaka and Azuki’s pledge to get married when they achieve their dreams—without dating in the meantime—is pretty silly, but not out-of-character for a couple of fourteen-year-olds. The fact that they’ll be encouraging each other via e-mail, just like Moritaka’s uncle was encouraged by letters from his classmate, who just so happens to be Azuki’s mother, is a coincidence I could’ve done without. In general, this whole subplot failed to interest me; I was much more interested in the boys’ efforts to get their manga off the ground, but I suppose listless Moritaka needed to find motivation somewhere.

More significantly, many reviewers have taken issue with the displays of sexism in Bakuman. Having now read it for myself, I get the impression that certain characters are sexist but I’d stop short of applying that label to the series as a whole. This makes me wonder, though… why, when characters in Bakuman say things like “She knows by instinct that the best thing for a girl is to get married and become somebody’s wife” or “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand” does it not piss me off as righteously as when characters make very similar comments in The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa?

I think it depends, for me, on who’s saying it. If, as in the case of The Color Trilogy, a male author puts such words into the mouths of female characters, I can’t seem to help getting peeved about it. In Bakuman, the speaker of the first line above is Akito—in other words, just an overconfident teen who thinks he knows everything. He goes on to say he doesn’t like a particular girl in class because she’s proud of how well she does in school, but when Azuki’s mother later tells him she doesn’t like smart guys, he flails about and says, “But that’s just your taste.” Perhaps what he earlier presented as deep insight about Azuki was really his own taste coming through. The second line above, about men’s dreams, though technically spoken by Moritaka’s mother, is actually a quote from his off-camera father and was easy for me to dismiss as, “Oh, he’s just an older man with outdated opinions.”

I’m not trying to argue that these characters aren’t sexist, but they don’t succeed in getting my dander up and certainly will not deter me from reading more of the series.

Bakuman is published in English by VIZ. One volume’s been released here so far, while the ninth volume of this still-running series came out in Japan last month.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Warm-Up Exercises

MICHELLE: Welcome to a brand-new Feature here at Soliloquy in Blue: Let’s Get Visual! Each month, Manga Bookshelf‘s MJ and I will select a page or sequence of pages from our recent manga reads that we find intriguing and attempt to develop our visual-critiquing muscles by sharing our thoughts about it. Neither of us is particularly adept at this, but it’s our hope that by a little regular exercise, we’ll get better.

MJ: Should we talk a little about why we each decided to do this?

MICHELLE: Personally, I’ve always felt that my attempts to discuss comic or manga art have been desultory at best. Usually, they take the form of an afterthought paragraph tacked at the end of the review after I’ve said everything I have to say about the plot and characters. I’ve read a few things about pacing and paneling online and, in general, would simply like to be stronger in this area and train myself to think more about it while I read.

MJ: I think my motivation is very similar. I know what works for me as a reader and I can even take a stab at expressing why, but I don’t really have the vocabulary necessary for discussing the visual aspects of comics, despite my love for them. I’m hoping I’ll get some help with that from the folks who read this column, and that it might give me a greater understanding of this medium that I spend so much of my time thinking and talking about.

MICHELLE: Yes, I’m hoping we’ll get some (hopefully benevolent) guidance, too! With that, shall we get started?

MJ: Yes, let’s!

MICHELLE: For our first attempt, we’ve started simply; I’ve picked one page from volume three of Rei Hiroe’s Black Lagoon while MJ has chosen a sequence of pages from the game-changing fifteenth volume of Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata’s Hikaru no Go. All images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Black Lagoon, Volume 3, Chapter 17, Page 112 (VIZ Media)

MICHELLE: A little background information is required to explain why I found this page from Black Lagoon so interesting. The protagonists of this series are the Lagoon Traders, operating in the waters of South Asia. They routinely accept dangerous jobs, but the one they’re currently on—attempting to deliver detailed Hezbollah plans to a CIA agent—is more fraught with peril than most. They’re being pursued by a number of other vessels and their chances of getting away are slim.

The basic layout of this page—two long horizontal pages on top, one long vertical column on the far right, then some shorter panels on the bottom left—is one that Hiroe has used a few times in the series so far. What struck me in this particular instance is how the flow of the panels directs one’s eye, and how that direction mirrors the characters’ spirits.

In that vertical panel in the bottom right, Rock is dejected. He has finally acknowledged that they’re doomed, and the trailing bottom edge of that panel and placement of Dutch’s dialogue bubble pulls our eyes just about as low as they can go, just like Rock’s hopes. But then Revy has an idea, and our eyes locate her halfway up the page, like a cautious rebound of hope. The rest of the page involves the whole team expanding upon her plan, including the mention of the explosives that will be their ticket to escape.

This may look like a very simple page, but its execution is nothing short of elegant.

MJ: Oh, that is nicely done! I’ll make a comparison here using a medium I do have the vocabulary to discuss intelligently. Your observation here reminds me of something I frequently talk about with my voice students (I used to be a singer, and I still teach) regarding various composers’ level of skill in writing for singers. The best composers tell you everything you need to know about what you should be feeling in any particular moment—whether you’re singing opera, art song, musical theater, whatever—using music only. Pitch, rhythm, dynamics—everything is there if you just pay enough attention, and as long as you use those tools given to you, your audience will understand, whether they speak the language you’re singing in or not.

This visual language reminds me very much of that, and I feel like even if we were looking at this in Japanese, though we’d certainly lack specifics, we’d still comprehend the emotional trajectory of the story here.

MICHELLE: That’s a very apt comparison. Rock’s body language being so easy to read helps, too.

MJ: So, what else do you like about this? I was wondering if you had particular thoughts about the final panel, which suddenly zooms high above them.

MICHELLE: I think this is meant to emphasize how much of a team solution it is. I also love that although the original suggestion about the Semtex does not have a tag on it to designate the speaker, the way everyone else is turned toward Revy suggests that she was the one who spoke.

MJ: Oh, you’re much smarter than I am, though I did have a thought as well. I was thinking about what you said in your original paragraph about the rest of the panels being about the whole team expanding on Revy’s idea, and I thought “expand” was just the word I’d use to describe that final panel. Most of the rest of the page is made up of close-ups, and then that one just zooms way out, suddenly lending a real sense of space.

MICHELLE: Ooh, that’s a very clever point! Go you! Anyway, that’s all I’ve got this time. Why don’t you tell us about the pages you chose?

Hikaru no Go, Volume 15, Chapter 124, Pages 74-77 (VIZ Media)

MJ: Okay, so I’m not even going to introduce these pages, because part of what I think is so brilliant about them is that I don’t have to.

So, you’ve got Hikaru, who is obviously really tired, in that sort of raw way that can only really exist when you’re forcing yourself to be awake. His entire body expresses this, and he’s pretty much holding up his head with his hand. Someone’s talking to him (readers of the series will understand it to be Sai), but Hikaru’s so out of it, he’s not even really with him. Hikaru’s unmoving, frame after frame, in a kind of zone of nothingness.Then something happens at the bottom of the first page and *wham* the door behind Hikaru is sharp again, like the world has shifted from a half-dream state into the harsh light of day.

The real awakening, though, happens on the next page, when Obata widens the lens to make the empty space in the room the focus of panel. This is accented perfectly by the curtains blowing the breeze and the bright sun lighting up the room. Everything is set to evoke a feeling of wide, empty space in this tiny little room. I can almost hear the sounds of everyday life outside that might be wafting in to this quiet room through Hikaru’s open window.

My favorite touch, though, is the way this ends. That wide shot could have easily been the last image in the chapter, and probably it would have had even more impact if it had been. But rather than leave readers with the dramatic lack of Sai, the next two panels bring us back to the *presence* of Hikaru. He’s small, he’s bewildered, and he’s just been awakened in a really harsh way, but there’s a warmth and poignancy in those last two panels that reminds me why I love this series so much.

MICHELLE: There are two things in what you’ve said that really resonate with me. Firstly, I’m struck with the import of the door. I almost feel like I’m back in tenth grade, analyzing poetry, but now that you’ve mentioned its abrupt clarity, I’m convinced that there’s some pretty heavy symbolism behind that door being so conspicuously and firmly shut.

Also, I had the exact same reaction to the open window and billowing curtain—I felt like I could hear the sounds of everyday life carrying on even after something immense has happened. This reminds me of the scene in “The Body,” the fifth-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode in which Buffy comes home to find her mother dead on the couch. At one point she steps outside and there’s the world, carrying on as normal while she is going through something devastating.

Lastly, the one thing in that scene that draws my attention in a strange way is the reflection of the books on the floor opposite Hikaru. It’s such a small detail, yet it seems to emphasize the emptiness even more.

MJ: I actually thought of that scene from “The Body” when I was writing here, and I wondered if you’d bring it up! Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. I love your observations about the door and the reflection of the books, too. I think you’re absolutely right on both counts.

MICHELLE: I can always be counted on to reference Buffy! It’s interesting that we both chose examples wherein someone has their back to the audience; it seems like that’s something that may not happen too often, though I’ll have to pay more attention from now on to see whether that’s really true. Why do you think Obata decided not to show Hikaru’s expression right away?

MJ: I think he didn’t need to. I think Hikaru and the reader are feeling the same thing in that moment, so illustrating it is totally unnecessary, and doing so might actually lessen the panel’s impact.

MICHELLE: I think so, too. It would place a limit on Hikaru’s comprehension of the situation, as well.

MJ: I also like the fact that when we do see Hikaru’s face in the next panel, it’s not straight-on. The vantage point and slight distance makes it clear that he’s still processing what’s in front of him (or not) . It also makes him appear small and vulnerable, but not in an overly cartoonish way. It’s perfect.

MICHELLE: I agree! Well, how do you think we did, our first time out? We might be a bit sore tomorrow, but it certainly felt good to stretch some little-used muscles.

MJ: I think we did all right… hopefully scoring relatively low on the scale for potential embarrassment. Heh. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of wisdom we might glean from our more knowledgeable readers!

MICHELLE: As am I. We look forward to your feedback, and hope that you’ll join us again next month for the next installment of Let’s Get Visual!

Hikaru no Go 18 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata: B

After the drama of the past few volumes, “the main storyline takes a holiday” (to quote the back cover) in volume eighteen and instead we get six short stories of varying quality.

A couple of stories, like those focusing on Akira Toya and Yuki Mitani, fill in some background for scenes from earlier in the series, and one revisits what’s left of Hikaru’s old middle school go club. Two others—about Asumi Nase, an insei, and Atsushi Kurata, a relatively young pro—serve to flesh out supporting characters and are the best of the bunch.

The sixth purports to be about Sai, and it was this story I’d looked forward to the most. Alas, it’s nearly the least interesting (Mitani’s claims top honors in that category), as it boils down to another case of “corrupt merchant trying to sell antique merchandise that Sai knows is fake.” I had hoped for a story from Sai’s life or perhaps from his time with his previous host, but instead we get a rehash of something we’ve seen as recently as volume twelve.

I’d be lying if I said these stories aren’t disappointing, coming on the heels of some very important plot developments, but I gather they’re meant to function as a palliative bridge between a dramatic story arc and whatever lies ahead, so I can’t fault them too much.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Hikaru no Go 13-17 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata: A

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.

Hikaru no Go 12 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata: A-

From the back cover:
Hikaru’s career as a professional go player begins! In his first game, he must face veteran player Toya Meijin, none other than Akira’s father. But to Sai, this round is personal. Then Sai attempts to teach a cheating go player a lesson he’ll never forget… Will Hikaru’s ghostly master do him proud or make him look like an amateur?

Parts of this volume are so difficult to read. Sai and Hikaru have a number of semi-arguments, Sai wondering whether he’ll ever be allowed to play a game again and Hikaru maintaining that such a demand is selfish and would deprive him of opportunities for his own development. It’s like watching a couple who wants different things from the relationship, but neither wants to break up. It bugs me especially when Hikaru ignores Sai, though at least by the end of the volume he’s actively trying to cheer him up and give him opportunities to play.

Hikaru plays one of his first games as a pro, with Toya Meijin as his opponent. Or, rather, Sai plays it. Sai has been looking forward to this since day one, and though the build-up and tense atmosphere were awesomely done, I was kind of disappointed that the game itself was so brief. I could’ve happily read a couple of chapters focused just on the details of that game. It looks like a rematch is on the horizon, though, so perhaps that will satisfy Sai and me.

This series is definitely one with reread potential. I can already picture myself—unfortunately several years hence—happily devouring all 23 volumes in a marathon. Until that day, I’ll take the little nibbles I can get.

Hikaru no Go 11 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata: A

From the back cover:
Hikaru’s classmate Ochi has won enough games to guarantee his place among the top three players who will pass the pro test. Hikaru, on the other hand, still needs to win more games, and he’ll soon face his friend Waya and Ochi himself, who has been preparing for their match with Akira’s help! When the dust clears, who will be left standing?

The pro test concluded with this volume. I really enjoyed the match between Hikaru and Waya, and how when Hikaru got stuck, he asked himself what Sai would do in a given situation. There was more focus on Sai this volume than there has been of late, as he began to realize how much Hikaru has improved and how he is becoming a capable stand-in for Sai himself.

I would’ve liked to have seen more of the match between Hikaru and Ochi, after all the set-up it received, culminating in a confrontation wherein Hikaru learned that Akira had been training Ochi nightly and deduced that it was all Akira’s attempt to gauge Hikaru’s strength through Ochi. There was a really cool panel where Ochi and Hikaru were sitting at the board with Akira and Sai behind them, respectively. But alas, much of their match happened off-camera. That said, I really liked that it was from Isumi’s perspective that we learned the result, since it meant the end of his chances of passing this time around.

The volume finished off with Hikaru doing some nostalgic eavesdropping on the middle school Go club to which he used to belong and with his mom wondering whether she ought to fret about his unusual profession. Little touches like these are what make this series truly excellent. I’m sad that I now have to wait until May for the next installment.

Hikaru no Go 10 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata: A-

From the back cover:
The main round of the pro test has begun. Everyone’s feeling the pressure—no one more so than Hikaru’s friend Isumi, who has failed the test twice before. Fighting off his feelings of self-doubt, Isumi faces his next opponent, who turns out to be Hikaru. But a careless mistake lands the pair in an awkward position!

This entire volume was full of pro test goodness. Placements shifted a bit throughout these chapters, but it was always clear who was ahead and who’d fallen behind. The complete chart of each player’s wins and losses was also included at one point, which was neat to see. I liked that the focus wasn’t solely on Hikaru.

Once again, though all of the pro test stuff was great, my favorite chapters were those where Akira is dealing with his “fixation” on Shindo, as Ochi (who received a couple lessons from Akira) put it. I particularly liked the last chapter, where Akira recreated his first game against Sai for Ochi to explain his obsession. Ochi was appropriately astonished.

The art was really great, too, though that’s not unusual. I was struck again, though, by the variety among the character designs. No one looked the same, but Obata didn’t need to resort to unrealistic gimmicks to distinguish between characters. This series also has a lot of just average-looking people in it, which is something I appreciate.