Saki Miyanaga is a first-year high school student who hates mahjong, due to the punishment her family would give her should she win or lose, as well as being a catalyst for the bad relationship between her and her older sister. As such, she has learned to consistently play with a score of 0 when she does play, neither winning or losing. This is information later learned when beautiful first-year student Nodoka Haramura (who won the middle school nationals the year before) asks her to play with her at the mahjong club. Saki does, but she's not interested in joining. Soon enough, though, she discovers that she likes playing mahjong at the club, becoming a permanent member. With her arrival, the mahjong club now has five female members, making it a full-fledged team that can even qualify for team tournaments. Saki and Nodoka also slowly become friends, both of whom promise to win at the upcoming high school mahjong tournament that summer.
One thing I've always admired about television is that it can take games / sports I wouldn't care about from reading from a book or playing it myself and making it seem rather interesting. Before I watched Saki, I had never played mahjong a single day in my life. I had heard of it, but never really had the incentive to play it. Two-thirds through watching the series, I signed up for online mahjong plays. You can probably guess from here that Saki left that big of an impact as I watched it. For a series about mahjong, it's actually pretty good.
Now let's talk about the characters who play said mahjong. Saki is our leading female - an underdog who ironically is good at mahjong despite hating it. As the leading female, she is often stroked with ridiculous luck to the point that she wins even when as far behind as 30,000 / 40,000 points. As much as I called "bull" on some of her victories, though, at least they're plausible, unlike a later girl I'll mention. As for Saki's personality - she's pretty bland. Average looks, no recognizable character traits - her only defining trait is her past anguish with playing mahjong with her family, and having dreams of her older sister.
Saki's friend Nodoka is a little more interesting. ignoring her giant breasts aside (and believe me, the show doesn't go long without reminding you of how well-endowed she is), Nodoka sees the world through the eyes of online mahjong. She's one of the top online mahjong players in the world, and she likes to win. This makes the pairing of Nodoka and Saki as friends an interesting one, and their friendship takes a while to really blossom. And do they fight? They certainly do. You know, like real people do. She does have childish side - also has a stuffed penguin that she carries around later to mahjong tournaments, as well as the typical fears of lightning and scary things at least one girl in any series consisting mainly of teenage girls has.
The third member, and the last first-year student, is the short, energetic Yuuki Katoaka. Nodoka's middle school friend, her quirk is that she loves tacos like Popeye does spinach, and has a hard time at mahjong without a constant supply of them. She's got at mahjong, but fizzles out the longer she plays, and she's even worse at counting. Probably by default voice actress Rie Kugimiya's best female character she's probably played in an anime, if only because she's, well, likable. (Which is more than I can say for 90% of Kugimiya's other characters in anime.)
Next we have third-year club student council / mahjong president Hisa Takei, my personal favorite character in the series. As the oldest member of the club, you'd think she'd be the most mature, but it seems to balance somewhere between the mature, sensible side, and a kiddy, goofy side as well. She's always supportive of the other girls in the club, and remains consistently a fun, funny, very likable character throughout. Her unorthodox playing style is waiting for risky tiles to win, which works more often than not, but gets her weird stares from confused players (including fellow teammate Nodoka). Bonus points go to hiring Shizuka Itou to voice her, who voiced probably my favorite character - Shouko - in Living For The Day After Tomorrow.
Last is second-year student Mako Someya, Hisa's best friend. Growing up with a grandfather who owned a mahjong parlor, she knows possibly more about mahjong than anyone else. Her relationship with Hisa isn't as prevalent as Saki and Nodoka's, but there's still a sense that the two are good friends.
Let us not forget the sole male in the club - Kyoutarou Saga (typically called Kyou). Saki's childhood friend, he spends most of the series either being the girls' delivery boy or fantasizing about Nodoka. While not horrendously annoying, Kyou seldom adds to the series, and his moments of being forced by Hisa to do things nearly hurt my opinion of her over the course of the series.
However, that's just one of the four high school mahjong teams featured in the series. Ther are three more schools that are at times just as featured, than moreso, than Saki and her Kiyosumi High friends:
Kazekoshi, an all-girls school. Leading the team is third-year Mihoko Fukuji, who's typically a very sweet girl with one eye almost always closed - until she plays mahjong, that is. The other dominantly featured girl on the team is second-year Kana Ikeda, an an energetic girl who respects Mihoko a lot. Also, for some reason, she gets cat ears when excited. I don't know why...guess the mangaka really liked Magic Knight Rayearth or something.
Tsuruga's team captain is Yumi Kajiki, also a third-year student. The other dominant member of the team is Momoko Touyoko, a girl who's near invisible (literally) to everyone else but Yumi. She uses this to cheat at mahjong, which most of the players and even the announcers don't seem to notice. Very few of the schools' players see through this cheating strategy of hers, which amazes me at how stupid they are at times. And it's not just her own tiles, mind you - even her discards are invisible. What?
Last, but not least, is the most dominantly shown team aside from Kiyosumi - Ryuumonbuchi. Their team is notable for two reasons. One, they're the only team made up of high school freshman. Second, they're the only team who have more than two members constantly highlighted. Leading the team is the blonde Touka Ryuumonbuchi, who is as obnoxious as she is rich. She even speaks in the stereotypical princess voice a lot of stuck-up girls in anime do, which becomes frustrating to listen to when she's in nearly every episode after her debut. Her teammates include the tall, easygoing Jun Inoue, a short girl in handcuffs, Hajime Kunihiro, and stoic, glasses-wielding girl Tomoko Sawamura. Lastly, though, is Koromo Amae, Touka's cousin who looks, acts, and speaks like a child, despite being 16.
With the lengthy list of characters out of the way, let's talk about the actual series itself now. It's, well, mahjong. Japanese Mahjong, to be more precise. Like I mentioned earlier in my review, I started playing mahjong itself about two-thirds into watching the series mainly to get a better understanding of it. (The series does NOT explain, for the most part, how to play the game.) I have to admit that watching mahjong isn't as much fun as playing it, though some of the matches can still get pretty intense. To spice things up, Saki throws in visualizations of what's happening in the battle at times. For example, when Koromo plays a Bottom of the Sea, her opponents around her still literally being dragged into water as they play. Another visual is of Nodoka as a winged angel, referencing how online she was one of the best players on the Net. That doesn't mean the battles don't go on for lengthy periods of time (one game takes five episodes to complete) or that the series has some characters (particularly Saki) gain incredibly inane victories at the very last second. It reminded me of how earlier in the series that one of the characters said that even mahjong pros win only about 30% of the time, but some of these girls seem to win in every game they undertake. Either they're incredibly lucky, or this select region just produced incredibly awesome mahjong players.
It also gets quickly tiring of having the mahjong games constantly interrupted by one of the teams' characters reflecting on their past, whether a few days or a few years back. While it's nice to get insight on the girls from all four schools, that's the sort of thing that should have been reserved outside of the mahjong table, or at least minimized during the games. Even more annoying is that they're almost entirely regulated to the team captains or maybe one or two other girls on each team, regarding the rest of the time as filler. Sumiyo, one of the girls on Kazekoshi's team, has maybe five lines of dialogue in the entire series.
Another odd thing about Saki is the random appearance of fanservice at times. Nodoka's huge knockers aside, the series typically doesn't have much in the way of perverted antics most of the time, but when it does come, it hits hurt. Even creepier is Yuuki's proclaiming to Kyou that she's sexy and charming. Remember, she's the girl who eats tacos to play better at mahjong.
Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the series' charming characters, as well as fun bouts of comedy and friendship lessons. Anything that gets me actually motivated to play the game the characters are is a success in my book.
Saki is not a big-budget show, and anyone who watches a couple of episodes will see that the CG tiles are primary amongst the well-drawn, but limited moving girls who play the game. This isn't to say the animation is bad - there are times where it's quite good - but the series never forgets that mahjong comes first, and high animation second. The scenery around the girls looks nice, but nothing to write home about. The girls are consistently on-model, though, which kind of surprised me, considering how long the series was. The music is a weird mish-mash of orchestral, techno, and peppy music tracks, the latter also applying to both opening themes and two of three ending themes.
If you're never played mahjong before, Saki is not the show for you. Although the characters are very likable and cute, and the story is told at a nice pace, you'll be lost quickly amongst the mahjong games and their rules. However, by watching this you might actually learn how to play the game like I did. In short: do your homework first. Once you do, you too can enjoy this likable, interesting, but flawed, anime on mahjong.
I debated between three and four stars for a while, but went with three after I got tired of the 20th flashback during a tournament. Add a star if you really like mahjong, or subtract a star if you don't like cute girls in your mahjong series, and go watch Akagi — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: Nodoka's breasts are really big. Promo art, the opening and ending themes, and any moments of the girls on a beach will not let you forget that. As such, the show often pokes at her chest size. There's also (creepier) fanservice involving Yuuki as well,as well as a few onsen scenes (completed with convenient fog, more so on the censored broadcast). Fanservice aside, not much else is objectionable.
Version(s) Viewed: crunychroll stream
Review Status: Full (25/25)
Saki © 2009 Ritz Kobayashi / Square Enix・Saki Project
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