Hikaru no Go
I love the internet. Why? because this anime is an example of the sort of show that would be extremely unlikely to makes it's way to me without the emergence of digital distribution over the net. It's not that it's truly unique, indeed it's part of a well established tradition...although only in Japan. For a English speaking anime fan though this is fairly uncommon material to find.
The story begins with a brash Japanese youth, complete with multi-colored hair to indicate his non-conformity, who's looking to make some money. Although he is trying to do this by looking through his grandfathers storage for things to sell. In his search he comes across a go table (a classical Asian strategy game). He thinks it might be valuable, except for a stain on one side of the board. A stain that the girl with him cannot see. Fortunately the spirit bound to the game can also see the stain...and a new home in which to live.
And, before you now it, the youth is haunted. The spirit binding itself to his soul, calling upon him to follow its base desires, bending him to achieve that which was denied it in life. Fairly normal occurrence in anime really, but in this case this spirit is a rather polite young Go master from historical Japan who wants nothing more than a good game of Go and the chance to master the most complex, almost spiritual, level of the game. As a result a relatively normal, perhaps even a little bit simple, youth finds himself connected with a calmer and wiser mind. A mind that also makes him one of the very best Go players upon the planet.
For those who don't know Go some of the game mechanisms are seen in the game called Othello (although Go has a much higher combinatorial complexity, even more so than chess). Although the `culture' of Go is peculiarly Asian and important to the show. For example there are all sorts of special names and terms for common tactics and moves. Likewise the style of the game, or the way in which a game plays out, can express personality and even age. For example the better players can detect that the lead character plays in an `old' style, though the spirit is not above learning. Both the fansub, and the anime (complete with Go lessons after the show) do their very best to bring this element out.
The important thing is that Go is a `serious' game. At the higher levels the strategic implications of a move, or sequence of moves, are highly complex. And mastering the game is seen as a noble, and life-long challenge. Low level players marvel at the skill of the masters, while the masters learn each others strengths and weaknesses as they play. This also combines with the whole Japanese `sport' philosophy of taking things both very seriously and quite personally. Indeed there's the suggestion that the game is merely a method of improving oneself, perhaps even of spiritual growth.
And this is the reason why the anime is incredibly unlikely to get a western release. Not only is Go a uncommon game, with complex strategy and culture, but the whole `dedication' thing is odd as well. I've seen a bit of Japanese anime, and believe there is a lot more, in which a person dedicates themselves and grows through their effort in a sport or endeavour. It exists in western films as well, such as `rocky' or `karate kid' (which is an interesting hybrid) but the anime versions do not seem to have been as well received.
Which is sort of a shame really, as it's actually pretty good. Sure, on the one hand, we meet a lot of people who are freakishly obsessive over a board game, but there is an energy to it all. The power and focus that can be seen in a match, in the clash of personalities, in their victories and losses, is pretty addictive. Complete with the training, the comeback, the camaraderie and the enmity `sport' anime (which feels weird in the context of Go) can really drag you into the story. There's also the bonus of exploring the world of high level Go, which in Japan is a serious business.
The series also offers an addition above and beyond most sport anime. While often there is a coach/master who trains and guides the rookie in this case they are forcefully bound. Thus the youth suddenly finds himself having to deal with someone wiser, and much different, from himself. He's a real rough, act first think later, type and the interaction between them is great and not restricted to go. Meanwhile the Go Master is a lot of fun himself, while incredibly skilled and intelligent he's a complete novice to the modern world. His clever, complex but playful character gives a surprising amount of pleasure and depth to the show. And the two of them cannot help but be affected by their interaction. The youth learns about the fearsome dedication some people have, and begins to find echoes in himself to be more than an observer in the games he plays. Meanwhile, I suspect, the Go Master is learning some things himself.
So if you think you can cope with this, and actually run into the material, then give it a try. Some people will find the `who cares' factor too great, the technical detail about Go can be a bit daunting and the intensity of the characters can seem a bit much. Indeed the whole `spiritual' aspect, including some `cosmic' moments and Ki `putting piece on board' trick are a little cheesy. But while the anime lacks action and huge climactic scenes it's actually surprisingly capable of dragging you in and making you not only want to know, but also care, about what happens next.
In terms of animation, well, it's nothing special but it's more than sufficient to tell the story. The characters have a good sense of personality and expression about them and that's the main thing. The backgrounds are quite simple, there's little flash and there's certainly precious little that could be classed as action. It does have a quite good sense of scene and timing though. It also gains from having some rather good dialogue writing and voice acting, though I can't remember the music as being anything special.
I'm also feeling devilish so I'll give a `bishie' (bishounen) warning. While the Go-master might make the bishounen cut Go is not a game for the young and beautiful. As such this anime has an impressive presence of both old and ordinary Japanese adults, which could scar the fragile bishie fan. Not much for people into anime babes either mind you.
A new title? a rare title? In either case there don't seem to be any reviews from my regular sources. In fact Daniel Genier let me know that the release of this fansub is very recent (ep 9 on the 4 of January 2002) which helps explain things.