Akagi is a 2005-2006 anime series about Mahjong. But it’s not really about Mahjong. It’s about kicking ass. And it’s about doing it in a way that mindfucks the enemy.
Akagi is a really difficult series to talk about. It’s hard to quantify what it is exactly. It’s simplistic yet complex. It’s subdued yet exciting. It’s superficial yet incredibly deep. It’s like a shounen fighting series yet it isn’t. What Akagi does extremely well is present itself in a certain light, only to change that presentation in the midst of watching it. You don’t realize things are changing. There isn’t any abrupt bait-and-switch tactic. It moves quickly and subtly, and so deftly that your perception of what is happening can change without you realizing it until much, much later.
So, what is Akagi about? On the surface it features the titular character, Shigeru Akagi, as he plays Mahjong against various opponents. But it’s not about playing Mahjong. It isn’t about strategy or tactics or cheating at Mahjong. Hell, it isn’t even about winning Mahjong. It’s about how Akagi is able to delve into the psyche of his opponents, discover their weaknesses, and exploit them in order to triumph. From the onset you know Akagi is going to win, there’s no question about that. You are watching Akagi to see how he is going to win. This series is really more about the means rather than the end.
As I mentioned earlier, Akagi plays out like a shounen-fighting series (e.g. Dragonball Z, Bleach). It has lengthy battles (devoting 3-4 episodes per match), each villain is more powerful than the last (i.e. a better Majhong player), the stakes become ever more increased, and the struggle becomes a desperate force of wills between the opponents. But Akagi nearly subverts the genre because unlike its predecessors, the players duke it out in games of 4-player Mahjong rather than physical altercations. Mahjong plays out sort of like Gin Rummy, where the players need to get triplets or sequences of tiles in order to win. While there is never a GIGA DRILL BREAKER, there are plenty of awe-inspiring moments when Akagi manages to overtake his opponents from impossible odds.
In that respect, Akagi is sort of like Gurren Lagann. Or since it came first, perhaps Gurren Lagann is sort of like Akagi? In Gurren Lagann, the heroes fought ever greater, and often times seemingly insurmountable odds, and managed to win every time. Their victories were filled with breathless excitement, and had you on the edge of your seat screaming, “Fuck yeah!” Akagi is just like that. The Mahjong matches are intense. They start out slow, and build suspense as they progress. By the end you are waiting with nervous anticipation (clenched fists, gritted teeth) to see who is going to throw down the winning hand. Somehow the creators of this anime were able to take a game in which four people play a strategy game (while seated) and make it as suspenseful and exciting as a gladiatorial deathmatch.
Akagi himself is a joy to watch. Every time you think his opponent has him pinned down, with no way he can win, he manages to pull out a winning hand. His triumphs aren’t bullshit, though. It isn’t just a HURR DURR I got the best hand type of thing. No, it’s much more than that. The hands make perfect sense, and his strategies are explained and revealed to be done in order to break down the cracks in his opponents’ defenses. It’s really fucking brilliant. The hilarious part is that during the Mahjong matches, the people around him are in a constant state of bewilderment, completely puzzled as to how Akagi is playing or what he is going for, only to be shocked when his plan turns out be have been successful, albeit an insane gamble.
Akagi as a character subverts the typical shounen protagonist. Of course, he is a young natural gambling genius. I wouldn’t expect anything less out of an anime. However, it is pretty much a rule in shounen anime that the central character is heroic, upstanding, selfless, and merciful. Akagi is none of those things. He is quiet, stoic, deeply rooted in the Japanese underworld, and shows no mercy on his opponents until they are completely destroyed. Akagi is a fun character because he doesn’t fight for others. He doesn’t fight for himself. In fact, he doesn’t really even give a shit about Mahjong. He gambles in order to feel alive. The higher the stakes, the greater the thrill. He would prefer to bet on his own life rather than money. He’ll gamble on anything from games of chicken with cars to dice games to Russian roulette to Mahjong. His moral ambiguity and his reckless behavior are what make him so interesting. The duality of his willingless to sacrifice himself on a game, and his collected, calculating nature make him very compelling. He is perhaps one of the most ambiguous yet well defined characters to ever grace an anime.
I know what you’re thinking. “LOL BUT BRIK I DONT KNOW HOW TO PLAY MAHJONG LOL SO I WONT BE ABLE TO WATCH THIS SERIES LOL SO I SHOULD PROBABLY WATCH KANON INSTEAD LOL!” Actually, you don’t need to worry. The beauty of Akagi is that you don’t need to know how to play Mahjong to enjoy it. They explain the basics of the game in the beginning, and throughout the series they give you info about the players’ hands so you can follow what’s going on. While knowledge of Mahjong would certainly enhance aspects of the series, it is by no means a requirement. I had 0% knowledge of the game beforehand, and I enjoyed the hell out of the series. Don’t let something like that hold you back from watching it.
Akagi also excels on a technical level. The music is atmospheric and quickly draws you into the scenes. It manages to be subdued when necessary, and rousing when required. It does everything it needs to do, and does it exceedingly well. The acting is great, too. All of the supporting cast members turn in terrific performances. The voice actor for Akagi plays him perfectly, with the right amount of ambiguity, craziness, and confidence necessary to pull off such a potentially tricky role. Someone less talented could have fucked it up and ruined Akagi, but Masato Hagiwara did a great job. The animation quality is very good as well. While most of the series features four people sitting around a table, when there is motion (like someone forcefully slapping down a Mahjong tile), it is incredibly fluid. The actual detail put into the animation is astounding. The character designs are quite unique for anime. Everyone has a very rigid, jagged look to them with pointy noses and spiky jaw lines. However, given the testosterone fueled atmosphere, it seems to work on a rugged, manly kind of level. It’s GAR but not gay. Rest assured, you won’t find any girly, moe bullshit in Akagi.
The only complaint I had was the ending. After watching anime for 10 years now, I’ve come to expect shitty endings in great series. Akagi does end, but not exactly. The final match is left in play, however, in the last seconds we flash forward 30-some years to see Akagi alive, clearly having won his final match. So you know the outcome. (Like I said before, you are always certain he is going to win, but you want to see how he does it.) What you don’t know is how he did it. I suppose it’s satisfying enough. But I would love to see a Season 2 or OVA or movie to wrap things up a little better. Nevertheless, considering that Akagi shows the conclusion to the match, it’s good enough, and does not have me tearing out my hair like the ending of Berserk.
Overall, Akagi is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s insightful, well written, suspenseful, and exciting. There are very few anime which take a path to show you psychological warfare. This one takes that road, and the result is a very unique, very entertaining series. Akagi is an anime you should pick up. Just like taking a cursory glance at Gurren Lagann, you wouldn’t expect it to be good, but it turns out to be much better than you expected. If I ever write a review of Gurren Lagann I’m going to title it: Gurren Lagann – The Akagi of Giant Robot Anime.