The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Saki final reflection and Saki Zenkoku-hen first episode impressions

“I demand your best!” —Graham Aker to Setsuna F. Seiei, Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Season 2 Episode 21

This marks a deviation from my typical posting format, since I am going to do a combined season reflection and episode one reflection at the same time. The approach is simple enough: the paragraphs will be used for a talk about the original run of Saki, and I’ll make use of the figure captions to bring readers up to speed about Saki, as well as talking about the first episode to season two. I immediately begin by noting that Saki shares much in common with Girls und Panzer, except the former precedes the latter by three years, and rather than dealing with armoured warfare, speaks of mahjong. Other than that, both stories are driven by tournaments and a team’s rise to the top from obscurity thanks to newfound spirits introduced by its members. Both stories also feature a protagonist who is initially distant to an activity from their past, and through their experiences with newfound friends, rediscover their love for that activity. The similarities even extend to familial constructs: both Saki and Miho have an elder sister that is very distant, appearing as a cold construct whose talent and skill surpasses theirs. Indeed, these similarities is what led me to pick up Saki, even though my mahjong skills are virtually non-existent (and my familiarity with armour warfare doctrine is much greater). At the end of the day, though, this deficiency wasn’t enough to take away from the anime, which, while I imagine would be immensely enjoyable for those familiar with riichi mahjong, is nonetheless enjoyable for someone such as myself. Before I go further, I would like to mention the seemingly supernatural capacities some of the more skilled players have, which manifest as sparks and flames during matches and can be focussed to trigger localised events under moments of extreme stress. The last time I saw something in a similar vein was in the mockumentary Pure Pwnage, where gamers of a great skill are said to have über-micro. Because micro is defined as a capacity to masterfully rapidly handle decision making and react on instinct to a shifting battlefield, I will continue to refer to the girls’ skills as micro, since similar skills are needed to excel in mahjong.

  • Saki was released in 2009, if I’m not mistaken, while the Saki Achiga-hen episode of side-A was released back in 2012. That is to say, it’s been a long time for Saki fans since the last installation came out in the series.

  • This time around, I decided to do things a little differently, so this post is a sort of two-in-one where I will discuss the entirety of the first season set to images of the second season. For practical reasons, I was only able to acquire a DVD-quality copy of the first season, but this time around, since I’m on the ball, I’ve got access to HD video.

  • Saki looks so much more amazing in high resolution. The first Saki season was animated by GONZO, the same studio who animated the first season of Strike Witches. As such, Saki’s previous incarnation bore resemblance to Strike Witches‘ Yoshika Miyafuji.

  • Let’s introduce Nodoka Hanamura first (left): she is a first-year, who was the previous year’s National Middle School Individual Champion and plays the vice-captain position (4th) on the team. Contrasting the other skilled mahjong players, who draw upon their micro to win, Nodoka depends on her experiences online, entering a zen-like state where she depends entirely on heuristics to determine the best play.

  • As I will note below, I shot through the entire season one in less than a week-and-a-half; after finishing the first episode, which sets the stage for the remainder of the season, I realise now that to fully enjoy what is going on here, one will require some familiarity with the first season.

  • Mihoko Fukuji is Kazekoshi Girls School’s mahjong captain, and is gentle towards everyone (including her mahjong opponents). Mihoko is a perfect figure in her school and takes care of the house chores in the Kazekoshi mahjong club, thinking in doing so allows other members to practice with ease. Like one of my instructors, who had done the same for our for cell and molecular biology class, she is able to remember the names of all hundred members in Kazekoshi’s mahjong club.

  • The first episode is very laid-back in tone, contrasting the thrilling mahjong battles from the first season. However, in the first few moments of the second season’s opener, viewers are treated to some of the same mahjong antics characterising the first season.

  • Despite lacking the air of a nigh-unparalleled mahjong player, Saki Miyanaga is masterful with the rinshan kaihō, or winning off of a tile taken from the dead wall after calling kan. It can even go to the extend that she can call multiple kans off of the dead well en route to the win. It is because of this ability that Hisa places Saki into the captaincy position. Away from the mahjong table, Saki is very shy, an avid bookworm, and has deficiencies in spatial coordination, leading her to lose her way at every tournament she attends.

  • To the left is Mako Someya, a second year who was introduced to mahjong by her grandfather, and Hisa Takei is to the right in this image, a third year student who is the club president. The former is able to use her memory of similar board patterns to try and determine the best means of victory, while the latter is able to utilise “hell waits” – waits with those with just one tile to win. Mako was the first person that Hisa recruited for the mahjong club and became someone that Hisa coould rely upon and she share her concerns to. Hisa exhibits great leadership skills over her team as well as organizing events and communicating with other schools in the prefecture. In addition, she’s very caring towards not just her teammates, but for other players as well.

  • One may notice that my posts completely dispense with any of the specifics behind the riichi-mahjong, which I have no understanding of. Instead, to gauge each match’s directionality, I rely entirely on character reactions and atmosphere to determine who has the advantage at a particular instance, although as with most things, the tide of battle can turn in an instant, as Saki demonstrates during the prefecture team competition.

Saki is able to capture my interest not for the technical details in the gameplay itself, but rather, for its careful pacing to hold the viewer’s interests. Contrasting armoured warfare, mahjong happens at a smaller time-scale and as such, watching a match in reality has a different pace than watching tanks engage one another. As such, Saki is spread out over twenty five episodes, and matches are well-polished. Starting with an introduction to Kiyosumi’s mahjong team, the series depicts Saki Miyanaga’s gradual rekindled love for mahjong, thanks in no small part to Nodoka Haramura. Kiyosumi’s team is composed of Yuuki Kataoka, Hisa Takei and Mako Someya, with Kyoutarou Suga being more of an assistant of sorts. During intermissions between rounds, or during particularly tense moments, characterisation is given to the competitors of all the major schools, providing their backstory into what drives them foreword to strive for victory. Whether it be Kazekoshi Girls’ School’s determination to thank their captain, Mihoko Fukuji, for her sacrifices for the team, Tsuruga Academy’s Momoko Touyoko and Yumi Kajiki, or Ryuumonbuchi High School’s Touka Ryuumonbuchi and Koromo Amae, the other schools are presented in such a way as to give them a distinctly human side in a manner similar to that in Girls und Panzer. The other schools are not merely opponents on the battlefield, but rather, everyone has a reason for participating in the tournament. It certainly adds weight to their fight, even though the title of the series is a clear indicator of the expected outcomes. In Girls und Panzer, the shorter length of the anime precluded exploring the backgrounds behind the other schools, but thanks to its full-length, Saki is able to delve into some of these smaller details. By setting up such a connection, it is, though unsurprising, very rewarding to see everyone gather in the end as friends to play mahjong for fun.

  • Yuuki Kataoka is a first year who dominates the East wind of every game, often jumping out to huge leads against her opponents. She is very fond of tacos and has a child-like personality, but is also is very protective of her friends. Her interactions with Kyoutarou are amusing; she regards the latter as an errand boy, and indeed, Kyoutarou’s presence in the series is quite limited owing to his weak mahjong skills.

  • Because of my lack of familiarity, I cannot assess whether or not a particular play was good or not in the same manner as I had with Girls und Panzer, where my incredibly vast knowledge of military doctrine allowed me to predict the ending exactly as it unfolded.

  • Where as I am an expert at navigation and have full spatial awareness of my relative position even in a new building, poor Saki is the opposite and somehow winds up in the competition hall’s basement. In season one, Saki’s tendencies means that she gets lost while trying to find the bathrooms, leading her team to wonder whether or not she succumbed to Koromo’s play-style.

  • For her reliability and dependable character, Hisa became one of my favourite characters in Saki, providing critical guidance to the mahjong club members during the training camp to optimise their play styles. She manages to draw a 33 in the nationals roster, and with this, the mahjong games will begin again in earnest.

  • Tsuruga Academy’s team include (from left to right) Satomi Kanbara, Kaori Senoo, Yumi Kajiki and Momoko Touyoko. Saki excelled at depicting the different competitors in the prefecture competition, giving them even more characterisation than Girls und Panzer did for the other schools. As such, when the first season ended, the competitors felt more like old friends.

  • Given the intensity of even the prefecture-level games, I imagine that Zenkoku-hen will feature even more über-micro than the first season. I commonly jest that anyone particularly skilled at something has über-micro for their capacity to do it masterfully. In my case, it’s adaptability and prioritisation of tasks, whether it be balancing papers and exams, or deciding what my next move in Battlefield 3 is, granting me what some consider to be unnatural ability as far as finishing things to a high standard goes.

  • This is Kiyosumi’s entire loadout. They captured my interests, and now that season two is here, I’m rooting for Saki as she strives to set things right with her older sister, Teru.

  • I will not bother to analyse the hands as the series wears on, but I can say that this series can be enjoyed fully even if one is unfamiliar with mahjong, rather similar to how Girls und Panzer can be enjoyed fully by individuals who have never heard of the Panzer IV Aus, Kamfwagen or differentiate between a HEAT and kinetic penetrator round.

  • I believe that at the time of writing, three episodes are out. I wonder how the pacing of Zenkoku-hen will go: season one was able to balance the relatively slow-paced matches by using breaks to introduce character backgrounds. Even if Zenkoku-hen is going to be thirteen episodes in length, if masterfully executed, the other teams could get some good stories, and that would be quite interested to watch, provided that they appear quite interesting in their own right.

  • Saki distinctly feels like a cross between Yoshika Miyafuji and Miho Nishizumi. I’ve refrained from introducing anything about the new teams this time: this will be left as an exercise for my next post, where I will talk about purely the second episode and if persuasive in the episode, introduce some of the other teams.

It was a harrowing week-and-a-half for me to catch up with Saki; at present, because term has merely begun and the major deadline of scholarship applications have already been met, things are reasonably light, allowing me to have watched all the episodes quickly enough. Over this short period, the immediate enjoyment factor in Saki stems from a combination of good storytelling to hold the viewer’s interest, capitalisation of downtime to explore backstories, and dramatic visual elements to depict what characters are inwardly feeling during their matches. The design is such that even those with no substantial mahjong background would be able to enjoy Saki. There is one primary element that has not been explored to much detail yet, though: Saki’s distant relation to Teru, her elder sister. The manga suggests that Saki’s incapacity to swim might have a hand in this current status, and with the anime now at the nationals, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens, as well as watching Saki reconcile with Teru in the same way Miho and Maho reconcile at the end of Girls und Panzer. Having now finished Saki owing to the overwhelming powers of multi-core optimisation and mobile systems, I have finally begun watching Saki: Zenkoku-hen. I will close off my reflection here, and promise that I will do a talk on the second episode, before returning at the half-way point and finale to provide insights into the Saki about its strongest points. With the sequel projected at being thirteen episodes long, I’m tempted to do talks for each episode, but unfortunately, time is a premium for me, so after my next Saki post, readers will have to wait until episode six for the next one.

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