Hikaru no Go vol. 1
Mike Toole rates it:
Author/artist: Yumi Hotta/Takeshi Obata
It’s become common to point this out with the ascent of manga in the west, but I just love the way there are comics about damn near every possible subject in Japan. I appreciate that there’s standard action and superhero stuff, sweeping drama and romance, slapstick teen comedies, westerns, samurai period pieces, hard science fiction, supernatural erotica– hell, if you have horrifying fetishes involving people getting chopped up and stored in designer luggage, a crazy comic artist named Wai Uziga has just want the doctor ordered. Since manga’s diversity has actually become an important selling point (it’s a hit with kids and teens, because unlike American superhero comics, there’s stuff that’s targeted towards them), it’s not at all suprising that we’ve been hit with one of the most unlikely runaway hit series’ I’ve ever read– Hikaru no Go, a quirky, action-packed coming of age story about Go, the ancient Japanese strategy board game.
If you’ve done your homework on manga, you know that there’s nothing too unusual about the subject matter. There’s actually an entire genre of manga stories devoted to fierce, two-fisted tales of mah-jongg wizardry, and there have been plenty of big comic hits in Japan that have covered topics like horse racing, pachinko, and sushi making. Hikaru no Go‘s title character, Hikaru Shindo, doesn’t give a crap about Go at the beginning of this book. He’s just an ordinary sixth-grader with a weird haircut and the kind of irrational greed that only a dumb teenaged kid can have, as he kills time with his buddy Akari by rummaging through his grandpa’s attic, looking for junk to hawk. He eventually comes across a heavy wooden Go board, a huge block of wood with a curious bloodstain on it. As he wonders over this artifact, Hikaru is scared out of his wits by a voice asking if he can hear it– a voice inside his head!
Hikaru isn’t crazy. The voice he’s hearing belongs to a ghost. The ghost is Fujiwara no Sai, an imperial courtier of the Heian period (his name and garb makes me think he’s an omyouji, a mystic, but apparently he’s just a really good Go player)– his only love in life was Go, he was personal instructor to the Emperor, and he died in despair after losing a crucial match to a cheating opponent. But Fujiwara felt compelled to remain on earth, because he hadn’t yet played something he calls the “divine move.” His soul remained on earth, bound to a Go board, hoping to find a kindred spirit that would allow him to play Go again. He got a chance to get in lots of practice centuries later, when he befriended the famous Edo-era Go champion Hon’inbo Shusaku.
But Shusaku died before his time, and Fujiwara was again shut away, unable to follow his passion– until Hikaru found the board, and found him. He can talk to Hikaru; Hikaru is even able to observe an apparition of him. But the thing is, the kid has absolutely no interest in Go. This fact fills Fujiwara with so much horror at not being able to play that his ill feelings spill over into Hikaru’s psyche, making the kid nauseous. Eventually, a compromise is reached– Fujiwara can get his jollies by coaching the disinterested Hikaru in the art of Go, and in return, the educated Fujiwara will help Hikaru get better grades in his classes.
It sounds like a strange formula, but it works wonderfully well. Hikaru is skeptical at the phantom’s endearing enthusiasm for the game, but as he takes his first tentative steps as a player, first by trying unsuccessfully to win against his seasoned grandpa, who gives him the brush-off, and then by going to a Go parlor and later crashing a junior tournament, Hikaru’s interest in the game slowly starts to take form. He’s fascinated by his first rival, a young Go genius named Akira Toya. Toya is a great player, but he’s blown away by Fujiwara’s expert coaching of Hikaru. But to Toya, it looks like he’s getting his ass whipped by an absolute beginner; he recoils in horror, at a loss to account for how his carefully-honed skills are being bested by a dumb kid. It isn’t long before Hikaru is challenged by Toya Meijin, Akira’s dad and one of Japan’s most prominent Go players– a man who, like Fujiwara, seeks to perform the “divine move.” Even with Fujiwara’s help, can Hikaru develop an interest in the game and go head-to-head with the world’s greatest players?
Hikaru no Go is good, clean fun. Its characters are simple, but not dumb; they aren’t one-note characters. Takeshi Obata’s artwork is clean and brilliant and very appealing to look at, but the main attraction is the characters, their struggles, and the obvious affection for the game of Go displayed by writer Yumi Hotta. One must especially admire Hotta’s storytelling skill– she takes Go, an ancient, stuffy strategy game currently played mostly by nerdy kids and adults and senior citizens, and makes it seem amazingly cool. Go is enjoying a revival in Asia thanks partly to Hikaru no Go– even the local Ameican Go Association was smart enough to recognize a good thing, helping announce Viz’ acquisition of the series last year.
That’s all there really is to say about Hikaru no Go. It has a kind of universal charm that’s very difficult to deny, and it will foster interest in the game if you’re not careful. Altogether, it’s an absolutely top notch shonen title that will appeal to all ages and genders. The world needs more comics like Hikaru no Go.
Added: Saturday, July 17, 2004
Related Link: Viz