Sports anime come in all shapes and sizes these days, though the audiences for them have changed quite a bit over time. Originally (meaning if you go back to the 60s, 70s, and 80s), they were mainly aimed at young boys (the 7-12 crowd) and were quite “serious” (for their intended audience) dramas largely about teamwork and toughness and what it was to be a boy on a sports team. I am not going to bore you with a history of the genre (some out there may already be shouting “Too late!”).
During the last couple of decades, we have seen the stories (many of which originate out of long-running manga series) remain largely the same, but with clear indications that the target demographics have changed a bit (protip: if the story originated in a shounen manga, but the anime seemed to favor…service of a different kind and they later created a live-action stage version…that property is no longer aimed only at boys. 11-year-old boys don’t go to the theater that often).
It’s not all just fujoshi bait, however. There have also been shows that clearly are aimed at a male audience…but just one of a particular type. And that is where we should place Saki, based upon Ritz Kobayashi (now) long-running (and not-running, owing to hiatuses at times) manga about the Kiyosumi High School Mahjong Club.
“Wait?” You’re asking, “that’s not a sport, is it?”
Oh, but it is. At least, in the way that Saki tells its story…if you’re paying any attention to that story. I have been following this property, somewhat, over the better part of a decade now, having been the reviewer for it back during its original broadcast run when all of us worked under a different label (the fondly-remembered, I hope, animeonDVD.com). This was still early days in simulcast streaming of shows from Japan. So, even though I am not really the intended audience for this work (it’s aimed at the Yuri Goggles Brigade), I decided back then to jump into streaming reviewing with that show.
The basic plot is actually one that many sports manga adopt: Saki Miyanaga is a first-year high school student at Kiyosumi High School in Nagano. She doesn’t seem to be particularly unusual or gifted in any way. An average wallflower, not the protagonist of a sports manga. In the very first scene of the show, we see her quietly reading a book, when she catches notice of another first-year girl walking by. This one, bearing pink hair and anatomy that belongs more in eroanime than this show (well, until you learn about the original author’s personal tastes from further reading/watching of the story), seems more like the protagonist of an entirely different kind of show, but all we know is that she’s likely to reappear.
So, what does any of this have to do with sports? Well, Saki is disturbed from her reverie by her friend Kyotarou, who drags her off to the cafeteria (we need not waste time on the incidentals; this opening line of events has a fixed end point). It is revealed that Kyoutarou is into mahjong now and has even joined the school’s club. When Saki says that she hates mahjong, Kyoutarou only hears one thing: she can play. And the team desperately needs a fifth female player so that the club can at least compete in inter-school competitions. Dragging Saki against her will to the clubroom, there, who do we meet other than Ms. Pink Hair and large…let’s pass over that…who is revealed to be Nodoka Hanamura, the national middle school individual champion. Why she isn’t at some powerhouse of a mahjong school but instead slumming it at Kiyosumi is not revealed…and nor do we care. Now they have five players, so the girl’s team can compete. And here, the mind of everyone else is blown when we discover that no only can Saki play mahjong, she can pretty much overwhelm most other players, as if the tiles are not actually random set but following her orders.
However, Saki doesn’t want to play. It basically requires the club president, Hisa Takei (who also happens to the student council president [don’t correct me Hisa, no one cares]), cajoling and bribing Saki to play. Hisa is also a talented player, but through various circumstances had to attend Kiyosumi, where the mahjong club had long disbanded. As a third-year, this is her last chance to make a run at the prefectural tournament and hopefully make it to the national team competition. (Now does this sound more like a sports show? It should).
As we learn more about Saki’s backstory, all of the sports elements fall into place: Saki is actually a talented player, but the breakup of her family helped to turn her away from it. Her elder sister, Teru Miyanaga, is the captain of the national championship team at a high school in Tokyo. So, Saki sets her sights on trying to make it to Tokyo so that she might just be able to get through to her sister, who has basically shut her off completely since the family divided (Saki is with her father in Nagano; Teru with their mother in Tokyo).
Enough with the plot. The way the story is told very much follows the progression of sports shows: team formation; training; tournament arc; training; tournament arc. The pacing and story structure follows them clearly. We have auras and premonitions. Special abilities (too many at times, if you ask me) and complex strategies. Coaches and commentators. We’re clearly in the realm of sports, even if it is just people pushing tiles along a tabletop.
Now, what makes it yuri? In addition to all those sports-style shots, we also get a whole load of meaningful glances exchanged between female players, hand-holding, and longing looks. The only heterosexual romance, if we can even call it that, is played purely for laughs: Kyoutarou lusts after Nodoka and the captain of another school’s team, while the diminutive Yuuki Kataoka of Kiyosumi’s team seems to have feelings for Kyoutarou that he’s aware of, but is completely uninterested in returning (which is a good thing, since Yuuki looks about 11 even if she’s 15). So, instead, we have lots of shots of Saki and Nodoka having eyes only for each other.
For those looking for something stronger, along the lines of the much more recent Bloom Into You for example, you’re not going to find that here. This is all just in the realm of hint and suggestion. Though we do get DRAMA on occasion, especially concerning misunderstandings (as usual) between the girls.
What remains with me all this time is the pacing of that original season. The followup National Tournament arc season and the spinoff Episode of Side A both lack the sheer forward kinetic movement of the original season, which pushes ahead onward and upward until it hits a filler wall late in the second cour (it had effectively caught up to the manga at that point). That, Nodoka’s overblown anatomy, Saki’s infectious enthusiasm for mahjong (shared by the “person inside” Kana Ueda, who in real life is a big mahjong fan and player), and the sheer joy when Saki is able to overcome seemingly impossible odds in her quest to reunite with her sister.
Back then, we only had the opening stages of the journey. The manga is still ongoing, so maybe one day Saki will achieve all of her goals.