Almost exactly 10 years ago, Hikaru no Go aired and re-popularized the ancient strategy game of Igo (or “Go”) for its young audience. I’m sure if I had seen it back then, I, too, would have wanted to hop onto the bandwagon and learn how to play. Luckily for me, I stumbled across the show while browsing through Netflix, where it is currently available in all its Viz Media subtitled glory. Warning, spoilers ahead.
HnG is a coming of age story about a 12-year-old boy who stumbles across an old Go board and is possessed by a ghost from the Heian Period named “Sai”. Although he starts out as a typical energetic boy with no particular goals to focus on, through Sai’s love of Go, he gradually begins to show interest in the game. This interest turns into full out passion once a rivalry is formed with fellow middle schooler Toya Akira. Over the course of the 75 episodes, Hikaru matures both in body and skill, eventually starting on his own quest to play the “Divine Move” that all serious Go players seek.
In a way, this anime reminds me a lot of Cross Game, which is similarly a shounen tale about a game, growing up, and love. Like CG, HnG centers on a game, one that exercises the mind to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. Both are also longer series, CG running for 50 episodes. We get to see the characters age and improve at their games; despite their raw talent, neither one of them takes hard work for granted. And when I say love, I mean love in its purest form. The love in CG is more of a young, romantic love, while you might consider it a friendship-type of love in the case of HnG.
Go is an interesting game, but I have absolutely no concept of how it’s played. You can’t really think of it as similar to chess, since there already is a game considered to be the Japanese version of chess, and that’s shogi. Chinese in origin, the idea of Go is to simply surround more territory than your opponent. This is obviously much more difficult than it sounds, and I’m impressed at the anime’s ability to make a game of which I know nothing look so competitive and thrilling. The intensity they put into each game and every move made me feel like I knew the reasons behind their actions, and when they were shocked, so was I.
Something I didn’t really appreciate until the latter half of the anime was the length of time we shared with both Sai and Hikaru over the years. I suddenly noticed Hikaru had grown taller, that his face was longer and more angular. He was no longer the pudgy-faced little boy who didn’t even know how to properly place the stones on the board. Compared to Sai, who never changed in appearance, Hikaru’s growth in body and impressive improvement in his game made me feel like I really knew who he was. The audience watched him grow, experienced the same trials and stumps as him, and felt the thrill of the pay off in each winning game. Sai’s eventual understanding of his suspended state in life after many thousands of years as a spirit also contributed to the audience’s sense of change; with his acceptance of the true reason behind his continued presence came the ultimate challenge to Hikaru’s coming of age story.
And while this anime was definitely about a game and growing up, it also was just as much an anime about relationships. Arguably the strongest relationship Hikaru forms is the one he shares with Sai, as the two share body and mind with Sai’s possession of Hikaru. Their thoughts intermingle with one another, and eventually Hikaru can think as Sai would in a given situation. While at first the relationship is strained due to Hikaru’s reluctance to their bond, it eventually becomes friendship between teacher and student, even perhaps between a would-be father and son. Sai passes on his dreams and goals to Hikaru, who in turn makes them his own. Another key relationship in HnG is one not so much of traditional ideas of friendship, but one of rivalry. Hikaru and Toya are not friendly with one another for the better part of the show, even going so far as to show animosity for one another. It isn’t until much later after they both have matured do we start to see an unbreakable bond between the two. They respect one another and understand each other in a way that many of their own friends and family members do not. Their obsession with the game and each other almost borders on love in a homoerotic sense, though there is nothing implicitly stated in the anime to support the idea.
HnG excelled in its pacing, pairing each half-year and year of Hikaru’s life since Go with story arcs that spanned several episodes. This also became its weakness. While I enjoyed marathoning each individual arc, the extra time spent on a single tournament or test made the arcs feel like their own mini series. I would often take breaks between the arcs before resuming the anime once again. HnG took me almost a year to finish due to this very reason. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed each mini-story and the greater tale as a whole, it was tempting to just consider myself satisfied with what I had seen and focus solely on currently airing anime. In the end, however, I’m very grateful that I stuck through it and watched it to the end, and it is probably my favorite game anime to date (Chihayafuru may change that!). I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an engrossing story that will have you gripping your chair in anticipation.
Overall score: 9/10 (Great)