As a promoter of mahjong anime alongside my comrade-in-tiles Sub, it was inevitable that I would follow the new series, Saki: Episode of Side A (aka Achiga-hen). Taking place in the same setting as the original Saki anime and manga, the series follows another set of girls working together to take down their fellow tile slingers with yuri subtext so heavy that it might as well be called yuri supertext. Despite its origins and the many similarities between the two Saki series, however, they end up feeling quite different.
I know that this has very much to do with the fact that the manga for Episode of Side A is not drawn by the original artist, Kobayashi Ritz, but by Igurashi Aguri of Bamboo Blade. The girls in Achiga aren’t quite as exaggerated in terms of their personal attributes, which lends them more of a well-roundedness to their characters. In a certain sense, this can be seen as quite a good thing, as Achiga does come across as simply a more tasteful, somewhat more subtle form of Saki (though the yuri is decidedly less subtle), but at the same time I’ve noticed that it becomes more difficult to pick and choose favorites compared to the original series, to think of the characters as iconic extremes. As a quick and informal experiment I asked people on Twitter who their favorite Achiga characters are, and while I received a few responses here and there, it seemed like people thought they were merely okay and much preferred that original cast, and I think that says something.
If you look at the differences between the characters of Saki and Achiga just merely in terms of how they show their mahjong, the original cast of Saki just has way more characters with specific gimmicks and powers. If you look at the main crew of Saki, every single girl in Kiyosumi hassomething. Saki has her tendency towards kans. Nodoka is the pinnacle of the “digital-style” player. Yuuki has tacos and an affinity for the East Wind. Mako can access her memories of mahjong matches like a data bank. Even Hisa, who is the most normal of the bunch, still has her easy-to-summarize gimmick of “intentionally making bad waits.”
In contrast, three out of the five Achiga girls have no identifiable gimmicks. The main character Shizuno appears to just have “tenacity,” and even the Matsumi sisters’ abilities aren’t as wild as Koromo’s ability to always win off of the last tile. Taking this into consideration, I have to wonder if Achiga was set up to intentionally show the “common man,” the more down-to-Earth players.
One of the side effects of having less bombastic characters is that, because Saki primarily conveys its mahjong matches through the use of mahjong super powers, and Achiga‘s characters with their softer abilities can’t be utilized as much in that sense, it becomes harder to clearly identify the attributes that will make a character your favorite. It’s not impossible to pick one of course (Sagimori Arata the bowling girl here), but there’s not much to instantly catch your attention. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I think it’s more than possible to make up for a lack of thrilling game-breaking magic, and in fact I’d probably prefer a series which places the game more in the characters’ psychological states than their special abilities (see the obvious example of Akagi), but Achiga doesn’t really add anything to make up for it in terms of the mahjong, and in fact just blazes through the games, making the yuri aspect seem that much more prominent.
I know there’s this idea that Saki is really just all about yuri, but while I think that it’s certainly a prominent aspect of the series I also think that the mahjong itself as a vehicle for simplified character expression played quite a role in attracting people to Saki as well. I don’t expect people to actually learn the rules of mahjong, and there’s nothing that says tenacity has to be less amazing as a character attribute than using a mahjong Sharingan (and probably shouldn’t be), but the degree to which the mahjong gets skipped over or rushed through in Saki: Episode of Side A sure makes it seem that way.
(But don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying the whole thing.)