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Four years ago I arrived in the Netherlands. In a few days, I return to the United States. I don’t know exactly where this post will go, but I feel it is important to say something about my time in Europe, both as a person and as a fan of anime and manga. I apologize for the rambling that’s about to ensue.

I’ve lived outside of the United States before, having spent a few months studying abroad in Japan (almost 10 years ago at this point!), but never had I been in a foreign country for so long. I can’t say I ever truly acclimated myself to this environment (I never even got fluent in the language, after all), but I managed a comfortable existence. Even putting aside amazing culinary cultures such as France and Germany, food has been an (often deep-fried) adventure. I’ll miss the Indonesian cuisine and the herring especially.

I could go on forever about food, though, so I’ll speak mainly about things that are more directly pertinent about being an otaku. One aspect that I had been somewhat aware of in the past but that had rarely entered my mind was that different countries have unique relationships with Japan, and this is certainly the case with the Netherlands. Famously the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed in Japan for a long time, and they stayed exclusively on the island of Deshima (or Dejima). So what does a Dutch group dedicated to bringing Japanese music to anime conventions in the Netherlands call itself? Deshima Sounds. It makes sense.

It was fascinating to see a different anime con culture compared to the US. The conventions certainly never even approach the massive attendances of an Otakon or an Anime Expo, but they have their own charm. From my first convention experience here, one aspect that really stood out to me was how the Artists’ Alleys greatly emphasized the production of full-on comics (one might even call them doujinshi) over individual images. While I don’t know if this is truly relevant, I do know that the Netherlands historically has been considered a strong country for book-publishing, allowing things that could get one in trouble in other countries (and I don’t mean pornography). It’s actually something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the US.

Speaking of fans, I must apologize to the folks over at Manga Kissa in Utrecht for never really going, but I am fully behind their endeavor to provide an actual manga cafe with a wide selection. If you’re ever in Utrecht, I recommend you check it out, as it’s a nice place to relax.

idolmaster-satakeminako

While my focus has been on anime and manga for a long time, I was also presently surprised to find out that the Netherlands has its own comics culture. Whenever I went to a new city, I often looked around for a comic store, and while many of the comics were simply French or Belgian comics translated into Dutch, even that was interesting because of how the Dutch preferred less expensive paperbacks over the elaborate hardcovers one would find elsewhere. It was actually amazing to be able to attend an event and just walk straight up to some of the biggest names in the industry and get a sketch at no cost and without a significant wait in line.

Around 2009 or so, I began to get into Japanese mahjong after having watched shows such as Akagi and Saki. Having originally played online, I eventually found a group to play with in real life, but it wasn’t until I lived in the Netherlands that I had the opportunity to actually attend tournaments and to compete for pride and glory (there were never any cash prizes but that’s okay). This country is small enough that even a tournament at a fairly obscure location was never too difficult to get to, and to find a fairly thriving riichi mahjong scene makes me incredibly grateful. I’ve met people from all over the world at these tournaments, gained some nice friends, and it’s even legitimately improved my mahjong to boot. Many of the Dutch players had originally come from a different style of mahjong, and so when playing them I had to learn that my style, which was built from playing the Tenhou online ladder, simply did not work. I had to re-evaluate how I looked at the game, and this experience is something I’ll never forget. I leave being fairly satisfied with my own performance, having attended three European tournaments and having placed 10th, 20th, and 6th.

Then there’s the rest of Europe to talk about! I wasn’t able to go to every country I had set my eyes on (Sweden, Luxembourg, and Switzerland I’ll perhaps regret not seeing most of all), but of the places I did have the pleasure of visiting I actually discovered quite a bit about geek fandom in general. I visit New York’s “Forbidden Planet” regularly, but it pales in comparison to the one in London. The comics museum in Belgium was a blast and made me want to read European comics more than ever.

Paris is, perhaps predictably, the most notable of all. While I had heard that the French were big into anime, it didn’t hit me until a simple trip from the hotel to the city center involved passing by not one, but multiple cosplay shops, in areas that didn’t even necessarily show signs of otakudom otherwise. Upon entering the toy and comic stores, I was continuously greeted by the ubiquitous presence of one UFO Robo Grendizer. I was already aware of the fact that Grendizer was a big deal for the French (and the Italian), that it was basically to them what Voltron was to the US, but in a way it was so much more. At the time, I suspected that the French benefited from the fact that Japan still continuously produced new Grendizer merchandise, and I think that theory still holds today.

I also got to attend a few Starcraft II events, which was wild.

Thank you to everyone who helped me out while I was living in a continent I had never even visited before. You’ve made my life that much richer, and I hope we can meet again someday. And yes, I am now aware of Alfred J. Kwak.

animemosaic-dutchcaracters

In a few days, I head to Otakon in Baltimore, which itself is undergoing a big transition with its eventual move to Washington, DC in 2016. Otakon is familiar territory at this point, yet I can’t help but feel that there will be some strange kind of culture shock for myself.

mahjong-4dan

In December of 2010 I wrote a post about how I had finally achieved 3-Dan on the mahjong website Tenhou. Finally, after three and a half years, I have hit the next level and rose into 4-dan. The fact that it’s taken me this amount of time to get to 4-dan is either great or embarrassing depending on your own mahjong skills, but I realized that part of the reason I was finally able to break that barrier was that I had stepped away from the game for a while (unless you count posts about Saki or Akagi, I haven’t really posted much about mahjong lately), and that this has in some ways contributed to me being able to play better.

A few months ago someone asked me, “How do you not get angry when playing on Tenhou?” My answer was simple: I do get angry, all the time. Mahjong is a game that takes a lot of mental energy and so long sessions end up being quite taxing on the brain. Since about September of last year I’ve had to really focus on my work, so that risk that mental and emotional exhaustion that comes from playing mahjong wasn’t really worth it to me. During this time, I made occasional trips back to the table (virtual or otherwise) that reminded me of how rusty I become from playing less often, but also actually helped me to distance myself from mahjong and to improve my mental game immensely.

As with many things, one of the dangerous things about going on tilt in mahjong is that your “vision” in terms of what is possible or what is supposed to happen starts to narrow. When you’re not winning hands despite being in great positions, or when you feel like it’s totally “unfair” that you got screwed over in some way, it can cloud your judgment and cause you to make mistakes you may not have made otherwise. One sign I’ve learned to watch out for is when I get too desperate for pinfu. It may be the simplest hand in the game to achieve, but when I’m so obsessed with trying to win “anything at all” I realize I’m not actually playing mahjong. Stepping away from the game has helped me to realize this.

Another thing stepping away allows for, at least far as my relatively low level is concerned, is that it has helped me develop more versatility. Tenhou breeds a certain kind of mahjong player: someone who’s conservative in play, calculates risk extensively, and has a decent head for numbers. It’s the “proper” way to play mahjong, and so when on the Tenhou ladder you tend to learn to play against people like that. However, if thrown in a situation where others are playing “improperly,” doing the things that are suboptimal yet somehow winning anyway, I’ve noticed that a lot of better players have trouble dealing with this, including myself. What I realized eventually was that it was just as much my problem for not having the adaptability to deal with different types of players regardless of whether they pay no attention to theory and probability. It’s kind of like complaining about button mashers in fighting games or not being prepared for a Shedinja in Pokemon. “Nobody does that! You’ll lose more than you’ll win with that!” And yet, at the end of the day, you’re the one who couldn’t deal with it.

Speaking of fighting games, I recommend this video from fighting game community veteran James Chen on “reading your opponent.” I’ve skipped to the part where he talks about why “advanced” players tend to be kind of double-edged swords because they play too close to the theoretical optimal.

Perhaps the most significant if seemingly contradictory thing is that because I’ve distanced myself from mahjong, I’ve actually developed a better sense of my own style, how I want to play. Thus, when I managed to finally find not just some free time, but a week or two to where I could redirect my mental energy to other tasks again, I decided to get back on Tenhou and finally aim for 4-dan. There were of course many highs and lows, but I think that, as I explained to an extent above, trying to “make up for what you’ve lost” from one game to the next is the wrong way to look at it. The more you think, “I got 4th this one game, so I need to get 1st in the next two games!” the more likely you’re going to fall further down the hole. It happened to me quite a bit, as I hadn’t merely stayed in 3-dan the whole time, but actually moved between 1-dan and 3-dan as my own frustration got the better of me. Of course luck is a factor in this game, but not letting it get the better of you emotionally is also important.

mahjong-chihou

In the end, if I can get hit by a chihou of all things (SERIOUSLY A CHIHOU) and still rebound, then I feel pretty good about my future prospects. That said, I still haven’t fully memorized the score chart. Oops.

Over yonder, beyond the horizon, is the Saki individuals tournament arc. It’s been referred to frequently throughout the series, and though at this point the manga is a long, long way from reaching it, it does give me the joy of speculating who might face whom as they go through the brackets (or round robin system, not sure which they’re using). One I’ve already mentioned before is Amae Koromo vs. Oohoshi Awai because of how their strengths lie at opposite ends of the game, but there are plenty of others.

Minor manga spoilers, by the way. Remember though, these are not actual matches but just ones (in no particular order) that I’d like to see.

1) Kataoka “Tacos” Yuuki vs. Usuzumi “Hell’s Gate” Hatsumi

I think this one is pretty obvious. Imagine Yuuki as dealer in the East round (meaning she’s double East) versus Hatsumi in the North position. To whom do the East tiles go?

2) Oohoshi “Double Riichi” Awai vs. Anetai “Undertaker” Toyone

Awai’s insane Double Riichi vs. Toyone’s Pursuit Riichi. Who overpowers who?

3) Matano “Fisherman” Seiko vs. Inoue “Strategic Pon” Jun

Both have a tendency to call for tiles but for very different reasons (winning vs. control). Seeing them in the same match would likely make for a very aggressive game.

4) Funakubo “Osaka Data Girl” Hiroko vs. Sawamura “Nagano Data Girl” Tomoki

Two characters who specialize in gathering information on their opponents. Who is the better strategist?

5) Aislinn “New Zealander” Wishart vs. Hao “Chinese-Style” Huiyu

Aislinn is capable of envisioning the perfect scenario in her mind and having it play out to her advantage. Mako ruined her day by disrupting the discard patterns that Aislinn had set out, but then Huiyu tends to prefer closed, quiet hands. At the same time, Huiyu’s Chinese-influenced play style is highly unorthodox and could disrupt Aislinn possibly without any effort on Huiyu’s part.

Akagi recently made its official English-language debut on Crunchyroll. In light of this, I’ve begun to think about the character of Akagi Shigeru and his peculiar sense of ethics.

For the most part everything about Akagi revolves around the “gamble,” experiencing that life or death scenario where not even your wits may be enough to save you. He cares little for the law, for love, or even money, and in his pursuit of death he’ll even run out in the middle of the night and beat thugs senseless without any regard for concepts like “justice.” What’s strange about Akagi (aside from the obvious) is on a few occasions he will actually come to the aid of some poor individual who’s usually stuck in some terrible gamble where they’re losing money to unscrupulous vultures. This seeming sense of compassion appears somewhat inconsistent with Akagi’s amorality, but I think there is a definite logic to the character.

In order to understand why Akagi will help others, I think it’s important to also understand why Akagi will go to great lengths to break someone’s spirit. When Akagi sees someone getting taken to the cleaners, he sees not only the man being grifted but the grifters themselves, and in those manipulators he sees people who think they’re guaranteed to win no matter what. The idea of a zero-risk wager goes completely against Akagi’s ideal for what gambling should be. In his eyes, something is only a gamble when everyone has to put their lives on the line either figuratively or literally. It’s why he’s so disgusted with Fake Akagi, who uses number-crunching and probability to take the safest route and minimize loss.

This is what drives his major matches throughout the series, as Akagi finishes his opponents when they’ve given up the gamble and are going for guaranteed scenarios. Against the blind man Ichikawa, Akagi sees how he is willing to swap tiles out to create a safety net, and so severs those ropes through mind-boggling moves. Urabe tries to find a point at which he could simply run away almost risk-free, so Akagi moves to topple him by making Urabe doubt his own discards. Washizu is blessed by the gods with both luck and wealth, and Akagi takes it upon himself to instill fear in him.

When I analyzed the other major Fukumoto hero Itou Kaiji, I said that Akagi would probably be a little jealous of Kaiji because Kaiji may be closer to the gambling ideal than Akagi can ever be. In that situation, you cannot even rely on your own strengths, and Akagi, with that pesky thing called talent, requires more effort to walk the tightrope between life and death. Getting back to the downtrodden sad sacks of the world, Akagi doesn’t need to teach them what it’s like to fear or suffer. Life has already given that lesson better than Akagi ever could. So instead Akagi tries to teach them what it’s like to stare death in the face, because being a gambler isn’t about guaranteed failure either, but the willingness to move ahead, even if it’s one small step.

After much delay, I finally started playing NiGHTS into dreams… HD. I’ve never played too many games on my PC just because I didn’t even have a proper controller for a lot of the genres I normally play otherwise, but I decided to just go, “To hell with it” and purchase an X-Box 360 controller. I know I was hankering for some retro gaming when I decided to buy it in euros even though it’d cost me a little extra.

I’m not really going to review NiGHTS here just because the game has such a powerful reputation, a cult classic that all Sega Saturn owners either remember fondly or always pined after. It is indeed an exquisite game, especially in its visual presentation and its smooth controls, but what I’ve found upon returning to my old favorite is that the game occupies this strange space for me where it is both somehow therapeutic while at the same time motivating and challenging.

Actually, I will say one thing about the game: it doesn’t control quite like the original Sega Saturn NiGHTS, and while the difference isn’t huge, it’s still noticeable for someone like me who poured hours and hours and hours into the old one. Playing widescreen can also throw off my sense of timing because the camera changes at ever-so-slightly different points.

I’ve written previously about how a current hobby of mine, Japanese mahjong, is a combination of luck and deception, and is thus enormously nerve-wracking. NiGHTS isn’t this, but it also doesn’t feel “casual” or “mindless.” Rather, it’s a game with a simple, clear-cut goal (get the highest score while beating each stage and boss), but I always feel like the game is only as intense as I want it to be. Unlike another perennial favorite of mine, Pokemon, it also isn’t hampered by the permanence of decisions (can’t use your single-player team because it wasn’t EV-trained properly!!!) If I want to just enjoy the bright colors and scenery, I can. If I want to push myself to get as close to perfect as possible, I can. If I just want to fight the bosses over and over again (and I do love doing that), I actually can now, thanks to NiGHTS HD. I can kill Gulpo in 10 seconds.

That reminds me that, even back then, my biggest complaint about the game is that the bosses are simply too easy regardless of whether you’ve played the game a ton or not. It’s the one thing that I think the sequel, NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, improved upon tremendously (except for that stupid and frustrating fight against Bomamba).

As a manga about cute girls with mahjong superpowers playing in tournaments, Saki constantly adds new characters as opponents for its heroines. We’re getting to the point where the cast is not just large but enormous, which has me wanting to see characters who are not normally associated with each other paired together. I don’t mean that in the yuri sense, but in the mahjong throwdown sense.

The two characters I really want to see square off against each other, possibly in the national individuals tournament, are the lunar-powered Amae Koromo, Miyanaga Saki’s final opponent in the Nagano prefectural team tournament, and the double-riiching Oohoshi Awai from Shiraitodai, who is a teammate of Saki’s sister Teru. The reason why I want to see a mahjong match between them is because their respective abilities appear to function almost opposite to the other’s.

Koromo has two main abilities. The first is that she can consistently win by drawing the last tile in a game, also known as Haitei Raoyue, or “scooping the moon from the bottom of the sea.” When combined with her second ability, which is that she can bog down her opponents’ hands, making them unable to reach tenpai no matter how hard they try, it means a slow, painful death to her adversaries.

Awai also has two abilities. Rather than winning on the very last tile Awai is firstly able to reach tenpai on her opening hands and call a double riichi, and then combo off of it for big points. Along with her second ability, which is to induce awful starting hands in her opponents, it means she’s able to reach victory more quickly while everyone else is scrambling to assemble even a semi-decent hand.

So you have a character who wins by giving herself a large advantage at the start, and who aims to win early, versus a character who stifles opponents’ progress throughout the game and wins by dragging them down. If you look at those power sets, it would appear that Awai has the advantage as she can get to tenpai at the very start, and win well before Koromo gets to the last tile. However, this also means that Awai’s negative influence on her opponents’ starting hands affects Koromo less because she generally aims for Haitei anyway (though neither of them have to use their powers). The impression I get from them is the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object, and it all hinges on whether or not Koromo’s ability to prevent hands from forming affects someone already in tenpai. Other factors that might contribute to how this plays out are that Awai doesn’t win off of her kans but simply uses them to bolster her hand in big ways, as well as what appears to be a limitation of Awai in that she can’t use her powers simultaneously while Koromo can. I suspect that the degree to which one character’s abilities outrank the other’s will have to do with Koromo’s tendency to be influenced by phases of the moon.

I’m aware how ridiculous this all sounds, and at the end of the day Saki abilities don’t actually make sense. However, I do think this confrontation is likely to happen as Saki continues, so I remain hopeful towards seeing it happen in the actual story.

Girls und Panzer is one of the latest in a long line of anime and manga which mix a unique activity or concept with a cast of cute girls, in this case World War II-era tanks. I’ve enjoyed many such shows over the years, but I think Girls und Panzer is actually the strongest anime I’ve seen in this genre because it possesses qualities which give it the capacity to reach an audience beyond the fanbase one would normally expect. More than the spectacle and the juxtaposition of girls and tanks, Girls und Panzer delivers a good story.

In the world of Girls und Panzer, the act of piloting tanks is considered a traditional feminine martial art and widely revered sport, much like archery. Referred to as senshado, or “way of the tank,” in a fashion similar to how bushido is “way of the samurai” and judo “the gentle way,” and tankery in the official subtitles (invoking the similarity in reputation to archery), the main character Nishizumi Miho comes from a prestigious family and school of senshado. Because of an event in her past, Miho has deliberately transferred to a school without any tankery in order to escape it, but has the unfortunate timing of coming in right when the school decides to bring it back. As the only person in the entire school with experience in senshado, Miho gets roped into participating so that they can compete in a national tournament, and along the way rediscovers her passion for the art.

It’s a strange premise to be sure, though not that different from girls playing mahjong in a world where the game is enormously popular (Saki), or one where girls use magic to become half-human/half-airplane (Strike Witches). Also, while Girls und Panzer may not be as firm in establishing extremely distinct personalities and quirks for its characters as those other shows, it also goes beyond simply being a large cast of cute girls by doing three things especially well. First, it establishes a protagonist with a solid sense of purpose and desire in Miho, who becomes the moral, narrative, and strategic anchor for all of the other characters (of which there are many; it’s a cast of dozens). Second, it has well thought-out narrative arcs for its characters which give the story a clear sense of direction. Third, it knows how to create tension and anticipation to keep interest in both the characters and the premise of the show itself.

Compare Girls und Panzer to Saki, for instance. In both stories, the main heroines have the problem that, in spite of their talents in the specialty of their series, neither of them find it particularly enjoyable, and part of both Girls und Panzer and Saki is that they discover what it means to have fun doing either tankery or mahjong. What does it mean to have fun, though? What do they achieve by learning this? For Miyanaga Saki, it’s never really clear. She plays a lot of people who are as strong as she is, and learns that mahjong is fun, but the idea just seems to end there. For Nishizumi Miho, on the other hand, Girls und Panzer shows how moving to a different school, breaking from her family and their established methods of senshado, and discovering the fun of tanks all have a significant impact on her because Miho’s greatest strength as a commander—adaptability—is given room to grow in a way it wouldn’t be able to otherwise. In this way, Miho’s character becomes somewhat of a poster child for the philosophy of  Bruce Lee, particularly the following quote:

“In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” 

It was a criticism of traditional martial arts schools for being too caught up in perpetuating restrictive rules which could prevent people from reaching their true potentials. Girls und Panzer as Jeet Kune Do analogy.

Even before all that, though, the very first episode works to establish the idea that Miho is something special, building up that sense of anticipation which pays off when you see her in action. In this regard, Girls und Panzer reminds me a lot of Initial D and how it would hint at its main character Takumi’s skill at racing, so that when he finally gets behind the wheel you’re already invested in him. The show also follows the Initial D school of stopping an episode right in the middle of action and never giving a good point to walk away, which makes it hard to watch just one episode at a time, unless you were delayed for the week, or even months as the case may be, as Girls und Panzer‘s final episodes aired after a long break.

As for the tanks themselves, I am not a tank fanatic or particularly knowledgeable about them, so I can’t comment in that regard, but what I can say is that the series does an excellent job of portraying the tank battles in terms of thrill and excitement. Each of the tanks are shown to have particular strengths and limitations, and seeing the utilization of these qualities in terms of strategy and tactics, especially positioning, invokes the same feel one can get from the battles in Banner of the Stars or even Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where the unorthodox strategist Yang Wenli is in some ways similar to Miho. The actual animation of the tank battles is also very impressive, and is probably the best integration of 3D and 2D animation that I’ve ever seen. Very rarely does the show make its use of 3D appear awkward, which makes it easier to stay focused on what’s happening and not how strange everything looks.

Another thing I want to say is that with a show like Girls und Panzer which glorifies a well-known and still relevant weapon of war, it is easy to criticize it as promoting militarism in a very direct manner. However, I think it isn’t so simple, as the transformation of tanks into a “martial art” resembles the origins of many sports, including judo, which was specifically modified from its combative origins to be a way for self-improvement and healthy competition. It’s possible to criticize all competitive sports for promoting aggressive tendencies in people, but I think  Girls und Panzer has the potential to separate the beauty of machinery from its function of war.

For some, the premise of Girls und Panzer sells itself, but for the skeptical, or those who avoid this type of show like the plague, I would dare say that this is your best bet for finding something you’ll actually want to watch. Either way, it has the potential to become the standard by which all shows of its kind will be judged.

Note: the page is is read left to right.

Further reading:

For my thoughts (and a summary) of Singapore-style mahjong, go here, as well as here.

The American-style mahjong conceptual narration and comic page (the two are somewhat unrelated).

My initial idea of having manga about all styles of mahjong.

I once had a conversation with friends where they expressed bewilderment that people could enjoy casual games. To them, games are about challenges, puzzles, something to figure out in order to overcome or outwit an opponent be they computer-generated or another human being. As a gamer myself it’s something I understand, but I also know how daunting or even draining the “gamer” mindset can be, and I feel the ups and downs of “true gaming” in my experience with online mahjong.

I’ve been playing Japanese-style mahjong for a few years now, and it’s a game I find fascinating for a variety of reasons. In mahjong you have this mixture of skill and luck which creates a dynamic interaction between its players. The game is such that it’s possible to create complex plans and intricate webs of deception to upset your opponents, but the random component means the best-laid plans can go to waste, and adapting to the “unfairness” of the luck elements by knowing when to call it quits becomes part of the strategy. In other words, when playing mahjong your mind has to be sharp and focused, but what happens when you’re not at your best?

This is the problem I run into with mahjong sometimes, and why I feel able to understand the casual game mindset. I love mahjong at this point, but there are times when the day was long and I’m all worn out mentally, and I’m looking for just a way to relieve stress. At times like this, I’ve made the mistake of trying to use online mahjong as a way to relax and I’ve been punished nearly every time. In those instances, I want to treat mahjong like a punching bag, except that in this case the bag punches back. Mahjong is the type of game where trying to win a hand at all costs just makes you vulnerable. In these situations when one’s mental condition isn’t the best, decent opponents can exploit it without even trying because it’s basically the equivalent of running straight at them in the hopes they won’t fire first. Naturally, watching my rank drop as I make this simple mistake over and over again causes more stress instead of less.

It’s not mahjong’s fault, though, that it fails to do what I want it to in those instances, and that’s where casual games come in. They can be your reward for a hard-fought day, as just a way to escape from pressure. The games might be even more random than mahjong, but clicking a lot can basically be the mental equivalent of punching a pillow over and over. This is not to say that casual games can’t have any skill or challenge component (Angry Birds being perhaps the most prominent example, and you can pretty much auto-pilot Tetris), but that it can be tough to feel like life is beating you down and then a video game is too. Sometimes, people might just want to have the comfort of knowing they’ll always win (or at least win eventually), and they might even be willing to put down $5 just for that luxury.

As a follow-up of sorts to my previous post about American Mahjong, I drew this (read left to right):

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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