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For those of you who were regaled by my tales of exciting mahjong (as well as the tales of others) but were saddened by the fact that you yourself were not able to participate, fear not! There is a new opportunity for you (yes you!) to participate in a live session of Japanese-style “riichi” mahjong! Well, provided you live in the New York area.
This month’s “US Professional Mahjong League” meeting is Sunday, March 28, 2010 from 3-7pm. Address and further information are here. If you’re going, make sure to RSVP on the forums.
I’ll most likely be there, ready to lose.
Just as I had in January, this past weekend I participated in another live session of Japanese-style mahjong, aka “Riichi” or “Reach” mahjong. It’s held by the “United States Professional Mahjong League,” but don’t take that name too seriously. These are not a bunch of hardened grizzled tile veterans who have mastered the game.
Since last time I’d done some more reading on the various types of mahjong out there, from Chinese to Korean to the outright outlandish American style (which features “jokers” of all things), and discovered that, for various reasons, Japanese mahjong is considered much more of a defensive game than the others. Not that this knowledge really helped me too much, but it was a new way of looking at the game. It also makes it clear why Akagi is so crazy: when it comes to his chosen game, a game where “not losing” is generally more important than “winning,” as Sub often puts it, Akagi is an incredibly aggressive player.
Speaking of Sub, he was there too, and we played two hanchan sessions together, i.e. the format which takes longer. I managed to do both well and terribly, winning the first session, where my waits were effective, and then hitting dead last in the second session, where I was largely unable to do anything.
Luck factors aside, and mahjong is certainly full of them, the big thing I realized about myself when it comes to the art of tile-slinging is that I have some issues with mental stamina. After a while, I was just making bad decisions because I couldn’t focus. Not to say I would’ve won had I done that, but I could actually feel my concentration slipping away partway through the second hanchan as I struggled to even think of hands to aim for. It’s something I really have to watch out for; maybe I should bring some fresh fruit to the event to keep my brain sharp and ready.
Or I could keep eating Pringles. Speaking of which, isn’t it amazing that the craving for Pringles feels so different from the craving for normal potato chips? I know I’m amazed.
When it comes to playing mahjong, I am a very recent convert. I’m not good by any stretch of the imagination and I generally make bad decisions, but it’s generally fun and I like the way the game gives you the ability to make constant decisions so that you don’t feel entirely subject to the whims of fate and luck while still incorporating those very same aspects into the game itself. But as fun as it’s been, I knew I had been missing out on the full experience by playing only against people online and against Char Aznable on my DS.
Then fortune struck. Sub of Subatomic Brainfreeze (aka Dave of Colony Drop), himself a newbie in the wild world of mahjong, notified me that someone was holding a live gathering in the NYC area to play reach mahjong, i.e. the Japanese style of mahjong used in all anime and manga. And so we decided to hit it up, see how we stacked up against these other players who more likely than not had far more experience than we did.
The first thing I noticed was just how tiny the Japanese mahjong tiles are. They are significantly smaller than Chinese tiles, almost to the point of being cute. The second thing I noticed was that playing live is awesome.
Having played against real people with real mahjong tiles at a real mahjong table while eating real Pringles, I have to say that I much prefer it to online mahjong. On a basic level, it’s like playing video games with people next to you on the couch instead of playing against them through X-Box Live. But more than that, I loved the feel of the tiles and the way in which I had to manually pick them up and discard them.
I also loved how there was more to go by than just people’s tiles, like their energy; I’m definitely no Akagi Shigeru, but I think anyone can appreciate that element of the game.
Speaking of Akagi, it turns out that almost everyone there had learned how to play reach mahjong because they saw the anime. Basically, everyone was a nerd and that is definitely an environment to which I’m accustomed. I’m waiting for the people who got into mahjong because of Saki to start arriving.
In the end, I played two games total, one East-only game, and an East-South game that was aborted early due to time constraints, getting second place in the first game and first in the second, scoring a few decent hands and calling, “Pon!” and, “Chi!” with gusto. Knowing my results you might think that I was being modest when I said I wasn’t good, but I really do mean it. I don’t know how to score, I can’t do multi-sided waits, and a lot of it I would chalk up to luck. Next time I play, I’m likely going to end up in last place. But that’s the way mahjong rolls, and it’ll still be fun as hell.
In the Anime World Order review of Nobody’s Boy Remi, Gerald Rathkolb discusses the way in which the narrator plays with the expectations of its viewers by saying things that turn out to be completely false a short while after. If the narrator says that Remi found some money and spent it happily, there would likely be a scene shortly after where he accidentally drops the money down a sewer.
Generally, identity-less narrators are seen as omniscient, so either the narrator does not actually know everything, or is actively deceiving the audience. A similar effect happens with misleading episode titles. How many times does Chiba Shigeru in Hokuto no Ken declare in the next episode that a major character is definitely going to die but actually doesn’t? It makes a person begin to doubt the authenticity of words in fiction.
But words are easy to ignore as lies. The very idea of lying is tied closely to the use of words. If someone says you’re lying, it usually has to do with what you’ve said and not what you’ve done. What happens then, when the lies are not words but pictures?
Ambiguity in a given scene is a common technique used in anime and manga to create a sense of tension and drama. In Dragon Ball Z, a character attacks an enemy with so many energy projectiles that a giant explosion occurs where the target was standing. This ambiguous moment is meant to leave the viewer in anticipation as to whether or not the attack worked, though the explosion itself begins to take on a symbolic identity as a red herring and leads the viewer to assume that the opponent did not in fact die. What I’m referring to with visual falsehood though is something far more sinister.
While I cannot speak for everyone, I tend to believe that what is presented to me on the screen or on the page is what has happened in the story. In other words, there is a certain degree of “truth” to the visuals of a manga, because without them how are we supposed to know what has or has not happened?
One prominent manga author who uses visual falsehoods to their utmost advantage is Fukumoto Nobuyuki, creator of gambling series such as Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: The Suffering Pariah -The Ultimate Survivor-, and Gambling Emperor Legend Zero. In Akagi and Ten for example, mahjong hands are displayed right on the page and presented as what a given character has to work with. In the anime for Akagi, the hand is generally displayed by itself floating in a space, as if to say that this is an objective view of the mahjong hand. Of course, it turns out not to be, and we are presented with what is really there.
This is a scene from Zero where the main character is faced with a scenario where he cannot see who is behind the wall. Fukumoto lets us the readers take a peek at the person behind the wall. Then he reveals the truth!
What are we to believe? Reveals like these are downright disarming.
A non-anime/manga example of this comes in the form of Megaman 9. In this game, there is an enemy that disguises itself as a 1-Up icon. Attempting to get a free life will of course result in an unpleasant surprise.
Though the enemy is not difficult to defeat, it creates some paranoia in the player. Just which 1-Ups are real? Does that 1-Up seem too good to be true? The game has challenged your perception of what “should” be.
I do not believe these visual lies impact these works negatively, but when the images themselves are untruths, it can create a sense of imbalance, a distrust for what is in front of you. Keep in mind that in Fukumoto’s case, this never damages the “gambling” or “mystery” aspects of his stories, so you are also unable to just doubt everything and view his works from a position of absolute superiority. It adds a new layer to reading manga, one where you are in a sense competing against the creators themselves.
In thinking about my Taisho Yakyuu Musume-related post from yesterday, I was reminded of one of the difficulties some people have with understanding how varied the appeal of moe can be while still being considered moe. Sometimes people ask, “Why would you want to see helpless girls? Do you like them that way?” And the answer to that is, they’re not helpless, they’re just at a disadvantage, and that has its own appeal from the perspective of a consumer of fiction.
I’m going to present here a quote from the Bible which I think is appropriate given the subject. Better known perhaps as the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30 (New International Version) reads:
14“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents[a] of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
21“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
23“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28” ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Religious connotations aside, this parable highlights the appeal of watching, say, the girls of Taisho Yakyuu Musume strive to beat a boy’s baseball team instead of aiming for a loftier goal: the desire to watch characters try their best to succeed with the abilities they have. You can even see that not all of the girls are the absolute best at the positions they’re given. Sure, some of the girls are already athletic, but many have to train, some harder than others, and ultimately no one expects them to easily surpass the ones with more training and talent, but we look approvingly upon the progress they’ve already made.
While the parable does not map completely to the case of the Baseball Girls, the gist is that the servant fearing that he was not good enough chose instead to bury his head in the sand and hope for the best. What the master wanted to see from the servant was for him to value what he has, even if it wasn’t as much as the servant with ten talents, and do something with it. What I and others want to see is characters who may not be the most skilled or even capable of simple tasks trying hard to accomplish what they can.
In a more secular vernacular, the proper term would probably be, “Work with what you’ve got.” This is why we enjoy watching moe girls try to cook even though they’re terrible at it. This is why we enjoy watching them learn to play baseball without any indication of skill. We’re not hoping for them to fail, we just want to cheer them on and congratulate them for not running to the backyard and burying their one talent.
Don’t compare the moe girls to those more capable than they, but rather look kindly upon what they manage to accomplish taking into account the amount of “talent” they were given.
For examples of character equivalents of the man with five talents, see: Akagi Shigeru, Kenshiro.
If you’ve been watching Saki like me, you may have been impressed with the sheer improbability of many of the characters’ playing styles. If you’ve been playing mahjong along the way too, you may have lamented that you’ll probably never get any of the mega hands that seem to flow like water for Saki characters.
I was like that too, until yesterday when I scored one of the rarest and most difficult-to-achieve hands in the game: Kokushi Musou, also known as 13 Orphans. The hand was so powerful it knocked out one of my opponents in the first round and ended the game instantly. At this point, I almost feel as if I should just stop playing and leave on that very, very high note.
For those of you who know mahjong and are probably much better players than I am, you already know the score. For those who don’t, to properly understand the sheer improbability (there’s that word again!) of a Kokushi Musou hand, I’m going to try to explain it in a way that doesn’t require you to know the rules of mahjong.
Normally in mahjong, you win by having straights and/or three-of-a-kinds as well as a single pair. Most of the hands in mahjong are like this. Kokushi Musou however, cannot be anything but a Kokushi Musou, as the hand actually consists of one pair and then 12 other completely incongruous tiles.
First, what this means is that it is impossible to call on discarded tiles. You may have seen it in Saki or Akagi, where when one player discards a tile another shouts, “Pon!” or “Chi!” or “Kan!” and takes the tile. They are making something, either a three-of-a-kind or a straight or a four-of-a-kind, out of what the opponent had. However, because Kokushi Musou cannot have any straights or three-of-a-kinds, let alone four-of-a-kinds, you cannot call on any tiles without abandoning the attempt to achieve Kokushi Musou. This also means that in order to win, you must draw every necessary tile on your own until your hand is ready to win.
Second, is that while there are other hands which pay just as much as a Kokushi Musou, they usually have a way out, where if the plan to score big fails they can try and fall back on a lower-scoring hand. Kokushi Musou however has no built-in escape routes. If it turns out the tiles you need for Kokushi Musou are 100% unobtainable, then you’re pretty much hosed for the round and you can mount a desperate attack or retreat at best, or you have all the tiles people need to win at worst, which is likely.
Kokushi Musou is called a “Yakuman” hand, essentially an ultimate high-scoring hand. There are also “Counted Yakuman,” where a hand, while not considered one of the Royal Flushes of mahjong, consists of enough high-scoring hands and bonus points to essentially become a Yakuman, not unlike five vehicles combining into a single mighty robot. This Kokushi Musou is my first and only Yakuman ever.
Recently I’ve been wondering, or should I say, hoping that the works of Fukumoto Nobuyuki all take place in the same universe. We already know that Ten and Akagi take place in the same timeline, with the latter being a prequel to the former, but what of everything else?
Can Japan have enough room for the SHADOW PRIME MINISTER OF JAPAN (Washizu from Akagi), the RICHEST MAN IN JAPAN (Zaizen from Zero), and the KING OF JAPAN (Hyoudou from Kaiji)?!
Is there not just one horrible conspiracy controlling Japan, but several, and they all have to be taken down by incredible gambling heroes? Are all of these evil old men actually in competition with one another, vying to see who is truly the ruler of Japan and its seedy gambling underworld? Do they compete to see who is the most ruthless and murderous of them all?
And is there an even stronger hidden ruler above THEM? Could there be a SHADOW DEMON EMPEROR GOD OF JAPAN that would unite the forces of all of our heroes together into 地上最初の賭博軍団, the world’s first Gambling Army?
So basically what I’m saying is, we need to get Imagawa Yasuhiro to make an anime based on Fukumoto’s works.
Incorporating 3D animation into 2D animation has always been a tricky thing, but as technology has improved the integration has become better and better. It can be a time and budget saver, and all it takes is using it intelligently.
Enter the modern mahjong anime. The first screenshot is Saki, and the second is Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness. What they’ve done in each of these shows is designed a full set of mahjong tiles in 3D, and basically use those same tiles throughout, aside from Akagi’s trip through WASHIZU MAHJONG. There’s no need to redraw the delicate details of a mahjong tile every time when you can meticulously etch out the details in Maya or whatever. Maybe YOU should make a mahjong anime with fully rendered tiles!
Go on, I’ll wait.
So you’ve got their mahjong tile set in 3D and you’re wonder, what to do with it? Why, EVERYTHING YOU CAN. Tiles spin around and taunt the players. One tile floats in a player’s head as he contemplates his decisions. Tiles form an unpassable mountain, or perhaps even a golem or giant robot! These are all just representational metaphors for the game of mahjong!
Integrated 2d and 3d which saves time and money! Behold the power of modern animation!
When you first look at an anime like Akagi, there might not be much to grab you especially if you’re an anime fan. The art style is very unusual, some would even say “awful.” You’re not even entirely sure what the show is about, and all you’ve seen of it are screenshots of a guy with a chin so pointy he could use it to assassinate people. But that’s when you look at the full title and realize that’s all you need: It’s not just Akagi, no it’s Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended Into the Darkness.
Akagi is based on a manga about mahjong by Fukumoto Nobuyuki. This might be an unusual topic for you. “Who would make a comic about mahjong?!” However, unlike most cases where this might be shocking (“Who would make a comic about breadmaking?!”), what you have to know here is that mahjong manga are actually quite common in Japan. There are entire magazines devoted to the subject, like if you took Shounen Jump or Shounen Magazine and instead devoted all of the content to how-to-play mahjong guides and mahjong comics. This is the world Akagi comes from.
The titular character is Akagi Shigeru, who when we first see him is a boy in his early teens, who the narrator (voiced by Furuya Tohru i.e. AMURO RAY) tells us will “some day” be a legend in the underworld. Akagi is a lad with a penchant for deadly games which push his body and will to their limits. At this point, Akagi has never played mahjong in his life, but his intelligence, fearlessness, and incredible capacity for gambling with all of his soul without succumbing to pressure make him a perfect match for a game like mahjong, a game where your entire psyche is mapped out in the actions you take. Needless to say, the entire show revolves around Akagi playing Mahjong with a) Yakuza b) people known by the Yakuza c) Yakuza-esque people, and every moment at the mahjong table is filled with the kind of intensity you can only get when your life can be decided by a single, seemingly insignificant action.
You might think that with all this talk of mahjong, you would need to know how to play the game in order to properly understand Akagi. This is not the case at all, and I will attest that I watched the whole show before ever learning anything about mahjong. There’s a lot of strategy involved, but it has little to do with the actual rules of the game and everything to do with human psychology. The way the show is presented makes every moment as tense as possible, as the characters’ minds are assaulted by doubts and fears that come from trying to read another player’s moves.
The art style for Akagi is pretty unusual, but my only complaint about it is that the anime doesn’t quite match up to the art style of the manga. Neither one is very conventional, but when you look at the manga, you’ll see that it has a vibrancy and “ugliness of the world” that is lessened due to the consistency of the animation in the anime adaptation.
The Akagi manga practically looks like a gag manga, but it only makes the comic better, especially when combined with the game of mahjong. One advantage of the anime though is that they were able to create a CG set of mahjong tiles to use throughout the show, and are able to do some pretty creative things with it.
It does seem like the animators got a little bored with the show after a while and began to do more creative things. In the early episodes, Amuro Ray would describe a metaphor for how a character was feeling at the time and that was it. Towards the end however, it ends up being a situation where the narrator will describe a metaphor, and then the anime will shift to a visual scene to accompany the metaphor. So if the narrator says, “AKAGI’S SITUATION IS SIMILAR TO BEING A COBRA IN A DESERT WITH ONLY A CAN OF PICKLES AT ITS SIDE,” you will be sure to see a scene with a cobra, in the desert, with a can of pickles. Some might call it stalling for time, I think it’s the animators wanting to do something special. This would continue into the next anime adaptation of a Fukumoto work, Kaiji.
Ultimately, Akagi might be about mahjong but what they’re playing matters less than how they’re playing it. Again, if you’re worried about not understanding it, do not let that stop you. This is Initial D with mahjong tiles instead of cars. This is Yu-Gi-Oh! for 40 year olds (especially the early chapters of Yu-Gi-Oh!). If either of those descriptions make you hesitant, don’t let them stop you either. Watch this show.