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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 competition, 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 significant delay.
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.
Saki and its spinoff Saki: Episode of Side A (aka Achiga-hen) both feature a lot of characters with weird mahjong powers based on elements of the game, but Achiga especially has this tendency throughout its run to obscure the abilities of its characters. One such case is the character Sagimori Arata.
Here’s the joke: Arata, it turns out, also has a special affinity for the circle or dot tiles, which are known in Japanese as “pinzu.” In addition, Arata’s family owns a bowling alley, she wears a bowling glove, and she even got a bowling-related winning sequence in the anime that didn’t exist in the manga. Arata, the bowler, is good with pins.
Did you groan? Did you cheer? Both is the right reaction.
Those who’ve talked to me about Saki know that I totally called this. I just wish I said something on here earlier for proof. What I didn’t predict, though, was how complex the bowling analogy is. Essentially, Arata is not like Kuro or Yuu in that her ability dominates her hand, but rather means that she’s really good at tricky, complex waits using pin tiles, things that increase the probability of her winning with pins.
You can even see it in the screenshot from the anime above. Generally, most hands that you see in mahjong have maybe two possible tiles they can win on, sometimes three. Arata’s pin tiles above are 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, which means she has four winning tiles: 1, 2, 4, 7, twice as many possibilities as normal.
As the character FunaQ explains further, the waits Arata usually goes for have some vague relation to splits in bowling, the most famous of which being the oft-mentioned “7-10 split.” I don’t know enough about bowling to say more than that.
So, seeing as Arata is my favorite character in Episode of Side A, the fact that she has become the delivery system for the ultimate case of punnery means she strikes all the right chords for me.
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.)
Friend, mahjong ally, and translator kransom is currently in Japan, and in a conversation online he mentioned to me the fact that Texas Hold ‘em has a similar reputation in Japan that Japanese-style mahjong has in America. In other words, it has a small but devoted following where if you say to someone that you know how to play Texas Hold ‘em, they’ll get really excited and invite you to play, possibly showing off their Real Authentic poker set in the process. Having a passing familiarity with Texas Hold’em and more of an understanding of mahjong, I can see why they would have a similar exotic and wild appeal. They’re both games where you have to manage your luck.
The only thing that’s missing for Japan is an Akagi equivalent, an intensely dramatic series that thrills you into loving poker. If such a thing could be produced in the US, then the circle would be complete.
Thinking about mahjong as a storytelling device however, I realize that there is an inherent “flaw” of sorts with the game that doesn’t quite exist in Texas Hold ‘em, and that is mahjong’s inability to naturally come down to a one-on-one situation. That’s not to say that a 1v1 battle is impossible, but mahjong is inherently a four-player game, with a strange three-player variant if you’re one man short, but no long-standing rules for two players. As a result, mahjong stories have to go through great efforts to transform the game into a duel, whether it’s coming up with an entirely new (and untested) rule set (Ten, Shin Janki), pushing two of the players into supporting or even essentially non-existent roles, or modifying it into a 2v2 game. Texas Hold ‘em however can start with a large group and as more and more players lose all of their money, the game can end up in a 1v1 with no wild changes made to the basic rules of the game.
So Texas Hold ‘em has potential, though I think anyone who’s seen games knows that. Make it a series about female poker players who really enjoy each others’ company if you have to.
Speaking of, I realize that Saki prefers to have all four players in a mahjong game be their own characters, as opposed to lackeys for more prominent figures in the story, and is kind of an exception as a result. That route is, of course, also a good one.
Almost a year ago, I wrote about how glad I finally was to achieve a San An Kou, or Three Concealed Triples, in mahjong. It is a hand where you manage to draw three sets of 3-of-a-kinds all on your own. When I first got the San An Kou, it felt like an eternity before I was able to achieve one. What I didn’t know was that getting its beefier older sibling would take a lot longer.
This is Suu An Kou, or Four Concealed Triples, and is highlighted in Saki episode 10, where perennial newbie Senoo Kaori mistakenly refers to it as a “Riichi Tsumo Toi Toi (All Pungs as the subs put it),”a hand which would be worth significantly less if you took her words literally. Like the Kokushi Musou and the Sho Suushi, it is a Yakuman and therefore one of the strongest hands in mahjong, possessing enough killing power to end the game in one shot. It is also significantly more powerful than the San An Kou, and to give you a basic idea of the sheer disparity, you could get six San An Kou in a single game and it still might not be worth as much as a single Suu An Kou.
Oh Kaori, this is why Sub and I made you our mascot for our mahjong panel.
Like all Yakuman, it is an exceedingly rare hand, and what I’ve begun to find interesting about Yakuman in general is that they can often be rare for entirely different reasons. While the Kokushi Musou is difficult to obtain because it is a hand that cannot be anything but a Kokushi, and the Sho Suushi similarly rare because the tiles in it are always valuable to someone at the table (and thus there is a very good chance that someone will hold onto them), the prospective Suu An Kou seeker faces yet another issue, one that I would simply call “temptation.”
Imagine that there was a 0.1% chance for you to win $1,000,000, no questions asked. So of course you take the opportunity, but as you move closer and closer to that cold million, another sign pops up: “Go for $100,000 instead and your chances of gaining a cash prize go up to 50%!” Then another flashes in giant neon letters, “$200,000, 25% chance to win!” Similar deals continue to pop up over and over again and try as you might, you can’t seem to block them out of your mind. What should you do?
In a situation like that, I wouldn’t look down on anyone who settles for less. Hell, I would probably abandon the million myself, but that’s essentially the obstacle that stands in the path of those who seek the Four Concealed Triples. Along the way to getting that Yakuman, you are continuously enticed by hands that, while not nearly as majestic as the Suu An Kou, can still be quite good, and to ignore those hands is almost as insane as ignoring a 50% chance to get 100 grand for a 0.1% chance at a million. Here, the biggest obstacle is that you are constantly being steered away by appeals to your rationality and common sense, and when your aim is to take huge risks, that is perhaps the most dire threat of all.
Of course, the probabilities I’ve given are in no way accurate to actual mahjong, but I think they give you a fair picture of it. Call it embellishment for dramatic effect.
The United States Professional Mahjong League is holding another free play event this Sunday, May 16. If you’ve only played mahjong online and live in the New York City area, this is your chance to play against live opponents in Japanese-style mahjong aka “riichi” mahjong. Saki was right when the show said that playing on the internet and playing live are subtly different due to the external factors, and it’s an experience I recommend anyone try out. And it’s free!
Sadly I can’t make it this time around either, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying yourself.
Now if you’re really not sure whether you should be hanging with the “big boys,” no one is particularly amazing at mahjong to the extent that you’ll feel helpless. This is indeed one of the strengths of mahjong. You might see me talking about the game pretty often now, but realize that I’m not good at the game. It would be a stretch to call me “intermediate.” But I still win some sweet hands and have lots of fun. If you have experience playing at all, even if it’s just a little, you’ll likely do fine, and no one will admonish you for forgetting some rules.
But if you’re really worried about not knowing enough to play, or you know so little that you’d prefer to read “Baby’s First Riichi Mahjong,” then take heart in the fact that they’re also holding a tutorial event for absolute beginners on Sunday, May 23. The rules can seem quite overwhelming, but actually mahjong is a game you can ease yourself into with just a bit of patience.
The location for both events is:
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
New York, NY 10001
Don’t forget to RSVP on the forums, particularly with the tutorial session, as space is limited.
So a bunch of stuff has come up all of a sudden in my life, and this will prevent me from going to the monthly Riichi Mahjong sessions held by the US Professional Mahjong League in New York City.
But while I am unable to go, another continues to champion the cause, and you can join him in his endeavors to bring on the “its.” If you barely know how to play, that’s really not a problem, as it’s a friendly learning environment, and you get free snacks and soft drinks to soften the blow to your fragile ego. You’ll reach Akagi level someday. Or at the very least, Kanbara levels.
This month’s Open Play session will be this Sunday, April 25th. The address is below.
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
New York, NY 10001
I’ll see you there.
While Akagi and Saki were probably a lot of people’s introduction to the notion of manga based on the game mahjong, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my first introduction to “mahjong manga” was from Frederik L. Schodt’s seminal book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.
In it, Schodt explores the burgeoning genre and talks about popular titles such as Mahjong Houroki (“Tales of a Wandering Mahjong Player”) and Jigoku Mahjong (“Mahjong Hell”), even citing the author of Mahjong Houroki, Kitano Eimei, as the sort of “father” of mahjong manga, who showed that a comic about dealing tiles could look and feel exciting.
Truth be told, while I was fascinated by the idea of mahjong manga back when I first read Manga! Manga! ten years ago, I am not so different than the people who discovered it through Akagi, as that was the first mahjong series which I actually had the privilege to see. And while I don’t expect mahjong manga to become a runaway success in even the scanlation community, it’s clear that it has its devoted followers.
Here’s the odd thing though: Where are the scans of Mahjong Hourouki? If Akagi and Saki have resulted in people from all over the fandom getting into mahjong even at a periphery level, why hasn’t anyone bothered to look into these significant works which established the genre that so many are enjoying now? And it can’t really be the case where fans of these newer series might not like the older series due to the artwork. After all, we’re talking about Akagi fans here, and I’ve never seen anyone proclaim, “If the characters don’t have ultra pointy faces and noses and everyone looks shocked all the time, then I refuse to read it!” And I see you considering making a comment where you reiterate what I just said. I’m watching you.
Oh, and of course the reason I’m talking about it in the realm of scanlations and such is that no sane company would license a mahjong series in the United States. The closest you’d get to one that could conceivably do well is Saki which is streamed on Crunchyroll, and even that is a bit of a stretch when you consider the not-internet.
The most likely culprit is probably scarcity. It’s no doubt difficult to find these old series in the first place, especially with a niche genre like mahjong. And I’m as guilty of not contributing to the pursuit as any other. This is the first post I’ve made about it, and it’s only because I was re-reading Schodt’s book today. But still, I’m making the call out. We have to find these old works, titles like Mahjong Fuunroku (“Mahjong Crises”) and Gambler no Uta (“The Son of the Gambler”), and bring them to the forefront of consciousness.
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.