MJ: Back in June of 2007, not long after having loudly proclaimed in my blog at the time that I would never get into comics, my friend Aja finally convinced me to take a look at a shounen manga series called Hikaru no Go. It was a revelation for me. The series was thoroughly engrossing, poignant, and sincerely optimistic in a way I hadn’t experienced before in any medium. Furthermore, the storytelling was masterful and elegant to an extent I’d previously only associated with prose and a few favorite television series. How was it possible that I could find so much satisfaction in a comic about boys playing a board game?
After that, I tried every manga I could find, discarding some immediately, but becoming hooked on many, many more. By October, I’d started a separate blog for the subject, which eventually became the center of my online life. It would be fair to say that Manga Bookshelf most likely would not exist had I not been so enthusiastically encouraged into reading Hikaru no Go.
This week on May third, after a publication schedule spanning seven years, the series’ final volume has been officially released in English. To celebrate the occasion, I’ve asked some of my favorite writers to join me here for a roundtable discussion, namely Manga/Manhwa Bookshelf contributors Michelle Smith, Cathy Yan, and Hana Lee, as well as my good friend Aja Romano, who got me into all this in the first place.
Ladies, would you share a bit about how you first became fans of Hikaru no Go?
HANA: I first heard about Hikaru no Go when it was still being released in 2002. One of my best friends from high school—the one who introduced me to anime and manga, in fact—had asked me to get her the 18th volume for her birthday. (Unlike me, she had studied Japanese and could read manga in their original editions without waiting for translations.) I went to the local Japanese bookstore to find it and was surprised to realize that it was by the same artist who drew Ayatsuri Sakon. I was watching the Ayatsuri Sakon anime at the time and loved the series, so it interested me to learn that Hikaru no Go was about a ghost possessing a boy and teaching him how to play go.
As I started reading the manga through the fan scanlations (all that were available at the time), I realized that the series was not the sort of supernatural-tinged episodic mystery that I had expected it to be. Since I also enjoyed the Shounen Jump brand of tournament-style shounen manga, I wasn’t at all disappointed. But what came as a real surprise was how Hikaru no Go completely transcended the genre: not only a story about competition, it was also a story about growing up, about discovery and loss, and most of all, about passion. What really spoke to me in the series was all the characters’ intense passion for go, whether they were amateurs playing in their school go club or professionals who had been playing for a lifetime. And getting to experience that through Hikaru’s eyes as he slowly learns to feel the same passion himself was what hooked me into the series.
MICHELLE: I can’t actually remember how I first learned about Hikaru no Go. At some point after the anime wrapped in Japan, I acquired some fansubs of the entire series and devoured them in short order. Titles like Rurouni Kenshin had already converted me to a fervent love of tournament manga, and though Hikaru was certainly very different from others in that genre, it was similar enough to addict me quite thoroughly. Beyond the satisfaction of watching our protagonist learn and grow, the series is also genuinely moving, and some episodes left me with tear streaming down my cheeks.
Then the manga came out. Amazon informs me that volume one came out on June 16, 2004. Because I am anal-retentive, I’ve been keeping track of what I read for about a decade. Guess when I read that volume? June 16, 2004. I got it home and gobbled it up. This is meaningful when one considers the backlog of other things I bring home and then just admire.
I think it’s safe to say that I’ve ardently loved Hikaru no Go for going on a decade now. It’s bittersweet that the manga is finally coming to an end, but I’ve definitely enjoyed reading the material that was not part of the anime and, as I mentioned in our Pick of the Week column, now I’ll have the luxury of indulging in a series-long marathon reread whenever the craving strikes.
AJA: You can thank fandom for piquing my interest in Hikaru no Go; I’d been hearing here and there for about 2 years that if I loved certain slash pairings, I’d like the dynamic between Akira and Hikaru in this anime series. So it was on my radar for some time before a friend finally sat me down and showed me the first half of the anime. I fell completely in love with it. I only had a basic familiarity with most of the iconic shounen manga series out at that time, but I knew enough to recognize that Hikago was unlike anything else that I’d really seen or read to date.
Something that makes Hikaru no Go unique for me, in terms of series and fandoms, is that I actually didn’t finish it for about a year. I balked at the inevitability of Sai’s disappearance, because I am a total wuss when it comes to angst, and I knew it was going to completely break my heart. Instead, I dove into the fandom and read all of the available fanfic I could get my hands on, and I actually didn’t return to finish watching the series or reading the manga until a year later.
Reading the manga, especially the final arc that wasn’t in the anime, for the first time was a complete revelation to me. It was so intense, and it still amazes me that a manga about a board game can carry such fabulous pacing over such a long period of time. And the angst was even more intense than I could have expected—but in that final moment when Akira says, “this isn’t the end—it never ends,” to Hikaru made it all worth it.
CATHY: I too found Hikaru no Go before it was picked up for official release. I was in my sophomore year of high school, I think, and had just started to read shounen manga. I absolutely devoured it. I spent one week reading it nonstop; I remember now pulling an all-nighter during Sai’s disappearance arc, absolutely bawling my eyes out. It’s one of the few mangas I’ve read where the subject material is still so unfathomable to me (if you asked me, I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to play a game of go) but the characters and story of it are enough for me to love it eternally. Even Hotta and Obata’s subsequent works, while good, can never measure up to the sheer emotional power of Hikaru no Go.
Fundamentally, for me, the story is one about the passage of Hikaru from childhood into adulthood. I imagine that’s also a fault of the age at which I read the series, because I felt like at that time, I too was trying to grapple with those issues. Go is so distant to me, as a concept and a real game, but in the series, it perfectly encapsulates so many life experiences for our characters. You can’t help but feel how earnest all of the characters are, even too-cool-for-school Ogata!
MJ: I should mention, too, that it was fanfiction Aja used to lure me in, so ten points for fandom!
We’ve already started talking a bit here about how the series transcends its genre, and what I find so stunning about that is how it manages to do what it does within the shounen sports manga paradigm. All the key elements are there—increasingly difficult competition, a powerful rival, strong messages about sportsmanship—but the result is somehow very different than anything else I’ve personally encountered in the genre. What makes this story so special?
MICHELLE: One of my favorite themes in any kind of story is the tale of someone who finds where they belong. It might be finding people who accept them (like Fruits Basket), but it might also be finding their passion. Hikaru no Go is special because it’s not just about a boy who wants to become stronger, it’s about a boy who realizes that he loves something very much and wants to become stronger.
Slam Dunk is kind of similar in that regard, making it another sports manga favorite for me, but that series lacks some of the homey touches of Hikaru. How often do you see the hero’s mother in the periphery, worrying about him and making him bento boxes? It reminds you that he really is just a kid—and often lamentably inconsiderate to his poor mom—which casts him in an endearing light even while he’s accomplishing all these impressive things.
AJA: I think part of it is that despite the mystical element, it’s a series strongly grounded in reality, so you have kids faced with real life decisions and pressures, and having to deal with normal (and not-so-normal) human events like sickness and death along with all the shounen sports tropes like overcoming failure. And even then, there’s nothing over-the-top about the depiction of failure. You have all these characters in the background who struggle with self-doubt like Waya and Nase, Ochi and Isumi—but it’s very understated and they don’t always get a big triumphal tournament moment in which they overcome their inner struggles. It’s a much more subtle story than that, and I think that allows us to really feel the failures and triumphs of these characters (who are all complex and flawed and dynamic) so much more intensely than we do in a typical sports narrative where there’s never any question which characters will win in the end.
I also think part of creating that type of narrative is what Michelle mentions—all of the background characters and especially the adults and their relationships to the children and the story itself. It’s rare in this type of series to have much of the storyline shown from the POV of the adults, much less entire tournament moments devoted to them, but in Hikaru no Go, the adults are much more than fully-developed static mentors. They’re still growing and learning, and even the ones who aren’t involved in playing Go, like Hikaru’s mom, Touya’s mom, and Ichikawa, still have important connections to the story.
It’s a very humanist story as a whole because it allows so many of these characters to develop and then it explores their connection to each other through the game and throughout time and it gradually develops a conceit in which the game of Go becomes a metaphor for the march of the human race. It’s just so beautifully done, and when you first realize that metaphor is unfolding it’s a really breathtaking moment that really transcends genre tropes and becomes great literature.
Which brings me to Sai, who is a character, with a role, unlike any other in shounen manga. Sai is the supernatural Hobbes to Hikaru’s Calvin, but he’s also so much more because he’s a real person with such a charismatic personality, and he carries not only personal history but cultural history on his shoulders. He’s just remarkable! But I have rambled enough now so I will just say that I think the fact that, as Hotta mentioned, real Go players started leaving a seat for Sai in their tournaments, speaks to the beauty of Sai as a character and the richness of Hikaru no Go as a series.
HANA: I agree with everything said above. I’ll add that Hikaru differs from the typical “underdog” shounen protagonist in one important way: aside from what seems like a latent affinity for the game and being taught by Sai, Hikaru is not portrayed as hiding some inborn talent or special ability that only needs to be unlocked by competition. We see that he has to really learn how to play go, and often in the beginning stages of his journey, he isn’t the best and he doesn’t win. Compare to protagonists like Yoh from Shaman King or even Naruto, who are perhaps dismissed by their peers but are shown to actually stand apart from the rest in some way. Hikaru, by contrast, is really just an ordinary boy. I like that the series emphasizes that his surprising growth and progress in go is because he ends up practicing and watching more games than anyone else. I also like that he does lose more often than you would expect from a shounen series, and we see him progressing as a player even when he loses.
CATHY: I think the thing about Hikaru no Go is that on some level, it more than any of the other shounen sports-like series is about the process of growing up and letting go. I always found Sai before his disappearance to be the most touching adult figure out of all them. You know, there are characters like Sai in other stories; one that’s been on my mind lately is Atem, the pharaoh from Yu-gi-oh! who haunts the main character and guides him along just as Sai does to Hikaru. But the thing is that Yu-gi-oh! is ultimately a quest story. The characters end up trying to return Atem to the afterlife, so they can be laid to rest. But Hikaru no Go isn’t that supernatural quest to “put the ghost to rest.” Sai is really another kind of parent to Hikaru. In many ways I think I read the story right when I was realizing that the adults around me were starting to see me as a fully formed person, in my own right, and that I would need to make my own choices. And that’s, strangely, what the character of Sai is for me. He “cedes” his path to Hikaru and lives on in Hikaru just in the way we romanticize our parents living on in us. The moment that always struck me the most was how after Sai disappears, Hikaru wonders if he should have let Sai play more. Because that’s such a fundamentally pure and child-like way of handling grief, to think that you had just listened to them more or been nicer to them, they would come back from the dead. It’s the moment I always mark as Hikaru transitioning from boy to adult.
MJ: Michelle, I’m so glad you brought up Hikaru’s mom, because she’s one of my favorite characters in the series! And you know, despite the huge number of supporting characters in this series, not one of them is superfluous or wasted. I think one of my favorite moments in the series is in volume 21 when Hikaru, after hearing about the difficult time Yashiro’s parents have given him over going pro, finally realizes on some level just how lucky he is to have the support of his mom. It’s not a big moment. It’s small, and it isn’t lasting. It’s not like Hikaru has this major epiphany that changes the way he thinks about his mom forever. It’s just one tiny moment in a million tiny moments that are part of Hikaru’s slowly growing maturity. Details like this are a big part of what makes this manga so special to me. I think this may be part of what Hana is feeling, too, when she describes Hikaru as an “ordinary boy.” Unlike Akira, who often seems like an adult in a child’s body, Hikaru is always exactly his age, no more, no less.
Also, Aja, I’m happy you’ve pointed out that Hikaru frequently does not win. And really, winning is hardly the point, is it?
HANA: My favorite moment in the series that illustrates that is the game that Hikaru plays with Hong Suyeong. Suyeong is on a losing streak as a kenkyuusei and tries to pretend that he no longer cares about go and doesn’t want to try anymore. But it takes a go game where he loses against Hikaru, where both of them played the best that they could, which finally breaks through Suyeong’s shell and gets him to admit that he does care about go. That scene when through his tears, he asks Hikaru’s name and says that he wants to play him again so he can beat him is really a perfect example of how the series shows that it’s not winning or losing that matters, but the personal growth and human connections that the characters experience through the game. (And reiterating what everyone else has said, it’s how Hotta develops backstories for even minor characters like Suyeong that really rounds out the emotional resonance of this series.)
MICHELLE: That scene in volume 21 really struck me, too, because he’d been kind of snotty to her earlier about some snacks she’d made for him to take to Akira’s house just a few days before. I wonder why he can seem like such a nice kid most of the time, but then he’s utterly dismissive when she attempts to learn more about what he’s doing with his life. Granted, he does change his mind, but his first instinct was to be a little git.
So, yes, totally an ordinary boy.
MJ: Hana, I’ll add Hong Suyeong to my list of favorite characters, too! Also, I appreciate the fact that Hotta takes the time to really flesh out some of the Chinese and Korean players, rather than letting the unavoidable nationalism of the tournaments overwhelm the story.
AJA: Hana, I love your mention of the game against Hong Suyeong. Hikaru no Go is really such an adult story in so many ways because it doesn’t pitch you this idealist fantasy of a boy with special powers—like you and Michelle said he has to work, and struggle, and fail. I love that even Akira, who is a child prodigy by all rights, has to work and challenge himself, and develop the personal strength not to be cowed by superior strength.
And yes, Hikaru is just your average impudent boy through and through, and it’s a lovely thing watching him grow more serious and focused over time and seeing the genki trope sort of fade into something more subdued, self-aware, and adult. <3
CATHY: I have to plug my favorite secondary character, which is Isumi! I loved his time in China, and Yang Hai, and Le Ping, and the process of Isumi’s maturation. I think it speaks a lot to the maturity of Hotta’s storylines, that she devotes this plot to one of the characters caught in between the adults and the kids. You’d think there would be a lot of characters like Isumi in shounen manga, but I think he truly is an individual. He’s strong, but not boastful; an older brother figure, but not overbearing or wacky or a classic show off. He’s just so perfectly normal, and you could see that Hotta and Obata used him to throw context into the world of the insei, just like they occasionally use Akari’s character. Like, the entire story just sort of takes a step back with Isumi, and you watch him evaluate the importance of the game and what he really wants to accomplish with his life and you feel eighteen with him. And that, I think, is an underrated element of the series! Often Hotta and Obata pull back and we sort of laugh at how seriously everyone takes the game, but none of the characters are so far gone that you can’t relate.
MJ: Since we’ve already sort of launched into discussion of individual characters, let’s continue with that thread for a bit.
In addition to everything that’s been said here about Hikaru’s regular-boyishness and how much that influences the whole tone of the series, he’s also the heart of the story for me, and not just because he’s the main character. Hikaru’s journey makes my heart swell with warmth and affection. I rejoice when he rejoices. I ache when he does. The first time I read volume fifteen, when he really begins to understand loss and regret for the first time in his life, I thought I might die from the hurt of it. I think it’s rare when a story’s hero is its most relatable character, but for me, Hikaru is exactly that. Is it just me?
HANA: I agree! For me, I think what makes my affection for Hikaru all the stronger is that Hikaru is not the character I would normally identify with. (Our personalities are too different!) But I am fascinated by Hikaru because of it, and I think Hotta does an amazing job of making Hikaru’s journey resonate universally. The most heartwrenching scene for me in volume 15 was when Hikaru is playing against Shuhei in Hiroshima. After he wins, he looks back over his shoulder to ask Sai, “Wasn’t I good?” I started crying at his moment of realization when he remembers that Sai is no longer there.
Obata does a wonderful job of showing that scene wordlessly through just a simple change in expression. I think that Obata’s art—and how Obata’s art develops over the course of the series as well—plays as much a role as Hotta’s writing in allowing the reader to feel with Hikaru. All the characters show wonderful expressions, but it’s Hikaru’s faces that stick with me the most: he shows his glee and exasperation, his joy and sorrow with his entire being.
CATHY: I echo Hana’s comments about the art style maturing with the characters! It’s one of the best things about revisiting Hikaru no Go. You can actually see them mature in a way that uncannily echoes the storyline. Sai gets more and more ethereal as Obata settles into drawing him, and Akira in his final form (oh geez, I apologize for talking about him like a pokemon!) is every bit as regal as the son of Touya Meijin should be.
MICHELLE: There are several panels during the Hokuto Cup where it’s literally stunning how grown-up these guys look, especially Akira. I think it’s time for a new haircut, though!
AJA: I love everything you guys have just said about Hikaru, and I completely agree. I love what Hana said about the moment he looks back over his shoulder. That’s the quintessential moment of the series, I think. And this is a series with so many heartbreaking and iconic moments.
But I have to wave my banner for TEAM AKIRA, here. Touya just breaks my heart from day one, with his spirit and his determination to be the best, and his freakouts when he isn’t. He endures hazing, public humiliation, ridicule, alienation, jealousy, and scorn from his peers, bafflement from his parents, and constant confusion about who and what Hikaru is—all in order just to have a partner and a friend to challenge him to grow. Unlike Hikaru, who is outgoing and boistrous and pretty much culturally aware, Akira comes across as a little isolated, a loner who despite his general friendliness is shunned by other kids. I always think about how lonely and uneventful Akira’s life was before Hikaru showed up and gave him something to strive for. And he strives so beautifully!
And best of all, I think because of having grown up isolated and somewhat alone, he’s the ideal person to have around when Hikaru is struggling through the loss of Sai in the latter half of the series. I think the sheer intensity and rawness of Hikaru’s heartbreak (and ours) can sometimes overshadow what a huge leap of faith Akira makes when he decides to trust Hikaru with the secret of Sai’s Go. We don’t actually see that trust rewarded during the series; but we do see Akira warring with his desire to know the truth about Sai, and the decision he’s made to trust Hikaru. That moment in the final arc is such a beautiful testament to how much his character grows over the series, and how he gains patience, calm, and acceptance. He and Hikaru are perfect complements.
MJ: When I think about it, my favorite Akira moments in the series are sort of equal parts arrogance and equal parts humility and desperate honesty, and it’s pretty unusual to find those things so evenly distributed in the same person. As a result, Akira’s confidence manages to be endearing, while another character would probably just seem like an ass.
MICHELLE: Aja, reading what you have to say about Akira and his isolation that eventually gives way to more spirited striving reminds me so much of Yuki Sohma from Fruits Basket that I’m actually getting geekbumps just thinking about it. The refined-seeming boy who is set apart due to that very refinement who really only seeks someone who will not be afraid to connect and engage with him on a vital level, you know? Again, this ties in with my love for the “finding where one belongs” story arc, and thinking about how much Akira really needs someone like Hikaru in his life makes me feel kind of sniffly.
HANA: I’m always a little embarrassed to admit that Akira is actually the character that I identify with the most, but he’s my favorite for that reason. What I associate most with Akira is his sense of direction: he’s always loved go and he’s always known that he’s wanted to become a go player. I think that it’s really refreshing that the series makes it clear that Akira isn’t just following in his father’s footsteps but has a vocation for go in his own right. I like to think that an Akira who wasn’t the son of Touya Kouyou may have ended up being passionate about go anyway, although perhaps it might have been a longer road.
But what is also clear is that Hikaru shakes Akira out of his complacence. For the first time in his life, Hikaru forces Akira to question himself. And I love that the series resists the temptation to make it a simple narrative of a prodigy encountering an obstacle for a first time but instead ends up reaffirming Akira’s commitment to the life of go. The relationship is also reciprocal: just as much as Hikaru challenges Akira, Akira also becomes the channel through which Hikaru first connects to the go world.
MJ: So, okay, Sai. Aja spoke rather beautifully about Sai earlier on, and he really is extraordinary. She mentioned that part of what’s special about him is that he’s a real person, and wholeheartedly agree. He isn’t just some ancient, wise, supernatural being, sent to be Hikaru’s mentor; he’s fully human, even as a ghost, for better or worse. As much as I love him, I also spent a significant chunk of the series feeling absolutely horrified by him and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to play the games he wanted, even if it meant jeopardizing Hikaru’s future. But even in those moments, I can recognize that this is what makes him an exceptional character. He is Hotta’s greatest creation. And even in his worst moments, he’s an inspiration.
MICHELLE: I really, really, really love Sai. Really. As I write, I still haven’t received my copy of volume 23 from Amazon, and I still continue to hold out a tiny shred of hope that we’ll see him again, even if he’s not really there. (How cruel of Hotta and Obata to deny us even a glimpse of Sai while Hikaru’s thinking about him, which he at least continue to do.)
In my review of volume twelve, I likened Sai and Hikaru’s relationship to, well, a relationship. They’re together, they love and support each other, but they’re also jealous of each other and fail to sometimes understand what the other wants and needs. At the same time, they still want to stay together, so they’re trying to work out a compromise that will make both of them happy.
It’s absolutely gutwrenching to me to think of how Hikaru would ignore Sai’s requests to play and how incapacitated by regret he eventually was because of this. But at the same time, it’s true, that this is Hikaru‘s life and he has the right to pursue his goals.
But I still really love Sai.
MJ: I think, MIchelle, I might have never become truly livid with Sai had he not insisted on playing Hikaru’s first game as a pro, when he was set up against Touya Meijin. It was one of the most important moments in Hikaru’s career, and Sai’s insistence on playing not only jeopardized everything Hikaru had worked so hard for, but it also stole the experience from Hikaru. This first game is something Hikaru would never get to do again, and Sai, who had already lived his own life and Shuusaku’s insisted on having it for himself. And though I eventually did forgive him, at the time when I first read the series, I considered this act unforgivably greedy.
Of course, all this just made Hikaru’s desperate feelings of regret later on even more poignant. In volume fifteen, when he tries to bargain with God to get Sai back by promising to let him play all the games… not only did I fully forgive Sai at this point, but I was also deeply moved by Hikaru’s selflessness, which (kind of ironically) I think he might not have ever developed without Sai’s influence in his life. It’s all very complicated and messy and human, and I love this series for it.
MICHELLE: That was definitely a crappy thing to do, but I think Hotta does a good job of showing how Sai just wanted it so much he couldn’t stop to think about how Hikaru would feel and, as you say, that’s a very human failing.
Speaking of Sai and Touya Meijin, is anyone else sort of inexplicably touched that the latter is still biding his time, waiting for Sai to reappear?
CATHY: I really like the way you phrase that as “a very human failing!” I don’t think there’s been another story about being haunted by a ghost where the ghost seems just as alive as any of the other characters, in a very human way. He’s not detached from life at all. He’s just as excited and immersed in Hikaru’s world as Hikaru is, whether it be the technology in the internet cafe or the people Hikaru meets. I’ve always sort of entertained the idea that Sai might never have been able to achieve the Hand of God with Honinbou Shuusaku because he never had to lead and work and bargain and love Shuusaku the way he does Hikaru. Because something about the Hand of God is also about the passage of life. As Sai says at the end of the Touya Meijin battle, “God gave me 1000 years of time to show you this game.”
I have always adored Touya Meijin and his fascination with Sai. During the setup to the internet game, he and Sai really understood each other in a way Hikaru and Sai can’t. Touya Meijin actually tries to bargain with Hikaru for more games with Sai! Probably of all the characters in the book, he’s most like what Sai would have been if Sai were living. Touya Meijin is one of the few people other than Hikaru who from the start sees Sai for who Sai is, and not who Hikaru is. I always felt kind of bad for Akira that in some way he was left out of the Hikaru-Touya Meijin-Sai relationship and only manages to approximate the story that happens between them. Akira spends so much of this time understanding his father from the outside, through his mother, or through interactions with other people who have interacted with his father. It reminds me, actually, a lot of the book The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, which is about a young boy who ends up befriending a brilliant, neurotic boy who was raised to be a messiah among men and his stern, overbearing father.
As a side note, does anyone remember reading Chapter 114, right at the end of the Sai vs Touya Meijin internet match, and Ogata tries to intrude on the game, and the nurse asks him, “Are all go players like this?” Then we flash to all the insei, Akira, and Ogata all hovered around a computer watching the game. All go players are like this!
MJ: We talked about Hikaru’s mom a bit earlier, but I’d also like to take a look at some of the other great female characters in the series. I’m especially fond of Akari, and also Kaneko, one of the girls in the Haze Go Club whom I’ve loved for being one of the few examples I’ve seen in manga of (to quote a review of mine), “non-skinny, non-conventionally attractive young female character who is portrayed as smart, athletic, and generally to be admired.” I know you have favorites, too, so do tell!
HANA: Akari and Kaneko are two of my favorites as well! But I have to put in a word for Nase, whom I really grew to like after reading her sidestory, where she skips the insei class to go skating with friends. She’s introduced to a boy who seems interested in her, and they go on a date, only to make a detour to a go salon. Nase is in her element: she’s unfazed by the old men and the cigarette smoke and sits down to play a game. Her date on the other hand is more than a little intimidated, and as Nase grows absorbed in the game, he leaves quietly. I really like the moment when she wins the game and looks around to see if her date had seen her at her “coolest”. When she sees he’s gone, she shrugs and goes back to playing another game.
I love this sidestory because on the one hand, we do see Nase wanting to be ordinary and fit in with her peers, but we also see that she loves go too much to give it up for the appearance of normalcy. It always makes me smile that she’s so confident in thinking that she’s going to look awesome playing go in front of her date; it doesn’t occur to her that he might find it strange. The series does a beautiful job of showing the conflicts and doubts that the insei face: they’re all young and devoting most of their free time to this game that they love, but not all of them are going to pass the exam and enter the pro world. They have to choose, over and over again, whether to stay committed or to give up. At another point in the manga, during the pro exam, Nase wins a game and says that she can’t give up on her dream because she knows she can play games like that. I really like that while Nase does have her moments of self-doubt, the series ultimately affirms her self-confidence.
MICHELLE: I was going to mention Nase, but honestly, I think Hana has expressed her appeal so beautifully that all I can do is nod in agreement! It seems cruel to wish for more of this series, since it was obviously incredibly labor-intensive to create, but I can’t help pining for stories that might have been. Like, a sequel focusing on a girl’s journey to become pro, for example.
AJA: Hana, I love your point about how well Nase fits in among the boys’ club, because it brings up a point I wanted to make earlier regarding the dynamic between Touya Meijin and Sai. Throughout the series, we’re shown again and again the importance of having a rival, someone to pull you further along the road towards the Hand of God. I know that arguably Sai does some unforgivable things, but I think especially the moment you mentioned earlier, MJ, when Sai insists on playing Touya Meijin, is the perfect example of how desperately that need exists in the main cast of players. We see it between Touya Senior and Sai, between Akira and Hikaru, in Ochi (Ochi!!!!), Waya and Isumi, Ogata and Kuwabara, even Tsutsui and Kaga.
But the interesting thing to me is that we never see anything like that kind of obsessive need for an other half in any of the female players that we see throughout the series. Granted, we only see one female insei, but all three of the female Go players we observe seem completely independent. Not only do they have a life outside Go (how awesome is it that Kaneko plays volleyball?), but we never see them getting fixated on being pulled along by someone else, a rival that they can call their own.
In some ways I feel like that’s almost a gender subversion on the part of the series, because there’s a heavily romanticized emphasis on finding your perfect partner that seems to be delineated to the male cast members in the storyline, while the female characters are almost all kept apart from that aspect of the game by their own interests. It’s a refreshing autonomy.
On the other hand, I wonder if it’s problematic that the female characters aren’t allowed to have more stake in the game. We don’t even know, for example, if Touya’s mother has any experience playing Go herself, or if Ichikawa ever does more than run the cash register and chauffeur Touya around.
But I do think that it’s refreshing that the female players who do play seem to do so entirely for their own sakes. Akari may have started out wanting to play the game so she would have something in common with Hikaru, but she keeps playing for herself, and becomes the leader of the Go club! Kaneko may have had to be coaxed to join, but she still bonds with the Haze team and stays with the club. And Nase, as Hana already said, affirms her self-confidence completely independent of any outside opinion. All of the girls of Go seem confident and independent!
CATHY: Akari is a great supporting character. I love that Hotta and Obata use her as a foil to Hikaru’s progress in go. I’m sure everyone remembers that scene where Hikaru asks her what to do if her piece was surrounded by the opponent’s, and she says, “Run away like this!” Later, right before Sai’s disappearance, Hikaru plays a game with her too, and Sai notes that it wasn’t so long ago that Hikaru was the one being taught, but now he can teach Akari. I love that she cares enough about the game to play with Hikaru, but she knows her life is going another way, the more conventional way. But Hotta and Obata never make that path less important than Hikaru’s — just different.
One of my absolute favorite moments of Hikaru no Go is Akari in chapter 154. That was the chapter where, for the first time in a long time, we check in with Kaze Junior High! Akari is going through a period of self-doubt as well, because she isn’t doing as well in cram school as she would like, and she gets this feeling that everyone around her — Kaneko and Hikaru especially — are leaving her world behind. On the way home, she stops by Hikaru’s house and sees that the light is on in his room, and, cheered up, she runs home shouting, “Fight! Fight!” That chapter still brings tears to my eyes now. I was in high school then, feeling sort of out of my element, convinced that I would go to a crappy college and do crappily forever, and seeing Akari go through the same troubles, that her worries and self-doubt were just as real as Hikaru’s troubles (this was right before the North Cup and Hikaru’s re-match with Kadowaki), moved me inexpressibly. In that scene, I think there’s this great sense of meta, that she’s us reading Hikaru’s story too and taking strength from the hikari of Hikaru. Which is fitting, since both their names mean light!
I’ve been reading a lot of discussion in chess forums, interestingly enough, about the difference between male and female chess players, that I think is directly relevant to Aja’s point. In 2009, some researches looked at titles held by men and women in chess and concluded that crunching the numbers, women hold just as many chess titles are they’re supposed to, given how few women chess players there are. In other words, there are more male players than female players, so there are more male players at the far end of the bell curve, thus giving us the false impression that men are inherently better than women. And it can’t help but remind me that in the world of Hikaru no Go, almost all the role models to go players are males: the teachers, the professionals, the reporters. In fact, during the Meijin games, the only female you see is the one who runs the live board, right? I think it speaks to this false logic we get in real life, that we start with an inherently gender-skewed system which discourages/disincentivizes girls from joining, and then we conclude from it that girls just don’t have the interest, or even worse, the skill, to participate in the game. Isn’t there even an exchange where someone tells Akari that girls can’t learn go?
So, yes, I think there is a problematic representation of women in the series, but it actually reflects the problematic nature of games like go and chess in reality! Hotta and Obata clearly have done their research into the world of go, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they found most of it is male dominated. I don’t think it’s a subversion at all, really. But then again, I don’t think it is because I think when it comes to female characters, Obata, at least, has a very troublesome history. Bakuman, I’m looking at you.
HANA: I remember when I was doing some research on female go professionals in Japan, I found that there are separate women’s tournaments for many of the major titles as well as a separate women’s pro exam. (I should note that women are not limited to competing in women-only tournaments or taking the women-only pro exam.) I think there are two ways to look at it. On the positive side, having these separate arenas for women does address the issue of the extreme gender imbalance and helps increase the visibility of female professionals in the go world. On the negative side, it does seem to reinforce the idea that women can’t directly compete with men.
I think Hikaru is the one who tells Akari that girls can’t learn how to play go, and I do think it was a positive sign that Sai immediately contradicts him and says that many women of his acquaintance in the Heian era were masters of the game.
AJA: There’s also the fact that the manga was overseen by a female Go pro, Yoshihara Yukari, and that not only was she the instructor of the Go-Go-Igo! segment that aired along with each episode of the anime, but she also featured a girl student along with a boy student.
So I think they definitely did go out of their way to show that girls could be involved with and part of the game of Go.
MJ: Since we’ve started inching towards it a bit already, let’s take a moment to discuss the end of the series. I’ve seen some disappointment from other manga bloggers over this, and though I had a mixed reaction the very first time I read the ending, I’ve come to like it very much.
My impression of the ending the first time I read the series was that it felt abrupt and maybe a bit weary. It seemed so clear that Hikaru’s journey was not over, and though I realized that the manga couldn’t last forever, I didn’t understand why the creators decided to stop telling me Hikaru’s story at that particular point. To me, it seemed like his story had just barely gotten started, and I felt almost a little angry that I wasn’t going to get to see him finish growing up. I’d never get to see how he learns to deal with being an adult, winning a title, or even just winning a pro game against Akira, which it seemed he must inevitably do sometime as both their careers continue on. I’d never get to see him move out of his mom’s house. I realize that much of this is unrealistic to expect of a shounen manga series, but he’d grown so much right before my very eyes, I felt like I’d been witness to his entire life up to that point and I didn’t understand why I was suddenly being cut out of it.
My second read-through of the series left me feeling completely different about the ending, which was quite a surprise to me, but because I had that initial reaction, I can understand where other manga bloggers (who are just reaching the ending now) are coming from. They’re feeling like it ends with a whimper instead of a bang, and I get that. It’s unexpected. I’ve come to appreciate that very thing about the ending now, but I’ve been there, so I understand.
I know Aja, at least, has some things to say about this (UNDERSTATEMENT), and I’d love to hear what you all think about the way the series ends.
MICHELLE: I read the ending for the first time yesterday. Though I could use a little more mulling time, I have to say that I like it. I like the parts where Yang Hai (the leader of the Chinese team) and Touya Meijin sit around, discussing the hypothetical possibility that the Sai who briefly appeared on the internet was, in fact, the spirit of Shuusaku. They got it right, but they’ll never know they got it right. Still, Sai’s presence inspired both of them, and seemingly reinvigorated the Meijin’s joy in the game.
I like that Hikaru doesn’t win his game against Ko Yeongha, because it prompts Akira to say those wonderful words to him: “It doesn’t end here, y’know. In fact, it’s barely started.” Geekbump city! Would I have liked more? Sure! Would I have liked Sai to come back? Sure! But sometimes what fans want and what a story needs are mutually exclusive concepts, and I’m not dissatisfied at all by what we get.
The one thing that puzzles me is the quote from Sai at the end. “Can you hear me? Can you hear my voice?” This is hearkening back to his first words to Hikaru in the first chapter (though not exactly the same, I note), and so though this is probably a reinforcement of the idea that the distant past will continue to affect the far future—as further shown by the second bonus story, in with those insei are inspired by Hikaru and Akira—part of me wonders, “Wait, what? Is he back? Is no one noticing?!”
HANA: It came as a complete surprise to me to learn that people disagreed about the ending. Thinking on it further, I see where the complaints may be coming from: on a structural level, it did seem to end a little abruptly, just after several new characters had been introduced. Often, the shounen manga convention is that an ultimate goal is introduced at the beginning of the series, and despite the many plot arcs, the series as a whole is expected to achieve that goal. (E.g. winning the nationals in Prince of Tennis or becoming the titular Shaman King in Shaman King.) However, Hikaru no Go completely subverts this genre convention: the initial “goal” at the beginning of the series, Sai wanting to achieve the Hand of God, is never reached. In fact, the series presents the Hand of God as an unrealizable ideal that humanity approaches like an asymptote. One of the most powerful moments in the series is Sai’s realization that the purpose of his afterlife is not to reach the Hand of God, but to pass on the dream to Hikaru, his student, thus becoming part of a larger human story of striving for perfection. When Sai relinquishes his desire to personally find the Hand of God, he is finally able to be at peace. There’s almost a Buddhist quality to how the story transforms the classic shounen quest to “become stronger” into a story about letting go and transcending one’s individual limitations by connecting to others. The ultimate move or power-up has value not because it is an end in itself but because of the journey it inspires.
I think that the beauty of the ending lies in how it ties together these thematic threads and ends on a powerful message about continuing the journey. As we see so often throughout this series, Hotta does not take the easy route of ending Hikaru’s story with a triumphant victory. He loses to Ko Yeongha in a game that he bitterly wanted to win. But in that loss, he reaffirms his purpose in playing go: to remember the past and to look forward to the future, to be part of the unbroken, collective endeavor to reach the Hand of God. I also interpret that last line, echoing Sai’s first words, “Can you hear my voice?” in the context of this message. I think of it as an invitation to the reader to not merely consume the story but become part of it.
MICHELLE: Ooh, I like your interpretation of Sai’s final line very much. I shall promptly adopt that way of thinking of it. It’s sort of like, “How about you? Do you hear the call?”
CATHY: Hana already said everything and so beautifully that I could have said about the ending. For me, I felt the story had already ended when I read chapters 147 and 148. Those are the chapters covering the lunch break of the Hikaru vs Touya preliminary game to the Meijin tournament, where Touya remarks that there’s another person inside of Hikaru, and that person is Sai. Then, in 148, he tells Hikaru that it doesn’t matter because Hikaru is the go he plays! And the rest of 148 is this wonderful dream Hikaru has of Sai. I think that chapter has a similar feel to the real ending of the series, in that we return to Sai’s voice, how Sai’s love for go became Hikaru’s love for go, and thus an extension out to the world of go that Hikaru becomes a part of. There’s even a similar feeling of how the story is just now beginning, because the Weekly Go office talks about how exciting Akira, Hikaru, Ochi and the rest are, as the new generation of go players! So in many ways I felt like for me everything after that was merely icing on the cake. I was pleasantly surprised that the Meijin games didn’t end the story, and as Aja mentioned, that’s exactly where the anime ends it!
I do understand how the manga could have seemed abrupt, but I think you could feel during the North Cup that the story was wrapping to a close, what with bringing back characters like Yang Hai, Suyeong, and even Tsutsui, Yeongha’s potshot at Shuusaku, and finally Hikaru and Akira switching First and Second board. One thing I found great was that Hotta and Obata ended the story with the young players of Japan, Korea, and China marching forward. It’s Korea versus Japan, and it’s the Chinese team commenting on the side. This is no longer the world of Sai and the Fujiwaras and Heian Japan; it isn’t even just the Hikaru and Akira being the rising stars of Japanese go. It’s this wider feeling, an embracing of the rest of the world, a vastness that’s alluded to throughout the story. And that more than ever echoes the final speech given by Yeongha, translated by Yang Hai, concluded by Akira, and mused over by Hikaru. If there was ever a story about how hope springs eternal from the fountain of seishun, I think it’s the final chapter of Hikaru no Go.
AJA: Everyone else has perfectly articulated the richness and the scope of the ending, and I hardly know what to add.
It’s not just that the story subverts the typical shounen trope: Hotta made Hikaru’s loss at the North Star cup even more unspeakably heartbreaking than it would have been on its own, by tying his matchup with Ko Yeongha explicitly to the loss of Sai: the match takes place on May 5th, the anniversary of Sai’s disappearance; and Ko Yeongha insults the memory of Shuusaku. So for Hikaru, this moment isn’t just about failure, or the attainment of a higher level of skill: it’s about honoring Sai’s memory.
To me, all of the ending’s wonderful elements of international connection, cross-generational connection, and metaphysical connection come together in the image of Hikaru weeping, not only for his loss, but for his lost friend. Akira’s reminder, “this isn’t all there is,” is a fully layered statement, because he’s not only acknowledging that there is more to Hikaru’s Go than this loss, but also stressing that the outcome of the game isn’t what keeps Sai alive: it’s the act of playing. And just as Sai needed courage and maturity to accept that his path isn’t about attaining the perfect hand, Hikaru, in that moment of acknowledging Akira’s words and following him out of the room, is showing us how much courage and maturity he has gained over the series—something he couldn’t have gained without also witnessing and being tied to the struggles and losses of everyone around him who is playing the game with him.
In the wake of that moment, Sai’s words in the final panels always wrap around me like a blanket of comfort and hope. I hear them, just as Hana said, as a request to the reader to acknowledge, along with Hikaru, our ever-present connection to the universe and the world and people around us, the past, present, and future. Sai’s acceptance of his intrinsic connection to the rest of humanity allowed him to find peace; and it is our acceptance of our own shared roles as players in the Game that will allow the spirit of Hikaru no Go to live on in each of us.
MJ: That was beautiful, all of you.
So, I know I had a slew of things I wanted to talk about, and I haven’t gotten nearly to all of it, but before we wind down, let me ask all of you, is there anything you’ve been dying to talk about?
CATHY: I just wanted to add that for those of us who enjoy cardgame based anime or manga, while Hikaru no Go is obviously the best I’ve ever read or watched, there are a few other series I would recommend. Fukumoto Noboyuki does a series of excellent manga about games: Akagi and Ten, both of which are about mahjong, and Kaiji, which is about a number of different games, some of which are more, shall we say, gladitorial than others. Akagi was made into a very enjoyable 26 episode anime with a cliffhanger ending, and it’s actually the series that made me start learning mahjong! Fukumoto’s work is much, much darker than Hikaru no Go, though and, sadly, they’re only available right now for those of us who can read Japanese. But if you ever get a chance to check them out, I highly recommend doing so, or at least making a clamoring for someone, anyone, to license them in the US.
MICHELLE: Actually, something Cathy said back at the beginning reminded me of a question I wanted to pose… has anyone been inspired by the series to take up Go? I have! I used to play every lunch with one of my coworkers, and have since purchased a nifty (and largely unused) magnetic board. The problem is… I’m really bad! If only reading the series could impart strategic knowledge to a person!
MJ: I have! Sort of. I bought a small board and stones, but since I didn’t have anyone to play it with, I tried to learn from a computer game, which was a *big mistake*. The game didn’t teach me; it just slaughtered me over and over until I lost the will to go on. I still haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask a real person to teach me, which I think is the way to go, so my cheap, little board remains unused. It’s very sad.
MICHELLE: Oh, I had the same experience with a computer game! You know, Hotta mentions a supplementary book that has the characters’ game records in it. How awesome would it be to get that and have fun recreating the games ourselves?
Okay, yes, I am a big nerd, but this sounds like much fun. Pizza would have to be involved, as well.
AJA: I’ve gotten as far as playing tutorial games online, but I’m so fuzzy on the concepts that I haven’t gotten very far! It’s still fun, though.
HANA: I had the dubious pleasure of my father attempting to teach me go several times, starting from when I was around eight or so. Unfortunately, these lessons always ended in my father playing an even game without any handicaps with me, and I’d lose by at least 40 moku. (I did get very good at playing omok—gomoku in Japanese—though!) So I did go into Hikaru no Go knowing the very basics of the game, but I had always thought of it as an intimidating game that I could never master. Reading the series encouraged me to try learning how to play again. (If Hikaru could learn, surely I could as well!) My father was thrilled at my renewed interest, and he even agreed to give me a four-stone handicap. (I still lost by 40 moku.) I haven’t played very much though; I practice occasionally against a computer game. I also have a magnetic go board that is gathering dust on my shelf.
CATHY: My inability to play go is frankly laughable. The thing is, early into the series, I decided I was never going to understand go and decided I wasn’t going to try too hard to solve the go problems or understand the game! I didn’t know anyone around me who played it either, and I just have such terrible spatial logic that I was never able to grasp the flow of the game. I did, however, memorize a lot of the terms related to go, so I once surprised a real player by talking about playing tengen as a first hand — let it never be said that reading manga will impair your social skills!
MJ: So, pizza and Go, anyone?
Never-ending thanks to these fun and brilliant ladies for joining me here to discuss Hikaru no Go. Look for more Hikago-related fun over the next two days, and please join us in comments!