It is the middle of the twentieth century, and among the yakuza, high stakes Mahjong is a popular pastime. Skilled players abound, but even they are no match for what is to come- a young man named Akagi Shigeru. With an unsurpassed talent for reading his opponents, Akagi masters the game on his first night of play, and soon earns the title of “the genius who descended into the darkness”. And over the years, Akagi’s appearances in a series of high profile games against some of the most infamous names in the underworld will ensure that his name goes down in legend…
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if shounen series grew up a little and replaced friendship and destined ‘cheating’ with a harsher setting, uglier men and actual cheating, then Akagi probably isn’t too far off what you imagined. With that in mind, it is easy to see that there are many factors that would put people off this series; the character designs are fairly hideous, the pacing can be excruciatingly slow, and the story is all about Mahjong, a game that the majority of viewers probably never cared about enough to learn. Like many others, these factors once made me think that Akagi wasn’t for me, but upon giving it a chance, I realised how wrong I was- for beneath its unattractive series lurks a surprisingly absorbing and addictive series.
The meat of Akagi’s content comes, unsurprisingly, from its Mahjong games, and even if you know nothing about it, a combination of Triad’s translation notes, character narration and the sheer atmosphere and tension of the match will help you become absorbed in the on screen action almost straightaway. Yes, in essence it’s four men sitting around a table playing with small tiles, but at the same time, it’s much more than that. Mahjong is as much about psychology as it is about drawing and matching tiles, and therein lies the series’ strength. Even if the outcome is relatively predictable, watching how Akagi outguesses and outmanoeuvres his opponent in high stakes games where anything from millions of yen to the player’s own blood may be wagered is still a compelling experience. And, if all else fails, Akagi doesn’t just rely on ‘destiny’ to get him out of trouble- he’ll just cheat. And ultimately, you have to admire a man with the balls to cheat when playing against the yakuza.
The other portion of Akagi’s strength comes from its characterisation, for whilst no one other than Akagi is particularly well developed, they are all brought to life by some excellent voice acting. From the ever calm yet mentally unpredictable Akagi, a man who fears nothing and thrives on gambling everything to the passionately unstable Washizu, every character’s personality is perfectly captured.
That isn’t to say the series is perfect, for whilst it usually does an excellent job of weaving its absorbing atmosphere, there are times when it does fall down. As mentioned above, the pacing can be extremely slow, and whilst this usually isn’t a problem, in the final arc it starts to become annoying noticeable, with an entire episode being taken up with nothing more than explanations of how and why the preceding game played out the way it did. The other major issue is the ending, which effectively chops off an arc right in the middle instead of giving it any kind of proper closure- normally this would be an invitation to turn to the manga, but as that doesn’t seem particularly easy to get hold of, viewers are left with the frustration that an unfinished series always brings.
Visually, Akagi is far from the most aesthetically pleasing of series- character designs are simplistic and ugly, with exaggerated features and thick black lines used for outlines. Although there are few punch-ups over the course of the series, generally there isn’t a great deal of actual animation and movement, whilst CG is relied upon extensively for backgrounds, fixtures and even the Mahjong tiles themselves. In fact, Mahjong tiles may be the best use for CG I’ve seen so far, since unlike mecha, vehicles and bullets, they actually look very good instead of being clunky and unrealistic. As far as music goes, the uninspiring OP and ED are best skipped, but the actual background music is simple yet effective in completing the atmosphere.
It may not be perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but Akagi is one show that should at least be given a fair chance before you decide that it isn’t for you. A tense and compelling tale that manages to make Mahjong more fascinating than most action sequences could ever be, this is an unpolished gem that far too many have overlooked.