Whilst rummaging around in his grandfather’s attic, Shindo Hikaru gets more than he bargained for when he comes across an old Go board- a board that just happens to be possessed by the spirit of Heian Era Go player Fujiwara-no-Sai. Since his last chance to get out of the board and play some Go came over 140 years ago, Sai instantly takes the opportunity to possess Hikaru in the hopes of being allowed to participate in a few more matches. Unfortunately, Hikaru is not at all interested in Go, but as he reluctantly indulges his ghostly partner, he begins to discover a new appreciation for the game…
When it comes to Shounen Jump, all too often there’s an undisputable feeling of simply not getting value for money. Aside from the fact that the stories all follow a standard pattern, there’s a tendency for the pace to slow down with each arc, until a single conflict ends up occupying what seems like hundreds of chapters. With that in mind, it is no wonder that I end up getting bored and giving up on most SJ series well before the end- what is surprising, however, is that the one exception to the rule would occur when the SJ formula is applied to the game of Go.
Admittedly, on the surface of it, Hikaru no Go does look like more of the same- there’s the obligatory spiky-haired hero with great potential, his rival, and an ever increasing pool of friends and opponents to encounter. Fortunately, it soon becomes clear that there are also some key differences. There are no invincible heroes, embittered anti-heroes continually forced into second place, or shallow villains inexplicably looking to dominate the world through gaming; instead, what we have is a series of dedicated and chiefly likable players, each seeking to do their best in the competitive worlds of amateur and professional Go. From start to finish, the overall pacing never loses its initial momentum- not only does the series remain an addictive page turner throughout, but it becomes something of a wrench to leave it after its somewhat abrupt ending.
Basic content aside, it is likely that many prospective readers are put off from the outset at the prospect of a series so heavily based on a board game they may or may not know anything about. Although a basic knowledge of Go can’t hurt, nor is it particularly essential- since the series was created with a wider audience than professional players in mind, it remains on a straightforward enough level for anyone to grasp. In fact, if anything, you may find yourself wanting to learn more about Go after reading the series and getting caught up in the cast’s infectious enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, Hikaru no Go is not without its flaws, with most arising from the mixed blessing that is its fast pace. The story may never be in danger of dragging, but there are a few times when it seems to rush by too quickly, telling us of character wins or losses without ever showing us the games they played. Similarly, as the series progresses, more and more characters get left behind, their stories abandoned as the overall plot surges ahead. Admittedly, a collection of side stories in volume eighteen helps to rectify this, but it would have been interesting to see more character threads followed up on rather than simply abandoned. These are all minor gripes, however, more suggestions on making a good thing better than outright criticisms.
Visually, Takeshi Obata (also the artist for Death Note) handles the artwork with a deft flourish, creating solid backgrounds and a range of aesthetically pleasing character designs in his distinctive style. Since Hikaru no Go takes place over a period of around three years, the leads are seen to visibly mature throughout the course of their adventures, a refreshing change from series where characters remain static and unchanging.
By breaking free of some of the more tiresome restrictions of the Shounen Jump formula, Hikaru no Go emerges as a surprisingly absorbing and addictive experience that keeps you hooked from start to finish. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in either Go or SJ-style series, it is worth giving this one a chance.
Extra: Anime Early Impressions
Since I’ve only watched 14 episodes of the anime so far, this is more of a flash comparison than any kind of detailed review. Although Hikaru’s face seems a little too rounded, character designs are generally faithful to the manga, whilst the content also remains much the same. In a welcome counterpoint to the anime (provided you’re interested in the game), the actual Go playing gets more of a focus here, with each handful of manga panels turned into a more developed game. The only real drawback is that onscreen, sobbing over a board game seems a little laughable as compared to a teary manga panel, but it is still satisfying to see the story given colour and movement.
Update: Final thoughts on the anime and the specials
Overall, the anime remained very faithful to the manga, but where I would usually feel impatient at following a story I’m already entirely familiar with, I enjoy HnG enough that it felt right to keep the animated version near identical to the original material. The main differences are that the language barrier between Chinese and Korean players at various points is removed by having them all speak Japanese, whilst only two of the side stories from volume 18 have been animated and the main anime ends after Akira and Hikaru’s first proper match as professionals.
Having finished the series, I then went on to investigate the specials, and since I didn’t really have any clue what they were about, I thought I’d just include that here for the benefit of anyone experiencing similar confusion.
Hikaru no Go Special: A retelling of Hikaru’s side story from episode 64 (less faithful to the manga than the series version). Given the video quality this may have been a pilot episode before the TV series aired, but don’t quote me on that.
Hikaru no Go New Year Special: Aired in 2002, the first New Year special slots in between episodes 12 and 13, and is basically a recap of the first twelve episodes.
Hikaru no Go New Year Special 2004: The only special really worth watching, this 75 minute special picks up where the TV series left off and covers the story up to the selection of Japan’s Hokuto Cup entrants. I’m not sure if the Hokuto Cup itself has since been animated, but if it hasn’t, then hopefully another special is in the works.