Another classic anime theme: “Nantokanare” from Akagi

Today and tomorrow’s posts deal with two more anime opening themes from series that are connected in my mind forever, even if they don’t have much in common other than the same creator and genre. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about both these openings before, but they can always use a second look, especially since both are from relatively old anime at this point (and the songs themselves are far older, especially the first.)

First up is Mahjong Legend Akagi. Sure, on the surface it’s a series about people playing mahjong, but it’s really far more than that. Original manga author Nobuyuki Fukumoto is known for his gambling stories full of psychological games and power struggles, and Akagi is packed full of them. Several years ago I wrote a complete synopsis of the first episode of the anime here, one of the few posts from back then that I’m not completely ashamed of now. (Partly kidding, it’s not all that bad, but still, eight years ago — I can’t believe it’s been that long.)

Back to the subject: you wouldn’t be able to tell from this OP that Akagi is about a insane teenage gambling genius who uses his skill to take on the yakuza in incredibly high-stakes mahjong matches. The OP animation does fit the feel, though: just the protagonist Shigeru Akagi walking around 50s Tokyo, and with the still under construction Tokyo Tower in the final shot before the 1 pin tile gets slammed down, a nice touch.

The song is also fitting, a real classic this time. Akagi aired back in 2005, but the OP theme “Nantokanare” comes from the 1972 album Furuido no Sekai by Japanese folk-rock group Furuido.* It has a wistful feel that fits well with the series — though it does get very intense, Akagi himself is an extremely cool and collected guy with an attitude that suits the feel of the opening. The full song is worth hearing, along with some of Furuido’s other work. Maybe I’ll feature them separately later on.

But tomorrow I’ll be back with that related anime OP. Some of you might already have guessed exactly what song that’s going to be. For the rest, I won’t spoil it. Until then!

 

* Another language note: I’m not sure whether these guys are supposed to be pronounced “Furuido” or “Fluid”. Google lists the band’s name as “FluiD”, but in Japanese their name is written 古井戸, meaning “old water well.” Since that’s pronounced furuido, I’m inclined to just keeping calling them Furuido despite Google disagreeing with me. I know Google knows everything and all that but I feel pretty confident, though it’s possible that the Furuido guys themselves intended for there to be a double meaning in their name.

The Episode 1 anime dice roll (rolls 4 – 7)

Today I keep on rolling rolling rolling through my lists of anime that I haven’t watched yet to find something promising. This time I ended up with a mix of complete despair and hope for humanity, leaving me pretty balanced out in my usual moderately depressive state. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So let’s get started with:

Girls’ Last Tour

Starting with a nice and dark one, an adaptation of a manga series about two young girls who are orphaned (I think at least that’s implied) by a massive world war and are forced to search the ruins of civilization for food and other resources to survive. Chito drives their small commandeered military vehicle, while Yuuri rides in the back and takes gunning duties (though who exactly these girls might have to shoot is still a mystery.)

The dynamic between these two is interesting; they’ve clearly been together for a while and know each other well, and it’s implied that they were friends back during the war that tore humanity apart. They also have a nice contrast going, with Chito being the levelheaded, calm one and Yuuri the impulsive weirdo. The one aspect of Girls’ Last Tour that I might have to get used to is the artstyle — Chito and Yuuri are designed in this super-deformed cutesy Hidamari Sketch-looking style like you’d expect out of a light slice-of-life show like that, but everything around them is realistic-looking and drab. That contrast definitely feels intentional, but I don’t know if it works for me that well.

I’ll still probably keep watching this at some point, though. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, so when I’m in the mood for something soul-crushing again I’ll pick it back up.

Penguindrum

Also known as Mawaru Penguindrum, but on Hi-Dive/VRV it’s just listed as Penguindrum so I guess that’s what it’s titled over here. This is one I remember being talked about a long time ago but that I never got around to watching. Two brothers Shoma and Kanba live alone with their terminally ill younger sister Himari. One day they all go to an aquarium at Himari’s request, and while there she collapses and is declared dead by emergency services.

The brothers are devastated, but they get a real shock when Himari is revived seemingly by a miracle. Somehow, the penguin hat she was wearing at the time that she bought at the gift shop contains the spirit of a penguin princess girl (this is my best guess of what she is at least) who briefly possess Himari’s body and speaks through her, telling her brothers that they have to find the Penguindrum, whatever the fuck that is. Said penguin princess is also keeping Himari alive for the time being, though she either can’t or won’t maintain her power for very long, so the clock is ticking for her. The boys have no idea where to find this Penguindrum thing, but thankfully they and their sister have help in their search in the form of three seemingly intelligent penguins, each assigned to assist one of them.

I don’t know if any of that made sense to you. It barely did to me and I just watched the thing. But as I’ve said before, I like weird stuff like this, and Penguindrum promises a lot in its first episode that I hope it can keep up. This isn’t produced by Studio SHAFT, but I get a SHAFT-y vibe from the general weirdness of the show so far, especially the trippy sequence where the brothers are first confronted by the princess, and for me that’s a good thing. I just hope the show doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of extremely heavy drama, because my tolerance for that kind of stuff isn’t that high (though it depends on how interesting it is too.) Penguindrum is looking good so far, though.

A Place Further Than the Universe

Another penguin-related anime, though none have showed up yet (aside from one stuffed penguin toy at the beginning, which was a nice touch.) I’ve only ever heard good things about this series, so it’s one that’s been on my to-watch list for a while. A Place Further Than the Universe is centered on high school student Mari, who wants to make the most of her youth but is afraid of the consequences of taking any risk at all to the point that she feels she hasn’t done anything worthwhile. That changes when she runs into Shirase, an older classmate who’s determined to go to Antarctica to find her missing explorer/author mother. Mari, sick of being afraid of taking risks, agrees to go with her.

Everything about this series is promising: the characters seem pretty compelling, and I like the course of the story so far. There’s a lot of that youthful wonder about the world that ends up being completely destroyed and replaced with bitter resignation after you become an adult (or maybe that’s just my experience?) It’s nice to see, anyway. The production is also very high-quality, as expected of Madhouse — it looks beautiful so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the show depicts Antarctica and to seeing how the story plays out in general.

Saki

Somehow I didn’t watch any of this show for over a decade after it aired, not until just last week. It’s one of the only mahjong-centered anime series I know about, the other one being Akagi, which is one of my favorites of all time (and I think that silly-looking one about former Prime Minister Koizumi playing mahjong against other world leaders might have been animated too?)

But I’m happy that I finally got around to remembering this show exists and picking it up, because it seems like a good time. And much like Akagi, it seems like mahjong itself isn’t the main point of the show, but just a template to tell a larger story about the characters playing the game. Saki is a new first-year high schooler who gets dragged into a mahjong club by her friend, despite insisting that she hates the game. When she plays a game with the club, however, she manages to maintain a score of +/-0 throughout, which is incredibly unlikely. Both the club president and top mahjong ace Nodoka realize that it’s no coincidence; from how she plays, Saki clearly has demonic skills, though for some reason she’s not using them to try to win. They try to get her to return to the club, but Saki seems reluctant. Will she give in and join, and will we discover why she hates the game so much despite being so good at it?

Of course the answer to both questions is going to be yes, since this series goes on for 25 episodes + 13 episodes of what looks like a sequel series, and Saki is the title character of both. And I’ll be continuing it for a while at least. Saki doesn’t seem that different from the typical sports anime so far, and I don’t normally go for those shows, but it might just be my stupid bias at work, because I like playing riichi mahjong (even if I am total shit at it, unlike Saki.) However, the mahjong itself might act as a barrier to entry for some watchers, because it’s a complicated game and the show doesn’t even bother explaining the basics, jumping right into the values of different yaku and han and fu and all that shit. Even Akagi did better in that regard. I was also surprised by just how many fanservice shots were in this episode — plenty of low-angle shots + skirts so short I’d question the school principal’s motives in approving them. This is one of those cases where I completely get the complaints about fanservice that I brought up a while ago.

Even so, I’ll keep watching Saki. It feels like the kind of show I can watch to unwind, even if it does look like it might have some more heavy drama later on regarding Saki’s family situation.

And now I have enough series to watch that I probably don’t need to do more of these for a while. However, I still have anime in the backlog that I intend to get to at some point, including a lot of “how the fuck haven’t you watched this” ones like Konosuba and some I know I want to watch like the new Higurashi series. Teasing Master Takagi-san is the first newly-finished one this year I’ve gotten around to writing about (and it’s very worth watching if you haven’t read that post) but I’ve got some others lined up as well that I’m partly or all the way through by now. I just haven’t been able to write anything coherent about them yet.

More game-related posts are also on their way, so don’t worry about that — I haven’t gone through a total format change here like radio stations used to do back when people listened to AM/FM radio (do you remember those days, or am I just getting old? The 90s seem so far away now.) I also plan to get done with that Megami Tensei post series soon, though maybe using a very liberal definition of the word “soon”. See you all in a while.

Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

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I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

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Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

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A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

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Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

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This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

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Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

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Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

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One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

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What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

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Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

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Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

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Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

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The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

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He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

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Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

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The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

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Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.