Japanese anime producers have a long and successful history of turning games and sports into successful series, from baseball to tennis to boxing. In many ways, such competitive events make for a natural source of high drama, tension and excitement in its purest form, and with that in mind comes Saki, a new anime series based entirely around... Mahjong?!
Yes, that's right, the world of Saki revolves entirely around Mahjong, the ancient Chinese four-player game still widely enjoyed (and gambled upon) in Japan, mixing it into the inevitable high school setting with an equally inevitable number of cute girls of various kinds.
The star of the show is, naturally, Saki herself - An unlikely heroine in many regards, as the girl we first meet in this series has something approaching an active dislike for Mahjong due to what appears to be a rather tumultuous family history. Nonetheless, she somehow finds herself dragged along to the school's Mahjong club by her friend Kyou, and it's here that her buried talent for the game begins to slip out. However, rather than this talent unveiling itself via a flurry of stunning victories, so Saki's abilities come to the fore in as understated and reserved a fashion as the girl herself - Rather than playing to win, she instead aims for a score of ±0 in every game... an almost God-like feat in Mahjong that ensures her neither victory nor humiliating defeat, the board game equivalent of sitting on the fence.
This bizarre way of playing Mahjong not only confuses the members of the school club, it also quickly creates an occasionally fractious relationship between Saki and Nodoka, something of a Mahjong prodigy herself (who unfortunately carries the baggage of the show's fan service component in the form of her heaving bosom). It's this relationship which is the focus of a large proportion of these opening three episodes, as this early rivalry begins to swing towards understanding of one another's personal circumstances, a change in their dynamic that coincides with the beginning of the Mahjong national championships, a competition which will doubtless make up much of the later episodes of the series.
If you're reading this review thinking "I couldn't possibly watch this series, I don't even know how to play Mahjong!" then fear not, because you're in exactly the same boat as this reviewer - Quite simply, I don't have a clue how to play Mahjong, nor do I know or particularly comprehend the rules. So, is this a hefty barrier of entry when it comes to watching Saki? Yes and no - You may well feel like you're missing out on at least some of the dramatic tension during games by not knowing its intricacies, but by the same token these games are played at such quick-fire pace and with sufficient comments from the various characters involved to at least keep you appraised as to vaguely what's going on. Who knows, you might even pick up the odd rule or two. On top of all this, each game of Mahjong is played and animated with the kind of flourishes that only anime would even consider - Tiles are slammed onto the board as sparks fly and electricity crackles, while the watcher's view spins around the stony-faced characters as they expertly flip tiles as though this were a life or death game of Street Fighter rather than one of Mahjong. Quite frankly, the over-egged "action" sequences are frequently hilarious for this very reason, yet beneath those giggles you can't help but be drawn into what's going on as a result of these exaggerations.
When all is said and done, Saki is an interesting series and concept that portrays itself with varying degrees of success. Saki herself is a likeable enough girl (albeit still something of a blank slate in character terms at this juncture) and the actual Mahjong games themselves are oddly compelling, yet somehow the core tenet of the series plot that a simple game of Mahjong can heal all family rifts and somehow make the world a better place is... Well, a bit daft really. Add to this the arguably overly stereotypical properties of many of the other main characters (something that appears likely to only get worse as we enter the national competition phase of the series), and you have an entertaining series that feels a little too shallow to be much more than a brief amusement to while away some time with. A far cry from Mahjong itself, by the looks of it.
Japanese audio, English subtitles - Available in low quality, high quality, H.264, 480P and 720P streaming resolutions.