After watching the first few episodes of Saki, we were left with a potentially intriguing series that didn't quite live up to its potential under close inspection, once the sheen of its Mahjong-based story had been rubbed away. We're now at the half-way stage of this series from Gonzo, streaming for all and sundry to watch and enjoy, so have things picked up at all?
If nothing else, some of the core dynamics of the series have certainly changed in several fundamental ways. For starters, Saki's previous aversion to playing Mahjong (and certainly her unwillingness to play the game properly) dissolves, removing that odd aspect of the series initial episodes as though it never existed. This in turn shifts the nature of Saki's relationship with Nodoka from one of hostility to an extremely close friendship, complete with occasional hints that there may be a little more electricity than simple friendship to this pairing - A hint that gets used ever more often in relation to various characters as the show progresses.
With the deep-seated issues behind Saki's bizarre Mahjong tactics put to bed (for the time being at least) by the end of the third episode, the series finds a new focus, with the Kiyosumi school's Mahjong club looking to qualify for the national schools championship. This goal takes us on to the inevitable training camp episode (which, of course, is held at a hot springs), before moving to focus on the qualifying tournament for these championships, which in turn introduces us to even more weird and wonderful characters from some of the other competing schools.
It's at this point that Saki arguably hits its true stride - The tournament setting means that the actual Mahjong comes relatively thick and fast (although admittedly still restricted to brief bursts of action from the qualifying rounds) complete with all those tiles that spark and lightning bolts, while those aforementioned weird and wonderful characters are frequently depicted as having equally weird and wonderful Mahjong skills - If the stars of Naruto spent their time playing board games instead of being ninjas, this is probably the anime you'd end up with.
Despite finding myself rolling my eyes at characters who can "sense" one another's Mahjong abilities, or an individual with a "special" eye that allows her to see what's going on around the Mahjong table, I have a confession to make - I really rather enjoy watching it all. Despite the mind-blowing lack of realism exhibited by these larger than life characters, when they sit down around a Mahjong table and a game begins Saki manages to do a surprisingly good job of creating a compelling, tense and generally fascinating viewing experience. It may not be edge of your seat stuff in quite the same sense as your average action series, but it still proves to be exciting stuff at times - Provided watching people play Mahjong is your cup of tea of course.
Given my enthusiasm for the actual game-playing aspect of Saki, I can't help but feel that I've gotten things entirely the wrong way round - I get the impression that I'm supposed to care deeply in one way or another about all of the characters on show here, but not too much about the Mahjong results, yet I find myself sitting at the polar opposite of that position. However, once again many of the characters are simply too predictable, stereotypical or two-dimensional (an ironic accusation to level at an animated being, I know), giving the viewer little to get their teeth into in terms of personality. Indeed, Saki herself is a perfect example of this - Despite being the girl after whom the series is named, there's basically nothing to her as an individual at this stage. When your main "heroine" is usurped in the interest stakes by a stuffed penguin and a board game you know you have a problem, and unfortunately Saki suffers from both of these issues, making it more of a curio which might grip you (as it has myself) in some rather odd ways instead of being a must-watch series in its own right.
Japanese audio, English subtitles - Available in Standard Definition, 480P and 720P streaming resolutions.