I find it more or less impossible to answer when someone asks me my favourite anime. There is too much diversity, I think. Too many great series and too much variety – how can you weigh Azumanga Daioh against Paranoia Agent or Spirited Away? And then I feel inconsistent, because I know full well what my favourite manga is, despite there being even more titles and even broader degrees of variation and experimentation. My favourite manga is Hikaru no Go.
My feelings for the series are simply too far in advance of those inspired by any other. Since the final chapter in 2003, I’ve periodically revisited my favourite volumes, and they still always have me hooked. The characters, the realism, the setting, the drama, and in particular the art – all are the very best of the shounen manga world. And while Obata’s art improved vastly during his run on this series, it was at its pinnacle by the end, and visually I prefer the balance he finds here to the shadowy look of Death Note or the stylisation of Bakuman.
Nothing else has ever excited, moved, tickled and warmed me quite so much.
But even if the manga is my favourite of all time, the anime is not quite up there. Another of Studio Pierrot’s Jump series (along with Naruto and Bleach), it ran for a respectable 75 episodes (plus a special), had superb voice acting and music, and didn’t look half bad, even if it could never quite match the lovely visuals of the manga. Yet…there was some spark missing. The timing of scenes often seemed off, or slightly off-model faces seemed to ruin scenes. The final arc never got animated, and as the ending disappointed so many, I don’t expect a HunterXHunter-style revival any time soon (though a year ago, I didn’t expect that one, either, so who knows?). But I would be so happy to see one, and it saddens me when it feels like Hikago is forgotten.
The story is simple: a normal, slightly rebellious young boy finds an old board for playing the complex traditional game go, or igo. Hearing strange voices, he passes out, and when he awakes, he is haunted by a ghost from the heian era called Sai. All Sai wants is to play go, and to see others play, although he does have a childlike wonder for the marvels of the modern world, like a TV screen showing footage of fish. Hikaru upsets a lot of people by letting Sai play through him, especially when he beats the passionate young Akira, a prodigy destined to be amongst the best in the go world – sparking something of an obsession. Before long, Hikaru develops a desire to excel on his own, not through another.
Those who don’t give it a chance miss out on a lot. I love how go is the perfect sports manga subject – physical sports too often require farcical superhuman talent (see Prince of Tennis) or are very raucous and manly (ie Slam Dunk), but go has a stately seriousness that makes it perfect for a realistic manga – and what’s clever is that Sai is the sole supernatural element of the series. I love how just about every minor character gets fleshed out. I love the fact that Hikaru wears such fashionable clothes while Akira has the most horrible dress sense. I love the way you can see the artist and writer evolve over the course of the series, and how a goofy little idea about a ghost and a board game becomes so serious and so moving. It’s just such a perfect scenario, such a great way to meld reality and fantasy, such a neat way to make fantastic drama right from the beginning.
Hikaru is just an everyman, albeit a very likeable one. It’s Touya’s passion and shattered confidence that drives the story from beginning to end. It’s the same heated rivalry and affection that drives Naruto and Kingdom Hearts, but female mangaka Hotta Yumi does it far better, and with far more believable, human, relatable reasons for the rifts that lead to drama. How strange that the best teen relationship drama I’ve ever read is between two boys in a Jump series – and while it’s easy to jump to conclusions, any shounen-ai undertones are actually kept as undertones.
Hikaru no Go was a perfect balance of humour, drama, triumph and angst. I’ll always recommend the manga first, but the series is very much worth watching, and contains some of my favourite characters and twists of any anime.
(With elements originally blogged 12.4.06, 9.11.06 and 23.4.08)