Sometimes I take small trips through Crunchyroll looking for new things to watch, and while some of my experiments aren’t really hits, it’s interesting to see what’s on there – especially stuff nobody’s talking about. I’m drawn to fairly atypical anime as many of you may have noticed – things with weird stories, strange art styles, or retro aesthetics are definitely my thing, so when I saw a picture of the 2005 anime Tōhai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai (闘牌伝説アカギ 闇に舞い降りた天才, lit. “Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended Into the Darkness”) I was excited. Even though the premise seemed like it could have been boring I had to see a modern anime with such a strange look. And my assumptions of this being boring? Good God was I so wrong.
The story of Akagi revolves around the mahjong gambling exploits of Shigeru Akagi. After a death-defying game of chicken (two cars race for a cliff and first one to brake loses) one evening in 1958, Akagi nonchalantly enters a yakuza mahjong parlor to shake the police’s trail. Although he is unfamiliar with the rules of mahjong, his gambling intuition saves a small-time gambler, Nangou, and grants him a seat at the gambling table. As the night progresses, the stakes are raised both within the game and for Akagi, who is under the suspicion of the local policeman, Yasuoka. However, Akagi manages to defeat Keiji Yagi —despite Yagi’s cheating during the game—and impresses the members of the gambling house. Eventually he gets stronger and stronger opponents until he becomes the legendary gambler that the full title of the anime alludes to
Akagi is actually a spin-off of another manga called Ten by Nobuyuki Fukumoto who is known for long running manga about gambling and Yakuza. Despite this, you don’t have to know anything of the previous manga which shows a much older Akagi in modern times fighting that book’s main character – after I finish this, I might have to see if I can read Ten.
On paper, Akagi should be an insanely boring show designed for old salary men in Japan and literally nobody else, but instead it is somehow really exciting. This is despite me having absolutely no knowledge of the rules of this version of the game nor any interest in playing said game whatsoever and the relative slow pacing of watching guys play Mahjong. That’s because this show is presented in a way that I will liken it to “Yakuza Yu-gi-oh”. Just about every move is presented as some earth shattering situation where you can really feel the gravity of Akagi’s actions. For example, there are many times where Akagi wins, but due to having a daredevil attitude, he immediately pulls the situation back into the fire to raise the stakes.
Akagi is also a compelling character analysis of a person that appears to be a total sociopath and genius. In the same way that House M.D. or Sherlock are such a compelling television characters, Akagi seems to be the gambling equivalent. In many instances, it’s VERY clear that Akagi doesn’t care if he lives or dies and has no problems killing or using people in questionable ways to get his way. This is pretty heavy stuff for a character that starts out as just thirteen years of age at the beginning of the show. There are incredibly intense scenes like one where he pulls a gun on one of his opponents, loads a bullet into the chamber, and fires as in playing Russian Roulette. Of course, his opponent was not in danger as he could calculate the approximate position of the bullet, but merely wanted to see if he would flinch basically.
This also is shown in his Mahjong play style, where he basically ignores what the perceived basics of the game should be due to intuitively knowing what his opponents are likely doing and using their actions to trip them up and pull wins out of nowhere. Ultimitely, his goal is to make them crack, nd take advantage of their insecurities to win. While I am far from the person to discuss the technical side of his tactics, I would compare this to poker and discarding super important cards because he knows he can win in a more skillful way. or hitting on 20 in blackjack because he has figured out that the next card is going to be a one of clubs.
One of my favorite parts of this show is the silly stuff said by the narrator during just about every instance of the show. There is a point in the second large game where Akagi is close to loosing, the narrator builds this up move by move that he is about to loose and “descend into the depths of Hell itself”. A few minutes later, the table is turned and he chimes in with something like: “The sand in the depths of hell is magical sand! It gives you power to rise up!” Stuff like this is so over-the-top and borderline silly that it always makes me laugh – I’m sure that’s not the intention, but I love it.
Perhaps the only real downside to this show is that the character of Shigeru Akagi is fairly mysterious through the entire show – one never really gets a complete grasp of his real motivations or what happened in his life to make him such a grizzled 13 year old. Maybe this is explained in the manga that this is a spinoff of, but I’d imagine not considering the time difference.
All-in-all Akagi is a refreshing show for those that are tired of overly cliched anime that follows whatever genre tropes are popular today. Yeah, it’s really not much different than the handful of sports anime I’ve seen, but one just really isn’t presented with too many organized crime / gambling shows. I’d definitely recommend it.