I have a guilty secret. Actually, scratch that – I have numerous guilty pleasures. However, what I need to confess to here is not that I cannot get enough shoujo-ai or detective anime series; one of my more recent professions has to be for a surprising love of shows based upon board-games. The passion was ignited by the powerful Hikaru no Go and now I have a definite soft spot for watching the rise of the underdog due to the somewhat captivating Shion no Ou.
Focussing on the mute heroine, Shion, the series explains her gory past as she watched her parents brutally murdered as a toddler and was then subjected to a game of shogi by the ruthless killer. After being told to stay quiet or die, our young protagonist lost her voice, but also grew into a highly determined “general’s chess” player. As the anime charts her struggle to overcome the preconceptions of females in the competitions, Shion says nothing but wins the hearts of many with her polite behaviour. Although initially inexplicable, her unwavering courage and naive girlishness are enough to win over even the most hardened shounen fan.
Just as interesting though are the side stories, such as Saito’s big secret and her tragic past that led her to becoming a shogi player. Building the friendship between her, our heroine and the dignified Nikaido, the series showcases the personalities as they form a comfortable dynamic. Unfortunately, in the words of Highlander, “there can be only one” and certain members of the trio are unceremoniously disposed of from an important tournament. Having chronicled their struggle against the odds and Saori’s sudden transformation into a lovelorn bore, the show loses some of its initial forward momentum.
Split roughly 50/50 between murder mystery and what is essentially glorified chess, Shion no Ou has a habit of trying to seamlessly combine both and instead producing a complex mess. That said, the free-for-all shogi matches during the mid-point of the show are strangely addictive, and I found myself watching eight episodes back to back - and that is without understanding any of the game! Unfortunately, the tournament ends too quickly and the turbulent confusion returns with a vengeance for what is one of the worst climaxes I have seen in a long time. Only an “if it weren’t for those pesky kids...” from the killer would have completed the clichéd Scooby Doo storytelling.
Starting out strange, but quirky, the animation for Shion no Ou is far from mainstream. Studio Deen have produced an impressive list of anime titles, and each is as unique and interestingly drawn as the next. However, this show, the second half in particular, seems to have sneaked under the quality bar; characters seem to metamorphosise before your eyes as it seems fan art was used to conclude the story, due to the paid artists no longer being arsed.
Whilst the OP and ED are usually the pinnacle of an anime soundtrack, the ambient music is also delightfully captivating. Enticing the viewer into the show with a visually and audibly fascinating ninety seconds, the following twenty-two minutes of animated pleasure are accompanied by a variety of emotionally stimulating music; jazz, sweeping flutes and dark rock portray feelings and create atmosphere much better than any animated character could.
Bringing their A-game to the table, Shion no Ou’s Japanese seiyuu pull off a superb performance that truly brings two-dimensional characters to life. Although a mute, Shion’s inner monologues add tension to each of the shogi matches whilst also giving an insight into her inner struggle to come to terms with a bloody past. Romi Park also delivers an excellent performance as Saito, being discrete enough to keep the "secret" under wraps.
Balancing the battle of the sexes, Shion no Ou highlights the difference between male and female; from the preconceptions of an onlooker, to the realistic day-to-day expectations and treatment of a professional and experienced Meijin compared to that of a lowly kishi. Nikaidou is typical of a daughter born to a wealthy family; with a wicked sense of humour, she is sculpted into a fascinating femme fatale, who seeks nothing from the game of shogi but the approval of Hani Meijin. My emotions were torn with Saito who successfully covers multiple key roles. From initial antagonist to loyal friend, her story is extremely tragic and probably makes her the most robust in the show. However, Shion herself becomes a letdown; dragged into a bewildering battle of good versus evil, I can’t help but feel our mute heroine could have been developed into something much more epic.
Spending a great majority of the show trying to figure out “who-dunnit”, the writers have carefully designed the remaining characters to arouse a certain amount of suspicion in the viewer. Using the art of misdirection, each potential killer is allowed a reasonable amount of development and an intriguing exploration of their history that could potentially explain their homicidal tendencies. Unfortunately, when the suspect is finally pinned down, his motives aren’t satisfactorily explained, and he comes across as somewhat of a pointless nut job.
Starting off as a mediocre and wishy-washy board-game anime and ending as a confused murder mystery, Shion no Ou is occasionally intelligent and frequently fun enough to entertain the viewer; however it is lacking in re-watch value. Whilst not as impressive as Hikaru no Go, there are more than enough plot twists and likable characters to keep the DVD in the enjoyable pile, but too many glaring faults to promote it to the upper echelons of excellence.
They say it is a mistake to judge a book by its cover. Ok then, I will not judge it by the description that says sports (which I hate) or mystery (which are rarely to never that interesting in anime format). I am not going to judge it by the entry picture either, which shows some typical school and teenagers. I am just going to look at the technicals, which are a lot more creditable, since a studio or a person are usually following a pattern that provide you with a few important details about what to expect. And guess what?
Shion no Ou is bad from the first second.
A veteran viewer will immediately know that by simply looking at who made it. The production team is Studio DEEN, the officially worst of all famous studios (yes, even worse than GONZO). Just looking at the name is enough to let you know “Oh boy, here comes some really mediocre production values and possibly a bad story.” So the story is at least giving you a few hopes of it being great but then you see the director’s roster of previous works. The same guy had directed Tenjou Tenge and Beyblades and any 8 year old kid can tell you those were some really shitty anime.
Talk about negative bias before I even start watching the damn thing. It is about sports (well, technically a board game), it is about some DONE TO DEATH school kids, it is made by the worst anime studio ever, and it is directed by a guy who was trying to convince you for 500 episodes that playing with spinning tops will make you look cool for the rest of the gang.
Wait, I am not gonna start talking about the anime yet. I will also deal with that issue regarding all those newbs who dared to compare this piece of negative bias with the most cool game promoting anime of all times. “If you liked Hikaru no Go, then you will definitely like Shion no Ou” is what they were saying. Troll harder you fools! Apart from the fact Go and Shogi are VERY DIFFERENT games, the basic plot itself is downright different. While the protagonist in Hikaru was a BOY trying to be THE BEST GO PLAYER IN THE WORLD (trademark catchphrase), in Shion it is a GIRL trying to find the killer of her parents while playing Shogi. As corny as the first premise may sound, trying to find a killer by PLAYING A BOARD GAME is plain ridiculous. It’s like trying to save the world with card games. Isn’t that right Yugi?
Anyways, let’s just suppose this is a series where through some weird superpower if you defeat someone in a board game, he reveals his crimes to you… Hey wait a second, there are no superpowers in this anime! How is Shogi going to help if it doesn’t magically force peoples’ crime to be revealed?... What? Shogi has nothing to do with finding the murderer? It is an irrelevant extra? The detective thriller part of the story has absolutely nothing to do with the Shogi tournaments? So we practically get two completely different stories in the same series? Talk about trolled hard!
To all you people out there who aspire to become scriptwriters. If you write a story about penguins and spaceships, make sure the penguins have something to do with the spaceships (like piloting them) and that they are not COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT AND ISOLATED ASPECTS. See what I meant by negative bias? Those who like the penguins will dislike the spaceships, and vice versa. In a similar fashion, those who like Shogi will dislike the mystery, and those who like mystery will dislike the Shogi. IT IS PLAIN FACTS!
To be honest there is a vague connection. The anime is basically about a girl named Shion, aiming to become a Shogi master because the murderer is a Shogi player and by playing with all of them she can find leads to who he may be. And as you can probably figure out in five seconds after reading this, LOSING THE GAME HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FINDING THE KILLER. She could be a total amateur for all we care and the result would be the same. So basically watching Shion trying her best to win does not make you feel like she cares to be the best in the world and you immediately lose a big chunk of fondness about her. Looking for the killer while trying not to miss the deadline for the next match feels like she doesn’t care about it much either. And thus PRESTO you are not going to like either.
Superficially, the anime does things right by fleshing out the characters on a basic level and maintaining the tension of the mystery. Underneath though there is very little actual motivation to keep watching and anticipating what will follow. The whole premise is blunt, the characters never feel special to bother remembering, and the whole murder mystery (get ready to facepalm) is resolved in the middle of the show! That’s right; she finds the killer way before the finale and then spends the rest of the show just playing Shogi! Hooray, how motivational! I avenged my parents so I can now return back to playing games. Thanks for having the peak of interesting gone midway! Not that I was very thrilled about Shion as a character before midway anyway. She is the more than typical too-goody, idealistic teen hero.
So beyond all doubt I proved to you how story and characters are big pile on crap, even without being biased against it (which I am anyway). Let’s move on to other aspects now, shall we? Let’s get to the artwork and the animation for awhile. Even if you are not familiar with how crappy Studio DEEN is in such things, it doesn’t take a genius to tell that there isn’t much to see here. Everything looks plain typical, from typical character designs, to typical buildings, to even more typical Shogi boards. The outlines are also never too detailed, the movements are never too smooth, and the visual effects are kept at a basic level. And remember; this is a 2007 anime and just a year before we had Suzumiya Haruhi’s funky dancing all over the place. See how dull it feels beyond all doubt?
And now the sound… Um… err… I don’t remember anything. Which again proves beyond all doubt (XD) it was mediocre because otherwise I would definitely have good or bad things to say about the soundtrack or the voice acting. Oh wait, I do remember something very well. Shion’s voice was amazing XD.
From all the universal truths I described to you above so clearly, it is easy to understand (and blindly believe) that there is very little replay value in this show. There is absolutely no reason to rewatch it after you know the outcome of each battle or who the killer is. And the rest of the plot is very basic and mediocre so again nothing worth seeing again here. The enjoyment part, as objective as it may be depending on the observer, is also low, especially if you have watched Hikaru no Go as well as other gamble anime such as Akagi and Kaiji. The amount of tension, raw emotion, and funky mindfucking background effects make Shion to look like a bedtime story and just as one grows up and leaves fairy tales behind, Shion no Ou will be nothing more than a dusty decoration on your shelf.
You have now been educated.
Shion no Oh, the first thing that I thought about when considering whether or not to watch this anime was that I didn't know how to play shougi. I play chess however so I can relate a bit, but not really... so I can say now that having watched it, information on shougi is just a bonus but it's not needed. It's true I can't tell if their moves were actually good or not but Shion no Oh focuses on the psychological aspects of gambling on yourself, reading your opponent and doing whatever it takes to win. They can be experienced through any competition and that's what makes this anime relatable.
The synposis makes the anime look really elementry but in reality it is a thorough look into the nature of competition. In regard to arrogance, the inferiority complex, friendship, family and many other elements that lead to an intellectual investigation hidden under the basic premise of kishin playing good shougi. The murderer of Shion's parents is merely a ploy to add another psychological aspect to the anime, all of these weak plot points start to show their true selves and reveal that this isn't an ordinary sports anime. I expected something like Haijime no Ippo out of Shion no Oh, or perhaps that Shion played to escape from her haunting childhood but instead it's about her facing tragedy head on without backing down. This hits something inparticular with me as a viewer because there is some truth in it, out of tragedy you either get frightened fools like serial killers, suicidals and the like or you get heroes who face tragedy head on and shine brighter than the rest of us.
The first flaw I thought may exist in a shougi anime was predictability, however it's suprizing how intelligently the plot deals with it's characters. It doesn't fear to use them how it wishes in a way that is unexpectedly logical, one of the most disappointing flaws you can see in the general anime is an unquestionable reluctance to offend their characters by forcing them to be real. In other words they're too scared to show us an ugly side of a character, scared to make someone who is loved and praised to lose or do something despicable. Everyone is just is as they are shown; nothing more, nothing less. The problem is that humans aren't that perfect and they are not always as they seem, Shion no Oh is bold in this way and that's what I love about it.
It's an unfortunate flaw that shougi is not really exciting to watch when we have no idea what it's about, this may seem stupid to rank down an anime because of the viewers flaw but it makes sense. I doubt anyone reading this knows shougi, so in terms of how much you enjoy it, it's 7/10... just like if a detective film used cruicial advanced evidence that we didn't understand or admire then using it as a climax would lose it's effect.
The animation was ruthless in it's depiction of characters to represent both their true nature and how we percieve their false nature. The cuteness of Shion contrasted against the ugliness and cruelty in the appearence of her competition became a real reason to love Shion and hate her enemies but the animation only sets up the illusion that is stripped down by the plot. It's simple and cute, it depicts what it needs to with a surprizingly advanced technique for an anime. For a non-animated film they would be simplistic and common but Shion no Oh makes use of these features to create something that is rare in anime.
Juxtapositioning and contrasting of characters increases the psychological impact of the plot, it is an essential building point of the plot and yet it still manages to do what normal good animation does.
It was a pretty good OP and ED, the OST was pretty good too but there is one major flaw in my ability to analyse the OST and that is that I don't understand Shougi. If the shougi in the anime is genius enough or interesting so that the scenes that I found boring were in fact breathe taking or heart clenching then the sound track was brilliant, 8.5 or 9 However for me many of the scenes where the calmness of the shougi was only interrupted by the growls and hisses of players, I would have liked the OST to step it up a bit and attempt to create some power in the games so it wouldn't be as boring. I can't be sure, and I think the fact that I watched Shion no Oh in only 2-3 days made it a bit relenting, perhaps it was indeed better than I thought. 8/10 is a good rating as compenation for some of these factors.
It's hard to write anything more without spoiling because the characters are merely pawns that allow the plot to go through the investigation that dominates the anime. I've explained the most of it but it's rare to find so many characters that have such depth in an anime, in fact it's somewhat unheard of for me. The only reason it doesn't get a 10 is because I felt like to some degree, I found myself not caring as to what happened to too many characters, I think the reason this occured is because of how timid and unconfident many of them were in themselves. Only in a few moments while playing shougi would they begin to take themselves a little seriously, considering how good they are there's no reason to be afraid so... It was nice that their style of play served as a second character development but sometimes it happened a little too fast, I think stretching it out a little bit would be more pleasent but keep in mind i'm just explaining a few minor flaws.
It's true that this anime wasn't the most intelligent or gripping in any of it's facets and that's why it won't be recieving a rating that signifies a masterpiece but Shion no Oh was pretty solid. A big issue is that even I fell a bit behind in terms with character development and representation which makes me wonder how well others will catch up. If you hated Death Note for it's lack of action then STAY AWAY FROM THIS ANIME. It's like an intellectual discussion between you and the anime, it's worth is weighed in how much you comprehended but even if you are confident that you could keep up with everything it's trying to say in one go. There is no action in this anime at all, it's just people playing shougi, if you don't keep up I can imagine it being really boring. This review gave a few hints that I hope you can use to stay on top of the content. There were indeed times where I struggled to press on because watching people playing some alien game was pretty damn boring, but if you think you can survive this and the idea of a psychological anime excites you then watch this.
There is no anime that studies human nature more than this one.
Thank you for reading and please post comments if you have any.
Shion no Ou's description painted a picture in my head of Hikaru no Go + (a bit of ) Death Note, and it delivered on that promise...Kinda...
If you don't know what shougi is (like I didn't at the time of watching) it's practically Japanese chess...Not knowing ANYTHING aboot Shougi/chess, I was rather hesitant to watch, but I figured I gave Hikaru no Go a shot, why not?!
What's start out with a rather dark opening, devolves into a half and half story...On one side you have Shion and her friends playing through tournaments and up the ranks ofshougi in order to better themselves...On the other side, you have a couple of detectives trying to unravel the mystery of Shion's parents murder 8 years ago...
So the Death Note portion isn't as deep as I would have liked and the ending seems rushed and the motive of the killer is bizarre to say the least...Overall, I liked it, but felt it wasn't as interesting as I thought it could be, though I enjoyed watching it...I bet if I knew more aboot shougi, that would have helped the intensity of the matches...
Still, good series, worth checking out for a 22 episode series, check it out!!