If Hikaru no Go is to be credited for anything, it would be for practically teaching me the definition of a love-hate relationship. No other anime has been more successful at making me hate the show while simultaneously making me watch more of it. Hikaru no Go, at its best moments, ranked as one of my top animes of all time (a long time ago, the series had a 9.5 on my animenfo account). However, at its worst, an uncontrollable, irrational desire boiled within me to murder the creator with a sack of go stones (or some other similarly ironic implement of death).
As is proven by animes such as Initial D, Hajime no Ippo, and Prince of Tennis, having an especially long anime involving ANY obscure competitive game will pretty much be instantly addictive and fun to watch. The joy in watching each animes individual subculture is almost indescribable; a certain fascination arises by watching a sport that so many people know nothing about. Thus, when I first started watching Hikaru no Go, I expected it to be good. However, despite this, the show surpassed even my very high expectations. In episodes 1-56, HnG is arguably one of the most masterful animes ever made.
At the beginning of the series, the storyline is absolutely terrific. One wouldnt think that an anime about Go would have such a captivating and addictive storyline, but Hikaru no Go definitely does. As Hikarus skill at the game improves more and more, one becomes increasingly interested with his upcoming battles. Though a few blatant filler episodes are present, most of the episodes have to do directly with the story and never cease to be absolutely enthralling. Although I had been a mild admirer of Go in the past, this section of the story changed me into an avid fan of the game. If I were to base my opinion of the story solely off of episodes 1-56, I would undoubtedly give the storyline a 10.
The events that occur in episodes 57-70, however, are a completely different issue. In all of the anime that Ive ever seen, this stretch of episodes contains some of the worst, most unpleasant and most tedious filler that I have EVER seen. I dont want to give anything away, but the episodes have Hikaru doing practically NOTHING. Probably the most glaring fault is the lack of what makes the series so great - the go matches. The paltry few that are played at all are inferior in just about every way to the ones that occured earlier in the series. Then, in episodes 71-75, just as the anime is getting good again... the series simply ends abruptly. As a result, episodes 57-75 feel like an complete waste of time. At the end, I felt almost as terrible as I did after finishing Berserk - like I had been somehow conned out of my emotional investment.
So why am I writing this review now, months after I finished watching the main series? The answer, quite simply, lies in the 2004 New Years Special. Thrilling, action-packed, and constantly interesting, this 1 hour, 15 minute special is a brilliant return to form. While watching it, I felt a distinct twinge of nostalgia, a remembrance of why I originally loved this anime in the first place. I strongly recommend this special to anyone who even faintly liked the original series.
Essentially, the special reminded me that when HnG was good, it was spectacularly good. As a result, despite mixed feelings about the storyline, I still feel like the entire experience is worthwhile as a whole.
One would expect the animation of an anime based on Go to absolutely suck, but I found HnGs animation surprisingly pleasing on the eyes. Most of the character designs are bright and fairly easy to remember, and various special effects are used during a go match to keep the anime exciting. I found the fact that the character designs changed over time to be a very nice touch; the process does a good job of representing the characters growing maturity over time.
In addition to the animation, Hikaru no Go's sound is also surprisingly good. The opening sequence changes several times over the course of the series, and I liked each and every one. The background music is not particularly listenable, but does an excellent job of maintaining the mood of the show.
Additionally, I found the voice acting to be surprisingly competent. Hikarus character could have easily had a cheesy and melodramatic voice, but his (as well as others) voice remains believable throughout the entirety of the show.The voice acting is also very convincing.
The characters are terrific - Sai and Hikaru are perhaps one of the most loveable duos ever. Sai, in particular, lights up the screen; he is fantastic in so many ways, its difficult to describe them all. Oftentimes hes absolutely hilarious, other times he effortlessly draws empathy with his angst ridden past and his burning desire to practice what he loves. His relationship with Hikaru is touching in an unimaginable way. After a while, Hikaru and Sai have bonded so completely that they are arguably the same person. As for Hikaru, he does an excellent job of being a universally likeable hero; like many of us, he has not found his true passion at the beginning of the show, and watching him discover the joy of playing what he was born for is an incredible treat. The rest of the characters, including Touya Akira, are somewhat one-sided, but remarkably effective all the same. The cast of supporting characters is huge, but somehow all of them manage to be both memorable and loveable. They do an excellent job of keeping the storyline fresh; with their huge assortment of personalities, merely meeting the opponents that Hikaru will face is entertaining in and of itself.
For the beginning episodes alone, I have to recommend the show. The first 50 or so episodes are brilliant, a wonderful conglomeration of sharp writing, likeable characters and an addictive premise. However, just like Kare Kano, I would issue a strong warning to anyone who thinks that an anime needs to have a good ending to be worthwhile as a whole. Hikaru no Go is all about the journey, not the destination.
While examining an old Go board in his grandfather's basement, twelve-year-old Shindo Hikaru is possessed by the restless spirit of Sai, an ancient Go master who has waited for over one thousand years to play the Hand of God: the perfect move. Sai convinces Hikaru to act as a vessel for making his moves, but it is soon clear that Hikaru also enjoys Go and wants to play his own games. Moreover, the rules of Go have changed since Sai's time, and Go players from all over the world are now much stronger, having had the benefit of hundreds of years of evolution and experimentation by the masters before them. Can this unlikely pair form a successful partnership and rise to the top of Japan's Go community, and can Sai finally play the Hand of God and find some peace?