In the dank, crime-ridden underbelly of postwar Japan there are all manner of sleazy hoods, desperate losers and brutal powerbrokers. Rising triumphant among them all is a man who becomes the birth of a legend, an amoral being who abuses his profound understanding of the human mind by manipulating his foes to their own destruction.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of mahjong.
With mind games every bit as gripping as Death Note and an excessively sordid depiction of the yakuza, Akagi is sure to appeal to more than just gambling fans. However, a familiarity with mahjong is expected and most of the time is spent at the gaming table. While it's certainly possible to enjoy the anime without understanding the game at all - I did - learning about mahjong beforehand would doubtless greatly enrich the viewing experience.
The series is divided into three arcs, with our titular hero playing for ever greater stakes as they progress. For all the gangland psychological pomp and circumstance the formula is unremarkable sports tournament fare. I found the first two of these arcs to be stellar, with the second arc in particular leaving me breathless from episode to episode and concluding on a fantastic high note.
So what went wrong?
Well, Akagi suffers from one of the oldest flaws in the book: the ending falls apart. Far too many fine anime are closed in such a thoroughly unsatisfying manner, and if this was the least of the problems I might be more forgiving.
While the third arc begins superbly, the execution falters midway and then becomes downright unbearable in the final stretch. Akagi is always liberally melodramatic, but at a key moment this simply becomes so utterly ridiculous that it kills the tension altogether. The remainder is nothing more than padding, wasting time that, in light of the absurdly rushed ending, they clearly did not have available to waste. Were I to ignore the final arc I could give a strong 8 right here, but the conclusion was so badly handled I had to mark this down.
The character designs are clearly a like-or-loathe affair - for me it was love at first sight. They're unrepentantly ugly and suit the unforgiving environment hand in glove. Admittedly the designs don't lend themselves well to animation, and though movement is too minimal to be great Madhouse does a fine job overall. Interestingly they avoid depicting how women would look by almost never showing them; it's also worth noting one of the few honest and innocent characters has an appearance closer to a standard anime look.
Further, Madhouse excels in making something as visually mundane as a board game exciting, with effectively integrated CGI allowing for multiple pans around the mahjong tiles - not to mention the use of sensational but amusing analogies. Is playing mahjong a little like being crucified at Calvary? It is if you're the genius who descended into darkness!
I have nothing but love for the opening song 'Nantokanare', a bitter, melancholy number I've hummed more often than my decency permits me to confess. The singer's voice is a little strained but that only adds to the weary beauty of it all. I was less keen on the two ending songs, although I found the latter, 'Silent This Side', to grow on me with time - cool in a bombastically grunge sort of way. The score works but is forgettable.
The voice acting is generally pretty strong, especially Masato Hagiwara as the chillingly polite Akagi. His quiet, confident laugh is particularly effective. It's easy to see why he was subsequently cast for the title role in Kaiji and then a rather similar lead in One Outs.
Just as the plot is the tournament formula drenched with seedy grit, the hero is the genius-type sports character given a dash of darkness. Akagi's gifted with an ability to read people and strategise even before he sits down to his first game of mahjong; and his godly skill at the game is matched only by his demonic cruelty as a player. One never learns what made him such a monstrous wonder, but his mysterious origin merely adds to his legend.
Akagi's philosophy of gambling makes for some of the most interesting discussions in the anime. For him gambling can be won only through both a deep understanding of your opponent's mind and the willingness to sacrifice everything in the game of chance. Playing fair is beside the point; if someone cheats to make it impossible for you to win, find a way to win anyway. For example, one of the most starkly memorable incidents comes from him recounting how he won a rigged game of chicken.
Are his strategies as amazing as the series constantly claims they are? I'd have to know mahjong to tell you, but I assume that the writing uses the same convenient slight-of-hand with its conceits that other anime about geniuses employ. Even I can note that much of it seems to be dependent on his ability to read the mind of his opponents, although how he manages to do so is usually very carefully constructed. At any rate the results make for thoroughly entertaining viewing, which is what matters.
Unfortunately, what makes Akagi so fun as an idea makes him an uninteresting protagonist. He seldom if ever shows any doubt in his abilities and more than once the question isn't if he'll win, but how. He never gives any internal monologues; explanations of his thought processes are either guessed by his enemies and onlookers or explained by the man himself ex post facto. As such he's a little distant even for an antihero.
The rest of the cast varies from arc to arc but generally work very well, from the desperate gambler Akagi aids at the beginning of the series to a luckless co-worker who's being scammed by his peers. There's a nice variety in the opponents, but I'm afraid the final antagonist is a real let down. Like the third arc he begins savagely well but then he veers into high camp, becoming too silly to be ever taken seriously again.
As you may have inferred, I loved Akagi in spite of its faults. While it has been surpassed in all respects by its spiritual sequel Kaiji, Akagi is at its best hopelessly addictive, bloody entertaining, and well worth watching.
One stormy night, a desperate man finds himself playing Mahjong with yakuza thugs; the prize is his life. He is losing, and death seems certain, until a teenage boy stumbles out of the darkness into the Mahjong parlor, drenched in rain. Allowed to watch, the boy soon offers to play in place of the marked man, and that night, a legend is born. After his first taste for Mahjong, Akagi Shigeru finds himself entangled in the dark underworld of Mahjong gambling: for money, reputation, and lives.