Saki, Vol. 1

By Ritz Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young Gangan. Released in North America digitally by Yen Press.

Variations on a theme is one of the cornerstones of writing, and it’s just as true for manga. While it’s always nice to see something that no one’s ever done before, the true prizes for publishers are the series that are what’s been done before countless times, but with a variation or twist that makes it different enough so that people won’t get bored. This is especially true of sports manga, which tend to hit the same plot beats. There’s a ragtag bunch of misfits, an eccentric team leader, fighting to get to the national tournament… we’ve seen this before in soccer, baseball, and football manga here in North America. And now, with Saki, we get to see it happen with mahjong. Because trust me, mahjong is serious business in Japan, definitely worthy of a cute seinen sports series.


Saki is our reluctant heroine, a girl who’s not a fan of mahjong because she always played it with her family, and lost her allowance when she did badly. As a result, when she plays now she’s learned to end up not winning or losing, but getting precisely zero points, thus taking the heat off. Of course, this is much harder than it sounds, and the club quickly realizes they have a second prodigy on their hands. Second because they already have Nodoka, a mahjong prodigy whose skill is almost unparalleled… until she meets Saki, who has intuition in-game that’s almost supernatural. Can the two of them learn from each other’s weak points and become even better? And is Saki’s family really just a cutthroat family that happens to like mahjong?

As I said, this is a sports manga with mahjong, and family angst is part of that. You may also remember similar issues in Girls Und panzer, which was a spots manga with tanks, and shares quite a few qualities with Saki. This series is also not afraid to be ridiculous – Kobayashi knows from prior mahjong series that dramatic flourishes and poses are what make the genre, and so tiled will be flipped earnestly and with pure hearts. There is a lot of discussion of how mahjong works, but if you don’t know it doesn’t really detract from the story, any more than not knowing how football worked detracted from Eyeshield 21.

The main reason to read this is the characters. Saki clearly has issues, and is also somewhat introverted. Nodoka has different issues, but a similar personality, and finds Saki’s ambivalence towards the game intensely frustrating. And even when Saki decides to join the club, there’s no guarantees – the first thing that the president does is have the two of them get crushed by a professional mahjong player, so that they know how far they both have to go. Oh yes, and there’s plenty of eccentricity here as well, mostly from Yuuki, a young girl who enjoys starting off with huge wins (which she can’t hold), tacos, and teasing the supposed male lead, though more accurately he’s the male extra.

Saki can get a bit dry in its mahjong chat, and the fanservice reminds you this runs in a seinen magazine, but it’s a lot of fun, with two likeable heroines. I will definitely be getting more of it.