An Appreciation of Hikaru no Go

story by Yumi Hotta
art by Takeshi Obata
published by Shueisha

NOTE: There are a few spoilers in this essay.

For several years I have been a dilettante admirer of both graphic novels and the Asian board game go, so it is a little surprising that I only recently discovered Hikaru no Go, the manga which brings the two together so satisfyingly. I am really, really late to this party; Hikaru no Go, which debuted in the United States in 2004, is among the best selling manga of all time and fostered an unprecedented go boom—the go playing population in Japan is said to have tripled.

But first a word about go, the world’s oldest and most widely played board game. Yes, you read that right; though mostly invisible to Westerners, go has been played in China since at least the 3rd century BCE, and in Japan, China, Taiwan and, especially, Korea, go occupies a space much like that of professional tennis, with a similar arrangement of tournaments, associations, and supporting media. Hundreds of Asian pros (Western pros, like total badass Michael Redmond of California, are curiosities) make a living on tournament winnings and lessons. Like chess, it’s a two-player game of skill but go players, frankly, find it outrageous that chess is usually held (by Westerners) to be superior. Why, anyone should be able to see that this game of large-scale strategy and tactical infighting is by far the better game. In any event, go is a supreme mental sport and a superb (if geeky) backdrop for a manga aimed at young adults.

Now, our story: Hikaru Shindo, an entirely ordinary Japanese schoolboy, happens across an antique goban (go board) in his grandfather’s attic and, upon touching it, is abruptly possessed by the spirit of Fujiwara Sai, a superlative player of the Edo period whose passion for the game is such that it keeps him bound to this plane, seeking to play “The Divine Move” through the humans he possesses. The 23 volumes of Hikaru no Go (also an anime) explore their affectionate/combative relationship, and Hikaru’s consequent ascension in the world of Japanese go.

I’ll leave the plot outline and other basics to the excellent Wikipedia article; here, I’d like to briefly highlight some of the aspects of Hikaru no Go that elevate it, in my view, to the very highest ranks of YA fiction.

• Respect for the game: Go players will tell you that go is easy to learn, and has very few rules. And that’s true, so far as it goes (you’re just going to have to live with incidental puns). But despite the simplicity of the rules, go has a wicked steep learning curve and most new players give it up after a few tries and never discover the game’s beauty. High-level play is mind-crackingly hard and absolutely requires serious, systematic study. And, it is an extremely intellectual game with no element of luck. So it would not have been surprising if Ms. Hotta had avoided details of play and simply used games as a backdrop for a generic coming-of-age tale. Instead, she doubled down; Hikaru no Go is very nearly documentary in its exploration of the game and Japan’s insei system, which trains young players. All board positions shown (there are hundreds) are plausible (reviewed exhaustively by pros prior to publication), game outcomes are realistic for the level of the players involved, and high-level go concepts are used as plot points. You could learn to play from this manga.

For a contrast, consider Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, where go serves as a backdrop to several scenes involving the protagonist and his mentor. Here, the board positions are nonsense, are inconsistent from shot to shot, and game principles don’t affect the movie at all. Go is merely a bit of intellectual window dressing.

I guess I also want to compare Hikaru no Go, and it’s treatment of go, to the Harry Potter series and its treatment of magic. The fact is, J.K. Rowling gives magic short shrift; though the language she creates around spellwork is apt and evocative, and though the magic is wild and fun, it is not developed as a system. Basic questions are never addressed; why are invisibility cloaks so uncommon, for example, and why do some magical families live in Muggle-like poverty, when presumably they can magically produce whatever commodity they wish? By contrast, Hikaru’s gradual ascension to go superstardom is entirely realistic, while still making plausible use of the story’s supernatural elements (which don’t dominate the story, incidentally; Sai abruptly disappears about 2/3s of the way through the series). To be sure, Hikaru has an aptitude for go that is very like Harry’s aptitude for magic. But the grind and frustration required of talented insei (aspiring go professionals), the endless evenings spent studying, are perfectly evoked… and are nothing like the (admittedly wonderful) adventures of Hogwarts. I don’t say this to criticize, only to highlight different authorial strategies—in fact, it would be easy to draw parallels between these two long explorations of adolescence, and fans of one will enjoy the other.

I consider this an outstanding strength of Hikaru no Go, but I suppose it also a weakness, at least in the United States; we Americans are not known for obsessive love of Asian board games.

• Respect for work: Since Hikaru is training to be a professional, learning go is also his entry into the world of work and money, and he enters it as a rival to established adults. The rivalry is fierce, sharp, and unusually explicit; in several memorable scenes older players use every trick they know to mentally crush adolescent players, some of whom are their own students! Gambling is a persistent theme, and the need for money is frankly addressed. Failure is a specter that haunts all the young insei; you only rise in the system by defeating others… others that are also friends.

And go talent gives young players a marvelous entry into go salons, where they are on equal, or more than equal, footing with adults… and even bet with them. Many of my favorite passages take place in salons, where young insei learn to compete mercilessly and keep their composure. I was reminded of the midshipmen in Patrick O’Brian’s sea tales, young teenagers ordering men about in wartime and maturing in a single voyage. I suspect that the equal competition with adults, for real stakes, is one explanation of Hikaru no Go‘s amazing popularity.

• Character development over time: Hikaru no Go is primarily a tale of growing up, in which the world of go serves as a comprehensible microcosm of the larger world. As near as I can tell, Hikaru ages from roughly 13 to 19 in the series and the way he is drawn reflects this. He begins as brash and feckless, and ends as a competent, insightful young adult. Many characters make similar transitions, and there are some failures—children who somehow don’t thrive.

Don’t guess I have much to say here, just want to acknowledge one of this manga’s great strengths. Realistic personal growth over time is one of the most difficult of authorial sleights, and Ms. Hotta’s accomplishment (along with the finely paced depiction by Obata) is significant.

• Superb art: Since I am not a manga aficionado, I have no idea if the art of Hikaru no Go is exceptionally superb, or merely a good example of ordinary high standards. At any rate, I was impressed. Thousands of crisp, realistic scenes, easily recognizable characters that change consistently over time, a strong sense of place, the occasional effective use of cruder comic styles (e.g, for slapstick humor scenes), precise font choices… like any good comic book, the art is an excellent complement to an exciting story, and Mr. Obata (and his studio, I gather) deploys his considerable skills to excellent effect.

• Adolescent Sexuality: Will we, nil we, the classics of young adult literature will always have strong sexual undertones, just as adolescence itself has strong sexual undertones. The easy example is the Harry-Hermione-Ron triangle that enthralls millions. Hikaru no Go‘s depiction is a bit unusual in two ways: it is unusually circumspect in its treatment of adolescent yearning, and it seems to focus on boy crushes, the confused feelings that young adolescent males have for each other. Let me explain.

By circumspect, I mean that there is almost no actual dating, or discussion of dating or crushes, or school dances, or love notes, or confused assignations… none of that. In 23 volumes, there is only one scene that suggests people in this world have sex—a young go professional leaves his mistress’s apartment (and treats her rather brusquely). And also, it is made clear that one of Hikaru’s classmates has a crush on him; this is not developed in any way. And that really is it for overt romanticism.

Also, it must be said, women do not really figure in Hikaru no Go: they are, almost without exception, smiling non-entities. So basically, no overt sexuality or romanticism whatsoever.

But on the other hand, the young men… so beautiful. Lovingly drawn, very handsome (considerably more handsome, sadly, than actual go professionals), as dashing as young samurai, the quarreling boys of Hikaru no Go make up for the absence of women by carrying out rivalries and jealousies, friendships and furious defenses of each other, coded invitations and, really, all of the interpersonal romantic exchange one looks for in, say, a Jane Austen novel. The very heart of the novel is the go rivalry between Hikaru and Akira Toya, which is an intense and barely sublimated boy crush playing out in the heady atmosphere that attends go prodigies in a nation that has revered the game—and sanctified legendary players—for several centuries. Not to mention that Fujiwara Sai, the possessing spirit of go genius, is intensely feminine in appearance and manner—anima, anyone?

A complete absence of overt sexuality, disregard for girls, and intense, confused attractions between young males expressed in competition. I must say, it captures the very spirit of a portion of my youth.

So if you are looking for an expertly observed coming of age tale, or a ‘buddy movie,’ or a sports rivalry, or a go documentary, or a ghost story, or a beautiful visual experience, or simply a good read, you can hardly go wrong with Hikaru no Go.

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MH 03.09.12 at 12:58 am

There is a very strong presence of “otoko no roman” (a concept involving brotherly love, courage and whatnot) in Hikaru no Go, yes, but I think you should go a bit further in exploring the (sadly, distinct lack) of female characters in Hikaru no Go.

In the early chapters we actually have a lot of strong female characters — the volleyball player who ‘fills in’ at the Go club in school, the Insei girl, and let’s not forget the High School senior girl who bails Akira out from a classic male pride fight.

However, sadly yes, the female characters in HnG don’t exactly stand out. They’re more tools for the male characters’ social and emotional growth, for example the aforementioned Akira finding that sometimes he just needs to be himself and a heartwarming growth parallel in the very end of the manga where Hikaru plays against Akari (I’m just now noticing the similarity between the names and it’s kinda disturbing) and instead of beating her soundly he imitates Sai who earlier played a teaching game with Akari.

There’s also a very interesting subtone of leaving women behind. Akari and the other girls in High School are left behind just after a feeling accomplishment when Hikaru leaves, the Insei girl is left behind after accomplishing a win in the Pro Exams, and of course we never really see what happens in Akira’s high school afterwards.

One problem with establishing strong characters may be that there really are very few strong female professionals in real life, but that’s not really a good point since the manga go positions were reviewed by Yukari Umezawa — a female pro 5 dan. Maybe a larger issue is that in manga there are very strong preconceptions on what relationships in them should be like. In the classic shonen manga (which HnG is very much of) there really is a distinct lack of well-developed relationships. Usually the women are there to be rescued, fight less powerful enemies, cause embarrassing scenes for the main characters and provide fan service. You also have to remember that HnG came out in Shonen Jump so it’s really directed at ages 12-16.

Anyway, this was an excellent article and made me think of one of my all-time favorite stories in a new way. Thank you!

Angus 03.09.12 at 5:10 am

Thanks for your insightful comment on gender in HnG, MH.

The Akira/Akari thing is something I noticed right away, and I wonder how common the names are in Japan. But I hadn’t thought about the teaching game with her, and the similarity to Sai’s game with Akira; interesting.

Something I didn’t write about, but have contemplated, are the undertones in the Sai/Hikaru relationship, which I would say are potentially disturbing. This is, after all, an older man actually possessing an adolescent… and then abandons the boy as he passes puberty! One of the best things about Hikaru as a character is the way he actively opposes Sai’s influence, overruling him to remain his own person.

I think HnG is great art, with lots of subtexts for the reader to tease out.

Angus 03.09.12 at 7:15 am

I forgot about the volleyball player filling in—she’s an interesting minor character. As I recall, she was almost comically plain and kind of butch, which is interesting.