I must’ve been twelve years old when I first encountered Hikaru no Go in an issue of Shounen Jump. I remember my initial thoughts as I skimmed the premise: “A Shounen story about a board game? How could this possibly be as exciting as anything like Dragon Ball?” I was completely unaware that I was about to embark in the series that would spark my initial fascination with the world of anime and manga.
It was my first real taste at the depths of character a manga could explore, showing the complexities and growing pains of life. Hikaru’s dramatic journey into adulthood satiated a hunger for stories I never knew I had, cementing its place as a timeless classic in my manga library. It should be mentioned that this was my all-time favorite manga at one point, only debunked in recent years by the likes of Oyasumi Punpun, Berserk, and several others, but it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of its own merits. Every time I revisit this series, I fall in love all over again.
Obata Takeshi(the same artist that drew Death Note and Bakuman) and Yumi Hotta create a poignant, gorgeously rendered coming-of-age story through the point of view of Hikaru Shindo, a boy who has no interest in the game of Go, and his experiences with his companion, Sai, a ghost whose fixation on Go and desire to play the divine move prevents him from moving on. The friendship between Hikaru and Sai is fleshed out extremely well. In one regard, they serve to balance each other, bringing each other up. Their desires and ambitions are complete opposites, but along the way, they begin to intertwine. Sai isn’t a harmful ghost by any means; he’s more of a roommate (and mentor) that hovers around. From the get-go, it is quite apparent that Sai has never been used to dealing with someone as immature as Hikaru as they often get into disputes over the most trivial of things.
Funnily enough, Sai begins to mirror Hikaru’s immaturity at times, but it only when it comes to matters relating to Go. That’s to be expected when they both want to play the game. They’re like kids sharing a single controller on a console game — sometimes, they’re just enjoying themselves too much to let the other person have their turn. Despite this, Hikaru’s immaturity, while expected of someone his age, can work to his benefit. At first, he was of firm belief that he had absolutely no interest in Go until Sai begged him to let him play.
Essentially, Sai uses Hikaru as a medium to play Go, since he cannot physically move the pieces. He has no control over Hikaru. After Hikaru’s first taste of undeserved praise, he begins chasing the highs of competition. He had no idea that he was doing himself a disservice; he just wanted to keep the compliments coming. But over time, as Hikaru comes to rely on Sai, a seed within him is planted and as a result, we see their bond deepen. Hikaru’s friendship with Sai moves him in ways he didn’t know he was capable of feeling. The degree to which they begin to rely on each other is endearing. Sai needs Hikaru to play go. Hikaru needs Sai to grow.
At times, Sai has to play a more parental role, guiding not only Hikaru’s play, but how he interacts with other people. Hikaru’s journey into the world of Go is dramatic, filled with rivalries that seize hold of him, fumbles that cause him to reassess himself, and friendships that transform him. It’s painfully relatable. His immaturity allows him to charge forward in the world of Go blindly, but it’s also what holds him back. Sai is the anchor that keeps Hikaru in check. It’s a story of friendship that transcends time itself tied together by people who truly love something and it’s truly glorious to watch unfold.
Hikaru is only one of the many fleshed out characters in the series. The entire cast had an immense amount of depth to them. They were motivated by vicious and friendly rivalries, unrequited love, and the loss of something dear. Hikaru no Go perhaps has the most endearing (and humorous) depiction of rivalry. It’s what really drive everything home. All the characters are chasing the shadows of each other. Hikaru wants to best Akira and claim his own go, Akira first acknowledges Hikaru, but then wants to best Sai, and Sai is chasing Akira’s father who is also chasing Sai. It sounds ridiculous even putting it to words, but it’s handled quite well. Characters constantly change as people over time, contemplating their place in the world of Go and just how important it is to them. Even when they lose, you see them trying their darndest to improve.
It should also be mentioned that I feel like this is one of the rare series where the anime is just as strong as the manga. I might be digressing here a tad-bit, but I think it’s a valid point to make. The aesthetic is consistent with Obata Takeshi’s style. While the panels in the manga are more breathtaking, the anime still holds its own. The soundtrack serves to accentuate the quality of the animation, cementing the tone of the series and at times sweeping me away in the undercurrents of dramatic tension. I still get chills thinking about it. Fast-paced with palpitating beats, there’s a tinge of melancholy flowing in the soundtracks that really allows you to feel the weight of the dramatic moments in Hikaru no Go. If you’re reading the manga and don’t intend to watch the anime, at the very least you should listen to the full soundtrack while reading. But I strongly recommend watching the anime as well. It is well worth the time investment.
Here’s one of my personal favorites:
Overall, Hikaru no Go is a thought-provoking fantastical adventure into adulthood that just about anyone could find comfort in. There are sprinkles of humor to give you hearty chuckles, drama that’ll keep you at the edge of your seat, and characters that you can’t help but cheer on. The drama before every major game and event has ample time to build up, allowing the tension to really seep in. The go matches are engaging, clever, and unpredictable. And the art is beautiful, showcasing Obata Takeshi’s strength as an artist in all its full glory. The character designs, fashion, and backgrounds are all equally gorgeous. Hikaru no Go is well worth your time.