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Review: Hikaru no Go, volumes 1-4
I have read this before.

Back in late 2002 or early 2003, I found a site which did fan-translated scans of then-currently running manga. An issue of Weekly Shonen Jump or other manga anthology would come out in Japan, the fan-popular stories would be scanned, translated into English, and posted to this site a few weeks to a couple of months later. Also appearing on the site would be relevant news and announcements, like "We should have chapter 5 of Bleach up in the next couple of days", "Chapter 12 of Bleach was just published this week", or similar (note: both of those announcements could be on the same day, given the lag).

On this site I found a manga I hadn't heard of before, titled "Hikaru no Go", written around the game of go, a longtime on-again, off-again hobby of mine. It didn't take me long to plow through the over 100 chapters and fall into the "when's the next chapter coming out" stage, eagerly reading the news postings about the title, awaiting the next chapter, then the next, etc.

"I know you've been waiting for it, and chapter 150 if Hikaru no Go will be up tomorrow morning" it would say (or something like that, it's been 8+ years after all). "Weekly Shonen Jump has announced that the popular manga Hikaru no Go will complete its storyline in September after 189 chapters" another announcement said. Although I was far behind where it was in Japan, I was still excited to see how everything would wrap up and what the ending would be like. "There's only 35 more chapters to go in Hikaru no Go and the story will be complete."

And shortly thereafter... "We've just confirmed that Viz Communications has bought the US translation and distribution rights for Hikaru no Go. As is our policy in such cases, we will cease translating or posting Hikaru no Go and take down the chapters we've already posted to support the legal commercial licensing of manga and anime in the US" and poof, it vanished. I believe chapter 157 (out of 189) was the last I read.

Viz went on to publish it as part of their version of Shonen Jump, known in the US mainly for Dragon Ball Z. By the time it came out, I was unemployed and not willing or able to subscribe to the monthly magazine for the one story that I wanted, most of which I had already read.

Viz eventually started releasing Hikaru no Go in "tankobon" format, essentially trade paperbacks with several chapters per book, but when I found out about them, I was in no position to start buying them.

Last month, I started buying them. So far, I have in my possession volumes 1-4 and 7 (volumes 5 and 6 are in a truck somewhere between Hebron, KY and Ithaca NY, according to the USPS tracking data). I have reread chapters ("games" in this translation) 1-34, and am awaiting the opportunity to continue through chapter 60. And I'll make sure to order volumes 8-12 as soon as I can.

So, obviously, I like the story, I find the characters engaging, and I'm willing to spend nearly $200 over the next few months to ensure I have a complete run that I can read, to completion finally. And I've only got 1/6th of the full story to review.

Spoilers within the cut...

Todd Alcott, when he reviews/analyzes a movie or story, centers his analysis around the question "What does the Protagonist want?", with the idea that the answer to that question should drive the story. This type of analysis can lead to some rather unconventional choices for protagonist. Todd Alcott maintains, for instance, that the protagonist in The Shining wasn't Jack, wasn't his son or wife, but was rather, well, The Shining itself.

At this point in Hikaru no Go, there are three principle characters who might be the protagonist:

Fujiwara-no-Sai (Sai) is the ghost of a Heian-era (about 1000 years ago) go master who, when alive, was instructor to the Emperor. He is currently haunting (for lack of a better word) Hikaru Shindou. Previously, he haunted and taught Honinbo Shushaku (1829-1862), regarded by many as the best go player to have ever lived. Sai was humiliated in front of the Emperor by a go cheat, forbidden to play go, and drowned himself. What does he want? To play go at such a level as to play "the Divine Move", an essentially perfect, mistake-free game. Since only Hikaru can see or hear him, this is a bit of a challenge.

Akira Toyou is the son of the greatest living Japanese professional go player, Toya Meijin (Meijin is a title, not his name). At the start of the story he is in 6th grade yet is a strong enough go player that many (including his father) encourage him to take the pro test, something he resists. We first run into Akira when Hikaru is looking for a game in a go salon for Sai to play. Hikaru asks Akira to play. Akira is amused by this, and agrees to play the boy who says he's never played go, holds his stones in a completely inexperienced way, and thinks the age similarity makes it a fair game. Later analysis of the game by Akira makes him realize that not only did he inexplicably lose to Hikaru, but that he was on the student-end of a "teaching game" as well. Akira realizes that his opponent was far, far stronger than he realized, far, far, stronger than he was, and is shaken to his core. What does Akira want? He wants to know who Hikaru Shindou is, and why can a kid who claims and acts like he's never played before show such incredible strength.

Hikaru Shindou is a 6th-grader more known at school for his prowess on the field than in the classroom. In the first pages of the story, he is rummaging through his grandfathers attic looking for something he can sell when he finds an old go board with blood-stains only he can see. Trying to wipe the stains off evokes Sai, who he is stuck with for the rest of the series. Initially, he is wary of Sai, and has no intention or desire to play go, much to Sai's despair (the strength of Sai's emotion causes Hikaru to be physically ill, so Hikaru gives in). What does Hikaru want? This... evolves over time.

Well, all of their wants evolve, but Hikaru's more than the others.

Initially, Hikaru wanted to return to a normal life. His attitudes seemed to be driven by peer acceptance and fitting in. When going to the go salon to let Sai (an adult) play, he seeks out the only kid in the salon, who he perceives as his (not Sai's) equal. When he goes to watch a youth go tournament, he is amazed to see that there are hundreds of kids (even younger than he, he notes) playing go. It is only after that does he start to want to play go himself.

More than peer acceptance, Hikaru is driven by "intensity" for lack of a better word. One gets the feeling that Hikaru's peers are not that "intense", and Hikaru has been getting peer acceptance through a similar lack of intensity. Hikaru notes, and admires, this intensity in Akira, in the hundreds of kids at the youth tournament (causing him to mentally exclaim "Sai, this is incredible!"), and he decides that this trait of go, something to be intense about, is what he wants.

His desire for intensity through go gets personalized after Akira corners him for a rematch -- in which Sai, no longer pulling punches, forces him to resign early in the game. Hikaru tells Sai that he doesn't want to play Akira again until *he* can play Akira at his level, not Sai. Hikaru joins the go club at his new high school and starts seriously training in go with Sai. (Akira, rebuffed by Hikaru's refusal to play him again, decides to force the issue by joining his high school go club (much to the resentment of everyone in the club) so that he and Hikaru will be paired in an interschool tournament).

So at the end of Volume 3, the main characters all have wants which tie them together in conflict: Sai wants
to play go against strong opponents, but the more go Hikaru plays for himself, the less Sai gets to play. Akira wants improve his game and prove his mettle by playing and defeating Hikaru (when he's really been playing and losing to Sai) and can't proceed with his career until he does so. Hikaru wants to improve so he can play Akira as equals, not merely the conduit of Sai. I view it as a hunt: Sai his hunting the divine move, but is limited to the go Hikaru will let him play. Akira is hunting Sai but thinks he's hunting Akira, and Hikaru is hunting Akira and knows he's far behind and that Akira isn't stopping to wait.

Akira has forced his way into a school team tournament where he will play Hikaru in round two, and the volume ends in the middle of round one. Volume 4 completes this part of the story, and this part of the chase, with Hikaru deciding to allow Sai to play Akira in the tournament, but then taking over the game halfway through. Akira wins after "Hikaru"'s play collapses, and he realizes Hikaru is not as strong as he expected ("When I caught a glimpse of the former you, I went as far as to think tht I'd seen the 'divine move'") and goes back to preparing to become a pro.

The rest of volume 4, and thus the next major act in the story, as Sai fulfilling part of his "want". Hikaru, when going to watch a professional tournament, discovers internet go. He realizes that since everyone is anonymous except by handle in the online go games, Sai could play under his own name and no one would be able to connect it to Hikaru. This attracts a lot of attention to Sai, as he is unknown, plays very strong go but doesn't act like a pro, and has other unusual traits. Wasa, an Insei (student go player training to go pro), suspect "sai" is a kid because all his games are during the same few hours during the afternoon when school isn't in session. Wasa is also the only one who "sai" has ever chatted with, and Wasa found what "sai" said to be very childish. The books show top amateurs coming to an international amateur go championship in Japan with a common thought "When I go to Japan, I may be able to find something out about Sai". At the tournament, the players, working on Wasa's suspicion that 'sai is a kid, they convince Akira to challenge him. Sai, wondering if "akira" online is Akira Toya, tests this by replaying, move by move, one of his two earlier games against Akira. Once it is clear to both Akira and Sai who each other are, Akira resigns, telling his disappointed watchers that the game would only distract from the tournament. He accepts a scheduled computer game against 'sai' -- at the same time as the first game of his pro test, something only Wasa realizes at the time, adding to his confusion. Volume 4 ends with Wasa in a room full of players taking the pro test with one empty spot, and Akira sitting at his computer at home.

Akira is not out of the hunt yet, he is still after Sai when he sees Sai is available.

So who's the protagonist? One is tempted that since the story is named "Hikaru no Go" (roughly: Go of Hikaru or Hikaru's Go), and this is clearly about his coming of age, that he is the protagonist. However, while he is a major player, he has the poorest-defined "want" which has changed, repeatedly. At this point in the story, Sai's desire is a constant, and has driven the plot. It was Sai's desire to play go that lead Hikaru to the go salon; it was Sai who put Akira on his path; it was Sai who attracted the attention online in his quest.

I can see that changing, however. Hikaru has a few times prevented Sai from playing, insisting on playing himself. It was his desire, not Sai's, to join the go club, and his decision, not Sai's, to refuse Akira a rematch until he could do it himself. I know, from having read 120+ chapters more nearly a decade ago, Hikaru plays as himself at higher and higher levels in his pursuit of Akira, and that's his choice. On the other hand, Wikipedia has a brief synopsis of the end, and that muddies the picture more.

I will have to revisit the question of who's the protagonist as I read more. I think it's clear what the protagonist wants, if we just figure out who the protagonist is.

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You know I love Todd Alcott.

That is a really informative analysis. Thank you.

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