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Elsewhere I've tried to define a perhaps personal subgenre, "club films" or "but I don't belong to the club" films, works so inexpertly imbued with an obsession, a politics, a specialty, a cause that image and language fail to communicate to the uninitiated: not-for-laughs flat-earth treatises, causes screamed too loudly to decipher, music to which ears must be trained. Hikaru no go (HNG) is a different sort of club film, a wonderfully intricate one that I could hardly stop watching through 26 or so hours spread over ten DVDs. I'm not sure how well total non-players will follow it. Maybe they can. But it's enough of an insiders' document that I feel I need to list credentials before speaking about it.
This, as slight as they are, is them: I learned Go using a pair of software programs, Many Faces of Go (MFG) and Go Nemesis, four or five years ago, but I've never played a human. Against the earliest versions I often won. Now, against MFG 11.0, I almost never do. Lately I don't play at all, just do "Problems" now and then. A very different gaming world, chess, I know a little bit better. There too, I've never played in clubs, but I've read volumes, occasionally played up to Expert-rated club players, and once a Master who've happened to work with me. I've seen players' personalities clash with some pretty wild fireworks over the years even in my rather low-class workplace.
Recently the Italian film La Meglio gioventù shocked audiences here, by being entertaining, coherent, a unified whole, and not at all "long" at six full hours. At twenty-six, HNG has a novelistic feel. With a couple of exceptions (that in the US would cry "network intervention" (a baseball episode!)) toward the finish, it's no more episodic than a three-year TV series can help being. A single thread, Hikaru's introduction, through the ephemeral Sai, to the game of Go, and Hikaru's slow germination as a rival to Sai, drives every episode. Hikaru grows at such a credible pace that at the conclusion, despite his certain future, he's still losing games that a more "Rocky"-like hero would win. Rare indications of his true strength -- an angry win over a young Korean -- a furiously quick and accurate game on a trip seeking Sai's grave -- the "white-on-white" game -- the deliberate tie games -- and once simply seeing what Touya Meijin might better have played against Sai -- incorporate his future into HNG's present. At the same time, of course, he begins to lose his childhood. Adult opponents and companions play a big role. Hikaru's and Touya Akira's Go abilities undermine the traditional hierarchy of age. The game often removes Hikaru from school literally, but it increasingly removes him also from his schoolmates' concerns.
The clearly low-budget animation works better than fans spoiled by Miyazaki might expect. Its virtuosity is in its montage, not in detail of motion or shading but in the virtuosity of what is shown and when. At best it has the simplicity of sumi-e. Just often enough, Go positions punctuate the tale. These are real. Freeze the frame, and examine. Even if they're over your head, a novice can intuit something. Even a non-player may see that a stone slammed down in a vast open area marks an event. Miraculously, positions never halt the narrative. The flying-hands business placing crucial stones seems a little hokey at first, but I got used to it.
Complimenting the animation is exquisite voice-acting (I know nothing of the dub indicated in IMDb's cast list and count myself fortunate). How many ways are there for Hikaru and others to utter "Sai"? I don't know, but somehow the actors have found dozens and just the right ones. The adults always are adults, the children's voices age subtly, and each character sounds wonderfully distinct. Some may be unique to anime. Voices match images. I think just hearing the husky nasality of the unlikely girl (rice-bowl haircut) who drives the school Go club after Hikaru has to abandon it, you could almost picture her. She reminds me a little of the heroine of Junji Sakamoto's Kao (2000). The breathy wistfulness of Sai's voice foretells constantly his fate in the series, yet at other times he's childlike and so is his voice, but with just enough adult timber. Maybe obsession with a game is childlike, or maybe very old ghosts become childlike as can very elderly living beings.
I can think of just one film touch point for HNG, Kentarô Ôtani's Travail (2002), a live-action romantic comedy in which Shinya Tsukamoto (director of Tetsuo Ironman, 1988) plays the meek husband of a driven Shoji player. HNG is light years better. It's also light years better than any of the attempts to portray chess in English or European language films.
Finally, one down point, though ultimately irrelevant. Beginning I think with the second DVD (overseas box set, not Viz), the subtitling goes totally bizarre: virtually every verb is given the wrong tense and sometime plurals and singulars confused. HNG is so strong, in its story and its voice-acting, that this hardly mattered. It annoys, but that's all. Despite thousands of screen hours I've sat through, I doubt if I recognize a hundred words of Japanese. This goes on for a few disks, during which you'll stop noticing, until a more knowledgeable subtitler takes over.
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