Mahjong is commonly spoken of as “poker, but with more pieces”. This is a most inapt description. Poker doesn’t even come close to the complexity of mahjong and its many rules (and exceptions to those rules). The closest equivalent I can think of is the Western card game rummy. Even that is not nearly as complex. Doesn't help that different regions have different mahjong rules (the original Chinese mahjong is different from Japanese 'riichi' mahjong).
Aside from the complexity of the rules, there is an additional aspect of mahjong that these simplistic explanations don’t tell you: its cultural significance. Brought over from China in the early 20th century, the game spread across Japan due to the rising popularity of mahjong parlours. Today it is the most played tabletop game in Japan, far outranking the likes of chess.
The game is serious business. If you want to see a bunch of Japanese people get ultra-competitive, head over to a mahjong parlour. Most notably, it is strongly associated with the yakuza underworld. Even though gang-controlled gambling is dying out, it is still a popular activity among yakuza members. A game of mahjong can settle a clan dispute. This seemingly innocuous game is life itself. No game, no life.
Expect to familiarise yourself with both these aspects — the rules and the surrounding culture — before starting Akagi, or you will simply not enjoy this anime as much as those who do understand these things. Never before have I seen an anime (or any TV show for that matter) requiring this much prerequisite knowledge to enjoy. This is one of a few major hurdles you will have to overcome if you wish to enjoy Akagi. (There’s also the zany artstyle, but I actually liked it: suits the crazy atmosphere.)
Shigeru Akagi is a 13-year-old kid who loves thrills. I am not talking about breaking the principal’s window or jumping into a river. Akagi doesn’t love cheap thrills. No, he will play a game of chicken, in which he proceeds to drive a car off a cliff, before casually walking into a yakuza-infested mahjong parlour. Over here, a man is having trouble trying to gamble away his debt to the yakuza. With his life on the line and luck not in his favour, he hands over the reins to Akagi, asking him to play instead. No worries, says mahjong newbie Akagi, who proceeds to learn the basic rules in minutes and start playing. All this is merely a prelude to the mahjong career of the man who would later become known as The Genius Who Descended Into Darkness.
This origin story lacks even a shred of believability. This is the other major hurdle you’ll have to get past. Throughout the anime, I was constantly reminded of the fact that a guy who probably couldn’t tell the difference between ron and pon went on to learn the intricacies of such a complex game overnight (literally, for his first match lasts the night). Later we see him talk back to and threaten gangsters in a way no 13-year-old would (or could, arguably). Would it have hurt for Akagi to be a bit older, already a mahjong pro, who merely pretends not to know the game before destroying his opponents? I don’t think so. Some of the story choices are a bit baffling. Even after the timeskip, I wasn’t one bit convinced. And not to mention the inconclusive ending.
The story, however, is secondary to Akagi, for the mahjong takes centre stage. This is where the anime excels. And how! You may never see a more detailed treatment of any sport in anime. The strategic plays, the attacks and counterattacks, the clutch decisions: all brilliant. The author (gambling manga legend Nobuyuki Fukumoto) clearly knows a lot about mahjong, and not merely at the surface level. The plays are very well thought-out. Even the cheating is done well: it doesn’t happen so often that it cheapens the integrity of the games, but there’s just enough of it to keep things interesting. Combine all this with some great suspense-laden background music, and Akagi has an atmosphere so tense I had to take mid-episode breaks just to breathe.
Akagi himself is a very interesting character. You wouldn’t expect such a soft-spoken guy to be so ruthless, cold, and calculating, and neither do his opponents. And then he proceeds to walk all over them. There is something satisfying about watching a guy just mercilessly crush everything in his path. Which isn’t to say that his opponents are lacking in competitiveness; far from it. The opponents (mostly underworld criminals) are a very interesting bunch, almost as insane as Akagi himself. They have interesting quirks, which I don’t want to spoil here. Sometimes there are interesting wagers or unique play conditions. These face-offs are never boring.
Well, for the most part, that is. The final ‘boss fight’ overstays its welcome, dragging on for a few episodes too long. It gave off Dragon Ball Z vibes, but not in a good way. And the payoff wasn't there in the end.
At the end of the day, I find myself liking Akagi. There is a lot to praise about it. However, there is a significant barrier to enjoyment, in terms of understanding the game and its intricacies. I can only recommend it to those who know how to play mahjong, or those who are willing to learn.
Art: A. This grade has a major caveat, in that you will either love or hate the artstyle. It’s classic Nobuyuki Fukumoto. Character designs are incredibly angular, with noses that look like beaks. Akagi himself is composed solely of triangles, like a 3D object file. I personally found the crazy artstyle to suit the overall craziness of the anime quite well. The faded colour palette suits the post-WWII setting, although the colouring can look dated at times. Mood lighting inside mahjong parlours is nice. Love the thick line widths, especially in close-ups.
Animation: B+. For a series where people are sitting still most of the time, the movement and framerate is good. Dynamic camera angles are used to throw the viewer into the action. The CGI for the mahjong tiles is implemented quite well, never distracting.
Music: A. Akagi might have one of my favourite soundtracks in anime. From the mysterious to the frantic to the melancholic: there is a lot of variety in the background tracks, and it does a lot in setting the mood for scenes. The tension is palpable. I like the soulful OP track (not so much the ED), but I feel like this is a series that didn’t need a traditional OP/ED sequence, because it breaks up the tension.
Voice acting (Japanese): A. Akagi has the perfect voice actor: just that right combination of soft-spoken and unsettling. Reminds me of Johan Liebert from Monster — always a good thing. The narrator is also good. The characters' internal thoughts and reactions have been brought to life well; it puts you in their shoes, in the centre of the action.
Story: B+. This is a tricky one to judge. There is little to talk of here besides the mahjong, which is strategically detailed and comprehensive. If you don’t enjoy the mahjong, there is little to recommend. The pacing drags at times, especially in the final arc. The ending is inconclusive but that didn’t really bother me; at that point, I was only happy that the final arc was over.
Characters: B+. Twisted, cunning, monstrous characters, and Akagi is the most monstrous of them all. A memorable protagonist. However, his origin story lacks believability. Other characters get enough screentime, and are more than competent, especially Akagi’s opponents.
Again, this grade has a serious caveat, in that if you don’t enjoy mahjong, this anime is not worth your time. I loved Akagi, but I understand that not everyone will.