I recently – finally – finished reading Hikaru no Go. I can’t explain why I stopped, many years ago, around volume 10. It … just happened? I wasn’t bored with it, I didn’t lose interest … I just never got around to reading the rest, and then time passed. A lot of time, come to think of it. Over a decade, and I dare not do the exact math.
Maybe I also didn’t return to HikaGo at that time because the manga ended in Japan and there was this vibe of disappointment about it. The general consensus seemed to be that Hikaru no Go ended suddenly, unexpectedly and long before its time, without a properly satisfying ending. But to be honest … HikaGo had a perfect ending – and then it continued for five (?) more volumes. It did not end too soon, it ended too late. It missed the perfect moment for the most impactful ending.
Hikaru no Go is amazingly well-written. I cannot even pinpoint exactly what makes it so good. All I know is that in theory, Hikaru no Go really shouldn’t be this amazing. After all, it is just a manga about a bunch of boys who are obsessed with a board game! HikaGo brilliantly proves that you can apply the sports manga formula to anything, even to an old, unglamourous board game, and it becomes exciting.
I’ve noticed that there are people in manga fandom today who aren’t familiar with Hikaru no Go at all. For example, I seem to remember that the guys on ChannelAwesome’s Weekly Manga Recap sounded like they had never heard about it, made fun of its premise and clearly had no idea that it wasn’t some random, forgotten niche thing, but one of the big hits of its time! (Not that this surprises me, the podcast seemed uninteresting anyway.)
But yeah, Hikaru no Go was big. :D It started a Go boom. Not just in Japan, or in other countries that already cared about Go, but even, like, in Europe. My parents heard about it on the radio! All my friends suddenly had Go boards! I had a Go board! (I’m … not good at Go.) These are such fond memories, man.
Now for the spoilery thoughts on how Hikaru no Go ended, and how it should have ended.
Sai’s disappearance was one of the best-written stories of loss and grief that I’ve encountered, not just in manga but in all media, period. It’s a moment that you can see coming, as a reader, not least of all because Sai eventually starts expecting it. But you’d kind of imagine it to be a big, emotional moment, with words of farewell, with both Sai and Hikaru accepting and understanding why it’s happening. Epic music swelling, dramatic climax!!!
Instead, Sai disappears in mid-match, when Hikaru is too sleepy to really realize what’s happening. The next chapters see Hikaru search for Sai, increasingly panicked, realizing slowly that Sai isn’t hiding, Sai is gone forever. :< As part of his desperate search, Hikaru looks more closely into Shusaku Honinbo’s life and his (Sai’s) Go records, and realizes for the first time what a genius Go player Sai was. And how he never really appreciated him the way he should have. I know that “you don’t appreciate something until it is gone” is a cliché, but Hikaru no Go really makes you feel the sad truth behind it.
And it’s tragically ironic that Hikaru decides to give up Go, thinking he doesn’t deserve it, because he should have let Sai play their matches. It’s ironic because Sai found peace and disappeared when he had the opposite realization: that it was his purpose to pass his skills and legacy onto Hikaru. Originally, he wanted to become the best Go player himself, but his journey was about accepting that he was just one player in a long, neverending line …
… And taking this into acount, it makes no sense that readers of Hikaru no Go expected the series to end with Hikaru discovering the Hand of God and beating everyone and becoming the best Go player who will ever exist. That’s missing the point of the story by a mile.
Anyway, Hikaru eventually overcomes his depression when he realizes that playing Sai-style Go is how he can keep Sai “alive”. He returns to the Go scene, finally becomes friends with Akira, and all is well.
Except, well, this is not the end. There’s a new arc about an international Go tournament, but it kind of fell flat for me. Perhaps the Sai stuff had emotionally exchausted me? As much as I appreciate Hikaru becoming more mature*, the manga did derive a lot of energy from his immaturity, coupled with Sai’s unique mix of puppy-like enthusiasm and badass gravitas. Now Hikaru is just one serious teenager among many. Where’s the tension?
I mean, there isn’t anything wrong with the last arc, and it has some enjoyable aspects. But it somehow lacks the magic that made Hikaru no Go so oddly engaging. Even the arc’s main rival is built up in a somewhat lacklustre way. Hikaru’s desire to beat him is based entirely on a misunderstanding, and the manga goes out of its way to make this really, really clear to the reader and to the characters as well … so of course the ending is kinda weak. There’s no reason to care either way how the match turns out, because it won’t matter to any of the characters one way or another. :D
*) Come to think of it, out of every traditional shonen protagonist I’ve “met”, Hikaru is the least likeable one, for most of the manga. He’s self-centered, rude, quite dismissive of his mother and Akari in particular … I guess it works for the manga, because of Sai balancing him out, and because Hikaru is faced with the somewhat stuffy and serious world of Go, but as a person, I wouldn’t like him.