(22 episodes, 2007-2008)
My previous exposure
None, besides having heard of the basic premise.
What’s it about ?
Eight years ago, the parents of Shion got brutally murdered in front of her eyes, leaving the poor little girl traumatized and mute. One of the only clues is a “King” shougi piece (apparently the murderer somehow decided to then play a game with the six-year-old). Now, Shion (who was adopted by her loving uncle, himself a pro shougi player) is a middle-schooler on the verge of entering the pro shougi circuit. She’d obviously rather forget all about her traumatic past, but the high-stakes tournament organized by the current champion’s brother is about to dredge all kinds of bad stuff back up to the surface…
Also quite important to the plot is Ayumi, a high-school dropout who crossdresses because he thinks it easier to make money fast on the female shougi circuit (since his mother is tremendously ill and the hospital bills need getting paid). Not at all important to the plot (despite being featured prominently in the OP) is Saori, another up-and-coming young female shougi player.
What did I think of it ?
First things first : the OP sequence is absolutely ridiculous, with every single cast member desperately trying to look badass or menacing. It’s completely different in tone from the actual show, which is way more sedate and less gritty (count all the sequences where Shion has hilariously exaggerated reactions !). I really wonder what the producers were thinking… although I did find it perversely entertaining enough not to fast-forward through it, so mission accomplished, I guess.
Also very misleading is that scene in the first episode where Saori looks like she’s actually a ruthless mafia daughter and orders minions to investigate her opponents’ backgrounds… but everything after that shows that she’s actually just a mostly nice girl (and her minions must be shit, because Ayumi hasn’t really thought his deception through). I wonder whether earlier drafts of the plot had Saori actually mattering to the plot…
Now, on any other series I wouldn’t be able to get past such bullshit plotting, but this one manages to strike a perfect balance between standard “tournament show” sequences and the convoluted mystery hovering on the edges of the plot. Separately, they wouldn’t be of much interest : the shougi matches are drowning in exposition, and the mystery is pretty crap (there aren’t many suspects, and the murderer’s motive only makes sense if you’re insane). But the prominence of the shougi competition allows the mystery to stay in the background so that its flaws aren’t too noticeable, while the mystery gives a lot of edge and suspense to the shougi matches.
There’s even some quite clever plotting, especially around the “sponsor” dude who has a vested interest in making the match-ups as dramatic as possible to generate maximum publicity. (And since he’s a complete neophyte to shougi, he’s helpful as someone to be exposited to.) I’ve grown quite fond of him ; Hiroshi Kamiya is very good at striking the right note between slight sliminess and just pure cluelessness. (Nice touch of having him voice the advert announcements !)
Overall, this is a fun, if heavily flawed, little series.