Yes, you heard me, luck is a skill that can be gained through practice – or so says anime. If you watch any mahjong anime, you’ll quickly learn that luck is a stream which flows from player to player and if read correctly, can be used to gain the upper hand. But what does this have to do with real life mahjong, and… what is mahjong in the first place?
Mahjong is a tile game based on completing hands – think of it as the “poker of the east”. There are 3 different suits with tiles numbered 1 through 9, as well as some special tiles such as dragons and winds. At a total count of 144, there are 4 of each kind of tile within a standard set. The game starts off with a 4 sided, 2 high wall of tiles from which each player takes 13. As the game progresses, each player takes their turn drawing a tile into their hand and then discarding one to keep their count at 13. The goal is to form a complete hand based on whatever ruleset is being used (there are many different styles of play, including the Japanese Riichi version). Complete hands usually consist of 4 groups (3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, or sequential) and one pair, although there are many special hands which don’t follow that form.
So those are the rules, but what REALLY is mahjong? Again, similar to poker, the game is much more than just lucking out and drawing the right tiles. Bluffing is a major component, and especially in Riichi mahjong where you can bet extra points which indicates that your hand is near completion. Because it is possible to win off of other players’ discards, it’s important to have an idea for what the other players are trying to accomplish in the game. Not only that, but if a player wins off of another player’s discard, they are responsible for paying them the points for that hand. Pretty dangerous if their hand is a yakuman. This vigilance goes hand in hand with card counting (or tile counting) as it is the best way to stay out of trouble. It is also a strong factor in this game as there are a limited number of each tile and the discard pile is visible to everyone.
But how does this play into anime? Well, let’s talk about Akagi. I’m sure that many will agree with me when I say that this anime is among the most raw and manliest anime out there. Forget about Akagi’s balls and the fact that this is set in 1958 where the yakuza ruled – the art style just oozes with sharp cuts, rough movements, and you can smell their cigarette smoke through the monitor. The author, Nobuyki Fukumoto created the perfect atmosphere to breathe life into a game known to be played by old timers. Madhouse also did an amazing job animating Fukumoto’s world – the narrative style of the show is extremely captivating, with a deep voice monologuing the actions and situations Akagi is in to amplify the feeling of suspense.
Akagi is an anime about a young guy who becomes renown for his skill at mahjong, and gambling in the underworld. The first episode starts off with him winning a game of chicken which involved driving a car off the edge of a cliff on a rainy day. Still very alive, he walks into a yakuza mahjong parlor to shake the police and ends up winning the first game of mahjong he has ever played. As the night progresses, the stakes are raised and the legend of Akagi begins as he demonstrates his unworldly “luck”.
“A meaningless death is the essence of a gamble” – Akagi Shigeru
The interesting thing about Fukumoto’s take on mahjong is the difference between skill in luck versus technical skills. In mahjong there are certain patterns and rules that make sense to follow, such as not waiting on a tile that has been seen 3 times already (lowering the odds of drawing it to less than 1/144) or not betting on big hands every game. But when he introduces Akagi to gambling world, those rules are flipped upside down. Akagi doesn’t gamble like a quant - he gambles as if he personifies the art. Relying on and manipulating the “flow of luck” in the game, he is able to play in a way that looks both strategic and godlike.
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This was a short blog post just to point out the existence of mahjong in anime – nothing more. If anybody is interested, I’ll do a follow up one with a bit more detail and with some other mahjong related anime included. And for further mahjong anime/manga reading, try out The Legend of Koizumi or Saki (if anybody was wondering, that’s the source of this article’s image).