Jdrama Review: Akagi

Akagi is a 10 episode Japanese drama that aired this past summer. This is a live action based off a manga (Akagi ~ Yami ni Oritatta Tensai) by Fukumoto Nobuyuki. After the manga came the 26 episode anime series followed by two live action movies in the 90s. The drama follows genius gambler Akagi Shigeru as he sets out to take on a legendary yakuza majhong player who has never lost a game and literally plays for blood.

Since Tohai‘s second season didn’t have complete subtitles, I delved into another underground mahjong drama. I think I was watching a fanmade MV about Hongo Kanata and their were clips from Akagi, so I decided to give it a go. I do love Hongo Kanata. He’s five years younger than I am, but dang this guy is so petite and young-looking that it is completely believable when he still plays high school roles. Him playing the 19 year-old titular character was not a stretch of the imagination at all.

Hongo Kanata as AkagiThe gist of the plot is that two cops ask the young genius gambler Akagi Shigeru [Hongo Kanata] to take on Washizu Iwao [Tsugawa Masahiko], a nefarious yakuza in a game of mahjong. If Akagi wins the match, the cops and Akagi get to keep their winnings. If Washizu wins the match, he gets to take Akagi’s life (literally he gets to drain all of Akagi’s blood) and all the money won by Akagi is returned. Oh, and thanks to a last-minute deal, Washizu also gets to claim the arm of policeman Takeshi Ogi [Tanaka Yoji]. This match is infamous in the world of gambling and Akagi basically became a god of gambling after his death due to this match. Gamblers place cards, dice, mahjong titles, etc., around his tombstone and there are those who also chip pieces off in hopes of gaining just some of Akagi’s luck…or talent…or whatever.

Whereas the gritty Tohai was centered on K playing several high stakes games, Akagi is centered on one game only. It’s hard to believe you can make one game stretch out for 10 episodes, but they do. And it, for the most part, is not dull. Just like Tohai had a lot of inner monologues, Akagi does as well. You’re technically not really supposed to talk too much during the game (there is, of course, some conversation and dialogue going on, but not much during the actual playing), so we have our observers, Washizu’s partner and his men and Takeshi, give us commentary on the players’ hands and the rules of the games. This did help me understand a bit more, but really, some of the explanations went by too fast for me to read everything on what they met. But…yay for being able to understand even just a little bit more about mahjong.

That being said, the mahjong played in Akagi is not your standard game. 3/4 of the tiles are clear so that you can see what tiles each player has. The final 1/4 are your normal opaque tiles. No walls are built like you see in Tohai. It’s the walls that people draw from and get their own tiles from originally. All of the tiles are dumped into a pit in the center of the table that mixes the tiles and they draw them from there. In mahjong, there is something called an “open riichi” in which a player who has declared “riichi” (means you’re hand is one tile away from completion and you must discard all tiles drawn from now on until you get your winning title or someone else discards it) chooses to reveal his tiles and show what he needs to win. In a sense, this mahjong game is playing with an open hand, with a few exceptions.

During the series, we flashback between that game in 1965 and the present day where we have Takeshi talking to Akagi’s tombstone. This is really done during high suspense times of the game and to keep the watcher guessing about who ultimately survived – Akagi or Washizu. I don’t mind that. The problem for me is the ending of the drama which is a non-ending in ways. After spending so much time monitoring the never-ending drama of this game, we come to an end with them just essentially telling us who the winner is but we don’t see the winner moment or learn exactly what happens to certain characters. I’m trying not to spoil the ending, lol. It was an ending that made me happy in who was victorious, but, again, it was actually a moment that I wanted to see, so I really felt jipped that wasn’t ultimately shown.

The acting was good. Hongo Kanata was a child actor so his acting really brings no complaints. I think the worst thing was the smoking. Everyone in this drama on the “good” side smokes. Hongo’s smoking was very unnatural most of the time, probably because he doesn’t smoke in real life I’m guessing. Aside from those awkward cigarette movements, there were once or twice where I wasn’t quite sure the expressions he was showing were quite right given Akagi’s normal range showcased during the series. Whereas K in Tohai had this expressionless mask and almost dead, yet somehow intense, eyes, Akagi had a great poker face, but it was really his contempt that was his strong suit. For the most part, Akagi doesn’t really let emotions show in the game and just keeps focused on the tiles. His face truly is a poker face, but it didn’t have that same almost lifeless mask that K was infamous for. And Hongo Kanata’s contemptuous face as he mocks Washizu is priceless. Hongo is really good at that arrogant attitude, acting, and facial expression. One time we got to see a tired and softer look on his face, but, like I said, that really didn’t seem to fit with Akagi’s personality. It made Akagi seem very young (he is but it made him seem much younger, almost like the 13-year-old he was originally in the manga series). There was also a time where Hongo portrayed Akagi with a bit of a worried expression. That’s not to say that Akagi doesn’t worry. His inner monologue does let you know that he’s concerned with the play of the tiles and how the game will turn out, but that’s not something he stresses over so that slip in of worry was a bit odd.

Our other main player Washizu…his character was more exaggerated in expressions and movements. You can really see him as a manga or anime character brought to life since his actions had more flourishes and hyperbole at time. He was an odd character. I’m still not too certain what to make of him. During the course of the game, he kind of lost his definition. Was it just a desire to win over youth and destroy them all to cement his own glory (and immortality) or was there something more at play? For being an old man, he was a lot more immature than Akagi. He is quick to temper and trying to physically harm Akagi when the boy wins or shows some youthful contempt of Washizu’s skills and playing. Akagi’s partner Yasuoka [Jinbo Satoshi] was more low-keyed in acting. It was natural, no hyberbole in sight, but Tanaka Yoji’s Takeshi had a bit more exaggerated acting, but I suppose if you’re arm’s on the line, such acting could be normal as it makes the game even more tense.

Akagi doesn’t fear death…nor does he exactly wish to die. He’s only 19 and he’s incredibly reckless and has put his life on the line many times over. Takeshi and Yasuoka saved him from being killed because he insisted dice were even (they were) when everyone else insisted they were odd. What is weird is that he does say he’s doing this game to find something in himself that was missing, but outwardly it looks like he’s just bent on “killing” Washizu by taking away all of his wealth and forcing Washizu to make the same wager – blood for blood. It almost seems like a vendetta for all of Washizu’s crimes and lives claimed.

There are times in this drama where it does get bogged down by the games and the inner monologues of explanation. I got so sick of them repeating the Washizu Mahjong rules every episode. Gets old fast. You can’t forget from episode to episode, you really can’t. They could have ended things several times, but I suppose that would not be suspenseful enough if they did that. But…like I said…not a dull drama despite some of the drawbacks. I highly recommend checking it out.

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