I wonder, if Bruce Wayne had taken up a professional tabletop sport…
[My contribution from the Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa 2016 exchange, consider reading the others!]
In most of my write-ups for the Anime Secret Santa project in previous years, I have tended to lead off with some kind of anecdote from my personal life. I have needed to strain sometimes, to be sure. But as these are anime picked out by someone else for me to watch and write about. I like to think some self reflection adds just a little bit extra to the sharing season this is all wrapped up in.
In this case, most of headline plot elements of the main character are tricky for me to grab opening paragraph immediate story time angles for. I have never had members of my family killed off before me, for one thing. I may have seen a lot of rough things in various capacities, some of which I have discussed before. But never that. The competitive extracurriculars I took up in places like high school or university were in things like model United Nations debate teams. While bluffing, posturing, or the like is important in that field, as it is many tabletop games, I also had the gigantic advantage of speech. The titular Shion Yasuoka, meanwhile, navigates her life mute.
There are two other girls on the key visuals and manga covers though. So I hoped I could find something for story time there. Saori Nikaidou is dignified and well off enough to have professional drivers and such. By contrast I was once in extended unemployment for so long I was eating what others had thrown away.
With only one synopsis left I wondered what the electric-blue haired Ayumi Saitō would tell me. How I would, at this rate, need to respond. It is not much of a holiday show and tell story time if I only have contrasts or horrific things to bring up.
But I had been rescued. As well as filled with immense worry. Which I will get to as we go on.
As if then possessed by a hell driven inferno, I proceeded to consume the entire twenty two episode series in three rounds of burst marathons.
Shion’s King, The Flowers of Hard Blood is an anime adaptation of the shogi manga series of the same name.
Studio Deen, Director Toshifumi Kawase, and staff all the way down would have what on the surface is a most unenviable task. Needing to make a shogi series work in compelling twenty minute television bites. While shogi is often compared to chess, on a raw visual level the traditional boards and pieces have even less color differentiation. They are the same, in fact, to allow for captured forces to be dropped back into the field by either side over the course of play. The pieces also all share the same general blunt arrow-like wedge shape. More select or powerful pieces are just larger than basic pawns. At the highest levels, players can also have up to nine hours on their individual time banks. In real time, thinking over an individual key move can take well longer than a single episode of a television show. A single game longer than a whole fictional broadcast series.
Yet, the original manga did not run in one of the numerous dedicated tabletop sport or gambling manga magazines. Even the likes of Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended Into the Darkness, which has sold millions of volumes over more than twenty years and received multiple adaptations across various forms, still runs its chapters in a mahjong magazine.
Rather, Shion saw serialization in Kodansha’s Monthly Afternoon. This being the home of titles like Oh My Goddess!, Mushishi, Yokohama Shopping Trip, various Kenichi Sonoda works, and of course, Mysterious Girlfriend X. This itself would be unusual. Then made more curious by author Masaru Katori having written some novel series before, but had no previous manga to their name. In truth, Masaru Katori is the pen name of Naoko Hayashiba: a previous champion of the ladies shogi circuit, who had quit the scene in 1995. She had been involved in an affair with Makoto Nakahara, the 16th Lifetime Meijin on the men’s side. After calling things off with him, Nakahara would go on to leave a series of threatening phone calls, drunken messages, etc. She in time came to release the tapes to the public.
With these background elements, a lot of the pieces for understanding this series fall into place.
The Flowers of Hard Blood could, had it come from another authorial mind, been a cheap exercise in tragedy with a moe girl cover lead. Shion’s childhood background of surviving a home invasion and multiple ensuing murders.
Instead, we see this a launching point to touch on a wide range of scumbags surrounding the shogi world as she comes of age. Press pools eager to turn Shion’s backstory into various angles for a story. Some tournament pool rigging. Snide insults. Stalkers with who knows what on their minds. A murderer who is still out in the world, able to drip feed things to various folks and in turn aim for constant maximum harassment. And Shion is not the only target on the ladies side. The charged pace and dangerous tone leeches into and is often kept to that a thriller.
Shion carries around a sketchbook to write in to communicate with others, long ago told by a dangerous blood drenched man to forget how to speak. She has clear visual restraints regarding how she can express herself. This is not by accident.
A resounding message of the series repeated, rephrased, and recontextualized in various ways is how little respect women in shogi receive. Much of the series revolving around a special large payout shogi tournament open to men and women of all ranks. Itself designed for its own background purposes.
On the anime side Toshifumi Kawase has gone on to direct many of the Higurashi When They Cry anime series adaptations of murder mysteries. It becomes easy to see how careful handling of this show also played a key role in handing those projects over to their care.
Which brings me now to Ayumi, who I had mentioned in the lead-in.
As the series reveals the following information to the audience within the first episode of the story, I feel no reservations about discussing it now.
For their own narrative reasons for getting into shogi, Ayumi presents as a woman at some points and presents as male at others. Ayumi’s presented gender can and does shift multiple times within even the same episode.
There are a million billion trillion ways to botch this.
To make a long story short, as has come up sometimes in and around my writings here, every significant piece of outerwear I own is labeled for women. So how any given series tries to navigate such matters is of keen interest to me. Some can manage it. Many fail. And many more find themselves in grimace inducing bile and grossness. Characters presented as Gay Panic exaggeration gags with caked on makeup, huge rosy dots on their cheeks, you get the idea.
The route taken here opts to shift Ayumi’s entire character model to common in-universe stylistic traits of the presented gender.
While finding shots for demonstration is a tricky order, given the number of unique individual animators on a given project, here are two profile scenes:
Physical features like Ayumi’s eyes are shown at different sizes, the length and pointiness of the nose is adjusted, outlines made heavier or lighter, etc.
There are negative readings which can be taken from this. There are so many body types. There are all kinds of ways to express femininity or masculinity. But, all told, my take on this is on the positive side.
When Ayumi wishes to be seen as a woman by the rest of the world, this is granted to the viewer wholesale.
Ayumi gets to keep their head up, wear any clothes they want, and seldom is this even questioned by anyone. Ayumi, when presenting as a woman, gets to express this through receiving all the common physical traits of other women within the art style of this series. Likewise when they are presenting as male.
I am considerate towards the interpretation of this as a potential cop out from the series. But, with the overwhelming number of ways I have seen productions crash and burn on this subject matter? How often it turns to horrific jokes and demeaning running gags? I can find a lot of what is done with Ayumi welcome, in much the same way I find Rui Ninomiya welcome.
Ayumi is not the lead character, granted. But, In a series which down to its core has so much revolving around gender? I think I would be doing a huge disservice by not mentioning Ayumi’s portrayal. Given how the very first chapter of the manga saw publication over a decade ago, the overall story goes in some different directions than someone may handle it now. The Discourse has changed in the time since, as it were.
There are a lot of ways to be awful with a character, fewer ways to be kind, and trying to weigh portions between those scales is a hell of a thing. But the series far and away shows more kindness to Ayumi than harm. The series opening theme shows frames of the central characters as little children, as an interesting point. Down to a scratched up Ayumi trying the kinds of glasses and hair bands they would have an affinity towards when presenting as a woman later in life.
And those kinds of touches mean a lot more than what a series may make explicit in its own stated text.
For as slow a game as shogi can be, I would not have been able to gobble down the series with the speed I proclaimed back in my initial paragraphs if it was boring.
Matches as interspersed with cuts to various folks watching events play out on broadcasted channels, computers, even cell phones. Time is taken for the police investigations as they sort through every revived lead going back to Shion’s long dead parents. We get exchanges from what other investigators may be up to, and who has hired them to look into what. A given match may take two episodes, while we have also seen hours elapse in the world around that room. There is a charged, constant momentum as Shion barrels ahead, which does not just rely on the viewer knowing the exact rules of the game.
To go back to the previous Akagi example, I have only a vague idea of how mahjong works, but I was still able to enjoy its anime because of how it leveraged its music, intense situations, character reactions, and art style for maximum visceral impact. I feel much the same now. I have never played shogi before. Shion is also by design heavier on character arcs and their resolutions. So if someone felt put off or left cold by the singular indomitable fortress Akagi is in his tabletop game series, they may well find more to chew on here.
As various character motivations come to a head and the series resolves the murder mystery of Shion’s parents being stabbed to death all those years ago, there is the expected in-show question.
While murder is itself an extreme thing, the reasoning for their actions seems downright baffling to some characters. For good reason. Going back to how this is a series littered with folks doing sly bits of underhanded things however, they also do not all get caught for their various infractions. The extremeness of how far the murder weas willing to go may be outlandish. But their behavior is also the only thing which left enough of a irrefutable trail to trace back. As analogues to Naoko Hayashiba’s personal experience go, I can understand the kind of monstrous situational metaphors present in this. With the side glances toward the notions that other characters, like a reporter colluding in setting up some tournament pool draws, can and do get away with far less.
A game of shogi ends when one can put their opponent in a single inescapable position.
Many other pieces get to carry on though, in a sense. The apparatus of shogi continues each day, when you look at it as players, reporters, organizations, sponsors, and the like.
Naoko Hayashiba would return to professional play in 2010, just after Makoto Nakahara retired in 2009.
While well after the direct conclusion of her manga series, the sentiment remains. Some cases take quite a long time to resolve.