On Mahjong Superpowers

Toki activating her clairvoyant ability.

Having picked up more experience with Japanese mahjong, I picked up Saki: Achiga-hen again. While I glossed over most of the details surrounding the game before, now I could view the mahjong on a more active level.

Saki is notable in its portrayal of mahjong. All the notable characters have some sort of gimmick or power, which influences their playing style to varying degrees. Kuro attracts dora, a tile that multiplies the value of her hand, hence she builds hands incorporating dora tiles. Toki can see a turn or two ahead, which lets her determine when to declare riichi in order to win on her next drawn tile. Teru, the strongest player in the story, gets a read on her opponents’ playing styles, then crushes them with unstoppable winning streaks.

These powers present a highly skewed portrayal of mahjong, where characters overpower others with inferior abilities (Teru’s ability is much stronger than, say, Kuro’s, which opens her to a lot of weaknesses). At worst, it’s as if luck is being monopolized by the strongest on the table.

Kuro, surrounded by dragons

But is this a bad thing? The element of luck in mahjong offers a degree of mystique and superstition to the game. Because mahjong is a game of limited information, it could appear that a player is winning so effortlessly, when they rack up a winning streak or sprout a particularly big hand out of nowhere. Saki merely employs this in an exaggerated way, by turning a vague notion of a player’s aura into power manifest.

Therein also lies the strength in this inauthentic mahjong. It’s a fantasy.

Any regular mahjong player wouldn’t mind getting more dora to inflate their hands’ scores. Any regular mahjong player would kill for clairvoyance (although there are much more practical applications of these, like betting in the lottery). One doesn’t really watch Saki to get better at real mahjong.

These specialized powers are a spice added to a game that would be otherwise boring to watch for people unfamiliar to the game. And since Saki is immensely popular now (and not entirely because of mahjong), it must be doing something right!

Teru with a tornado on her arm.

I initially feared that I would be ticked off after learning the game, because the mahjong in Saki is nothing like actual mahjong, but I grew to enjoy it even more. Sometimes it eerily reproduces the shock and awe when someone wins spectacularly, like you can smell a  supernatural power at work.

PS: Not everyone has ridiculous powers. Yumi Kajiki is a strong player who doesn’t have any real powers, but has a smart and sensible style of play that lets her play on an equal footing with the supposed “monsters” in the show. This makes her a Batman in a sea of Supermen. Shizuno, the supposed main character of Achiga-hen (her time spent playing mahjong in the show is much less compared to Kuro and Toki), has incredible determination that allows her to perform well in clutch situations, no matter what the odds. I really like both, because stringent analysis and optimism at the face of adversity are two things one could use to improve their actual play.

Further reading:

This post would have never been made without Yaranakya’s post series on Saki, which proves that yes, Saki can show remarkable insight in tackling subtle areas of the game.

This entry was posted in Anime, Mahjong and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Mahjong Superpowers

  1. omo says:

    The most famous “normal” Saki player is actually Nodoka. Her characterization as a mahjong player is incredibly familiar and believable this day and age as so many otaku play only online.

    There’s a good range of all kinds of player in Saki, and I like how they were able to both have mundane players and very eccentric players with that superpower-style of play as you described. Feels like a fantasy game.

  2. I also like how the other players normal and otherwise can be aware of the superpowered monsters and use knowledge to counter them. Usually the Normies are all out of the loop and portrayed as goofs in this type of show, but that chick who realized Kuro gets all the dora by analyzing games easily gives her teammate the right info to shut her down.

  3. DoctorBaronvonEvilSatan says:


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