Saturday, August 29, 2009

New Comic Cavalcade: Hikaru No Go #16

One of the most popular magazines in America – not just in the comics community, but within the publishing business as a whole – is Shonen Jump, which compiles popular manga from Japan and translates it for the English speaking audience. Shonen Jump has delivered a number of mega-hits, including Naruto and Bleach, but in addition to these amped up action strips it also includes a number of lower key sport and game themed comics. And the best of these is not, in fact, Prince of Tennis but rather Hikaru No Go.

Frustratingly for American audiences, though, Hikaru No Go – which follows the story of young Hikaru Shindo, who becomes obsessed with the board game Go when he finds an ancient Go board haunted by the ghost of Go master Sai – got dumped by Shonen Jump partway through the series. Instead of getting a monthly dose of the story, then, readers now have to wait for the digest compilation which only comes out every three months. There are some benefits to this, of course; reading the story in larger doses gives it better flow, and you don’t have to waste your money on crap like Dragonball Z in order to get to it. But it's still somewhat annoying.

The newest volume of Hikaru No Go, #16, finally came out just a couple weeks ago and proved to be a more satisfying read than the previous volume. One of the downsides, of course, of such a long storyline (all told it’s roughly 180 issues in total) is that when it’s broken up for reprinting, the dividing lines are often fairly arbitrary or, at least, unsatisfying. Hikaru No Go #15 is a prime example of this, as Hikaru spent nearly the entire volume wandering around Japan in search of Sai. As part of the larger storyline, it’s a necessary bit of character development, but in terms of a single volume it’s pretty annoying. You just wanted him to get to the point already so something would happen.

Well, something happens in #16, although it’s not necessarily what you might be expecting. The whole “not playing any Go while I look for Sai” plotline Hikaru is going through doesn’t get resolved until the final page of this volume, but rather than being another annoying delay, it’s fairly welcome for one reason: the return of fan favorite Isumi.

In story terms, Isumi – one of Hikaru main friends and rivals – had been missing in action for an entire year, ever since he finished fourth in the pro tests (where only the top three advance). This volume, though, brings him back as a major player, catching us up on what he’s been doing during that time and focusing on his attempts to strengthen his game before the next pro test. It’s a bit unusual as nearly two thirds of the book follow Isumi and barely mention Hikaru at all, but considering that most readers have been punching puppies for the last year wondering where Isumi was, this is nothing but a good thing. Author Yumi Hotta even manages to tie things together at the end beautifully, as Isumi’s return into Hikaru’s life after this absence proves to be the driving impetus behind Hikaru resolving his search for Sai, thus tying up the last two volumes nicely and setting the stage for the final four books in the series.

With so little room left, though, this volume did leave me wondering how they were going to manage to resolve everything they have set up in such a short period. One of the main problems with any narrative drama based on a sporting event or game is that, in the end, there are really only two possible conclusions: either the main character wins, or he loses. Hikaru No Go does have some other things going on as well – mainly the questions of whether Hikaru will manage to pull off the legendary Divine Move that Sai’s entire existence has been devoted to – but in the end, the series will basically come down to whether Hotta has Hikaru beat his rival Akira Toya or whether he loses to Akira. It’s going to take some tricky writing to finesse the finale in such a way that readers aren’t let down one way or the other, since everyone assume Hikaru is going to win – either they will be let down because they knew it all along or they will be let down because Hikaru loses and they were rooting for him.

It’s a dilemma that has sunk many other, higher profile works on sports, but here’s hoping that Hotta and artist Takeshi Obata are able to pull it off. They’ve managed to surprise several times so far, and bringing back seemingly dropped threads like Isumi and Hikaru’s old Go club members for the final push hints that they do have a larger vision for the series.

And hey, if it doesn’t work out, no problem, right? After all, there’s always Prince of Tennis.

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