Mahjong is a popular game in Asian countries, so naturally there are going to be manga based around it, or at least have a part of the story be about it. It's also very well known that mahjong is a big gambling game, with movies such as Rush Hour 2 showing how illegal mahjong gambling parlors can very popular. In Japan there's a magazine published by Takeshobo called Kindai Mahjong, and every single manga in it is about mahjong. In 2005 animation studio Madhouse decided to make an anime adaptation of what is probably Kindai Mahjong's most successful title ever. There was nothing like it when it in anime when it debuted, where it immediately became the top-rated late-night anime at the time of its airing, not to mention that it took the place of the anime adaptation of Naoki Urasawa's Monster... And to this day there still isn't anything quite like it. This is the story of Shigeru Akagi, the demon of the illegal mahjong world.
Tohai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai, which can translate to Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius who Descended into the Darkness, is the brainchild of Nobuyuki Fukumoto, a mangaka who is legendary for his stories that revolve around gambling. Akagi is far from Fukumoto's only mahjong title either, as he had done this type of title before Akagi and has made it a focus in later stories. But Akagi might just be his best mahjong title, as it truly shows that in order to defeat your opponents you might just have to be even more of a devil than they themselves are.
It's 1958 and Japan is just starting to return to some sort of normalcy after its loss in World War II. But one thing that hasn't changed is the illegal gambling going on in the country. Nangou is just a normal guy who, though some bad luck, has ended up in a game of mahjong with the local yakuza. If Nangou wins he'll get a large sum of money, but if he loses, he's dead. Unfortunately, Nangou's luck is still bad and he's only doing worse. He decides that if he wants to live then he's willing to make a deal with the devil himself. Almost on cue, a teenage boy walks into the parlor, drenched by the pouring rain outside. The yakuza decide to let him stay and dry up, and the boy sits behind Nangou. Not long after, he insults Nangou for his piss-poor playing style that relies too much on luck, even though he himself has never payed mahjong, and offers some advice. Nangou decides to take it and he wins a hand. Seeing that he's got nothing else to lose, he asks the boy his name and offers to trade places with him. The boy calls himself Shigeru Akagi and agrees to do so...
One of the biggest reasons why this anime is so amazing is due to Akagi himself. Even as a teenage boy he lives for nothing but the thrill of playing a near-death game. Hell, the only reason why he was drenched by the rain was because he had just played a game of chicken by a cliff using cars, and the other player ended up driving off the cliff due to Akagi's decision to not brake until the very last second. There are four games played in this show, two of them when Akagi is a teen and two of them when he's a young adult, and Akagi himself is just as crazy as a teen as he is as an adult. When he's accosted by the friends of the guy he played chicken with later on, who threaten to beat him to a pulp, Akagi retorts that if they're going to do it then they should be serious about it, and points a loaded gun at the leg of one of the guys. When they call his bluff Akagi promptly shoots the guy in both legs... And this is when he's a teen! But Akagi does have allies in his matches. There's the previously mentioned Nangou, who only has importance in Akagi's first two matches and is brought back for a cameo so that Akagi can be identified as a young adult. Nangou is a kind-hearted soul who ends up having a better life after meeting Akagi, but is willing to help out in any way possible. Then there's Yasuoka, a dirty cop who saw Akagi's natural talent during his first game and ends up being Akagi's proxy when it comes to making matches. Nangou brings about a nice honesty to the first half of the show, while Nangou's dirty background makes him fun to watch.
But the people Akagi goes up against aren't nice guys at all; they're evil as hell with almost no redeeming qualities to them. But rather than show them how justice always wins, Akagi instead shows them that he's more evil than they could ever wish to be. Akagi almost goes beyond being an anti-hero and risks becoming a villain himself, but Akagi doesn't agree to play these mahjong games because of the money or the glory like a pompous man; instead, Akagi wants nothing but the thrill of risking his own life. He'll give it everything he has since he expects nothing less from his opponents, and if they're holding back then Akagi has no problem utterly destroying them. But these enemies are just enjoyable to watch, whether it's the yakuza from the first match or Ichikawa, a blind man who can tell which tile is dropped simply by hearing the different sound each one makes.
But the villian who takes the cake is Iwao Washizu, an old, wealthy man who has players bet their blood in mahjong matches where his money is on the line. Washizu is insane, demonic, and really makes the perfect counterpart to Akagi. In fact, during their match Washizu is in front of a giant painting of the devil while Akagi is in front of a giant painting of Jesus, which is honestly funny as Akagi is far from being Jesus-like. Fukumoto knows how to create insane old men, and Washizu might be his best.
Also, the original manga wasn't even the debut of the Akagi character. Fukumoto originally created Akagi for his first big hit Ten -Tennendoori no Kaidanji-, where the character, as an older man, took the role of mentor to the manga's title character. In fact, the character of Akagi became so popular in Ten that he ended up being the main character, which prompted Fukumoto to create a manga so that Akagi's past could be fleshed out.
Another reason why this show is so amazing is because the production values are just excellent. Madhouse brings out excellent animation for this show and the CG used for the mahjong tiles work great and aren't distracting. Director Yuzo Sato is able to keep the tension to a maximum of almost never let go, which is essential for a title like this. Nobuyuki Fukumoto's storytelling abilities are just amazing and the anime is just a superb adaptation that maintains it while also telling the story at a surprisingly fast rate; the 26 episodes this anime has covers 12 volumes of manga, but you'd never know it since it never feels like the anime is rushing anything. In fact, the match with Washizu takes up the entire second half of the show, but it works as you get to see how both Akagi and Washizu plan out their moves and with Washizu in particular you get to see the gears in his head in motion as he plans out every little detail. And if that's not enough, the manga is still running to this day with roughly 22 compiled volumes as of this review, and it's still the Washizu match! But, honestly, if there's a man who can make most of a title be about a single match and keep it worth reading, it's Fukumoto. Anyway, the rate of adaptation combined with the excellent story and lead character himself alone make this a must-see show.
But, no, Madhouse decides that's not enough! Not only is there great animation, excellent story, enthralling characters, and a surprisingly fast adaptation rate, but the music is also up there with some of the best soundtracks you've ever heard. Though composer Hideki Taniuchi is also recognizable through his soundtracks for the Death Note, Otogi Zoshi, and Real Drive animes, fans of Hajime no Ippo will also recognize his work simply by listening to the first two openings for that anime. Yes, before Taniuchi was composing music for Madhouse anime, he was the lead guitarist for the band Shocking Lemon, and his guitar work on the songs "Under Star" and "Inner Light" are part of why those two openings are so fondly remembered. In Akagi, Taniuchi gives the show a lot of hard rock-styled guitar riffs and overall there's a real dark feel to the songs, and they absolutely just add to the feel. I'd easily recommend buying the OST to Akagi, as it's truly excellent.
Then there are the opening and ending themes. There's only one opening to the show, and it's "Nantoka Nare" by Furuido, a group who was around in Japan's music scene for a very long time before the show debuted. In fact, "Nantoka Nare" was actually originally composed back in 1972, and it's this old-school song that really gets you into the period that Akagi takes place in (ignoring the fact that the show's time period predates the song by 14 years). The lead singer of Furuido also knows how to belt out a truly emotional song, and the full version is just even better. Both ending themes, "Akagi" by MAXIMUM THE HORMONE and "S.T.S. (Silent This Side)" by Animals, are modern-day rock songs (the 1st is hardcore metal & the 2nd is Japanese ska) that make for great ways to expel all that tension that each episode gives you. Combine these song with Taniuchi's soundtrack and the Akagi anime has musical chops that are truly hard to beat.
Then there's the voice work, which is also amazing. Masato Hagiwara hasn't done too many anime characters, but that doesn't matter as his performance as Akagi is just masterful. His voice just fits Akagi's slyness, cunning, sarcastic, and even evil demeanor. Tessho Genda's Yasuoka also fits the character perfectly, and Masane Tsukayama's Washizu is as insane and pompous as the character actually is. Outside of Akagi, though, the only other voice you'll hear in every episode is that of the narrator, voiced by none other than the legendary Tohru Furuya. As odd as Furuya's voice can sound as a narrator, it just works for this show.
Now, as much as I can gush over this show I must point out some things that might turn people off or at least annoy them. First off, it's an anime about mahjong, and this anime specifically uses Japanese-style mahjong. If all you know of this game is mahjong solitaire then forget everything you know, because that's not "real" mahjong. And, yes, it can be a turn off when you hear terms like ron, kan, mangan, and dora, but the show does give a basic explanation early on and just by watching you can slowly understand how everything works. Second off, though Fukumoto is an excellent writer, his artwork is very rough, and some can call it "crap" (Fukumoto himself has said this of his artwork, so it's OK if you agree). His characters either fat or they're extremely angular, especially when it comes to the noses and chins, and all Madhouse does is refine that look. It's definitely an art style that you either get used to or you never can accept, but those who can get past that look will love what's behind it.
And finally, since this is a prequel manga it's obvious that Akagi never loses. All of these games involve large amounts of money, so if Akagi loses either he dies or the person he's representing dies. But if Akagi lost then he'd never be the legend he would become in Ten. In the end, this show is not about "Who will win?" but but rather it's about "What's going to happen next?" Sometimes the destination isn't as important as the journey, and Akagi definitely fits that idea.
Overall, if the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime series is my most wanted North American anime license, then Tohai Densetsu Akagi would be number two. It's one of those few shows that I can truly call "perfect" and "a masterpiece" and I can't recommend it enough. This is the show that would lead to Madhouse continuing a trend of making gambling anime for the next few years, or what I love to call the "Madhouse Gambling Trilogy".