Saki was one of the first anime I watched, it was almost 3.5 years ago, but I still remember the day. I use the singular “day”, because I ended up watching almost all of the 25 episodes in a single day. I got home from university early in the afternoon, and I kept pressing “next episode” until the wee hours. I fell asleep before I could finish the entire series, but I watched the last few episodes first thing the next morning. And I loved all of it, even the not-so-relevant singles tournament arc.
That did not come as a great surprise to me, though, because before I watched Saki I had already seen the newer spin-off series, Saki Achiga-hen: Episode of Side-A. The reason I started with a show that is chronologically a sequel, a fact I was very much aware of when I started watching it, was that I thought the original looked worse. After all, the original was animated by someone called “Gonzo”, while Achiga-hen is the product of Studio Gokumi, a much more professional-sounding company. And to some extent, the original did not look as good in terms of its art and animation, though it was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Oh well, I guess “you live and learn” is especially applicable to people who are new to anime.
It would be reasonable to assume that this, the fact that I watched Achiga-hen before the original series, is why Achiga-hen – and not the original – is my favourite anime of all time, but that’s only a half-truth. In reality, I just think Achiga-hen is a better show when it comes to everything from the characters to the pacing. To be specific, I like all of the Achiga girls (except maybe for Arata due to me not really being able to connect with her backstory), whereas the only Kiyosumi girls I really like are Mako and Hisa. I think this is partially because the first episode of Achiga-hen, with its time skips and solid character focus, establishes a backstory for Ako, Kuro and Shizuno that I feel is much more relatable than Saki’s “I’m a godlike mahjong player but I don’t like playing it”.
In fact, I like the first episode of Achiga-hen so much that I’ve probably watched it 5 or 6 times, and every time it overwhelms me with emotions. The fact that I love the OP, which plays for the first time right after the climax of Episode 1, helps a great deal, but the episode doesn’t rely on it too much. In itself, the first episode is not actually representative of the kind of storytelling that the rest of the series goes for (a big time skip in contrast to mahjong games that last several episodes), but I do think it’s a fantastic introduction to the series, so much so that I was able to understand and enjoy all of Achiga-hen without having seen even a minute of the original series.
The most recent series, 2014’s Saki Zenkoku-hen, came to me as a “best of both worlds” experience, combining the art and animation of Studio Gokumi with the characters and ongoing storyline of the original series. That is, it was a properly good-looking, proper sequel to the original series. It also introduced a bunch of new characters that made all of the matches very fun to watch, even those containing the Kiyosumi girls that I don’t like very much. Toyone Anetai, voiced by Maaya Uchida, is one of my absolute favourites of the characters introduced in Zenkoku-hen.
To conclude, I realise that this show may require an introduction, so here it is: Saki is about a bunch of girls playing mahjong really dramatically, often with supernatural abilities. It plays like any other sports anime, really, so if that’s your thing (and you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for some amount of time), I do really recommend it. I would recommend it even if it wasn’t my favourite anime of all time.