Hikaru No Go, Kaiji, and the appeal of game-theory aesthetic

I’ve been watching a lot of 2001 series Hikaru No Go recently, mainly due to the distinct turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic it has going for it. The early digi-paint colouring might appear crude by today’s glossy digital standards, but for me, seeing the bold, simplistic colours paired with the show’s synth-heavy soundtrack conveys an instant hit of nostalgia – taking me right back to the days of when Digimon and Cardcaptors were playing on ITV.

But for me, the other key charm of Hikaru No Go is that it absolutely nails something I’ve come to call the game-theory aesthetic. Something which all ‘sports’ anime do to some degree – from the current successes like Haikyuu right through to series that aren’t even technically ‘sports’ – like Yu Gi Oh. In essence – what these shows all have is a process which sets up a clearly defined rule-set, and then serves to show how our central characters can cleanly and logically overcome those rule-sets. The thrill is almost magic-trick like – the power of the ‘reveal’; offering excitement that goes far beyond the ‘dumb-fun’ tropes of who has the higher power level when they punch someone.

No – as much as sport series might be about physical endeavour – it’s invariably the mental attitude or fortitude that sees their characters win out in the end. And this is stronger than ever in shows that are actually about purely ‘mental’ games – shows like Hikaru No Go or Kaiji; where board games or good old-fashioned gambling up this ‘game-theory’ aesthetic to its maximum. We’ve seen more recent, fantastic spins on this same idea in shows like No Game No Life – but for me, the real charm is when it’s all rooted in a kind of slightly sleazy, gritty setting of distinct realism (not that anyone could call Kaiji realistic, but stick with me…)

What I’m getting at is a world of after school chess clubs. A world of tacky arcade machines and bowling alleys with greasy floors and poor lighting. A world of well-worn rulebooks that promise that one superior ‘magic’ tactic. A kind of world that a youngster can believe in, because it’s the same world they inhabit themselves – a world where superiority at games is still the be-all and end-all in life. A world where ‘superiority in life itself’ (eg. successful life, family, job, relationship etc.) is still far off. Here – the game is the only thing that matters. A world where the guy at school with the Charizard Pokemon card was the coolest person in the world.

With its so-of-its-time cover art – which in the English translation saw its title script scrawled out in graffiti style spray paint – Hikaru No Go felt a step away from the short-lived crossover appeal of skater culture and commercial Nu-Metal. A whiff of grimy subculture carefully compressed into a heavily mainstream guise. You had ‘game’. You played ‘games’ – allying yourself to either Playstation or Nintendo. You lived according to a very simple, defined set of rules – and it’s that, perhaps, more than anything that strengthens the nostalgia of shows like this more than anything – like all the best kinds of nostalgia; presenting a world that exists only in memory now.

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