On Power Levels and Mary Sues

by eternal on April 26, 2009


It’s a Saki post in disguise!

If there’s one thing we know about anime, it’s that everything seems more exciting in 2D. The beginning of a school year doesn’t mean less free time and more math homework, it means encountering a mysterious transfer student under an eternally blossoming sakura tree! Being a maid isn’t about doing tedious housework that no one wants to do, it’s about serving your master and tending to his psychological needs! (Or in some cases, protecting your master through whatever bizarre means necessary.)

Likewise, in the world of anime, mahjong is not just mahjong. It’s epic mahjong. In fact, it’s epic Crazy Loli Yuri Mahjong. But is this trend to lean towards the over dramatic a good thing? How does the use of extreme exaggerations affect the viewer, especially when the line is crossed by a mile?

Personally, the use of exaggeration and so-called Mary Sue characters doesn’t bother me if it’s a stylistic decision. Take s.CRY.ed, for instance. Unusual name aside, would the show have anything worth bragging about if it didn’t give its two heroes ridiculous powers? Well, I suppose it’ll always have that whole My Balls thing, and DRASTIC MY SOUL has been more or less immortalized in the aniblogosphere, but for the most part, the distinguishing aspect of the show was the over-the-top action. That’s what shounen is about, after all. The action doesn’t yield to logic – it shatters logic with its Golden Finger in much the same way that Hayate no Gotoku shatters the fourth wall.

However, while this kind of exaggeration works at least moderately well in the shounen genre, would it work as well it other shows? Perhaps shows that deal with less battles for the fate of the earth and more mahjong games between friends?

The use of over the top effects in Saki has been brought up before, usually in a negative light. After all, summoning lightning from a single mahjong tile doesn’t exactly match the definition of normality, especially when the game is being played indoors. Some would say that the use of effects like this decrease the show’s credibility – they make it seem like more of a joke than something that can be viewed for its objective merit.

And, in most every way, that judgment is sound.


Realistic? No. Stylish? Well, no, but it looks cool, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

The thing is that most shows that employ these effects aren’t looking to be taken seriously to begin with. Is Prince of Tennis an ambitious, realistic story about a young man’s dream to become a pro? I’m not sure since I haven’t seen it, but I doubt anyone would watch it expecting real, believable, and plausible tennis matches. Instead, a tennis or shounen fan might watch it for an exciting tennis match: because they want to see how anime can make the sport more interesting. After all, real tennis is always an option for those who enjoy realism.

Likewise, the shining mahjong tiles of Saki don’t bother me in the least, because we all knew what we were signing up for. It’s not a serious show by any stretch of the imagination, and anyone who expected Tactical Mahjong Action obviously didn’t look at the character designs. I wouldn’t say that lack of realism hurts Saki any sooner than I’d say that fantasy hurts the Ghibli movies.

However, this entire post isn’t necessarily in Saki’s defence. There’s still one aspect of the show that bothers me, and it’s part of the same topic – it’s simply easy to overlook when you’re blinded by the light from a Certain Magical Mahjong Tile.

saki-mary-sue-post-3Enough said.

The problem I have with shows like this is that the characters are unreasonably strong. No, not because they can command the power of nature – looking unnaturally cool/cute is just another ubiquitous aspect of anime. What I’m talking about is the fact that the characters are good at what they do, and they’ve done precious little to earn it.

For lack of a better example, I’ll bring up the relatively obscure light novel, Zaregoto. Put simply, the story is about a group of geniuses that are called to an island to spend time with some rich girl or the other. Apparently people start dying after that, but I haven’t finished the book yet, and it’s hardly relevant. The point I’m trying to make is that a group of characters in their twenties (who act like your average anime teenagers) are able to do things like wreak havoc across the nation with their hacking skills, work on three monitors at a time, read minds, and cook and paint like the best in the world. True, they’re supposed to be geniuses, but the line should be drawn somewhere.

And that’s where shows like Saki start to bother me. I’m fine with Ichigo Kurosaki shooting beams of energy out of his sword if it makes the battles look better, but accomplishing something in three days that takes most people several decades? I haven’t seen the show in years so forgive me if I’m mistaken, but that sort of thing pops up all the time in shounen. I don’t mind ridiculous abilities if it’s for the sake of style, but please don’t try to convince us that a girl who only played casual mahjong with her family can be good enough to beat one of the best high school students in the country.


At the end of the day, it’s all about the implied yuri.

Admittedly, I don’t really have a bone to pick with Saki. I’m only watching it because it looks fun, and I’d say it’s been fun so far. Shows like this aren’t meant to be taken seriously, so I wouldn’t bother ranting about how the lack of realism detracts from the story. However, I think it’s worth noting the difference between Mary Sues in the name of style and Mary Sues for the sake of. I’m all for planet-shattering energy beams and, in the case of Gurren Lagann, what resembled the flinging of solar systems, but you can’t expect anyone to believe that Some Random Kid from Some Random High School can hop into a mech and defeat trained soldiers. It doesn’t work in shounen, it doesn’t work in loli yuri antics, and it won’t work in whatever genre it forces itself into.


{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

ghostlightning April 26, 2009 at 9:58 pm

I enjoyed reading this, though I don’t have much to contribute in discussion.

ghostlightnings last blog post..WP.com


animemiz April 26, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Implied yuri aside… the whole Mary Sue element about Saki gets to me more than the blushing cheeks or the yuri.. show me more mah jong technical play, and I am satisfied with the series.

animemizs last blog post..Ristorante Paradiso – Low Self-Esteem picker upper


Fang-tan April 26, 2009 at 10:04 pm

tl;dr, Saki is yuribait and I should watch it, yes?


Panther April 26, 2009 at 10:08 pm

About the “playing casually with family part and beating school champion just by doing that”, in episode 3 they at least defend that part a little by shedding some light on Saki’s mahjong background – her family does have some good players, since her sister, Miyanaga Teru, has won two championships in a row.

That being said, yuri FTW.

Panthers last blog post..Asu no Yoichi! – A Review


Brynell August 14, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Shiver me timbers, them’s some great innamrotiof.


CCY April 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Exactly what I wanted to say about Saki. Or rather, half what I wanted to say, and half what I should have been told a long time ago.

That is, I kind of came into Saki expecting something on the level of Akagi, with more mindgames than your brain has room for, and was pretty dissapointed when my mahjong (+yuri) anime, turned out to be yuri (+mahjong) anime.

I agree that the over-the-top-ness of Saki is entertaining and relatively harmless; certainly anime has never been much for realism. After all, would this show have magically been more realistic if there wasn’t lightning striking and people growing wings? It’s about a bunch of yuritastic high school girls in a world where everyone plays mahjong.

What makes me curious about Saki though, is how it approaches the titular character’s ‘skill’. Or rather, lack thereof.

Saki takes a diametric opposite to Akagi; where Akagi controls the flow of the game with his manipulative abilities, Saki kind of just sits there and magically draws the tiles needed to win.

Ironically, this is probably closer to ‘real’ mahjong, a game which is still highly luck-based. Even if you are the best high-school player in the country, that does nothing against Saki starting a hand one tile away from 13 Orphans (i.e. one of the best hands in the game). It’s even more luck-based than poker, because it is difficult to impossible to bluff people entirely out of a hand.

Still, such a portrayal definitely leaves Saki prone to what you described in the second half of your article. I have to agree. It feels like what I remember Initial D to be back in the day, a competition anime where some mysterious prodigy prodigies his way to the top, without a lot of explanation, just a bunch of insurmountable odds.

I’m not sure what I think of Saki. I like to think that why I dislike it so far is a result of my incorrect expectations of it; perhaps if I too, learn to just enjoy the ride, it won’t be too bad.

I wonder where the focus of the show will lie, in the end. There seems to be much more focus on character dynamics than mahjong itself, at times. So maybe arguing too much about the power level of Saki is missing the point. We shall see.

(also, amusement at my inadvertent tl;dr)

CCYs last blog post..K-ON! Is a Lot Like a Little Sister (or, how I learned to stop worrying and worship Mio)


OGT April 26, 2009 at 10:26 pm

The “main character who mysteriously knows exactly how to handle the focus of the series” (be it mahjong, mecha, sports, fighting, etc.) is a time-honored anime/manga tradition. I don’t know if it’s Mary Sue so much as simply Convenient for the Plot (and an increasingly high demand for action to happen NOW NOW NOW amongst the readers and viewers, hence an increasing prevalence in the past decade or two). It goes back way far, especially in the shounen/shoujo demographics: Amuro Ray magically knows how to pilot the original Gundam in First Gundam (although he has a mechanical background, and I think there’s usually an adjustment period, as there tends to be an adjustment period for any Gundam protagonist); in Rose of Versailles there’s hardly any stated reason why Oscar Francois de Jarjeyes is a great swordswoman and the envy of every girl in the French court, she just is, and girls swoon over her far more than they do Count Fersen. (this is because Riyoko Ikeda practically invented yuri as we know it today, though) Those are both from the 70s; it’s been prevalent since then and probably before, in some form.

There’s still series, though, where the character literally starts out with no skills at all in the focus of the series: Hajime no Ippo has Ippo literally not knowing what boxing is until Takemura saves him from bullies, and the series then takes fifteen or so episodes until Ippo actually has a first debut boxing match (he has spars) and then you have to wait until the Mashiba fight for things to start getting really interesting and exciting. A preposterously slow buildup like that is a hard sell these days, so “is magically talented” becomes a common shortcut.

I stopped worrying about this particular trope/cliche (if I ever did worry about it) a long time ago; there are far more egregious mistakes one can make in anime than a magically knowledgeable character within reasonable bounds. Handled within reasonable bounds, it’s perfectly fine, although it can also be easily botched, and when the series is otherwise good, I see no reason to fret. Then again, I also don’t watch a whole lot of shounen-derived anime (Saki is shounen too, I think), so I might just not be over-exposed.

OGTs last blog post..RideBack: Giving Revolution the Right of Way


animekritik April 26, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I just watched K-On! 4, so I can add Yui’s guitar ability to the mix here. What do you guys think about that? I mean, first in ep 03 she scores a 100 on the re-test and now she’s playing like a pro!! I still don’t know what to make of it..

animekritiks last blog post..Kyon x Itsuki Complete Each Other


TheGeek April 26, 2009 at 11:29 pm

The new comer with the great ability is an old, old, old, amine trope. Usually it follows kind of the same track as Saki, been doing something better then most but knowing it. You see the same thing in Eyeshield 21 and Initial D. I try not to read to much in to Saki, but then again I’m watching for the laughs and the implied yuri. ;-)

TheGeeks last blog post..Synth Saturday: Korg DS-10


zzeroparticle April 26, 2009 at 11:50 pm

I think that for me, the world in which the show takes place has to be able to maintain some degree of believability. A show can exaggerate all it wants for dramatic effect as long as the outcomes make some degree of sense, or the show makes an effort to explain in a way that’s reasonable. So as far as Saki goes, it’s about a girl who has inhuman luck and makes things happen through those means (putting aside the yuri and fanservice) and it’s not a concept that’s overly hard to swallow, outrageous though it may be.

zzeroparticles last blog post..K-ON! OP Single – Cagayake! GIRLS – Review


TheBigN April 27, 2009 at 12:24 am

“There seems to be much more focus on character dynamics than mahjong itself, at times. So maybe arguing too much about the power level of Saki is missing the point. We shall see.”

I think this is where it’s going in my mind as well, but I don’t think there’s any problem one way or another about where the show goes. I think what helps Saki is that as said earlier, they provide some background info about her possible development of skills. And in this case, Saki already knows how to play mahjong, whereas most examples have complete neophyte somehow becoming natural geniuses with little effort. While Saki has inhuman luck, she also knows what she’s doing to get the goal that she wants to get initially.

But again, at the moment, I’m not sure this is a show to be taken seriously at the moment. At least that’s what I’m seeing at the moment. :3

TheBigNs last blog post..Shangri-la: not the Green Robin Hoods you think


Palabuzz April 27, 2009 at 4:05 pm

This is what I like about anime. They have the ability to become stronger even though they are already beaten up. I wished that I could do that as well but this is real life and I have to face that I am getting weaker each time my blood sugar is high.

Palabuzzs last blog post..Manny Pacquiaos Team?


ETERNAL April 27, 2009 at 7:13 pm

@ ghostlightning: I love leaving comments like that, though it always makes me feel awkward. Anyway, glad you liked it.

@ animemiz: I guess that’s the problem with where Saki is headed; I’m not sure how good the mahjong games will be if they’re entirely impractical. Of course, they could also pull a Death Note and make it ridiculous yet still intense, so there’s a chance that it might deliver. But it’s probably a lower chance than something like Akagi.

@ Fang-tan: Er…if you’re looking for yuri, then yes! I actually preferred Candy Boy and MariMite for that purpose, but it works either way.

@ Panther: Of course, they can come up with a few plausible excuses, but I think Nodoka’s worries are more believable – it’s hard to lose to someone that doesn’t even like the game, and it would be improbable (but not impossible) in reality. It’s true that most of these shows come up with reasons for the characters’ strengths, but that doesn’t entirely change the fact that it makes the combat and competition unfair.

@ CCY: Looks like we’re in agreement. Luckily for me, the lack of realism doens’t really bother me, as I mentioned that I’m not watching it for anything more than entertainment. Like you said, it’ll probably work out if you kick back and enjoy the ride, and the focus might very well be on the characters in the end (which would probably make it more entertaining), but it still serves as a good example of how lack of realism in the wrong areas can be dangerous.

@ OGT: That’s certainly true. It’s almost like blaming a harem lead for attracting the attention of every girl in class – if you’re going to complain, then why watch harem? As opposed to overexposure being the problem, I’m fairly underexposed to shounen, and I think that’s what led me to raise the point. Indeed, it’s a long standing trope, and not really worth concerning oneself over, but it would feel careless to overlook it on the grounds of it being “normal.” I suppose it’s one of those things that annoys you without really provoking you, and when you come across a particularly good example (and you have a blog), you finally let it out.

@ animekritik: Hmm…now that’s a good point you raise. I’m not sure why the lack of realism in K-ON doesn’t bother me while Saki does, and I’m hoping it’s for a better reason than Mio. On one hand, though, the K-ON girls aren’t aiming for anything too spectacular; they might be progressing faster than normal humans (especially considering Yui’s…er…unique mental capabilities), but the emphasis of the story is clearly not on their music, so it doesn’t bother me. As far as I remember, the Beck guys developed fairly slowly, and that’s also a good sign because their story is about their journey from no-name to pro.
Either that, or it’s just because of Mio :P

@ TheGeek: Yeah, that’s my final conclusion as well. It hasn’t disappointed me, per se, because I’m only in it for entertainment – it just so happened to be a perfect example of an annoying anime trope that I never thought to complain about in the past.

@ zzeroparticle: That makes sense. It applies to a broader scope of genres rather than mostly shounen, but it’s a good philosophy, especially in a medium like this.

@ TheBigN: Crazy Loli Yuri Mahjong isn’t exactly the most serious concept out there, so it’s definitely not the kind of thing to take seriously. Personally, I think I’d like to see it lean toward the characters rather than the game (partially because I only understand the bare basics of mahjong), but I’m sure it’ll be entertaining either way.

@ Palabuzz: The perspective of escapism is an interesting way to look at it. I hadn’t thought of that before, but I suppose reality in anime is always defied for a reason; it creates a more forgiving universe within the show where everyone has a chance to become stronger. Of course, that falls apart if you look at it from the antagonist’s perspective…


Ryan A April 28, 2009 at 10:54 am

I usually believe that sport plays a part of it, but it’s always taking the backseat as the delivery mechanism. Still, it does have the ability to modify the story greatly if the players are so shounen bad-ass with their skills. Nonetheless, there’s usually more to a series, but if the viewer doesn’t agree with the delivery or it’s exceedingly unbelievable effect of it, then it’ll likely not be enjoyable.

real tennis is always an option for those who enjoy realism

Actually, real tennis is going to destroy any fiction at this point in time simply because Rafael and Roger have basically TTGL-level-up’d their battles since Wimbledon last year. Incomprehensible but entirely real level that Wimbledon final was.

Ryan As last blog post..A Spotted Firefox Extension


M12 April 28, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Yeah implied yuri ftw…
This show reminds me a lot of Yugioh, funny enough. I know nothing about mahjong yet I’m watching it. Not sure why!

M12s last blog post..Google Translate


ETERNAL May 8, 2009 at 7:28 pm

@ Ryan A: I guess that falls under the same category as what TheBigN (and everyone else really) were talking about: the show might very well use the competition as a means rather than an end. Still, even a show like Saki could self-destruct if it goes too far beyond the line.

@ M12: Maybe it’s for the implied yuri? :P


katreus June 22, 2009 at 5:05 am

Hrm… I do watch it for entertainment so Mary Sue-ness doesn’t really bother me. She doesn’t really play casual mahjong with her family though… It’s more like ultra-competitive mahjong. As mentioned above, her sister Teru has won the national tournament two times in a row and is going for her third win. Saki’s mom and dad should be just as good if they can play competitively with Saki and Teru.

For that matter, the power levels are about right. Saki is definitely a monster on par with Koromo in the regionals but she’s a far cry from the monsters of the nationals. Every notable character has some sort of “special power” or so – Hisa with her hell waits, Nodoka as Nodocchi, Yuki’s East Wind, Mihoko with her Geass Eye (not really, but she can read discards really well and form very strong guesses about hands), Jun with her ability to read the “flow” of the game – but the two monsters’ powers are only 1 han in terms of scoring. I won’t spoil Koromo’s power but Saki’s power is – as shown – Rinshan Kaihou, or the ability to win on the draw from a dead wall due to calling a kong.

For comparison, the monsters at nationals? Their special powers are yakuman hands. At 15 han, they’re considered limit hands (you can’t get higher han than that).

It should be a fun ride.


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