Following up Akagi was never going to be an easy task for Nobuyuki Fukumoto. Although his other long-running series Kaiji may be more immediately recognizable to a Western audience, the mahjong antics of Akagi and its enigmatic main character of Akagi Shigeru have influenced Japanese popular culture immeasurably over the years, which made its eventual conclusion in 2018 a pretty momentous occasion. How could Fukumoto hope to follow up something of that magnitude, especially when it finished with such a magnificent and inventive final arc that stretched over a full decade? Yamima no Mamiya may be the answer to that question.
Launching just a year after the end of Akagi in Takeshobo’s monthly Kindai Mahjong Comics, Yamima no Mamiya follows the adventures of Mamiya, a mysterious gambler who has somehow inherited the ‘spirit’ of Akagi Shigeru in the Reiwa era. There is a lot to enjoy here, especially in the realm of characters both new and old, but it seems unlikely that this series will reach the heights of its forebearer (at least, in the immediate term). Furthermore, while Fukumoto has refined his presentation of and storytelling through gambling to a fine art, there isn’t much here in the way of innovation – especially in comparison with his other ongoing series.
Yamima no Mamiya and the Spirit of Akagi
One of the biggest ways in which Yamima no Mamiya attempts to create for itself a distinct new identity is through its protagonist, Mamiya. This mysterious character has somehow inherited the ‘spirit of Akagi’ in the modern day, which essentially means that she’s really good at gambling. And did you notice the pronoun, there? That’s right: Mamiya’s Mamiya is a girl, which marks the very first time that Nobuyuki Fukumoto has written a story centered around a female protagonist.
The promotional material for the series’ first volume, which was released back in December of last year, made a lot of noise about this fact, but it is thankfully inconsequential for the majority of the opening chapters. There isn’t even any solid confirmation as to Mamiya’s gender until she turns up to do some gambling in the later half, whereupon her opponent protests on account of her gender and young age. It is worth noting that she does then go on to try and coax him into a game with the promise that she’ll let him ‘do her,’ but he refuses out of incredulity – she’s 17 and he’s 70.
More important than Mamiya’s gender is her personality, which is both similar and distinct from Akagi. While Akagi was dark and menacing from a young age, Mamiya is a lot more bright and energetic, making such errors as forgetting to wake up time to play mahjong. This makes her much more human than the seemingly supernatural gambling demon that was Akagi Shigeru, although there is no doubt about the fact that she shares his aptitude for gambling.
Aside from Mamiya, there are also several new characters that appear in Yamima no Mamiya. There’s Mamiya’s opponent, for one – the entertainment agency head Onigashira Kanji – as well as the three underground idols that he has locked in to an unfair contract: Okita, Takasugi, and Takamoto. But Onigashira is by far the most developed, as he is the one playing the game of mahjong that Yamima no Mamiya volume 1 is centered around. He’s no Washizu, that’s for sure, but he is entertaining enough as a ‘villain.’
Speaking of that game of mahjong, the one who organizes it is none other than Osamu Nozaki: Akagi’s old friend and associate from the days of his youth. Getting to catch up with Osamu after all these years is a great feeling, especially as his talent for mediocrity continues as he runs a very mediocre ramen shop that is both ‘not tasty’ but also ‘not not tasty,’ according to the three idols who come to him for help.
Mahjong, Mamiya, and the Same Old, Same Old
The inclusion of Osamu neatly connects the story of Yamima no Mamiya volume 1 to that of Akagi, especially since he did not originally appear in Ten like Akagi first did some three decades ago. But it should be fairly obvious that this story is a sequel of sorts to Akagi, if not just because Mamiya is positioned as a successor to Akagi, but because Fukumoto is up to his same old tricks – for better and for worse.
It wouldn’t be a Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga without gambling with large amounts of money on the line, so the story of Yamima no Mamiya volume 1 revolves around Osamu and Mamiya playing mahjong against Onigashira, who promise to pay ¥30,000,000 JPY (about $280,000 USD) if they lose. The twist, however, comes in the fact that Onigashira has to release the three idols Okita, Takasugi, and Takamoto from their contract if he loses, which makes Mamiya’s aims much more altruistic than Akagi’s ever were.
As always, Fukumoto’s presentation of the thrills of gambling and mahjong is top notch. He found success with his abstract character designs, outlandish metaphors, and inventive sound effects long ago, so why bother trying to change? Here, the conundrum of Fukumoto’s style comes into play. Die-hard fans will no doubt love the twists and turns of Yamima no Mamiya volume 1, but the unconverted might not be convinced – and Fukumoto has his fair share of detractors.
Nevertheless, as a die-hard fan, it would be hard for me to say that I did not enjoy Yamima no Mamiya volume 1. In many senses, it was actually easier for me to engage with the early chapters of Yamima no Mamiya than it was for Akagi, where Fukumoto’s style was not as refined as it would be later on in the early chapters.
One thing that did disappoint me, however, was the fact that Fukumoto was seemingly not very inventive when coming up with the new variant of mahjong played in Yamima no Mamiya volume 1, that being ‘yami-mahjong’ (shadow mahjong). In this ruleset, a player can pay a certain amount of points to discard a tile face down, thus depriving their opponents of any possible insight into what tile they are waiting for. The strategy then comes at what point you use this tactic, especially as your opponent can then pay to flip it over – do you have enough points to maintain your bluff? This is a question that Osamu comes face to face with in Yamima no Mamiya volume 1, as his points stock is running dangerously low at the point where he needs to pay once more to deflect Onigashira’s ‘yami-gaeshi’ (shadow overturn) and implement a ‘kan-yami’ (total shadow) to conceal his wait.
But the point of Akagi and, indeed, all of Fukumoto’s mahjong manga, has never been a detailed exploration of the rules of mahjong. More important has always been the human drama and the tense psychological battles, as well as the ridiculous metaphors that the author employs to symbolize these struggles. You could even say that Fukumoto’s constant reinvention of the game of mahjong through modified rule sets such as these is an admission to the fact that the excitement stemming from mahjong only goes so far.
Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s Other Series
And yet, Fukumoto only goes so far with this latest rule set. In many ways, it feels like the opposite version of Washizu mahjong, which formed the basis for the last, best arc in Akagi. In Washizu mahjong, a certain number of tiles were made transparent, which made what tile a hand needed to be complete quite obvious in certain cases. Engineering a ruleset where the strategy comes in what tile you conceal, then, seems like a natural evolution of that ruleset and not something that is entirely unique.
There are, obviously, important differences. For one, Mamiya is not betting her blood on the game of mahjong played in Yamima no Mamiya volume 1, which was an important part of the Washizu ruleset. But the sense that Fukumoto is not being very inventive with this new series is strengthened when looking at his other ongoing manga, which feel remarkably fresh by comparison.
On the one hand, we have the sixth part of Kaiji, entitled the 2.4 Billion Escape Arc. Here, Fukumoto is continuing the ongoing adventures of Kaiji Itou against the sinister forces of the Teian Group, but by discarding a large amount of the gambling that got him there in the first place; instead of playing with bigshots for ever-increasing stakes, Kaiji is trying to escape here with the 2.4 billion yen that he won from Kazuya in the last arc, which makes for a very different Kaiji story than the ones that we have seen in the past.
There is also Ichinichi Gaishutsuroku Hanchou (Foreman: One-Day Excursion), which was adapted into an anime alongside Middle Manager Tonegawa back in 2017. It is worth noting that both the story and art for this series are done by someone else (Tensei Hagiwara and Motomu Uehara, to be precise), but Fukumoto still presumably has considerable sway over the direction of the series. Moreover, given that it features many of the characters that he created for Kaiji, it irrevocably gets associated with his prior works.
In any case, no matter the extent of Fukumoto’s involvement, Hanchou is doing many more exciting things with Fukumoto’s style and characters than Yamima no Mamiya is. It takes the tense psychological drama that marks Fukumoto’s best works and inserts it into the mundane, mainly revolving around how the character of Hanchou can best make use of his limited time outside of the Teian forced labor camp. Yamima no Mamiya feels downright pedestrian by comparison.
Yamima no Mamiya Volume 1: Continuing Akagi’s Legacy?
That is not to say, however, that Yamima no Mamiya volume 1 was completely void of enjoyment. Indeed, I am a big enough fan of both Fukumoto and mahjong to enjoy anything that the author and the subgenre puts out. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that this sequel series of sorts will ever hope to match up to the heights of its parent series, especially considering the many ways in which it feels like more of the same.
No doubt publisher Takeshobo plays a part in this. The company has relied on Fukumoto to support its brand for years, most especially its Kindai Mahjong line of magazines. Perhaps one of the reasons why Yamima no Mamiya feels so iterative, then, is because Fukumoto came under a lot of pressure to continue making mahjong manga, even if he had no compelling new ideas to do so.
All of that is, however, pure speculation. Part of me wants to say that Fukumoto should’ve given up mahjong with Akagi, but that would be too idealistic. Certainly, only time will tell if Yamima no Mamiya can become something great, but on the basis of its first volume, that doesn’t seem very likely.
You can read Yamima no Mamiya volume 1 via Takeshobo.