Of course, sports manga doesn't have to be limited to literal athletics. There's plenty of it focused on other forms of games, including board games like today's review.
HIKARU NO GO, written by Yumi Hatta with art by Takeshi Obata and supervision by Yukari Umezawa [5 Dan]. First published in 1998 and first published in North America in 2004.
Hikaru Shindo stumbles upon an old Go board while cleaning out his grandfather's attic one day. Within it is the ghost of Fujiwara-no-Sai, a Heian-era Go master who refuses to rest until he can finally play the Divine Move. Sai takes up residence within Hikaru's mind, and it seems the only way Hikaru can get rid of him is to become a Go master. The first test is simply teaching Hikaru how to play, but the next test is impressing a local Go prodigy named Akira Fudo.
It's hard to believe that just over a decade ago, Hikaru no Go was a phenomenon. While it never reached the astronomical heights of works like One Piece or Naruto, it had enough fans for a long run in Weekly Shonen Jump, a 74-episode anime, and thousands of fans who tried their own hands at Go. Its time in the spotlight is long done, but looking back upon it now I can how its careful balance of shonen manga standards and passion for its subject could appeal to the public.
Make no mistake, Hikaru no Go sticks very closely to the standard Weekly Shonen Jump formula. You have a protagonist who is energetic, quick-to-learn yet not very book-smart, who is eager to embrace his new pursuit after meeting a promising rival or two. The major deviation is that Hikaru's mentor is a ghost instead of an elderly person (although considering how long Sai has been a ghost, it might still apply). There's even a peer who will start as a rival but turn into a friend and a childhood friend/love interest who is so perfunctory that I'm still not entirely sure if they ever state her name out loud. Yet that very familiarity actually works in Hikaru no Go's favor because it gives the audience something familiar to grasp while they struggle with Hikaru to understand the intricacies of Go.
Go would seem like an odd match for a shonen manga. It's a game that's heavy on strategy and rules, but lacks the international awareness and prestige of something like chess. Even in Japan, it's a niche, old-fashioned sort of game that's seldom played by anyone under 50. Naturally, that means there's a lot of rule-explaining here, but Hatta wisely parses them out like breadcrumbs instead of simply dumping them upon Hikaru (and the reader) all at once. It also doesn't come entirely from Sai, either; there are plenty of students and competitors who manage to drop other rules into the story through their dialogue. It's a lot of information to take in, so I'm both grateful and impressed with how skillfully Hatta weaves it into the story.
So you have the combination of the familiar and the exotic, but the element that brings it all together is the relationship between Hikaru and Sai. Again, it's the mentor-student dynamic that we all know, but Sai's relative youth and heightened emotions makes his relationship with Hikaru closer to a friendship than the usual cantakerous, grandfatherly dynamic we see. It, like the manga itself, is a combination of the familiar and the unique that find the right sort of balance to make it compulsively readable.
As someone who has only previously experienced Takeshi Obata's art in the context of Death Note and Bakuman, it's interesting to see how different the artwork here is from his later, better-remembered works. Looking at Hikaru's blonde bangs and ghostly companion, it's hard to not wonder if the creators (or their editors) meant for him to remind readers of Yu-Gi-Oh's Yugi. Still, the characters here are much more down-to-earth than a lot of their contemporaries, with faces that are pleasantly rounded instead of aggressively angular and their everyday fashion. Sai in particular is downright pretty with his androgynous looks and sweeping robes.
What hasn't changed is the polish and confidence Obata brings to the page. Like his later works, Hikaru no Go doesn't have a lot of bombastic action or over-the-top comedy to lean on, but the poses and paneling lend even the most casual match the sense of energy and drama they need. He also gets to show off his gift for goofy faces in the lighter moments between Hikaru and Sai. It's a good looking manga all around, and one that looks and feels far more timeless than a lot of its contemporaries.
Hikaru no Go takes an old-fashioned board game and makes it as thrilling as any sport through a careful balance of shonen manga standards and outstanding artwork. It's little wonder that this became a hit in its day, and perhaps it's time for modern manga readers to rediscover its charms.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 23 volumes available. All 23 were published; the physical volumes are out of print, but the series is available digitally.