After going into it with low expectations, I was amazed at how heavily I got into mahjong anime Saki by the time its original series came to a close, beginning a bit of a love affair with the game that has never fully dissipated since. Although it isn't the second season of the series proper that we've been craving, this spring does at least fill that tile-sized hole in my heart courtesy of this Episode of Side-A side-story, written by the same author as the series proper.
Indeed, the link between this series and Saki itself takes no time to emerge, as we're introduced to a transfer student who goes by the rather familiar name of Nodoka Haramura. Despite being a little aloof and with a rather unique dress sense, Nodoka soon strikes up a friendship with the energetic Shizuno and her buddy Ako. The fun these girls have together is only amplified when Nodoka is introduced by the others to the mahjong club at Achiga Girls Academy - well, I say club, but "former club" would be the correct term, with its existence only continuing thanks to a legendary former player for the club Harue Akado, who keeps it running as "rehabilitation" for a particularly distressing defeat.
Of course, Harue isn't going to run the club forever, and her departure signals its ultimate demise, which in turn breaks up our group of friends with Ako choosing a different middle school to pursue her love of mahjong while Nodoka eventually finds herself transferring away on account of her mother's work. The story seems to be over at this point, until a chance snippet of television viewing from Shizuno reveals Nodoka's new place as a middle school mahjong champion - a shock which fires up Shizuno to rekindle her love for the game and reform Achiga's mahjong club with the aim of meeting and playing against Nodoka once again. But can she really build a club capable of qualifying for the national tournament when the area's neighbouring high school has such a fearsome reputation within the game?
If I were to have one criticism of this first episode of Episode of Side-A, it's that it covers too much too soon. I realise that everything we see here is simply setting the stage for the important stuff to come, but it still feels rushed to the point where it's difficult to really enjoy or get to grips with the main characters or their emotional attachments to both one another and mahjong. On the positive side however, I did feel that familiar Saki tingle when it came to the (admittedly brief) mahjong playing time itself, firing up my love of the game once again regardless of the daft and crazy but fun "superpowers" sported by the show's better players. It's this that I'll be looking forward to more of from the rest of this series, and hopefully Episode of Side-A can deliver it in spades.