Call it a coincidence, but it’s a strange thing to start The Queen’s Gambit at pretty much the same time as Hikaru No Go, but the result is that I’m now seeing game patterns everywhere! Eh, not really, but two simultaneous game-playing dramas is a lot, but in a very good way. Chess versus Go (or Weiqi in Chinese), it’s amazing how the directors could manage to create dramatic tension in scenes involving placing pieces on squares on a board, but hats off to both productions!
This review is about Hikaru No Go, so I’ll leave comments on the other drama to others’ opinions (though I liked it), so without further a-do… And, this is a generally spoiler-free review, with no major plot points revealed unless marked as a spoiler!
This series (available with English captions on the iQIYI app as well as on their YouTube channel) is adapted with the author’s permission from a very popular Japanese manga and anime series. I’m not familiar with either, but have seen generally favorable comments re: the adaptation to give it a more Chinese setting and feel (other than some jingoistic ‘wasn’t the handover of Hong Kong back to China wonderful’ scenes at the start of the drama to give it a time/place setting which may seem heavy-handed to some viewers). In particular, the praise is given and due to the cast of the live-action adaptation, particularly in the roles of the accidental prodigy Shi Guang (Hu Xianxu) and the spiritual (literally) weiqi mentor Chu Ying (Zhang Chao). The cast of secondary and supporting characters also satisfies in all aspects, notably Shi Guang’s friends Hong He, played by Zhao Haohong, Gu Yu (Ji Li), Shen Yi Lang (Sun Can), and Shi Guang’s rival Yu Liang (Hao Fushen).
The story introduces us to car-obsessed 9-year-old Shi Guang, raised in a single-parent home, which leaves him plenty of unsupervised time to goof off, play around, and live a normal boy life. Mucking around in his grandfather’s attic, looking for something he might be able to sell to finance his model car addiction, he comes across an old weiqi board and, through the mysteries of fate, triggers the resurrection of an ancient master of Go, Chu Ying. Equal parts freaked out and intrigued, Shi Guang comes to accept the appearance of this ghostly persona and learns about his new seemingly companion. Chu Ying is in this interim afterlife because his quest for the perfect Go move was unfulfilled and he’s looking for the person he can mentor to find it — in this current lifetime it appears to be Shi Guang. Shi Guang sees this as a chance to win money from his grandfather (who likes weiqi), and agrees to let Chu Ying guide him through some games. They search for an opponent and come across a club, part of the holdings of the current champion Go master Yu Xiaoyang (played by Jiang Baichaun), the father of Yu Liang. Raised to be a super-Go nerd/future champion, young Yu Liang is playing in the club and, thinking that it would be best to play a peer, Shi Guang challenges him to a match. The unhappy outcome devastates both boys in ways that haunt them, but results in Shi Guang fleeing the responsibility to help Chu Ying. It takes a bullying incident in high school to reunite the two, and set the stage for the future/present (albeit still the past) growth of Shi Guang in the study of Go.
As mentioned, there is a lot of time devoted to the placement of black and white stones on the Go board in this series, and yes, that could be boring, but somehow the characters and settings do keep it lively. The friendship between Chu Ying and Shi Guang is as real as the more ‘normal/earthly’ ones with Hong He or others in his school circles, or the uneasy rivalry/almost yearning for friendship thing he has with Yu Liang. That’s a tribute to the young actors, especially Hu Xianxu. They’ve chosen to have Shi Guang converse directly to/with Chu Ying as if he’s physically in his presence most of the time, but on occasion it’s an internal conversation taking place in his mind — one might ask if all conversations really happen in the mind, or if Chu Ying is a manifested presence most of the time and this just lets us “see” him too because most of the time no one looks twice at Shi Guang when he’s doing something like talking to Chu Ying as he’s walking down the street — either way it doesn’t really matter as much as the bond they demonstrate in the story.
What I found very interesting (and a little bit shocking) was that Shi Guang was allowed to leave school to enter the Go Academy (and it made me think back to Im Siwan’s character in Misaeng, who was on a similar path), rather than get a diploma. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket! This is such a high burden proposition, especially as Shi Guang moves from taking direction on where to place the stones to taking responsibility for his games himself (though still being mentored by Chu Ying outside of official games). The professional and emotional risks are high as this is now his chosen career and he still is trying to help Chu Ying find his special Go move (and, one could say, find meaning to his life and move on in the afterlife). The miracles of online Go play have a special role in this drama (though a huge part of me snickered to think that online games and connectivity — especially connectivity! — could have been anything like that reliable back in the mid-part of the first decade of this century… right?)
In addition to the successful casting of the characters and the generally thoughtful adaptation of the story, the look and feel of the drama is also of a high quality. It’s fair to say that some of the best looking contemporary pieces in Chinese dramas this year have aired on iQIYI, which is why I’ll be keeping this streaming service next year too. There are a few scenes in the last few episodes leading up to the series’ dramatic final scenes in the two story arcs (Shi Guang and Yu Liang’s relationship as rivals and Chu Ying’s mission) that drag a little, but I don’t begrudge the series these brief lapses when we get touching characters like the loyal Hong He making his own life choices. The rewards are many in Hikaru No Go, and it’s one of my favorites in 2020.