The shounen tournament plot formula has long been a bastion of homoerotic subtext in anime, churning out yaoi fan favorites at least since Tsubasa Ozora and his "teammates" (har har) went charging onto the field. (Note: I have never seen or read Captain Tsubasa, but only know of its massive importance to the incipience of yaoi slash.)
Saki takes the same basic tournament formula and applies it to mahjong, populates it with a primarily female cast, and ramps up the yuri subtext to the point of virtually indisputable text, in some cases. We have Saki, the ingenuous lead with inherently awesome skills in her field of competition, Nodoka, her highly competent early rival/primary (hinted) love interest who Saki winds up training with, and a veritable pentecontagon of intertwining friends and rivals, who may have something more than competition among them.
You can read my impressions of episode 1 to find out how Saki began, if you haven't seen it. Since then, I've found that it's improved. After Saki moves past her ridiculous (and yawn-inducing) plus-minus zero complex, she begins earnestly training with the rest of the Kiyosumi High School Mahjong Club for the upcoming prefectural championship- and hopefully, the nationals after that. Even though "training" partially means playing mahjong at upperclassman Mako's family's restaurant (which involves wearing maid uniforms -_-;;) and going on a training camp trip at a hot spring (e-yup -_-;;), Saki and Nodoka sharpen their playing skills under the guidance of their uber-competent club president Hisa. In episode 6 the Kiyosumi Mahjong Club arrives at the tournament, and that's when the show really ups its entertainment value for me. ^^ The mahjong battles throughout the show have always been melodramatic spectacles of DBZ-like displays of power (complete with dramatic angles, electric aura power-ups, and mahjong tiles shooting lightning) that put the theatrics of Death Note to shame.
See what I mean? ^^;
Anywho, once the tournament arc begins, we meet several of the other competing teams, complete with their own respective yuri dynamics and overwrought motivations for winning. We have:
Kazekoshi Girls' School- most of the players on this team seem to have a thing for their protective, touchy-feely captain Mihoko, whose Awesome Skills only fully manifest when she opens her perpetually closed right eye.
For a while I thought she had some kind of facial tic, but it turns out that she has heterochromia (eyes with different colors) and feels self-conscious to the point that she always keeps her blue eye shut. Somehow, by opening it she projects an intimidating "presence" on her opponents and augments her own abilities. She has taken a strong interest in Hisa (the nature of that interest can be left up to you, the audience) because Hisa once told her that her different colored eyes look pretty, like jewels. (Take responsibility, Hisa!)
Ryuumonbuchi High School- Although the strongest player on this team is the infamously unbeatable Koromo, who looks like a little girl with a rabbit-ear headband thing, the team is headed by Touka, a rich, very stereotypical ojousama. While her fellow team player/maid Hajime clearly has her sights set on Touka (and Touka's other maid, whatshername, does also) and Touka seems to, perhaps, reciprocate Hajime's feelings,
by the end of episode 13 her feverish obsession with beating Nodoka at mahjong (who she played and lost against online) takes a rather EPL (evil psychotic lesbian) turn.
Tsuruga Academy- Up through episode 13, Tsuruga was the least expanded upon (and thus, least interesting) team in the tournament. Episode 14 remedies that by focusing on Momoko, a player whose Awesome Skill is stealth playing- i.e. she can mask her presence, causing the other players not to notice her bids and fall right into her traps. (It's hard to explain exactly what this skill is, unless you actually see it. ^^;) The only person who she cares about seeing her is Yumi, the president of the Tsuruga Mahjong Club, who was the first person to notice her in a very cute, yuriful scene.
Although the two screencaps above make it look like a creepy scene. But trust me, they're cute together. :)
And aside from Saki and Nodoka from the Kiyosumi team, I want to see Hisa and Mako (who are more interesting, imo) as a couple. ^^
Much of Saki's likeability is due to her seiyuu, the fabulous Kana Ueda (who better to voice an ambiguously gay heroine?), while Nodoka's seiyuu is Ami Koshimzu (Kanako in Marimite and Paraietta in Simoun). Hisa is voiced by Shizuka Itou, a.k.a. Rei from Marimite. Yuuki, my least favorite character, is voiced by poor Rie Kugimiya (Touko in Marimite) and Mihoko is voiced by Yui Horie (Yasuna in Kashimashi and Kyouko in Aoi Hana). Additionally, Hajime's seiyuu is Ai Shimizu, who voiced Strawberry Panic's Tamao, El Cazador de la Bruja's Ellis, Mai Hime/Mai Otome's Mikoto, and Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito's Hatsumi.
The plot and execution aren't remarkable, and the characters have beyond ridiculous mahjong-playing skills, but the later contributes to the fun of watching this cast full of eccentric, but largely likeable characters competing against one another. I only have three real problems with this show: 1) The fan service. I didn't like it in episode 1, and it bothers me as much as it did then. 2) Yuuki. Make her go away. She contributes nothing, and it made me say "Wha...?" when she did better than one of the competent upperclassmen in the tournament. (Granted, it did make for an unexpected twist.) 3) Saki and Nodoka are likeable, but not very interesting separately or as a "couple." Together, they walk a fine line between looking genuinely cute and looking like pair of Precious Moments figurines.
Touka and Hajime may be dysfunctional, but at least they seem more self-aware. Not to be cynical, but...
Anyway, I began this series with a combination of boredom and sneering antipathy. It must be fairly good/decent for me to enjoy it as much as I do now. :)
Overall: B (B+ for episode 14.)