Theoretically this show's charming, nice and funny. It's very well written. It's peaceful and civilised. It's set in the world of professional shogi players, aka. Japanese chess. (This is closely related to Western chess, but the things that are different will blow your mind and at first it'll be hard work just telling apart the pieces. They're all the same shape and the same colour. A shogi knight, for instance, is a flat tombstone-shaped piece of wood with "knight" written on it in Japanese.)
Everything about it is very good, but I wouldn't call it a jolly series. The problem is our hero, Rei. He has issues. He's almost incapable of making friends, or of asserting himself. Everyone in his family got killed in a road accident, after which he got taken in by another family... but now he wants to be apart from them too. (He thinks he broke up that family and he's not entirely wrong, although it wasn't his fault.) He lives on his own, in a completely bare apartment. It has a bed on the floor and that's it. He might as well be living in a cardboard box. Theoretically he supports himself on his earnings as a shogi professional, but he's not very good at looking after himself. Sometimes he might get depressed and forget to eat, or else just fall ill. The result of all this is a show you're unlikely to binge-watch. How much Rei can you take? How far could you walk in his shoes? It took me a while to get through this season and I'm still not sure whether or not I'll watch Season 2. It's good. Lots of the supporting cast are funny, lovely and/or highly entertaining. I'm definitely interested in knowing what happens. However I could imagine giving a miss to the season as a whole and instead just watching occasional episodes to keep track of things.
Hmmm. That said, though, he's definitely on an upward slope. He's in a better place in ep.22 than he was in ep.1. I'm tempted. I've already got this far in the series, so why not?
Rei's got problems, obviously, but he's also got good people around him. (Also Kyoko. Plus some nutcases.) These include:
(a) the three Kawamoto sisters, who took in Rei much as you'd adopt a stray cat. (They take in cats too.) They love dragging him to their house, shoving food inside him and forcing him to relax and enjoy himself. Imagine a scatty, lovable whirlwind. Always loud, always energetic. The youngest (Momo) is only four years old, so I suppose that goes without saying.
(b) Kyoko, Rei's foster sister. She needs help. That's not what you'd call a healthy personality.
(c) Nikaidou, Rei's self-styled rival. He's the kind of person who's actually really nice, but you might not realise for years because he's also loud, overbearing and with no concept of an indoor voice.
(d) Hayashida, Rei's school teacher. (Rei's trying to keep up both his studies and his shogi career, even though school seems to make him miserable and he's having to skip so many days that he might end up having to repeat the year.) Hayashida is a keen amateur shogi player and a fan of Rei's, frequently trying to shove him into a healthier self-image and more pride in himself.
(e) other shogi professionals. Some of them are comedy whack jobs who take shogi so seriously that they could start a hot-blooded argument with a mirror. One of them's scary. (As in "his wife's in hospital and you're wondering if it's because he hit her".) Some of them are delicate, sickly walking dead who look thirty years older than they are, but are also among the kindest people you could hope to meet.
The storyline is understated and slightly painful. Rei treads his reluctant path. Does he even like shogi? The early episodes show us someone who appears to be unable to see any alternative to something he took up for the wrong reasons. We watch him trudge joylessly from game to game, like a human shadow. He sees himself as a cuckoo. He wins lots of shogi matches... but he's also perfectly capable of getting his arse handed to him. Maybe he underestimated his opponent, or maybe he'd been simply eating himself up inside.
Thinking about those early episodes, though, I've realised that the later ones are far more upbeat and entertaining than that. Don't expect to warm to Rei for a while. He's built a wall around himself and it's not much fun being trapped in there with him. Over time, though, he definitely grows as a person. He makes more friends and accepts that it's okay for them to be there, instead of trying to push them away. His life improves. He joins workshops and interacts with the other members. On reflection, I think I'll keep going with this.