U-NEXT Pirates Make M-League History with Second Championship Featuring an Exclusive Interview with Star Player Akina Mizuhara | FRIDAY DIGITAL

U-NEXT Pirates Make M-League History with Second Championship Featuring an Exclusive Interview with Star Player Akina Mizuhara

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Akina Mizuhara, a player for the U-NEXT Pirates, who achieved their first-ever second championship in the M-League. The salute is the team’s signature pose!

The M-League, established in July 2018 with the aim of professionalizing mahjong, has seen fierce battles unfold each year. It has become a popular content, leading to the emergence of “Miru-Jakku,” who enjoy watching matches and participating in events without playing themselves, similar to the “Miru-Shogi” boom among shogi fans.

We asked Akina Mizuhara (37), a popular M-League player and member of the U-NEXT Pirates (hereafter referred to as “Pirates”), who won their second championship in the 2023-24 season that concluded on May 17, achieving the first V2 in league history, for her thoughts on this season.

“This season, we were able to maintain a position where we could always aim for the championship. Especially in the last few days, I felt that the championship was getting closer day by day, but I kept telling myself not to celebrate yet, trying to control my feelings. The moment the championship was confirmed, I felt a sense of relief and overwhelming joy, thinking that I can now bring happiness to all the people who support our team.” said Mizuhara.

This season embodied the slogan “Win Overwhelmingly” that the team set two years ago. The Pirates, consisting of Go Kobayashi, Akina Mizuhara, Yu Suzuki, and Kei Nakabayashi, finished the regular season from last September to this March at the top with a significant lead over second place. They continued to lead in the semifinals in April and secured the championship in the final series.

It was a remarkable run, akin to pirates sailing the vast seas in search of treasure. When asked the reason for their success, Mizuhara explained, “During the season, I envisioned it not as points but as a continuous line.” What did she mean by that?

“This season, I especially felt a strong sense that when my teammates were playing, it was like my own match, and when I was playing, it was the team’s match. Each game is distinct, but it felt like an unbroken continuation of matches. When a teammate suffered a frustrating loss in a previous match, it felt like I had to get revenge, and everyone was fired up. I don’t know if that had an effect, but there were many times when if someone sank to fourth place, someone else would immediately take the top spot and recover. I think it was significant that we didn’t keep losing points consecutively.”

Mizuhara’s famous saying also drew attention. This occurred in June last year during the preliminary round of the “M Tournament 2023,” featuring M-League players and recommended participants from various professional organizations. After a resounding victory, Mizuhara answered the post-match interview with a smile, saying, “Today’s theme was ‘Gorilla Mahjong’,” leaving viewers puzzled about what Gorilla Mahjong meant. Since then, Gorilla Mahjong has become synonymous with Mizuhara among fans.

“The origin was a game stream I did on my YouTube channel. It was like an IQ test, but since I proceeded without fully understanding the rules, I got a result of IQ 80, like a gorilla. The explanation was that I wasn’t dumb, but my IQ was a bit lower than a human’s. That clicked with me. I’ve always thought that there are quite a few situations in mahjong where insensitivity is crucial. Overthinking things can sometimes cause hesitation. Winning often involves cutting through that with insensitivity. The image I have of this kind of insensitivity in mahjong is exactly like a gorilla (laughs).”

When asked by our reporter if she regretted not comparing herself to a cuter animal, Mizuhara smiled and continued, “But…”

“I’m not very good at being treated as cute.. I’m happier being called a gorilla (laughs). Although I’m not always playing ‘Gorilla Mahjong,’ I’m somewhat puzzled that I’m always called a gorilla. However, as a mahjong professional, I’m purely happy to have my play style named. Recently, I’ve heard that some people even shout ‘Gorilla Reach!’ in local mahjong parlors. I hope both viewers and players can enjoy the gorilla theme. During matches, there are moments when I think to myself, ‘This is a gorilla moment!’ and make my moves accordingly.”


Whether due to the success of Gorilla Mahjong or not, Mizuhara ranked third in points among all 36 M-League players during the regular season, contributing significantly to her team. In a seemingly synchronized effort, Suzuki finished in first place and won MVP, while Nakabayashi also contended for MVP, finishing fourth.

The Pirates may now seem unbeatable, but the journey to this point was far from smooth. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say they were once at rock bottom.

As mentioned earlier, they won their first championship in the 2019-20 season, but they unexpectedly failed in the regular season of the following 2020-21 season. They also missed advancing to the final series in the subsequent 2021-22 season, leading to a situation where the team had to replace members according to M-League regulations, resulting in founding members Koushin Asakura and Nobuhiro Ishibashi leaving the team. With Suzuki and Nakabayashi joining, they aimed for the 2022-23 season with a new structure but again failed to advance to the final series. This season, if they failed in the regular season, they would have to replace members again. They were truly on the brink.

“Two years ago, it was really like hell. Even though we passed the regular season at the top, we couldn’t remain among the top four teams and were eliminated in the semifinals. Many people said they loved the Pirates team with Kobayashi, Asakura, Ishibashi, and Mizuhara, so we ended up disappointing those people. That feeling weighed heavily on me like a sin. I felt that I had to deliver a championship result to the fans who were supporting us, even if it couldn’t heal the sadness from that time.

Last season, we ended up in fifth place, but I felt the inherent strength of the players. Over the years, we built team relationships with the new members, creating a united team. That’s why, before the start of this season, I was saying ‘we’re going to win’ in various places. I didn’t even consider the possibility of failing in the regular season; I only had my sights set on winning.”

The victory of the Pirates, carrying the emotions of their former members’ fans, would have deeply moved not only the fans but also others. After navigating through the long nights, what kind of journey will the off-season be for them?

“I promised my children that if we win, I’ll take them to a 2-day stay at Disney. So, I’m going to Disney with my family. We’ve already made reservations, but the costs are much higher than I imagined. (laughs). Apart from that, during the off-season, I intend to further elevate my mahjong skills and refine the challenges of this season once again.

This season, the Pirates shattered several M-League jinxes like ‘Teams producing MVPs cannot win’ and ‘Teams leading the regular season cannot win.’ The remaining jinx that ‘Defending champions cannot advance to the final series’ will also be broken by the Pirates. We’ll also break the jinx that ‘No team has won back-to-back championships.’ These are our goals for the next season.”

The noble female pirate has already set her sights on the next destination and seems to be charging forward vigorously towards it.

Mizuhara signing team merchandise.
  • Photo Takeshi Kinugawa Interview and text by Keitaro Haga

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