As seems to be inevitable, Kazuya Minekura’s popular manga series Saiyuki was adapated to an anime TV series. What is perhaps less usual is that the series ran for two seasons and was followed by two more TV series. After viewing the first two seasons, I can see that there is ample reason for that.
I outlined the basic set-up of the story in my review of the manga, but be advised that the video departs quite sharply from that, particularly in season two with the introduction of a new story line revolving around War Prince Homura’s plan to create a new Heaven and Earth, for which he needs the Maten Scripture, which is in Sanzo’s care. He and his henchmen manage to take it from Sanzo and his friends — after all, they are gods and Sanzo is merely a very powerful human, his friends merely very powerful demons. It also happens that a key element of Homura’s plan is Goku, but Goku needs to develop a bit more. And Kougaiji is also involved — Homura has also stolen the Seiten Scripture, which is essential to resurrect Kougaiji’s father. (I should point out that Minekura served as a consultant in the creation of the TV series, so this is not a matter of someone else taking off with her creation.)
I make no bones about the fact that I like to be entertained — doesn’t everyone? — but I prefer my entertainment to have some meat to it, and Saiyuki delivers, on a number of levels. The most fundamental is the development of character as reflected in the change in attitudes among Sanzo, Goku, Gojyo and Hakkai about why they do what they do, beginning with Goku’s comment to Kougaiji at their first encounter that he fights for himself. This is an attitude common to the four, and it’s only through a slow process of growth that Hakkai is able to say toward the end of season two that there are people important to him, people he wants to protect, and that gives him his edge. (And one gets the strong feeling that this is what the goddess Kanzeon Bosatsu, called the Merciful Goddess in the anime, has been waiting for.) It’s also distinctly at odds with Sanzo’s early dictum that we must have no attachments — “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”
The way this is developed is nowhere near so blatant as I have outlined it here. It’s a process of bit added to bit, backstory providing insights that inform our understanding of where the characters are (and not only the four main characters — we get those insights with Homura and his henchmen Shien and Zenon as well, and to a certain extent with Kougaiji and Dokugakuji).
The cast is fully up to the task. Toshiyuki Morikawa as Homura deserves special mention I think — it’s a compelling performance, all the more so since I don’t understand Japanese: he manages to put in all the emotional color and depth in a way that transcends the language barrier. Toshihiko Seki as Sanzo is equally strong, although it’s a fairly low-key, subtle performance (especially compared to his bravura offering in Mirage of Blaze). And the rest of the cast is of like caliber — any missteps are so few and so minor that they don’t really register. (I have seen major portions in a dubbed version; it’s appalling.)
One thing that struck me again and again as I watched is the visual sophistication of the series. It’s a few steps beyond the normal facility with design and comfort with abstract elements one finds in so much manga — the design and the abstraction become essential parts of the visual narrative, providing a formal continuity that pulls in even those episodes that otherwise might be read as mere filler. It’s a stunning piece of work.
A note about the music: as is so often the case, one merely endures the title songs (although the opening title is more apt than many), but the incidental accompaniment is right on target, and fairly lean for all that. Key passages are piano solo, or piano and drums, and tremendously effective.
If I had to choose, I’d say that the second season is the stronger, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there was groundwork being laid in season one that I missed because I wasn’t looking for it. An excuse to watch it again, I think, as if I needed one.
(ADV Films, 2006) The set contains no extras, but frankly, they’d be superfluous.