This is a completely biased review. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Everyone’s got their little secrets, their weaknesses, right? Well, mine’s Saiyuki.
Sometimes known as Gensoumaden Saiyuki, the anime is based on a manga series by Kazuya Minekura that started serialisation around 1996 (and is now published in the US by Tokyopop). It was inspired by the famous Chinese story Journey to the West, better known to Western audiences as Monkey, and it’s everything a boy’s action story is supposed to be. In it, four guys are travelling West to get back a stolen scripture, kicking the ass of anything and everything that gets in their way. They smoke, they drink, they curse, they play Mahjong. Which one’s the priest? Oh, he’d be the one brandishing a Smith & Wesson, popping a vein and promising death to the next of his companions who so much as even breathes. What? Yeah, that’s how the original Monkey went. Wasn’t it?
Alright, no, no it isn’t. In this Journey, the author puts such a modern twist on it, it’s almost bent. Not only is everything more or less modernised (the dragon that turns into a horse is now a dragon that turns into a jeep, and I suspect it has a cooler somewhere on board because beers keep appearing and I know they aren’t drinking those things hot) but the characters are almost unrecognisable. Bad attitude abounds, and brutal and bloody pasts dog their steps. These boys are not socially well adjusted people. Really. A psychologist might have a field day, but they’d probably just refer them to the textbook for expediency’s sake. It’s debatable whether they just all don’t have a repressed deathwish, but what is inarguable is that they have a purpose — to stop the resurrection of the feared demon king, retrieve the stolen scriptures and return the land to the peaceful harmony of co-existence between humans and demons it once knew. Some of them are demons themselves, after a fashion, and being the only ones still able to retain their ‘humanity’ in the face of the mysterious Minus Wave sending all other demons insane, they form sometimes grudging, complicated bonds with each other in order to achieve that end.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they always have to like it.
It’s this combination of kick-ass cool and complex introspection and interaction that gives Saiyuki its guilty-secret status, because really, straight up, it looks a bit naff. I mean, dying demons explode into particles of nothingness for cryin’ out loud! When the manga is spraying blood and demon bits in all directions, it’s a bit of a disappointing change, prime-time tv slots not withstanding. And much of the action animation is low-budget swipes and stock frames as well, used often enough that certain scenes start to gain that Sailor Moon Transformation Scene repetitiveness. Considering the slick values we’re used to seeing these days, such things seems laughingly outdated, but Studio Pierrot was one of the first studios to experiment with CG to make an anime series and they came up with some striking, almost graphic solutions. Instead of trying to ignore the material they were borrowing from, they made a feature of it, and often whole scenes are large, flat, chiaroscuro colours dissected by panels describing opposing action much like a comic book. Camera angles take on a surreal, 1920’s propaganda art feel, and many effects seem to be applied not for the way they look, but the way they reflect the characters’ inner landscapes. Using these sorts of dramatic stylisations means that a lot of the cheaper production techniques can almost be forgiven.
And ADV have done a nice job in transitioning this radical, retro series into English acceptability. I don’t usually comment on dubs these days, since there’s increasingly less to bitch about (which is a good thing!), but Saiyuki being close to my heart, I was almost terrified of what was going to happen to it. It’s well known in the fandom that Saiyuki sports a lot of colloquialism, so much so that translation is apparently an exercise in frustration for the non-Japanese, but ADV have done an outstanding job in retaining the street-level punk of the original dialogue, and despite the fact that there are some remarkable differences between the dub and the sub (watch them together and you’ll see what I mean) they’ve made it highly accessible to the uninitiated. As well, the English voice actors for the most part, rather than imitating the original voices, have brought their own interpretations to the table without losing the nuances of personality inherent in the original voices. It almost feels like a betrayal to say it, but Saiyuki in English is entirely watchable.
Of course, it’s testimony to the manga’s narrative that neither slightly dodgy 90’s computer effects nor any amount of Americanisation has made this show any less enjoyable where it’s meant to be enjoyable, nor any less surprising where surprise is intended. And with the recent acquisition by Geneon of the later, higher-budget continuations, Saiyuki Reload and Saiyuki Gunlock, the Journey to the West is only going to keep getting better.