Review: Saiyuki Reload (2003)

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Cast: , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

This is perhaps the second last time you’ll hear me harp on this subject, and actually, I’m sort of wondering what more I’ll be able to say about Saiyuki. With this new series – Reload – the Journey to the Max boys are back, mixing it up with a couple of story arcs from the manga (both Gensoumaden and the new, still on-going manga series, Reload) and a few anime-only episodes as per the standard manga-to-anime formula. The quality in some ways has improved and in some ways hasn’t, but all round it’s still an imminently watchable show, both because of and despite the changes.

One of these first, most obvious changes might have something to do with the fact that finally someone at Studio Pierrot realised that it was no bad thing to be a little more like the manga. Action is more adult in this new series; not only do youkai not dissolve cleanly into a billion particles and disappear, but there’s actually blood. Finally, finally, Saiyuki is getting a little more serious.

And not just due to a splash or two of the red stuff either. Some of the content across the 25 episodes is also psychologically darker, and much more true to the original material. For example, on the first volume, in episode 4, A Final Promise (although it’s an anime-original episode and not derived from the manga), Sanzo’s particular brand of personal Buddhism delivers the sort of mercy on the suffering that would have been hard to imagine in the original series. It’s a solution both simple and complex that possible wouldn’t have made it to the original prime time TV slot Gensoumaden enjoyed when it first aired in Japan. Coming fresh from that series, it does in fact border on shocking, but that – and this is what any Saiyuki manga fan will fervently tell you if you ask – is what Sanzo does. He doesn’t just spout the No Attachment catchphrase of Buddhist ideology; he lives it.

The next and most apparent change is the production – the boys have been almost completely redrawn – and in fact if you care enough to compare between the original series and this one, they look almost nothing alike. This change has as much to do with the fact that the original creator’s illustration style matured in the two years between manga series as much as it has to do with changes in animation technology. Or maybe that should read; animation costs. Not all of the changes are an improvement. Yes, the characters look more like they do in the manga, but the studio’s budget doesn’t always seem to be in the black, and the characters swing between looking pretty good and looking pretty damn bad, depending on the episode. Frighteningly enough though, not even the worst moments in animation in this series in any way compare to the majority of moments in the following series, Saiyuki Gunlock, which sets new, laughable lows for bad animation, but that’s probably a comment for another review.

Audio too has changed, or at least the voice actors have. The Japanese voices remain the same (with such a stellar cast, it would have been ratings suicide to change them), but the English dub did not have the same luxury. Gensoumaden was licensed by ADV, but Geneon picked up the rights to Reload and Gunlock, and so used different voice actors. They’re pretty good, and a close match to the ADV voices without sacrificing any of their own creative input, but it will probably be a matter of personal preference in the end. I didn’t much like Braden Hunts’ Hakkai – I thought he didn’t sound warm enough – but I similarly don’t much like Lex Lang’s Sanzo, who’s sounds just a little too much like a super-hero for my liking.

Still the constant through all this change, what keeps this show together and rolling along, is the manga creator’s well realised characters and comic script, and some of the best, most engaging parts of this anime are taken directly from the manga storylines. Not only that, but the creator herself had a hand in scripting some of the brilliantly cracked out and funny 10 second ‘Urasai’ or ‘Outside Saiyuki’ segments that appear after the closing credits, which are seriously not to be skipped.

It’s funny that a show that is basically about four guys going west in a jeep, who never actually seem to get to the end of the road, should change so much between one series and the next, and yet not change at all. But Saiyuki Reload is still a roadtrip with an edge, still an easy combination of serious and sassy, and it might look a little different, but it’s still the coolest journey you can take with four guys and a jeep.

Sorry. One guy, four demons, and a dragon.

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