Review: Saiyuki Requiem (2001)

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Today’s lesson: the pros and cons of the Original Animated Video, otherwise known as the OAV (or OVA – Original Video Animation – depending on your viewpoint), as exemplified by the Saiyuki movie, Requiem.

Originally, OAV was a term coined to describe the movie-length spin-offs that spawned from existing TV series. These days, they could be almost considered a rite of passage – you’re not a real series unless you’ve done a such-and-such-The-Movie. Well, maybe not, but from Cowboy Bebop to Inuyasha to Yu-gi-oh to Fullmetal Alchemist, you’ll find at least one, if not more, full-length feature in their closets.

So, the pros. If you’ve seen it (or read the other review) you’ll be aware that Saiyuki was not exactly a big budget series. Most anime can’t afford to be, and that’s to be expected. But when a series becomes popular enough, the studio will consider producing an OAV for several reasons, one of which of course is that they are given a bit more money to spend.

What that means to us, the viewer, is that the production values go up, the animation quality is smoother and more sophisticated, and the whole thing just looks better. In the opening scene of Requiem, the establishing shot of a stream, some vegetation, some wildlife etcetera, seems to have been designed not to locate our heroes in any specific place and time so much as it is making it clear there is more money in this first five minutes than in a single episode. It’s completely superfluous, but also a declaration of what to expect. Colours are richer (Gojyo’s hair is red. RED), action is smoother, and details are deeper. In contrast to the series, it’s a lush, sensory bombardment, a comparatively feverish vision of how things could be every week, if only Studio Pierrot had that kind of money.

Something else that the OAV makes possible, not just in terms of looks and the budget required to achieve them, is also the sophistication of content. Concepts are (usually) a little more mature, the drama a little more adult, and the means through which these things are visualised a little more graphic. It seems a contradiction when the original series seemed more suited to a younger audience, but the emotional complexities of Gojyo’s half-breed heritage, of Hakkai’s guilt, of Goku’s fear of abandonment or Sanzo’s bloody-minded determination that are only touched on in Gensoumaden are brought to the forefront in Requiem. Certainly, there’s the regular amount of action, jeep chases, demon fights, but it’s what’s going on inside these characters and the reluctant bond between them that has always been the drawcard for this series, and the OAV makes it possible to explore their inner landscapes through a slightly darker glass.

Of course, OAVs have a downside or two as well. Most notably in Requiem, the character design is different. Different animators, different production staff. If you’re used to the character designs of Gensoumaden, it can take a little while to accept to the change. And if you’re attached to them, well. Suffice it to say, if the character designs of a series like Prince of Tennis or Naruto changed as much, the world would have trembled with the wail of outraged fans.

The other most obvious issue is overall continuity, and how much the out-of-the-box narrative adds to or detracts from the common knowledge plot. Making sure both the story and the characterisation in the movie do nothing to contradict the main elements existing fans are expecting can’t be as easy as it looks, but conversely the OAV can’t be so reliant on the series that it becomes obscure to potential fans. Luckily, Requiem toes those lines fairly well; the main action is lucid enough to follow without needing a fan’s detailed familiarity. Though it might be fair to argue that in the end, if it weren’t for the desire to see something one already knows so well in a bigger, shiner, more serious form, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

8 Fan-service shower scenes out of 10.
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