My review of Saiyuki

Around this time last year, I’d been trying to jam my head full of a bunch of anime that I haven’t seen yet. In early september, I made my first ever anime suggestions thread, asking the AMC community to give me a few suggestions. This could be considered a bad idea, because it lead to me watching Black Butler, but I digress.

One of my long time friends from the Friends Chat forum, who I believe I may have been married to at one point, began insisting that I watch a personal favorite of hers, a long-running anime called Saiyuki. I relented, and she sent me the link for a three episode OVA called Saiyuki Burial. And to put it as nicely as possible, I didn’t enjoy it. Of course, since it was a prequel, which is the kind of thing you should NEVER watch first, I decided to dive headfirst into the real thing. I had a week left until my next few shows were set to arrive in the mail, so I decided to spend that week watching the original series of Saiyuki.

Onto the review!

Saiyuki takes place in an alternate version of feudal Japan, where human civilization is struggling to survive in a land plagued by demons and gods, neither of which think too highly of them. A certain faction of demons has made plans to resurrect… Something… I don’t know, some kind of mega-demon… and a disgruntled, cynical priest named Genjyo Sanzo has been sent on a journey west in order to stop them. Somehow. I know it’s explained in there somewhere, but god help me if I ever needed to remember it.

If I were to describe the plot of this anime to a friend, I’d tell him it was about four bad-ass anti-hero characters travelling across the desert and doing bad-ass things. Because that’s really what it is that you get with this anime. The intended plot, if you must know, is an adaptation of a Chinese Folk tale called Journey to the West. There’s some back story about collecting scrolls and saving the world, but it’s rarely ever referenced in the story. It’s nothing more than a MacGuffin, and it only serves three purposes;

1: Explain why the characters are travelling
2: Create friction between the characters
3: Prevent them from lingering in one place for too long, and thus from dwelling on any one story for too long.

The only thing you need to know, or even absorb about this plot is that there are four bad-ass characters travelling west and doing bad-ass things.

Since I’m already on a negative note, I may as well get my comments about the animation quality out of the way. The budget for this anime was extremely small, and the people behind it weren’t nearly as good as the creators of Berserk at trying to cover up this issue. Still frames will drag on way too long, with only the characters lips moving. The ones that aren’t talking will just stand there as still as cardboard cut-outs, not even blinking. The same can be said for the backgrounds. Clouds and trees rarely move, either. But since the artwork in this anime is actually kind of impressive, you probably won’t mind so much.

It’s noticeable, but the only time it really hurts the series is during the fight scenes. The fight scenes are, for the most part, pathetic. Most low budget anime make the effort to set aside a decent amount of money to make their fights look impressive… Naruto did it, Berserk did it, and so did Saiyuki… In the second season, at least. But for the first 26 episodes or so, the fight scenes are just painful to watch, especially one of the early fights against some giant bug-like thing.

The music is decent, but forgettable. Which is good, because they use the same tracks over and over again, and you’re really better off trying not to notice. But while we’re on the subjects of music and animation, the openings are actually really good. I fell in love with the second season opening the first time I watched it, and for 24 straight episodes, I never once skipped past it.

I’ve already mentioned that this series doesn’t really care about it’s own plot, but I can’t really call that a negative, as the show’s episodic nature is by far one of it’s best qualities. Much like Cowboy Bebop, this story is told almost exclusively through standalone 1-3 part episodes that really don’t have anything to do with each other outside of some subtle character development. These vignettes are well structured and brilliantly paced, and god help me, each one seems to get better than the last one. None of them ever feel like filler, and none of the stock characters ever feel like stock characters. Characters that only get five minutes of screen time still shine with lives of their own, rather than fade into the background as writers’ conveniences.

One of the stronger aspects of this anime IS its cast of characters. The main character, Genjyo Sanzo, who I’ve already touched on in the plot description, is the leader of the group, and… If we’re being honest, here… He’s one of the rare male Tsundere characters. He goes to great lengths to pretend, and even try to convince himself, that he hates his three companions, but more often than not proves otherwise. Goku is the cheerful, energetic monkey-like boy who’s adopted the other three characters as a surrogate family, and is constantly complaining about his appetite. Gojyo is a half-human-half-demon who loves the more risqué aspects of life, such as alcohol, sex and gambling. Hakkai is the cool and collected character who keeps the other three grounded.

Kougaji is the determined, prideful antagonist who will go to any lengths to get his mother back. Homura is a former God who wants to erase creation to get back at the Gods for taking the life of his beloved. Dokukakuji is Gojyo’s older brother, Lirin is what Goku would be like if he had boobs, and Yaone stays quietly out of our memories like a good girl. These characters, on their own, don’t seem like much. There’s minimal character development. They have their concerns, their goals, and their somewhat well-explored back-stories, but it’s together that they make this anime as entertaining as it damn well should be. The writing and the dialogue between them is witty, natural, and never feels repetitIve or forced. Even the running gags manage to stay fresh, although I didn’t particularly care for the way the first season villains were used in the second season.

I haven’t watched this anime in Japanese, so I can’t say how good it was in it’s native language, but I can still say with complete confidence that the english dub was phenomenal. It was an early effort by ADV Films, which just so happens to be my favorite dubbing company of all time. And Saiyuki is a perfect example of why I love it so much. Every single role is perfectly casted, and performed just as well. It’s rare to find an anime who’s english voices make it’s characters sound deeper and more complex than they actually are. Even amongst this unbelievable cast, there are still a few stand-out performances, namely from David Matranga, Vic Mignogna, Greg Ayres and Jason Douglas.

Now, I’m going to interrupt this review to give you all a brief history lesson about the ADV Films dubbing company. It’s a Texas based company that started out in the late nineties, making dubs of anime properties that nobody else really wanted. They took on highbrow projects, like Evangelion and Kino’s Journey, lowbrow projects, like Steel Angel Kurumi and Elfen Lied, and even some insane titles like Excel Saga and Azumanga Daioh. They had a lot of talented voice actors who worked exclusively for them, so when the company went under in 2006, these actors went largely without work.

They were finally able to pull themselves out of the ashes in 2008, thanks to a licensing deal with Sentai Filmworks, but the magic has faded. Their dub releases since then have ranged from ‘mediocre’ (example, Clannad) to ‘awful’ (example, Highschool of the Dead) to ‘didn’t even bother dubbing it’ (example, Maria-Holic). The swill they produce now isn’t even remotely as good what they were able to produce in their glory days, which is why watching a dub like Saiyuki is like looking through a time capsule for me. It’s a happy piece of nostalgia, showing me everything that was wonderful about an era long gone with time.

Overall, Saiyuki may appear bland and unimpressive to the discerning eyes of seasoned anime viewers, but if you can get past it’s technical limitations and throwaway plot, you’ll have an enjoyable story with some loveable characters. Yes, there’s little to no plot payoff… From what I hear, there isn’t any in the other incarnations, either… But just from the individual story arcs, there are plenty of jaw-drop moments, lots of great dialogue, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat quite a few times by the end. This particular journey may never reach it’s destination, but you won’t regret going along for the ride.

I give Saiyuki a 7/10.

  1. Rest in peace ADV. Back when I started collecting anime virtually all the stuff I owned was from them. I didn’t pick up Saiyuki because it didn’t seem like my cup of tea. In those days ADV Films would break up shows into many volumes containing 3 to 4 episodes so I was wary about investing into multiple season stuff.

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