This is a world where humans and demons have lived together with an uneasy alliance. However, a sudden event causes the demons around the world to become violent and attack humans. Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, a plan to resurrect the demon lord Gyuumao is put into action.
To stop this, the gods send the great Buddhist monk Genjo Sanzo and three demons (in human form) to travel to the West to stop this menace. What similarities does this have with the legend? Will the party succeed? Where did all the animation budget go to?
Once in a while, you get this deep conviction that anime scriptwriters spend too much time in karaoke bars and too little time thinking up good storylines. In this case, the crew got really sloshed, went back home in a daze, and picked up a copy of "Journey to the West" for fun. In the cloud of cigarette smoke and flying mahjong tiles, someone read the synopsis briefly and got this *great* idea for an anime - a title that's loosely based on the legend but incorporating many popular culture elements in an attempt to pass on the spirit of the legend to the young generation. Great, isn't it?
What we end up with is a low-budget presentation that entertains, but mangles legend and religion beyond recognition. First of all, the characters are... "reinterpreted" from the original - Genjo Sanzo, the highest monk in Buddhist ritual is a blonde teenager, who smokes, gambles and pays for the booze with his Three Buddhas Gold Credit Card. The monkey-god (human, in this case) Son Goku is a bratty kid with the incredible appetite that each incarnation of Son Goku has had (look at Dragonball's Goku). The water spirit Sha Gojyo (Sha Gojou) is a womanizing, long-haired J-rocker lookalike, while the fire-breathing Cho Hakkai is replaced with a polite, well-mannered fellow (and the only *normal* personality here) who has a pet dragon that breathes fire *for* him.
The plot sends them around the land, battling demon horde after demon horde while killing them with cool poses and cheap animation. Many of the episodes fall prey to the "monster-of-the-day" syndrome and only later in the series does some plot development occur as well as some flashback scenes along the way. In fact, the story has two main arcs that involve, among other things, the entire cast of heaven (Buddha and all), super-powered deities and lots and lots of alcohol.
You have to remember ONE thing about this title : it's trying to act cool. *Boyband* cool - beautiful guys, "cool" battle poses, and corny action scenes, all in a vain attempt to impress you into singing "Larger Than Life" in front of a live studio audience. Unfortunately, (like certain Backstreet Boys songs) it falls flat on its rear with low-budget animation and art. Quality can vary from episode to episode - some battle scenes turn up the detail to impressive levels, then *immediately* after that scene they toss a couple of crudely-drawn sprites in your general direction, hoping that you would somehow recognize those characters as the being the same. And just like the story, the "action" is loosely based on the real thing - relying on a multitude of digital effects and film styles to play out the scenes, but still coming up with stationary characters in a chopping/slicing/shooting pose with some flashes/lines/smoke behind. I was almost convinced that if I stood up and yelled a sentai/magical girl transformation line, that light would engulf me and I would be bestowed with heroic superhuman powers.
Power Rangers aside, the issue of most concern for me is the interpretation of the legend. Being in Asia and all, I've watched plenty of series or movies about Journey to the West, but none have come this close to be downright insulting to the story as Saiyuki. The way that the party is portrayed is no different from carrying out a census of the local pub - smoking, gambling and drinking alcohol are not only portrayed as being a cool thing to do, but the *monk* Sanzo is probably the strongest advocate of all these - even setting up a mahjong table in a temple and teaching a young apprentice how to "slack off". Other "filler episode" events include a drinking competition and Buddha being an absolute jerk up in heaven. Oh, yes you *did* hear me correctly - Saiyuki pays no respect to Buddhism nor the image of monks as respected devotees of their religion.
Now this may not seem like much of a deal to non-Asian audiences who are not familiar with Chinese legend or Buddhism, and many people here in Asia do enjoy Saiyuki, but sometimes you have to stop and wonder whether the laughs are coming at someone/something's expense, and whether people might get insulted by it. Granted, the production staff probably just wanted to take a light stab at the legend and religion but unfortunately this has a possibility of offending a certain segment of the anime audience.
The soundtrack is heavy on the J-rock style, and also contains one of the most horrid Engrish songs I have ever heard as the ending theme (in contrast to the excellent intro). Followers of Engrish-bashing should put this one on a pedestal and dance around it. However, there are a couple of great songs along the way, including a powerful and melancholic duet by MIRAI and an ending ballad by Shimokawa Mikuni.
To be honest, I enjoyed Saiyuki. While the tone of the review might imply otherwise, I still found Saiyuki to be entertaining and fun for being corny (gee, I'm liking it for all the wrong reasons. I'm not a Buddhist, either). It would make an interesting story for people who haven't heard of Journey to the West, and many people will probably like it a lot more than me. Basically, if you can take the prods at religion and legend, then you could watch this.
Saiyuki tries to be cool, but doesn't realize it's standing in 100-degree Arizona weather. It's slightly above average, albeit a little controversial. Subtract 2 stars if you think that it's going to insult you, or add a star if you think it won't. — Enoch Lau
Recommended Audience: There are obvious issues with smoking, gambling and alcohol. It portrays them as cool activities, and would probably send the Surgeon-General into seizures. There's also lots of blood, killing, and a totally wrong portrayal of Buddhism and its deities. Probably only suited to a mature audience.
Version(s) Viewed: Broadcast (AXN-Asia), Japanese language with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (50/50)
Saiyuki © 2000 Minekura Kazuya / Enix / Saiyuki Project / TV Tokyo
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