Geneon // 2004 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // May 25th, 2006
The epic journey westward by Sanzo, Goku, Gojyo, and Hakkai continues!
Gunlock, the third iteration of the Saiyuki franchise following the sequel series Saiyuki Reload, presents the further adventures of an unlikely adventuring party: no-nonsense monk Sanzo, protector of a rare and sought-after scripture; arrogant and aloof Gyojo; polite and sensible Hakkai; and miniature glutton Goku. They're roaming the countryside, heading inexorably toward...something.
That something remains vague. As does the fact that the Sanzo party, as they're called, are all partially demons. Saiykui Reload Gunlock is by no means friendly to new or casual viewers (or, ahem, reviewers given an assignment they're unfamiliar with). The assumption is made that, this far into the series, anyone going along for the ride knows these characters and their histories.
This premiere volume features the first four episodes of the series:
* "Temple of Demons"
The Sanzo party receives a cold welcome in a town where many of the villagers have mysteriously disappeared. The remaining locals draw comfort from a prominent town temple offering sanctuary, but not everything's as it appears.
* "Nightmare Unleashed"
The Sanzo party's old foe Kougaiji, reprogrammed into becoming an unstoppable killing machine, stalks the countryside looking for his old enemies. Meanwhile, the Sanzo party has a problem. A bear problem.
* "Raging Torrent"
Attempting to cross a river infested with demons, the Sanzo party finds itself taking on more than it can handle, especially when they're taken unawares by allies of Kougaiji.
The Sanzo party must face off against an enemy who can control their very perceptions of reality. Meanwhile, Goku, alone, must defend a lone village from a band of invading demons.
That so much exposition remains unstated, making for some confusing viewing at points, remains beside the point, and beside the problem. Whether or not the specifics of the party's past exploits or even their destination is explained, there's still much of Gunlock that fails to measure up. It is, conceptually, generic: the group of rogues wandering the countryside righting wrongs is as hoary a back story as any in anime and, indeed, any sort of serial (work in Vietnam and George Peppard, and it could just as easily be The A-Team). It's not too promising a base, but with the actual potential squandered away, it makes the whole enterprise even more of a waste. Thrusting these characters into the position of hunting demons -- monsters hunting monsters -- is by no means new, but nonetheless rife with storytelling potential. This angle, however, is never properly exploited outside of "Temple of Demons," possibly the best of the episodes included here. Instead of exploiting that premise for atmosphere or its rich narrative potential, it is instead more of an afterthought, with the demons being mostly pointy-eared people with off-white skin tones (alternate demonic "forms" are often hinted at but rarely seen). The spooky prospects of the premise and the duality of the Sanzo party is hardly more than dressing, asides from the quirky plotting (including an encounter with angry bears that wouldn't be out of place in a Warner Bros. cartoon). For a series with such heavy subtext, everything is kept consistently low key and bubblegum-bright; even mortal peril fails to inspire any sort of urgency for the characters, who return to comic bickering almost instantly.
The character dynamic is, really, one of the few highlights of the series. If the creators insist on ignoring the darker potential of their premise, at least they seem to know how to keep their characters on each other's nerves and watching each other's backs. In true anime fashion, their powers and histories are ill-defined, at least as established here, but the characters remain consistent to themselves and each other. It seems that a big part of the appeal of their wandering is in watching how they react to events around them. The plot unspools leisurely, with the Kougaiji subplot kicking in in the second episode and remaining unresolved even through episode four, and one gets the impression that this hardly matters as long as the Sanzo party is in one form of peril or another and trash-talking each other and their enemies while they do it.
Whatever the deficiencies of the plot execution, it is a frequently beautiful production (Sanzo's descent into a demonic womb is particularly vivid). Generally, I find the limited animation and repetitive design elements of anime to be unappealing, and even factoring in the weirdly androgynous character designs of the Sanzo party, the series is very often nice to look at, full of lush landscapes and distinctively surreal worlds that add up to an adequately rich-looking world for them to explore.
In short, despite some impressive designs and the redeeming, occasionally charming qualities of the characters, Saiykui Reload Gunlock looks unlikely to win any converts. This is strictly for those already enamored with the series or anime fans looking for a somewhat safe diversion. These four episodes may or may not be representative of the series as a whole, but there's not much here to urge a viewer to pick up future volumes.
The extra features included, two alternate opening title sequences and a handful of trailers for other Geneon releases, are negligible and not really worth viewing. Sound is fine, and the full frame picture quality is just as good, with nice colors and no discernable flaws. Both the English subtitles and the dubbing are reasonably well done, although certain plot points and dialogue cues tend to vary in clarity from one to the other.
Review content copyright © 2006 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Textless Opening Version 1
* Original Opening Version 1