If you come into this series late, you too may be wondering, "What's with the creepy scientist dude and his stuffed bunny rabbit?" You'll get no answer in Volume 10, or from Judge Sandra Dozier, but thanks for playing.
Heaven can be Hell.
Saiyuki is a long-running adventure series that sort of resembles a very pretty, stylistic Dragonball Z. The story is familiar and accessible: We follow four travelers as they head West to confront a powerful evil. Our group of heroes is quite the bunch: an ill-tempered priest, a lecherous water sprite, a gluttonous monkey god, and a pacifist dragon slayer. To say things get interesting is to say fire is hot.
Back story: Genjo Sanzo is a priest in Shangri-La (paradise). When a negative energy wave, the result of forbidden magic being used to resurrect a demon named Gyumaoh, sweeps the land and turns all nonhumans into mindless monsters that devour anyone in their path, he is commanded to go West, vanquish the ones responsible, and restore sanity to the land, allowing humans and yokai (supernatural beings) to once again live in peace with each other. He is instructed to take three part-human yokai with him who can withstand the negative wave of energy and aid him in his quest.
Depending on your point of view, I'm either the best person or the worst person to be reviewing Saiyuki. I tend to favor anime that is what most people consider a little "fluffy" in content but has much heart at its core. I also enjoy ultraviolent anime with hard-boiled characters who have no fear or mercy. It's the in-between stuff I can't quite grok.
I've been very patient with Saiyuki. Not only is it highly rated in most circles, but I came into the series late, and I think it's only fair to give a series more of a chance to impress me than just one volume when it's in the middle of things. This is my third volume, so I feel confident in saying that, ultimately, this series falls flat with me. Its "too cool for school" attitude is applied too liberally, and it goes for flash over substance. Although the animation is glossy and gorgeous, and the fight scenes are cutting-edge, I'm not really connecting with the main characters the way I had hoped to. Hakkai and Homura stand out for me, but that's about it. I don't like Sanzo much (again, probably the worst offender in the "too cool for school" attitude), and Goku and Gojyo just aren't given enough depth.
Compare this series to something like Cowboy Bebop (which it would very much like to be). Cowboy Bebop is a series that you could come into at pretty much any point and be almost instantly enthralled. The characters have a depth and gritty realism to them that really comes across, and despite some of the more fantastic elements of the story, it is grounded enough to relate to as an adventure and a swashbuckling good time. Saiyuki just doesn't make it happen.
Finally, the almost suffocating prevalence of bishounen characters (stunningly beautiful males who are almost feminine in their look) is the final straw. I really tried to look past this, but it's almost impossible. Of course, this is a huge draw for fans of this anime genre, and I say more power to you, since Saiyuki basically has a good story behind it. To me, however, the story feels like a dirty, gritty quest, and since the characters are so beautiful, it never quite makes the connection I'm looking for, and their beauty only adds to the unreality.
Despite this disclaimer, I am still going to rate Saiyuki fairly high, because I believe that for the bishounen anime genre this is one of the better series and really deserves a look if this is within your realm of interest. That said, I wasn't as happy with the episodes in this particular volume as in previous volumes. The group is caught in a downpour, and Sanzo won't come out of his room or eat. Goku tries to bring him some medicine and food, but he nastily orders Goku to get out and leave him alone. Goku flees and is caught by Homura, who is still trying to coax out his greater power and release him from his controlling accessories. This launches an extensive flashback arc that tells the story of Goku in Paradise and the past life counterparts of his traveling buddies, and this is a good thing. However, the episodes seem all the more plodding and heavy due to Sanzo's incessant puling, and that's bad. No one member of their party has the status or stones to put this guy in check, and the viewer is left wondering when Sanzo is going to get over it already. Aside from the flashbacks, which are excellent, nothing much else happens.
Video transfer for this volume is, as usual, beautiful, with a crisp print that shows off the lovely, glossy animation and subtle color variants (in scenes with trees, one can see different-colored greens just a shade or two apart with clear outlines and no bleed). Sound quality is similarly excellent, with a lively surround track, particularly in the 5.1 English dub. Extras for this volume are plentiful and appropriate: an especially helpful fold-out poster with a tree of characters and their relationships, production sketches (set to music), extensive translation and cultural notes for those into Japanese culture or wanting to know more about the Chinese origins for the Saiyuki story, a set of clean opening and closing credits, a trailer, and more ADV previews.
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