I wanted to find my own unique way of reviewing things and almost went with “turn the review into a story” approach, then I realised trying to make a story out of such a diverse medium was too farfetched…so here’s the review I was going to make fancier. Unless I start branching out into light novels as well, this is probably the last review I’ll put out.
Synopsis: It’s the same ol’ foul-mouthed Sanzo Party – comprised of the blonde monk Genjo Sanzo, “monkey” Son Goku, “kappa” Sha Gojyo and bespectacled Cho Hakkai. Whether opponents are human or demon, they’re going to kick your butt if you’re in their way and they’re going to stop the Bull Demon King Gyumaoh…or at least, that’s what’s meant to happen…
Home magazine: Monthly Comic Zero Sum
Anime?: Yes, from fall 2003 to winter 2004
Creator/s: Kazuya Minekura (art/story)
Strengths of the Saiyuki series are also tied to flaws and that’s evident from page 1 of volume 1 – you can start almost anywhere in the series, so long as you’ve become accustomed to what the Sanzo Party do (note I started with Saiyuki Reload Blast, which is not an ideal beginning series, so if none of this makes sense, you’re better off reading something else). This is because the characters are fairly static, even after you see development, and the morals of most stories are the same – “life isn’t always fair, so deal with it” – but learning names, titles etc. is a tough thing to ask for a beginner to the series.
Volume 1 is mostly episodic with the exception of mentioning how Goku was found, but volume 2 brings back Kougaiji, Dokugakuji and Yaone without getting too much into the plot development. Chapter 5.5 (in volume 2) also does something I’d never seen until I read through it the first time – develop Jeep as a character, which demonstrates how Minekura can even make a story work with only the narrator being the story’s driving force, as opposed to how her characters’ dialogue tends to move the story along. Admittedly, I’ve seen 9 volumes around (and I read volumes 3 and 8 before these two) so the journey isn’t over yet, not to mention Blast comes after Reload.
Witty banter is not always the highest priority, but it’s a welcome addition during battles. Gojyo in particular is fond of making jabs at everything, including his supposed “hot body”. Even the creator gets in a funny comment in tiny text around one of the panels! The series takes glee in mashing up historical settings with more modern elements like guns and magical elements like the Minus Wave…This isn’t to say the series is only action and humour, because Snow Drop from volume 1 notably builds up to an impressively emotional climax (at least, it did for me), even though Yakumo is a side character.
One thing I’ve noticed about Tokyopop releases is the level of Japanese left in – not just sound effects, but also an opening page with a white-on-black “Saiyuki Reload – Minekura Kazuya” and the line on the contents page which translates to “The bullets have been loaded again” translated to a more natural “Time to reload”. Notably, volume 2 takes advantage of Minekura’s ability to do excellent colour work by including a few colour pages at the front – something I’ve found is missing from most other releases of the time, but is common for omnibus volumes in more recent years.
Backgrounds are sparse, but otherwise art is highly detailed, especially with the care put into characters and double-page spreads (although characters do sometimes lose noses due to the type of shot involved or comedic purposes). Panelling is also a bit confusing – page 1 of volume 1 is meant to be a Deadpool-style fourth wall break, but that loses most of its humour when you realise you didn’t read the panels right. However, this is turned on its head when you look at pages involving battles and more heart-pounding stuff – this particular layout causes you to look at the top right and then be drawn into the action easily.
Overall, it’s a tough sell for the uninitiated – you’d be better off starting earlier in the series – but otherwise it does what Saiyuki does best.
Check it out if you:
- are familiar with the rest of the Saiyuki series in some capacity
- would like a battle manga that balances snarky attitude with more emotional moments
- don’t mind anyone dying or killing – in most stories, there’s at least one demon getting killed
Pass on it if you:
- are averse to swearing, smoking or killing
- want to read it to learn Chinese or because you are a Sinophile – this is based on Xiyouji (Journey to the West), but other than setting (it doesn’t specify it’s set in China in these two volumes, although it does hint at that with architecture and clothing), it doesn’t show that it’s got Chinese roots
- would like more representation of women in media – this is a josei series, but if you’re looking for Saiyuki ladies that kick butt, look at Reload Blast instead
Final verdict: Unless you’re familiar with the general storyline of Saiyuki and its main players, I cannot recommend this because the learning curve is too steep. However, if you are familiar with it, it’s a rewarding read for a first two volumes, teasing major plot developments, developing characters both minor and major while hitting beats both humorous and emotional.
Information sources (I mentioned this was a Tokyopop release, so it’s almost impossible to find a copy of without looking in a library!):