animefringe june 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Saiyuki: Legend of the Monkey King - With Jeeps, Firearms, and Cigarettes

The Legend of the Monkey King is one of the most frequently referenced Chinese folktales in Japanese media. It is especially noticeable in anime and manga series, where high-profile series such as Dragon Ball have kept the tale in the public consciousness over the decades. In some ways, Gensoumaden Saiyuki (or just Saiyuki for its domestic release) is one of the most faithful renditions of the original tale, for it is actually set in ancient China and the names of many of the primary characters are kept mostly intact in the show.

On the other hand, the characters also drive around in a Jeep, drink beer out of aluminum cans, smoke cigarettes, and smite demons with firearms.

Yet, this seemingly incompatible combination actually makes for some exceedingly entertaining stuff.

Long ago, demons and humans lived together in harmony. The world was peaceful, and relationships between the two races of beings were not uncommon. However, something dire happened, turning most of the demons into bloodthirsty monsters eager to rend and tear the nearest human handy. Only a few demons with power-limiting devices were able to resist the call to savagery, but the state of the world was rapidly declining once the two races began to fight.

Right off the bat, the characters are the most interesting elements of this fast-paced series. Each has a complex back story, and the main characters of the show balance each other out perfectly.

Son Goku (voiced by Souichiro Hoshi, the man behind Ryu Soma in Argentosoma and Kei in Onegai Teacher) was imprisoned and had a limiter attached to keep him from escaping. Only when the Buddhist monk Genjo Sanzo (voiced in Japanese by Toshihiko Seki, who portrayed Mousse in Ranma 1/2) came along was he granted freedom, and as such Goku was bound to the monk.

Interestingly enough, Sanzo is frequently the most cold-hearted member of the cast. As the only full human, it's interesting to see the way that he is consistently blunt, rude, and almost mean to everyone he meets.

As one of the most enlightened members of the human race, Sanzo is commanded to go on a quest to put an end to the strife between humans and demons, and besides the energetic Goku, he is assigned two other people to aid him in his quest. Cho Hakkai is a full-blooded demon, though he was also using a power-limiting device when the demons went mad, so he retains a human shape. He is a charming and friendly fellow, with a shape-changing dragon named Hakuryu for a partner.

Sha Gojyo is a water sprite, but in truth he's only half demon. His mixed heritage has been a point of strife throughout his life, but he is just as determined as the other three to solve the mystery behind the sudden change in the behavior of the demonic race.

The series is packed with action, with each episode containing at least one good fight scene. While the demons in Sanzo's party have restraints against using their full power, they're still a force to be reckoned with. Son Goku attacks with his extending staff, Gojyo uses a half-moon blade attached to a long chain, Hakkai employs magical powers against his foes, and Sanzo wields a demon-banishing gun. Each warrior is also a formidable hand-to-hand combatant.

However, the series isn't all about fighting. There's a good share of themes dealing with prejudice or getting along with people that are different from each other. Each episode brings the characters closer to their goal, but also serves as a self-supporting side story set in the overall universe. With fifty episodes in the whole series, there's plenty of time to wrap up the whole story.

At times, Saiyuki can be very dramatic. The show's creators aren't afraid to kill characters, and with a series that puts so much emphasis on the characters, such events leave lasting impressions.

However, most of the time, Saiyuki is just plain fun. Gojyo and Goku constantly attack one another with brotherly banter, and Sanzo spends most of his time threatening the two troublemakers for annoying him. The writing is snappy and engaging, and I'm already interested to see where this story is heading.

Visually, the show has already impressed me with its use of vibrant colors and sharp animation. Since there's a lot of movement in this series, it's pivotal that the proper amount of attention is given to action scenes, and the show doesn't disappoint. It was produced in part by Studio Pierrot, so there are some visual standards that they'll most likely maintain.

The music from the opening is what caught my attention for the show in the first place, and just like much of the show, it is also anachronistic. With generous use of rock music (and sometimes banjoes), the audio also seems blatantly out of place for a series based upon a Chinese folktale. However, just like the guns and vehicles, the music actually fits perfectly alongside this quirky series.

The first volume is available with an art box (packaged with a t-shirt, as well), and the quality of the box is much better than some of ADV's other offerings. Unlike the Evangelion or RahXephon box, this one isn't made of folded cardboard. It's a bit sturdier than other boxes out there, which is a good thing.

Packed with comedy, action, and based upon one of the greatest Chinese legends of all time, Saiyuki certainly has the potential to be a fantastic series. After the first five episodes, I have hope that the next 45 will be as good if not better than what's already been released. This series should entertain anyone looking for an energetic show set in the far past mixed with real-world elements alongside mainstays of fantasy entertainment. As I said before, it's an odd mix, but the results are a pleasant surprise.