An Introduction to the SAIYUKI Anime... As Told By a Fan Who Read the Manga Almost a Decade Ago
By Dee Hogan
After being off the air for nearly 13 years, Saiyuki has at last returned to grace our televisions with attractive men beating the crap out of each other while waxing poetic about their dark-and-stormy pasts. But with Saiyuki's previous anime seasons scarce and its manga volumes even scarcer, you might be hesitant to check out the new series.
Well, fear not! I, an ardent Saiyuki fan who read the manga as it was coming out almost 10 years ago, am here to provide you with the story exactly as I remember it. Which is to say: Very vaguely! Now you, too, can enjoy Saiyuki Reload Blast as if you were right there with the rest of the fandom, reading the manga in the mid '00s, selling the volumes to help pay for grad school, and now racking your brain to piece together the semi-existent plot of that gloriously feelsy action series you still love so very, very much.
Come along with me on this journey, won't you? This journey...TO THE MAX!
Caution: Loving irreverence, questionable accuracy, and spoilers for the Saiyuki and Saiyuki Reload manga below. Content warning for mentions of child abuse.
But First, a History Lesson!
Saiyuki began as a manga created by Kazuya Minekura. Well, I guess technically it began as the Chinese novel Journey to the West. Saiyuki is based on that classic epic, in the same way that Taco Bell is based on Mexican food.
Journey to the West is a Buddhist-inspired comic adventure story that follows a monk, a monkey king, a half-pig man, and an exiled immortal as they travel to India to retrieve sacred sutras. It's a complete story that has been translated in its entirety into English, unlike the Saiyuki manga, which is neither complete nor fully translated. Tokyopop imploded (along with half the U.S. anime industry) in the late '00s, leaving us one volume short from finishing Saiyuki Reload, and we've seen neither hide nor hair of the manga since. I am still salty about this.
Pictured: Saiyuki sexily locked out of the U.S.
The anime adaptations have fared somewhat better, at least: the three TV series (Gensomaden Saiyuki, Saiyuki ReLoad, and Saiyuki ReLoad Gunlock) were all released in the U.S., as was the film (Saiyuki Requiem) and the most recent OVA series (Saiyuki Gaiden). I only caught about 15 episodes of the anime, but my memory is that it's a reasonably faithful adaptation, albeit one that tones down the R-rated elements and adds a bunch of filler stories. Depending on where you live, you can stream both the original TV series and the Gaiden OVAs, but the two ReLoad sequels are confined to dusty DVD shelves for the time being.
And if all these title variants are confusing you, then congratulations! You're well on your way to being a Saiyuki fan, because they're confusing to me, too. Saiyuki is to manga as Kingdom Hearts is to video games. The series has been running off and on for twenty whopping years, and it's splintered in a bunch of directions along the way. For now, all you really need to know is that the central story goes Saiyuki, then Reload, then Reload Blast. Everything else is prequels and side stories.
As for what that central story is all about, well...
Saiyuki takes place in Shangri-La, a fantasy world created by plucking Chinese fiction and history fruits from across the centuries, tossing them in a blender, and adding a splash of good old-fashioned manga tropes for spice. Humans and youkai share the land, six-shooters are as common as swords, and the main characters ride around in a jeep that's actually a dragon. (Or is it a dragon that's actually a jeep?)
Things are going great until a youkai sorceress hooks up with a mad scientist and they start brainwashing youkai into murdering the faces off every human they can get their hands on. Then the local humans start panicking and murdering the faces off every youkai they can get their hands on, whether they've been brainwashed or not, and pretty soon everyone in Shangri-La is starting to feel pretty Shangri-Low.
To keep the peace, the local Bodhisattvas decide to send their Top Man, Double-Oh Sanzo, out West to find the culprits and tell them to knock it off. Our priest is joined on his quest by three companions: Goku, Gojyo, and Hakkai, each with their own uniquely upsetting backstory and particular set of skills. They're also all youkai (or at least youkai-adjacent), but they've been equipped with handy-dandy power limiters to keep them from going berserk like the others.
Together our quartet travel across the lands, getting into scrapes, fighting off the minions their mysterious antagonists send after them, and frequently threatening to kill each other as they journey ever Westward, hoping to one day reach their foes and stop their nefarious scheme.
And I'd tell you all about that nefarious scheme, but I have straight-up forgotten it. The Big Bads' oh-so-sympathetic underlings are prominent in the original Saiyuki series, but then they have to take an extended spa vacation, so most of Reload is one long semi-self-contained arc about cowboys and necromancers. It's GREAT, mind you, but all the tension and shootouts and good good angst have shoved what's-her-name and scientist-face and their plan to do something-or-other straight out of my head.
Honestly? It doesn't matter. Saiyuki is about the journey, not the destination. More to the point, it's about the people you get to hang out with along the way.
And speaking of...
There are a lot of compelling supporting characters (mostly antagonists) who drift in and out of the Saiyuniverse, particularly Kougaiji and his merry band of Youkai In Need of Hugs. But the story is carried by its four protagonists—most of whom you're also going to want to hug, and two of whom may try to kill you if you do—so you're gonna want to get to know them.
A chain-smoking, booze-slinging, trigger-happy, permanently irritated Buddhist priest, he's the current holder of the Sanzo title and the wielder of some very powerful sutras, though he's usually content to keep those stored away and just shoot people in their dumb faces instead (all faces are dumb to Sanzo, I'm pretty sure). He met his trio of party members through various traumatic adventures and brought them together, offering them a chance to start over. Despite his grouchy exterior, deep down he's a good guy.
...Deeper than that. No, further. Little further. There it is! See? Good guy.
Sanzo's history is told in fits and starts, which is to say I can't keep it straight anymore. I feel pretty confident saying he had a rough childhood, because this is Saiyuki we're talking about. And I know he witnessed his master's murder and it messed him up right proper. I have a working theory that Mr. Mad Scientist (Jianyi! That's his name!) is involved, because he used to be a Sanzo priest himself and sure seems to know a lot about our Sanzo, but take that with a grain of salt. Sure would make for some good drama though, yeah?
Goku's the youngest-looking of the gang and often acts like it. Don't let that fool you, though: He's actually a powerful monkey king who was imprisoned on a mountain for hundreds of years. His memory's as patchy as mine, so all he really remembers is being lonely and then Sanzo freeing him and then him not being lonely anymore. See, happy things do happen in this story!
Like another Son Goku you may know (who's also based on the monkey king in Journey to the West, by the by), this one fights with a staff and loves to eat. He's generally cheerful and friendly, but if you take off his diadem, he gets real angry, and not just because that diadem brings his whole outfit together, you uncultured boor. Mostly it's because the diadem is his power limiter, and removing it makes him hulk out somethin' fierce.
I know this is the part where I'm supposed to say “you won't like him when he's angry,” but berserker Goku leads to some of the best fights and dramatic beats of the series. I like him when he's angry a lot more than I should.
Half-youkai, half-human, Gojyo is the child of a “forbidden” affair between the two species. A literal redheaded stepchild, he was abused by his youkai stepmom and shunned by society at large. He had an older brother he loved (not like that, you pervs) who stepped in to defend him, to the point where he was eventually forced to kill his own mother to protect his brother. The two eventually meet again and it's... it's real sad, y'all. Gojyo's backstory is real sad.
Nowadays he's a foul-mouthed gambler who likes to pick fights with Sanzo and quarrel with Goku, but he's maybe the most loyal member of the team and (despite being the least powerful) doesn't hesitate to step up to defend others. An asshole with a heart of gold, more or less. He fights with a sickle-flail that doesn't make sense but looks real cool, and he's technically a womanizer, but don't let that stop you from 'shipping him with one of his teammates. Gojyo is Extremely Shippable, you see.
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think Hakkai is the best character in Saiyuki, and those who are wrong. Since the rest of the team has zero chill, Hakkai has an excess of chill to balance them out. Perpetually smiling and perpetually The Saddest, he's the team peacemaker and magic user, the owner-driver of the Dragon-Jeep, and a secret badass. Hakkai has removed his power limiters exactly twice, and exactly twice he has ruined his opponents. Other fun facts include: Can and will drink you under a table. Technically died once to save his friends. (Don't worry, he got better.)
His backstory is basically one big D: emoji. Born a human, he had an older sister he loved (yes, exactly like that, you pervs) who was kidnapped by the resident evil youkai noble. Hakkai slaughtered ONE THOUSAND MUTHAFUGGIN YOUKAI on his way to rescue her, but she died anyway because Kazuya Minekura is a cruel, cruel manga-ka. Also, it turns out that when you slaughter ONE THOUSAND MUTHAFUGGIN YOUKAI, you, uh...turn into a muthafuggin youkai yourself. Womp womp.
Hakkai wasn't doing so hot after all that. In a fit of guilt and despair, he even ripped out his own eye to appease a vengeful youkai (he eventually replaced it with a fake one, and got a rad monocle to match). He was ready to rip out the other eye, too, but Team Sanzo showed up in time to slap his hand away and offer him a new life and a second chance. They're his FAMILY now and he loves them VERY MUCH and they all need to PROTECT each other and—
So. Uh. Yeah. I used to scour eBay looking for a UFO doll of this guy because that's how badly I needed to give him a hug. Hakkai is Best Boy. It is known.
Okay, But What's it About?
Kicking ass and having feelings and looking damn fine while doing it.
And if that's not enough for you, then here's a bit more: The title of the manga (最遊記) is a play on the Japanese title for Journey to the West (西遊記). They're both read as Saiyuki, but the manga replaces the kanji for “west” with the kanji for “most” or “extreme.” With one simple character, our journey to the West has turned into a journey... TO THE MAX!
And, honestly, that's what Saiyuki is about. Big expansive world, big bombastic fights, big heart-on-sleeve emotions, big tragic histories, big meandering narrative. Everything is cranked up to 11. The series first ran in a shounen magazine (targeted at boys) before later finding a home in a josei one (targeted at adult women), which I think speaks to the way it dances between all those extremes: From rip-roaring action-adventure to character (melo)drama and on over to broad or black comedy before bouncing right back to one of its other modes again.
Is it over-the-top, unfocused, and unapologetically packed with shipteases and emotional fanservice? Oh, yeah. One hundred percent. But, all teasing aside, I love it. I used to devour new volumes in one sitting, cheer out loud during the fights, bite my nails when my boys were in danger, giggle at their down-time bickering, and lap up all those theatrical, quasi-philosophical monologues.
I love it in a way that's hard to put into words because it's so intricately tied to being a stressed-out high school/college kid in the mid-to-late '00s, but I think it comes down the series' overall tone and message. Because, despite its many moments of levity (particularly in the early going), as bullets fly and youkai rampage, the story always comes back to a bunch of sad-yet-defiant survivors trying to make it in a world that seems fundamentally, maybe even permanently broken.
It's devastatingly grim at times, but even at its most dismal, it always manages to offer a kind of skeptical hope instead of just pessimistic tragedy porn. “Everything is terrible, but I'm not gonna give up,” in essence. Or maybe more to the point: “Everything is terrible, but I have people who support me, so I can get through it.” And there are times even now when that message has been a comfort to me, melodramatics or no.
Saiyuki is too gleefully ridiculous, both in terms of world-building and staging, for me to take it too seriously or champion it as A Great Classic That Everyone Should Try. Frankly, if you read “a jeep that's actually a dragon” and didn't at least crack a smile, you probably should have walked away right there.
Even so, with its raging battles, skewed sense of humor, smokin' hot anti-heroes, and willingness to dive head-first into sensationalized but nevertheless sincere explorations of trauma, depression, community, and identity, it scratches a particular itch and does so very effectively. Saiyukiis intense and bombastic, as overloaded with bullets as it is with feelings. It's stylish, heartfelt, top-tier trash, and I can't wait to roll around in it all over again. Lock and reload, gang. It's gonna be a blast.
About the author, Dee Hogan
Dee is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. To pay the bills, she works as a technical writer. To not pay the bills, she devours novels and comics, watches far too much anime, and cheers very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog for long-time fans and newbies alike, as well as on Tumblr and Twitter.