|There is no title splash during the footage, so you all get a screencap of the menu screen!|
Saiyuki -Kibou no Zaika-/-Hope's Offense- was originally released in 2002 by Enix, shortly before the company's merger with Squaresoft to become Square-Enix. Unlike most OVAs, though, Kibou no Zaika was actually what the package called a "DVD Interactive Animation", which meant that while watching the story play out you would interact with the story by making choices & matching buttons prompts, and you could even jot down passwords so that you could stop and return to the story at another time... At least, that's what I can gather from the back cover of the bootleg DVD I have of this. You see, the bootleg company that released its own version of this DVD removed all of the choices &, potentially, bad endings, essentially turning this into a 45-minute OVA, which is actually how most anime fans have identified this production. So when all of the interactive elements of an interactive DVD are removed, does that still make it an interactive DVD in essence? I don't really know the answer to that, but I can guarantee that this is one of the best entries in the Saiyuki anime series.
The Sanzo Party are getting bored, since they haven't had any sort of excitement for the past two days. Genjo Sanzo & Cho Hakkai do recall an odd sight from right before dawn that morning, though: A purple-colored streak of light in the sky that was moving too slow to be a shooting star. Kanzeon Bousatsu, the "Merciful Goddess" who's watching over the group, though, identifies the light as the Pearl Jade, a small stone that has the power to grant the user of its choice any wish. Knowing that it could be potentially used to revive Gyumaoh, Kanzeon Bousatsu decides to send the Sanzo Party after it, even though it would send them going south rather than the west they want to go. Kougaiji & his party find out about it as well and decide to try & beat Gyokumen Koushu, who has already sent out a mysterious wandering monk, to the Pearl Jade. They all end up converging upon a small village, where a small girl named Kasane is using the Jade's power to heal the injuries of the people in the village.
Kibou no Zaika's best asset is that it's actually a pretty slow-paced story, letting the viewer really get a feel for how powerful the Jade might actually be. In fact, the first portion of the story is about the Sanzo Party journeying to a different village, where a box holding the items to seal the Jade is held. In order to get the box, though, the Sanzo Party has to take out the zombie-like demons that are terrorizing the village. Yeah, it does come off like a video game, but considering that this was originally an interactive DVD, i.e. a "game", I'll let it slide. In fact, this whole RPG-adventure feel kind of fits the Sanzo Party well. After that game-like battle, which even seems to have the viewer match buttons presses to shrinking circles when the demons attack (but in this bootleg you just sit back and watch), there are only two other battles: A short skirmish between the Sanzo Party & the Kougaiji Party & the final battle between Gyokumen Koushu's "monk" & the Sanzo Party. The relative lack of fighting really lets the story take center stage, and it's honestly a really good story.
The main focus is on Kasane & how her new found healing powers can be both a blessing & a curse. In fact, she technically doesn't gain healing powers from the Pearl Jade, but rather her wish is to be accepted by the village after her father went on a wild killing frenzy with a knife a few years back, making the village not want to associate with her. The Sanzo Party realizes that, though her powers are being used for good, in the end it's still simply cheating in order to gain acceptance. In fact, the moment Kasane actually revives a man from the dead the village starts to become worried about her powers, & when one villager who was healed by her reveals that her healing results in them feeling no pain when hurt as well as heal almost-instantly, the entire village starts treating her like a monster. It's an interesting way of handling this idea of using something valuable to, essentially, "buy" the acceptance of others, as what Kasane is doing is well-intentioned, but at the same time her reasons for doing so are not selfless. Finally, the ending is actually shockingly somber, with no real cheering up in the last moments; rather, it goes from a real downer of an ending to just simply stating "THE END". But, to be honest, I really like how the story goes for the downer ending, as it does remind one that you can't always have things end the way you want it to, and it does help make this Saiyuki anime memorable. Granted, this is likely not the "true ending", which I'm sure has everything end all happily, and the bootleg company likely wound up using one of the alternate endings instead, but I approve of the non-traditional result, nonetheless.
Still, the fact that the interactivity has been removed does linger all throughout this bootleg version. There is that point during the demon attack I mentioned earlier, but the bigger issue is that there are tons of moments where the video simply pauses, no doubt because those were the spots where the interactivity, i.e. choices, would have come in. Also, there are numerous spots where you see a "PASSWORD" block in the bottom-right corner, which also just continually reminds you that there was so much more to this production. Luckily, this bootleg actually has really good English subtitles, if maybe being a bit too literal at points.
Much like most Saiyuki anime productions, the animation itself is done by Studio Pierrot, and Kibou no Zaika looks very much like an episode of the original TV series, right down to the often use of limited animation, close-ups while the original shot is used as a still, and the TV static filters that usually accompany those close-ups; really, you have to watch an episode of Saiyuki to really see how the anime does this stuff. To be honest, though, it is a really neat use of limited animation, and it does tend to make the Saiyuki anime a pretty identifiable one. The music is pretty much the same kind of stuff from the TV series, some of which lending a big RPG feel (no surprise, since Motoi Sakuraba did the music), which just fits all the more so with what is supposed to be an interactive anime DVD. The real shining point in the music is the awesome OST version of the first opening theme, "For Real" by Hidenori Tokuyama, and it is appropriately used at the climax of the final battle in this anime production. None of the opening or ending themes for Gensou Maden are used here, however. The cast is the same as that of the TV series, and I already covered who was the main cast in the previous review, but I'll mention the cast for the Kougaiji Party, which includes Takeshi Kusao (Kougaiji), Yuko Minaguchi (Yaone), Dai Matsumoto (Dokugakuji/Sha Jien [Gojyo's brother]), & Kaoru Murota (Lirin). Finally, Kanzeon Bousatsu is voiced by Misa Watanabe, who does a great job in making the goddess sound like the androgynous deity that she is.
Saiyuki -Kibou no Zaika-, even without the interactive bits, is still an excellent entry in the Saiyuki anime series, with a really interesting story, gutsy ending (even if it likely isn't the "best" one), & an actual proper use of the Kougaiji Party. Considering how ADV loved trying out all sorts of stuff back during the bubble days, it's kind of surprising that they didn't try bringing over this title in the way it was made, but likely the fact that it was made for release by Enix was the reason why we never saw this in North America. The original R2 DVD isn't too expensive nowadays, but if you want to check this out with the bootleg English subs you only have two choices: Either buy the bootleg DVD or watch it over at YouTube, where it's been fully uploaded across multiple videos. I still wouldn't recommend this to newcomers, as it does absolutely nothing to introduce the characters, but for existing fans of the franchise I say it's definitely worth checking out. If I ever get the actual R2 interactive DVD then I'll update this review with my views of how the interactivity is, but as it is it's still a great story.