[This Review is in Dedication to the Memory of My Father, Zoltan M. Horvath, who Passed Away this Morning. I Love You, Apu, and I Miss You Already.]
After Saiyuki Reload Gunlock, the last of the Saiyuki TV series, ended in September of 2004 there weren't anymore Saiyuki anime productions for a short while. Three years later, Studio Pierrot teamed with ARMS to create a new, three-episode OVA series that would continue off from where Reload Gunlock left off in terms of actual manga adaptation. Though Reload Gunlock did use the Hazel Arc from the Reload manga, it was an altered story that went in its own direction, not to mention that Gunlock skipped over what this OVA covers. It slowly came out across 2007, from April to December (March of 2008 if you want to count the Standard Edition of Volume 3), and this OVA, Saiyuki Reload -burial-, is easily the best Saiyuki anime I've seen.
This OVA covers the Burial story arc of the Reload manga, which is a flashback arc that takes place both before & after the original Saiyuki manga's flashback arc, titled Be There. The first episode is roughly 45 minutes long & is split up into two portions: Ukoku's Chapter & Sanzo's Chapter. Ukoku's Chapter is about the previous Sanzo of China & Genjo Sanzo's master, Koumyou Sanzo, and his first meeting with a monk named Kenyuu. The young monk is a genius at mastering sutras and could easily become a Sanzo, but his rebellious attitude, combined with his uncaring outlook on life, makes Kenyuu's master, Godai Sanzo, hesitant to consider him as a successor. Sanzo's Chapter is about Genjo Sanzo's arrival at the Chang'an Temple & his eventual realizing at what it means to be a Sanzo Priest. The second episode, Son Goku's Chapter, is roughly 25-minutes long and details the first meeting of Goku & Sanzo, as well as how the two became an inseparable duo. The third episode, Gojyo & Hakkai's Chapter, is roughly 30-minutes long and is about how Sha Gojyo & Cho Hakkai, who end up living together, realize that, even though they may be different people, they have similar-enough backgrounds to make them have to rely on each other in life, especially when an old friend of Gojyo's comes to town & starts making trouble.
While Kibou no Zaika had relatively little action scenes, Burial has even fewer, instead focusing on telling a slow-paced story, and that is easily the best thing about of this OVA. All four stories are handled excellently and all of them are pretty serious & heavy in terms of content. Whether it's Ukoku's focus on taking what you feel is yours, even if you don't exactly deserve it, Sanzo's focus on realizing that heavy burdens shouldn't be a negative to fear, but rather are an obstacle to overcome, Goku's focus on the idea that no one should be left alone, or Gojyo & Hakkai's focus on helping others, even when you feel there's no need to get involved, all four stories are simply engrossing to watch, and though there is comedy, it's usually darker in execution (except for Goku's comedy, naturally).
Another excellent part about this OVA is that it is all taken from the manga. That's right, this is the first Saiyuki anime to be 100% "filler" free! And, honestly, Saiyuki's story shines the best when it's about the characters & their personal hardships. Kazuya Minekura does great action, no doubt, but her stories about the leads' pasts and how it all comes back to them at different points are just the true meat of Saiyuki. It's in these character-driven stories that you really get to understand how the Sanzo Party operates on an individual level, and that's always a welcome change of pace from the more action-oriented stories.
Though Studio Pierrot handled the overall production, the animation itself was handled by ARMS, the studio that made hentai that was so profitable that it ended up becoming a traditional anime studio. And, really, though the animation is exactly super-fluid or anything like that, there is a noticeable improvement in the animation; everything looks higher-budget, and none of the limited-animation tricks that the TV series was known for are present here. This is, from what I have seen, Saiyuki anime at its finest... Though, for all I know, the Saiyuki Gaiden OVA might look even better.
What might surprise some people, though, is the man who directed this OVA: Koichi Ohata. Yeah, the man who created titles like Genocyber, Cybernetics Guardian, Burst Angel, & a little something called M.D. Geist. But, honestly, Koichi Ohata knows how to handle slow-paced titles, and he did a great job at making sure that every episode has your attention from start to finish. The character designs for this OVA were done by a person named YONZO, and this person did a great job at making every character look just like their original manga art. The music by Tatsuya Suzuki (who hasn't seemingly worked on any other anime before or since) is definitely different from the TV series, with a lot more slower & somber pieces; unfortunately, there is no song in this OVA that's memorable like in the Gensou Maden. To make up for that, though, is the opening theme, "Late-show" by GARDEN, which is very much like the stories in this OVA and absorbingly addictive to listen to. The fact that the lyrics were written by Minekura herself also lends a great feeling that this song is the "official theme" of Saiyuki, and that is what makes this, in my opinion, the best of the Saiyuki opening themes. The ending theme, "shiny moon" by Toshihiko Seki, Souichiro Hoshi & Hiroaki Hirata, is a nice little song sung by three of the leads and makes a nice bookend to each episode.
The original TV series cast is brought back for this OVA, so I'll focus on the characters that I haven't brought up before. Kenyuu is voiced by Kousuke Toriumi (Hajime Saitou in Hakuoki, Strider Hiryu from the Strider series), and he does a great job at making Kenyuu sound like a younger version of his older self, Ukoku Sanzo/Dr. Ni Jienyi, who is voiced by Houchu Ohtsuka (Tapp in Dragonar, Jiraiya in Naruto). In fact, Toriumi does such a good job imitating Ohtsuka that I thought the latter was doing Kenyuu the whole time until I checked over at ANN. Koumyou Sanzo is voiced by Mitsuru Miyamoto (Nakagawa in Kochikame, Roger Smith in Big O), and he does an excellent job in making Koumyou sound like the easy-going 39-year-old Sanzo that the character is. Finally of note is Kouryu/Young Genjo Sanzo, who is voiced by Kahoru Sasajima.
Saiyuki Reload -burial- is easily the best Saiyuki anime production that I have seen so far. It's lack of filler, extreme accuracy to not only the story but also the look of Saiyuki, and absorbingly slow pace just puts this title heads and heels above any of the other Saiyuki anime I have seen. When Sentai Filmworks first said that they had licensed a recent Saiyuki OVA I was hoping it was Reload -burial- so badly (David Williams stated that they had licensed a new "Saiyuki Requiem OVA", so it was unknown which title he meant). When it was revealed that Sentai specifically licensed the more-recent Saiyuki Gaiden OVA I was still happy, since I had not seen that OVA, but the main problem is that Sentai announced their license to Saiyuki Gaiden while it was still being released in Japan, and therefore more than a year has gone by and there still isn't a solicitation or even a rough release month for Saiyuki Gaiden. Had Sentai licensed Reload -burial- a year ago they would have already gotten the title out already & would have bought it up as soon as possible. But, hey, hopefully Saiyuki Gaiden does well for Sentai & then we get Reload -burial- later on... I'd be fine with that.