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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saiyuki Gaiden: I Want to Get Away to Our Sweet Escape...

When Kazuya Minekura debuted Saiyuki in Enix's Monthly GFantasy back in 1997, it became a fast hit, which allowed her to expand on the lore of the world she created. Two years later, in mid-1999, Minekura debuted Saiyuki Gaiden, a prequel manga that took place 500 years prior in Heaven. At this point, Minekura had given indications that Son Goku had been locked in his mountainside prison for the past half-millennium due to something he did while in Heaven (which is accurate to the original novel), & that Sanzo, Gojyo, & Hakkai were in fact the reincarnations of the people who befriended Goku all those centuries ago. Being a side story manga series that was produced alongside the original manga, Saiyuki Gaiden would see multiple hiatuses, as well as moving over to Ichijinsha's Monthly Comic Zero-Sum in 2003, before finally being completed in mid-2009, totaling nine volumes.

Technically, the first time Saiyuki Gaiden would be adapted into animation was during the Homura Arc, a filler storyline which made up the entire second half of Gensou Maden Saiyuki. Since Homura wanted vengeance for what happened over 500 years ago, it only made sense to adapt a small portion of Gaiden that was made at points during that story arc. After that, the side story would remain manga-exclusive until 2011, when a three-episode OVA adaptation came out, featuring animation by a new studio named Anpro; Studio Pierrot did help produce the OVA, however. A year later, Sentai Filmworks would announce a North American release for the OVA series, complete with ADV's dub cast for the Sanzo Party reuniting for the first time since early 2005, when Saiyuki Requiem came out; Geneon's dubs for Reload & Reload Gunlock used a new cast via Bang Zoom! Entertainment. Sentai's DVD release for Saiyuki Gaiden would come out January 2013, but later that year a special fourth episode came out in Japan, instantly making Sentai's release a little incomplete. Anyway, enough backstory about the backstory, so let's see if this backstory actually adds anything to the main story.

500 years before heading out on a westward journey to save the world, Goku was brought to the Heavenly Realm, as he was neither human nor yokai. He was put in the care of Konzen Douji, the nihilistic nephew of the "Merciful Goddess" Kanzeon Bosatsu, who gives Goku his name & becomes a father figure to the young boy. He then finds friends in General Kenren & Field Marshal Tenpou of the Western Army, as well as Nataku, the newly-crowned War Prince. Goku's happiness comes to an end, though, when Lord Li Touten, Nataku's father, manages to brainwash Nataku into trying to kill Goku; Nataku manages to break free, though, & tries killing himself instead. Still deemed an impure being that must be killed, however, Konzen, Kenren, & Tenpou decide to protect Goku, turning them into traitors of Heaven & declared dead men by Li Touten. With no other options available to them, the four decide to break into the Imperial Palace & use the Dimensional Gate so as to get Goku into the Lower Realm of Earth, but in doing so will find out the truth behind Nataku & what Li Touten's plans for Heaven are really like.

Saiyuki Gaiden is a truly bizarre example when it comes to storytelling, because it really has a rough start to it. That synopsis I just gave above? Nearly all of it comes from the first seven minutes of footage (including the OP sequence, to be fair), which from what I can find out is more or less a "best of" montage of scenes from the first two volumes of the manga. Because of that, we don't really get much of a proper introduction to our main characters (Konzen's relation to Kanzeon Boustatsu comes from the very end, but it helps explain his situation), Goku's budding friendship with Nataku is handled in literally just a couple of quick scenes, and overall it feels like it's just rushing to set up the main focus of this OVA series, which is the rush to get to the Dimensional Gate. In the end, this OVA feels like it's assuming that anyone who watches it has either already read the manga, or at least has seen the Homura Arc from Gensou Maden Saiyuki. Needless to say, it's not a very welcoming first impression for most people who will be seeing this OVA, as the main Saiyuki timeline (or at least the first two manga series) almost never references the events of Gaiden.

Some might wonder, "So what's bizarre about this? Plenty of OVAs have assumed familiarity with the source material before," but then you continue watching Saiyuki Gaiden... And then realize that it not only recovers from a poor dismount, but actually sticks the landing extremely well. A big part of that is because, though this is technically a short OVA series, it feels like a theatrical-length chase movie. The first episode, after that initial rush of plot being thrown at you, slows down enough to help give the viewer the context needed to understand the situation that Konzen, Goku, Kenren, & Tenpou find themselves in, with their impromptu hostage Dragon King Gojun (Kenren & Tenpou's superior) acting as an overarching narrator via his voice at various points as gives his report to the higher ups after the fact, which acts as the framing device. It then leads into the other two episodes, which really is where the "chase" element is focused upon. Mixed together with some character flashbacks every now & then, which add to the leads' development, the continual movement & tense nature of the combat makes the mad dash to the Dimensional Gate absolutely thrilling from start to finish.

Luckily, the story of Gaiden isn't just the mad dash, as there's also the truth behind Li Touten's plans, especially in regards to Nataku. It's not exactly an original concept by any means, it's a case of twisted science for personal gain & revenge, but it is an interesting one nonetheless, simply because it's how this prequel story actually ties into the main Saiyuki story. While Nataku only made a handful of cameo appearances in the manga, none of which were actually adapted into the original three anime series, he was obviously given more importance in Gensou Maden's Homura filler arc, and I do know that Saiyuki Reload Blast, both the manga & the anime's own take, are heavily about Nataku & his old relation to Goku. The truth behind Nataku's place in Heaven & his father's plans really make it feel all the more pertinent for one to move on to the next piece of Minekura's story, especially since the end result of it all in Gaiden's story isn't quite as telegraphic as one would immediately assume. The chase is exhilarating & the action is tense, but the repercussions of said chase are probably even more interesting. Yes, it's obvious that Goku does make it to Earth in the end, since Genjo Sanzo found him imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years, but the "how" is by all means cool to see. Needless to say, though, it's not really a "happy" ending, and the fact that this OVA does spill blood with much more abandon than any of the prior Saiyuki anime did, right down to even showing one character's entrails bursting out & being dragged on the ground shortly, helps illustrate this as more of a tragedy due to Heaven's own ignorance.

Before I get to the staff & cast, let me bring up Episode 4, which came out after Sentai's DVD release. Titled Kouge no Shou/The Flowers & Incense Chapter, as in a Buddhist offering, it partially takes place years prior to Goku's arrival in Heaven, showing how Kenren came to be a part of Tenpou's squad, how the two made for perfect counterparts (Tenpou is talented but unorganized, while Kenren is easily bored but very neat), and even expands on some scenes involving their squad; there are also a couple of scenes showing Li Touten getting ready for his plans to come to fruition. The bits with their squad mates are the really the best parts here, especially since the climax is all about the squad itself, showing the various members, their personality traits, & how they all came together to help delay the Heaven Army in their hunt for Goku & the others; this episode gives all of them development that they weren't able to get in the main OVA story. This is especially true for Tenpou & Kenren, as they aren't really like their future reincarnations, whereas Konzen is similar enough to Sanzo. For example, Kenren isn't a womanizer & is more responsible with his actions compared to Gojyo, while Tenpou is the complete opposite of Hakkai, being much more impulsive, disorganized, & a heavy smoker alongside Kenren. While I fully understand why Sentai's DVD doesn't include this extra episode, it is a shame nonetheless, because this is a great supplemental to the main OVA itself. Maybe one day Sentai can re-release Saiyuki Gaiden & include this extra episode, even if it was sub-only.

Yes, Tenpou has a random Col. Sanders statue... No, I got nothing to respond with.

Considering that the Saiyuki Gaiden manga wound up running nine volumes, it's easy to wonder just how accurate this OVA is, especially since it feels like it's giving a decisive end to the story it's adapting. Thankfully, while Hajime Yoyogi (Bus Gamer) did the actual writing here, Kazuya Minekura herself handled series composition, which in turn makes me feel like the Gaiden OVA is, if nothing else, the story that she originally made for the manga, if maybe cut down to its bare minimum to get straight to the point. Director Naoyuki Kuzuya is a fitting person for Minekura's work, as he also directed the Bus Gamer TV short series & would go on to direct the Wild Adapter OVA, and with Minekura being so involved with the actual production this time around, it results in a very well done piece of animation. Similarly, character designer/animation director Minefumi Harada is familiar with Minekura's works, returning for Wild Adapter (though, amusingly enough, Harada also did the designs for Fighting Foodons), and here everyone looks good, matching Minekura's style excellently; I especially like how small Goku is portrayed here, really showing how much younger he is at this point. The music lead by Anpro's Hiroyuki Nagashima (Bus Gamer, Cannon Fodder from Memories) differs from the soundtracks headed up by Motoi Sakuraba (Gensou Maden), Daisuke Ikeda (Reload & Gunlock), & Tatsuya Kato (Reload -burial-) by having almost no rock in it whatsoever, instead being completely orchestral, with the exception of one or two uses of heavy guitar. Even the opening & ending themes by Kokia ("Sakura no Kinoshita" & "Hikari no Kata he", respectively) are slow, emotional, & introspective ballads, compared to the rock songs that all of the prior anime productions focused on.

The voice casts for both Japanese & English are small, due to the small overall cadre of characters seen, and both are notable for completely bringing back the voices of the Sanzo Party, this time playing their prior incarnations (plus Goku). Because of that, Toshihiko Seki & David Matranga, Soichiro Hoshi & Greg Ayers, Hiroaki Hirata & Illich Guardiola, & Akira Ishida & Braden Hunt (making a one-time return to anime after leaving the industry) all deliver effectively the same exact performances as they've always had as Konzen, Goku, Kenren, & Tenpou. Sadly, that still means that Hunt's performance is the weakest, especially since Tenpou is the most different from his future reincarnation, & Ishida does manage to make enough of a subtle change in delivery, while Hunt sounds exactly the same as he did in Saiyuki Reqiuem. Gojun is performed by Hiroki Touchi (Pantherlily in Fairy Tail) & Leraldo Anzaldua (Ken the Eagle in Gatchaman), and while Touchi's gruffer voice fits the look of the "Dragon King", Anzaldua's voice just didn't sound fitting for the character; it's well performed, but doesn't match the look of Gojun. In comparison, Minoru Inaba (Doctor J in Gundam Wing) & John Swasey (Crocodile in One Piece) both deliver performances for Li Touten that actually fit the main villain perfectly. Kanzeon Bosatsu was recast in both languages compared to their original voices in Gensou Maden Saiyuki, with Rei Igarashi taking the role from Reload-on, & Shelley Calene-Black (who, amusingly enough, played Yaone back in the day) debuting her new role in this OVA, and both are fine.

It's not too often that a spin-off manga from a popular series gets an anime adaptation, so that alone makes the Saiyuki Gaiden OVA interesting. Then you add in the fact that Kazuya Minekura herself oversaw the writing duties, and the end result feels like, at the very least, the most important idea of what this side story/prequel was trying to tell, and it does so very well. Sure, it fumbles a bit at the very beginning due to the really rushed set up, but once that's done & over with the remaining time is just a nonstop trip that never lets go until the very end. Then you can check out that extra fourth episode, which helps give some nice extra development to some of the characters & makes some moments in the main story feel more impactful. That being said, when it comes to these OVAs I still prefer Saiyuki Reload -burial- in the end, but that's mainly because it was simply adapted the story it had to tell very nicely & accurately, while Saiyuki Gaiden does still feel a bit like a lean version of the story. Since this prequel ran for nine volumes, I'm sure there's tons of character-focused storytelling that was skipped over, but at least what we were given here was a fun & heartfelt ride.

And now, to finish up Saiyuki once & for all, let me do something I haven't done on this blog in a few years & review something relatively recent in terms of anime.

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