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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Saiyuki Reload Blast: Guess Who's Back, Back Again... Sanzo's Back, With His Friends...

Kazuya Minekura's Saiyuki has had the reputation of being a journey that's taken "forever" to actually get to its destination, whether it's due to the anime adaptations relying on tons of filler to pad out their lengths or Minekura herself putting her manga on hiatus (though, in her case, it was due to harsh illness & injury). In its home country, however, the production of anime adaptations has actually been semi-consistent, at least in terms of how long it takes for a new anime to be made & see release. From 1999 to 2004 there was essentially a yearly supply of productions (the "Premium" OVA, Gensou Maden, the Requiem movie, Kibou no Zaika, Reload, & Reload Gunlock), and afterwards it took three years until the Reload -burial- OVA saw release in 2007 (with one release happening in early 2008). Following that it was another three years-ish for the Saiyuki Gaiden OVA to come out in 2011. After that was the special extra episode of Gaiden in 2013, two years later, & then after yet another four years the series returned to TV. Airing during the Summer 2017 season, Saiyuki Reload Blast takes its name from the currently-running third manga series, which Minekura announced right away as being the final part of the Sanzo Party's mission to stop the revival of Gyumaoh. Obviously, this 12-episode TV series can only cover so much, but was Saiyuki's return to TV worth continuing where everything left off at, or should it have just simply rebooted everything from the start & been more welcoming to newcomers?

It's been two years since Genjo Sanzo, Son Goku, Sha Gojyo, & Cho Hakkai were ordered to head to India in order to stop Gyokumen Koshu from reviving her husband Gyumaoh & unleashing the "Minus Wave" calamity that drove the yokai of Shangri-La crazy. After all this time, the Sanzo Party have finally entered the West, with everything being not just culturally different from what they're familiar with (Sanzo in particular has next to venerability this far out), but also much more ruthless when it comes to yokai attacks; the wave is so powerful here that even half-blooded Gojyo is at risk. Eventually, they come across Sharak Sanzo, the guardian of the defensive Kouten Sutra, but when War Prince Nataku of the Heavenly Realm, who defeated Gyumaoh 500 years ago, decides to come to Earth, does this mean that the Sanzo Party's "employment" has come to an end?

First & foremost, considering the infamy Saiyuki has had with its TV anime productions, how does Reload Blast fare in that regard? Well, to utilize the Saiyuki Wiki one last time, the anime starts off the same exact way as the manga does, adapting the very first chapter of Blast, before heading into filler for Episode 2. Luckily, that's the sole filler for the first half of the anime, as Episode 3 also adapts from the manga. After that comes Episodes 4-6, which are an amusing case. You see, to set up the involvement of Nataku, the Blast anime adapts the same exact stuff that the Saiyuki Gaiden OVA adapted, but does so in an inverse fashion. In other words, whereas Gaiden rushed like hell through the set up & focused primarily on Goku's escape from Heaven, Blast instead covers the set up in a nicely detailed fashion for Episodes 4 & 5, before rushing through Goku's escape in Episode 6. The end result, however, isn't executed in a way where you could simply skip Episode 6 & rely solely on the Gaiden OVA for the escape, but it's definitely worth watching both versions in order to get the whole story. In the end, the first half of this series is mostly accurate to the manga, but, similar to the Reload anime, it's partially because it's adapting from another manga.

The reason why the Blast anime adapts so little of the Blast manga, though, is simply because Minekura almost immediately went into a major story arc upon starting the manga; there was literally nothing else to adapt exactly from the manga. The second half of the Blast anime, however, does seem to follow the example of Reload Gunlock's second half by executing its own take on said major story arc, the Kouten Arc. This introduces Sharak Sanzo, who's effectively a decade-older, gender-swapped version of Genjo Sanzo, right down to her smoking cigarettes & gunning down yokai, though she uses a downright machine gun, & her Kouten guard lead by Hassan, who's harbored feelings for Sharak as long as they've known each other. Since it's only six episodes long, though, the story quickly moves on to a raid lead by Kougaiji & Dokugakuji (oddly enough, Yaone & Lirin are completely absent from this anime, minus a single still shot), followed by Nataku's sudden involvement that leads to the finale. While I can't say how much of the Kouten Arc is accurate to the manga, as I haven't read it yet, it really gives me a similar vibe as how Gunlock handled the Hazel Arc, as it feels like it should be accurate, at least in hitting what feels like the right story beats; hell, even Zakuro returns for a short spat with Goku. This is especially true in regards to a specific character death, which I have to believe has to have happened in the manga as well, because it's that impactful to a certain character dynamic. Finally, the anime does introduce two characters who obviously will have importance in the future, but feature very vaguely here: Saitaisai, a yokai who's revealed to have watched over Sanzo priests for centuries, and Talche, a seer who claims to have "half the blood" of Genjo's master, Koumyou Sanzo.

All that said, though, once must consider how welcoming Saiyuki Reload Blast is for newcomers, especially since this series was simulcast online as it aired, while Saiyuki Gaiden only received a DVD at the time (though it is now streaming over at HIDIVE). In that regard, it is reasonable for people to jump straight into this newest series, as the general concept of Saiyuki has always been rather simple & easy to get a bead on, & the rapport between the Sanzo Party is so strong that it's instantly appealing; the fact that it does also cover the same basic ground as the Gaiden OVA helps, too. That being said, the anime does act as a continuation to what happened in the Saiyuki Reload manga, with numerous moments from the Hazel Arc that were not actually adapted being referenced, like Ukoku Sanzo's fight with the Sanzo Party or Hakkai removing his limiters to subdue Goku when in Seitei Taisei mode; interestingly enough, Hazel isn't brought up or shown even once. Luckily, these moments are brief & delivered in a very matter-of-fact fashion, so newcomers won't feel left out for more than a few short moments before the main story continues. Still, if you were to start with Saiyuki Reload Blast, & enjoyed what you saw, then I'd recommend going back to at least Gensou Maden Saiyuki, which is also streaming over at HIDIVE.

Really, though, the biggest appeal for this anime is in the writing, handled by Kenji Konuta (Ace of Diamond, Blood Lad), which matches Minekura's style perfectly, especially when it comes to how the Sanzo Party talk to each other about stuff that's going on. They point out how repetitive the random yokai hordes act & speak like it's old hat, incessantly tease their opponents to hit them harder in a fight, insult each other to the point of wanting to kill each other (and, in this series, actually do have a literal fight with each other, for once), worry that the worst thing about potentially being replaced by Nataku is that their credit card will get frozen (as they were using the back account of the gods), & have gone so long with this trip that they even refer to it as going around the corner to get a pack of smokes. Alongside the personal stories for the leads, Saiyuki has always been at its best when the Sanzo Party is consistently able to crack wise & take everything around them with a grand sense of lackadaisicalness. The Blast anime handles that feeling perfectly, & even Sharak & Hassan follow that style to a fair extent, too. That's not to say that the serious moments aren't well done, however, because they're also done nicely. The writing is also generally good for Ura-sai, quick gag shorts done at the end of most episodes, which itself is a carryover from the original Reload anime.

In terms of the staff involved here, we once again get another change of studios, this time with the young Platinum Vision handling the animation duties here (though, as always, original studio Pierrot did help produce), with direction by Hideaki Nakano (Aoharu x Machinegun, Servamp). Overall, the animation for this show is very nice, with no real animation errors to be found, especially since this is the TV-aired version I'm going off of, & a great use of colors; there were some cheap tricks used to hide a lack of animation here & there, but oh well. In fact, the anime did seem to hearken back to the prior TV anime productions at times, with some uses of a TV static filter early on, followed by giving a re-use of earlier episode footage a downright used VHS filter, which really felt like the natural evolution of what Gensou Maden Saiyuki first made use of. At the same time, though, there is an overabundance of having blood splatter hit the "camera" during action scenes, to the point where it loses all effectiveness after only a couple of episodes, & the fact that explosions were obviously done via CG just clashed way too much for the scenes they were used in; I did like one moment where Genjo's bullet breaks the "camera lens", though, as it was very stylish. The character designs by Youko Satou (Dog & Scissors, the upcoming Kakuriyo Yadomeshi) are an ideal follow up to all of the prior Saiyuki anime, with the Sanzo Party looking like they always have, & the new characters look great, too.

The music by Tatsuya Kato (Free!, Food Wars!) is an interesting blend of the more rock-infused style of the older TV anime productions & the more orchestral style of the recent OVAs. Granted, no other Saiyuki anime's soundtrack matches what Motoi Sakuraba did way back in 2000, but Kato's work here is more than fitting, and the heavy use of the piano actually really helps. The opening theme is "Move on! Ibaramichi" by Granrodeo, which not only follows the group's usual hard rock style, but also maintain's the tradition of Saiyuki TV series having hard rock theme songs; it's a bit "same-y" in some regards, but still a fun song nonetheless. The ending theme is "Refrain" by Luck Life, and kind of calls back to the very first Saiyuki ED by being a fast-paced rock song, compared to the slower-paced rock songs that prior TV ending themes moved over towards; the stream of still shots establishing the Sanzo Party's pasts & general aloofness is fun, too.

The Japanese voice cast once again retains more or less the same exact seiyuu that have worked on Saiyuki since it started on TV, so at this point I think it's redundant to once again bring up Seki, Hoshi, Hirata, & Ishida as the Sanzo Party; they're just as enjoyable as ever. Takeshi Kusao reprises his role as Kougaiji for the first time since Reload Gunlock (as the character wasn't in Reload -burial- or Gaiden), and he likewise sounds just as good as did back then. Similarly, Rei Igarashi (Diana Kuroha Shiratori in Eden of the East, Precia Testarossa in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha) returns as Kanzeon Bosatsu, delivering the same, fitting androgynous performance as ever. One interesting return back in Gaiden was Kaho Kouda (Cher Degre in Wolf's Rain, Miho Karasuma in Witch Hunter Robin), who voiced Nataku way back in Gensou Maden, and she returns again for Blast. Kouda's range of emotion really shows the most during the Gaiden portion of the story, though she also does a fittingly unemotional & robotic performance during Nataku's assaults at the end of the show. Dokugakuji did see a recast, however, with Jin Yamanoi (Rolento in Street Fighter Alpha & IV) taking the place of Jurota Kosugi (who had himself replaced Dai Matsumoto), with Yamanoi delivering a similarly deep voiced performance, making it so as to not sound too different from Kosugi's prior performances. Sharak Sanzo is voiced by Masako Katsuki (Reccoa Londe in Zeta Gundam, Tsunade in Naruto), whose deep voice fits the character's no-nonsense (but deep down caring & reliable) personality perfectly. Then we have Junichi Suwabe as Saitaisai & Chiwa Saito as Talchie, who both do fine with what little they're given.

Only the finest garbs for our heroes...

Then there's FUNimation English dub, which I feel I shouldn't really judge completely, as it was a simuldub, & therefore could theoretically see fixes for a home video release; therefore, I won't judge it as I would a normal dub. The most notable thing about the dub is that David Matranga & Greg Ayers returned once again to play Genjo Sanzo/Konzen Douji & Son Goku, but Sha Gojyo/General Kenren & Cho Hakkai/Field Marshal Tenpou were recast with Ian Sinclair (Brook in One Piece) & Micah Solusod (Toma Kamijo in A Certain Magical Index), respectively, now performing them. Beyond that, though, there is carry over from Sentai's dub for Saiyuki Gaiden, with Clint Bickham & Shelley Calene-Black reprising their roles as Nataku & Kanzeon Bosatsu, & I didn't seem to notice anyone pointing out that Yuri Lowenthal also returned after 13 years to reprise Kougaiji, which he did back with Gensou Maden & the Requiem movie. Finally, the dub is rounded out with Josh Grelle as Dokugakuji, Anastasia Munoz (Minerva in Fairy Tail) as Sharak Sanzo, David Wald (Duke Togo in Golgo 13 TV) as Hassan, Monical Rial as Talche, & Aaron Roberts as Saitaisai. From the little bit I checked, it sounded solid, with Sinclair & Solusod being good replacements for Illich Guardiola & Braden Hunt, Lowenthal's performance apparently more than pleasing old-time fans, & the newer actors matched their characters well. That being said, there was the odd use of characters saying "Sanzo Genjo" instead of Genjo Sanzo, but I guess that could be fixed for a home video release.

The Japanese covers had the present day cast on one side, &
their former Gaiden incarnations on the other. Nice touch.

The simplest way to describe the Saiyuki Reload Blast anime is that it's, for better or worse, the same Saiyuki that you might remember from back in the day. On the one hand, it's nice to see that, even with new staff & even animation studio, it still feels like the same Saiyuki after all these years, and that's very welcoming; for those who hadn't seen any of this series in a while, it's like seeing an old friend once again. That being said, I watched this after already watching 50 episodes of the original three TV series, a movie, & a four-episode OVA... And only now do I realize that I may have overdone it a bit with effectively mainlining so much Saiyuki over the course of a month, as this newest series doesn't break the mold that much. Still, I can easily tell that Saiyuki Reload Blast is a really good reprise of the main series, & there are some interesting advancements in the plot that, at the very least, seem to feel like they match what Kazuya Minekura is likely doing with the manga currently. Considering that we may never actually get the manga legally here in North America, this is easily something to watch if you're an existing fan of Saiyuki, and want to see where the story goes next.

As for newcomers who might have heard of the series before & are curious, this is by no means a bad starting point, and I can see people going into this relatively blind & enjoying it well enough; the Sanzo Party is really the selling point of the series, in general. If you're still interested in going back to where it started after this show, then at least a decent portion of the old stuff is out there via streaming, and (as I indicated in the Sutural Sutra) the DVDs for the rest of the manga-adapted episodes aren't exactly hard to get a hold of.


  1. Hello! As a huge fan of Saiyuki, I stumbled upon your blog and was pleasantly surprised to find such detailed analysis of every anime adaptation this amazing series had througout the years. I'm definitely more of a manga fan, so I was very pleased to learn certain details about the making of the anime that not even a die-hard fan like me was aware of! However, by reading this review and seeing the importance you stress on accuracy, I have to point something out: when Taruchie/Talchie (going with the manga spelling out of habit) talks about her being related to the former sutra holder by blood, she isn't referring to Koumyou at all, but actually to Tenkai Sanzo. He shows up in Saiyuki Ibun, where we learn that he was the previous holder of the Maten Sutra, the one that Genjo Sanzo carries; he passed the sutra onto Koumyou upon his death, so at that point Genjo's master held two sutras, Maten and Seiten (the latter being inherited formally). Thing is, someone who hasn't read the manga would have no way of knowing because they decided to edit poor Tenkai out of the scene. This was such a baffling choice in my opinion, because just by including a still image of him and Taruchie next to each other (like they did in the manga) no one would have any question about on the nature their relantionship, given that they're actually twins : ) So yeah, this detail REALLY bugged me because it lead to understandable confusion among anime-only viewers. There are many other little questionable choices but that one really stood out to me, which reinforces my opinion that adapting something that it's not not nearly close to the end just isn't the wisest idea. The anime was ok though, probably the best Saiyuki anime adaptation excluding the OVAs, but I'd rather have give the whole anime a full-reboot instead. I'm guessing that would have been too much of a risk given it's sadly one of those series that has lost popularity throughout the years due to Minekura's health condition. I'm still happy it was made, even though in the eyes of a fan of the manga it was pretty much superflous. Still, I really enjoyed this and every other Saiyuki reviews. Sucks that this is the last one, but who knows if there's gonna be more in store in the future... (an Even a Worm OVA would be nice, so that the retconning of Gunlock would be completed : ) Ibun OVA would be also cool given it's my favorite series!)

    1. I simply took Talche's phrasing to be purposefully so as to set up something in the manga, but nice to read some more clarification about it. As I stated in the review, I have no read the Blast manga, so it's understandable why I came to that conclusion. At least you also clarified that the anime did adapt further into the manga than I thought, which is neat.

      Also, thank you for reading the rest of the Saiyuki pieces over the month. I'm no superfan of the series, but I do enjoy it a bunch.

  2. Oh yeah of course, my criticism was directed to the way they handled that scene in the anime, I also believe that there wouldn't have been any other way to interpret it based on the anime alone showed :) That's why I thought IdI clarify that for anime-only viewers. Overall it followed the manga pretty closely, but failed to portray certain subleties that can be found there. One thing that they added (which surprised me) was Zakuro's scene: he hasn't appeared in Blast yet, but I guess they wanted to retcon his death shown in Gunlock, because I'm the manga he hasn't died :') That gives me high hopes for an eventual Hazel arc reboot, because the story told in the manga was much more compelling and I'd love to see Ukoku's fight animated.

    I'm definitely nit-picking as a die-hard fan, but overall I definitely enjoyed the ride. I'll be happy if Platviz will do more with the series.

  3. can nyone speculate about whether they will be able to defeat gyumaoh