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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Saiyuki Requiem - The Motion Picture: "Open Up Your Mind" to a Different Side of Saiyuki

Welcome, reader, to The Land of Obscusion's 2018, which is the "Year of Unfinished Business". Such an endeavor can be compared to a massive journey, one where I look back at what I had written about during the previous seven years, and see what I ignored, missed out on, or simply forgot to cover. In fact, one could call this a "Journey to the Max", so what better way to start out this year of returning to previous series & creators that I had once covered than with Kazuya Minekura's Saiyuki?

Over the course of a little over a week at the end of August 2012, I reviewed the three Saiyuki OVAs that had never been officially licensed & released in North America: 1999's Saiyuki "Premium" (which pre-dated the TV anime), 2002's Saiyuki: Kibou no Zaika (an interactive OVA, though I watched a bootleg that removed the interactivity & likely didn't give me the best ending), & 2007's Saiyuki Reload -burial- (which adapted the flashback arc of the same name from Saiyuki Reload). To this day, none of these OVAs have since been licensed, which is sad (especially for the last one) but understandable. That being said, there are two other non-TV Saiyuki productions out there, both of which did see license & release in North America, so let's see if I missed out by not including them in my coverage over five years ago. Up first is Saiyuki Requiem: Requiem for the One Not Chosen (yes, it is that redundant), simply titled Saiyuki Requiem - The Motion Picture by ADV, the franchise's sole theatrically released movie from August 18, 2001, a few months following the end of Gensou Maden Saiyuki, the first TV series.

After taking out a small army of crazed yokai, the Sanzo Party get lost trying to head to the next town, only to wind up running into a young woman being hunted by a giant bird monster. After losing it in the woods, the lady, named Houran, offers to welcome the Sanzo Party at the mansion of the master she works for, including food & board for the night. Soon enough, though, the truth starts to unravel, as Genzo Sanjo, Son Goku, Sha Gojyo, & Cho Hakkai were lead to this mansion so that the master, Go Dougan, can enact his vengeance on the group, for misgivings he feels they did to him three years ago. Meanwhile, the Kougaiji Party comes across the bird monster themselves, and after dispatching it, follow the Sanzo Party's tracks to the mansion, in order to find out who could even summon such a creature.

Saiyuki Requiem follows the same general format as many other movies based on long-running anime, like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Fairy Tail, etc., but does change things up in some ways that help make it just different enough. For example, movies of this ilk tend to not shake up the status quo much, if it all, which allows them to be both rather standalone as well as friendly to newcomers, and since Saiyuki in general has a very basic concept behind it (it's a road trip to save the day), it's not all that hard for this movie to avoid intruding on what's already happened. What this movie does do, however, is tie itself into, or at least similarly reference, events that did happen in the main story, which strengthens the narrative into something that feels substantial, rather than feel throwaway, like many of these types of movies wind up being.

The main reason for this is due to Go Dougan himself, who is appropriately not really seen all that much until the last third of the movie; in fact, his name isn't even revealed until near the end, but I need to ID him for this review. Without outright giving away his story, Dougan works so well because he's shown to be someone who you could easily have believed existed back during the flashbacks involving the Sanzo Party, but was simply never shown because he was nothing more than a bit player, if even that. At the same time, however, his very status as such an inconsequential character is part of what drives him as the villain in this movie, and when mixed with what was likely an already existing mental instability, his basic reason for becoming the villain that he is does make sense & is relatable to some extent. Of course, said instability also results in him doing things (both in the past & present) that a normal person would consider to be legitimately insane, so Dougan still avoids being too sympathetic, which in turn makes him a great villain.

"Hi, we're the Kougaiji Party... And that's all we do in this movie!"

Then there's Houran, who fits in with a backstory of her own, and I enjoyed how she not only had her own existential conundrum in general (similar to that of Gojyo's), but she also had a second problem due to Dougan, specifically in how he came to be the master of both her & the mansion. I've always felt that Saiyuki is at its best when it's about the Sanzo Party & their own personal problems, and Requiem fits into that category well here, due to a surprisingly well executed use of fakes. While enemies using fake versions of the Sanzo Party had been done before, like with the fortune teller Chin Yisou, it usually failed due to the characters being able to tell quickly that they weren't the real deals. Dougan's fakes, on the other hand, are extremely accurate & manipulative, and the ways that each member of the Sanzo Party falls for each of them are both clever as well as constantly putting on the fence on whether you know if someone's a fake or the real deal. Really, the only thing for me to complain about because of pointlessness is the inclusion of the Kougaiji Party, as they contribute next to nothing to the movie. They don't interact with anyone else in the story, and the backstory that Yaone & Dokugakuji explain at one point could have easily been moved over to Houran telling it to Gojyo when she reveals her own past later on. The Kougaiji Party were only included here because they're the rival party to our heroes, so they seemingly must be in expanded productions like this, just like how Kougaiji & Yaone were next to pointless in the original Saiyuki "Premium" OVAs; at least in the Kibou no Zaika interactive anime they have an actual reason to be there.

Saiyuki Requiem was written by Katsuyuki Sumisawa (Naruto, Gundam Wing), who was also the head writer for Gensou Maden Saiyuki, and though he did admit at Otakon 2017 that Kazuya Minekura was the only mangaka to ever admit some level of displeasure with his writing, I feel that the writing here is honestly the big reason why the movie works so well; Sumisawa really did "get" the Sanzo Party. Now, to be fair, Minekura did help in the creation of this movie, even admitting in the included text interview to heavily altering the original concept from a general "humans vs. yokai" plot, so maybe this is more of a case of Sumisawa & Minekura working together to create a better product. Regardless, the Sanzo Party feel extremely accurate to how they should be acting, the inclusion of call backs to their own tragic pasts is utilized very well (Hakkai's especially), and once you get to the main plot you realize that there are only six characters in the entire story (the Sanzo Party, Houran, & Dougan... No, I'm not counting the Kougaiji Party), which keeps everything very focused on the story it wants to tell. While Saiyuki in general is generally thought of as a very laid-back kind of action series, this movie instead is a more of a somber & mysterious character drama, which really gives it its own identity amongst all of the other anime productions.

Really, the movie acts as a bit of reunion for a lot of the staff from the original TV series, with Hayato Date (Naruto, Tokyo Underground) returning to direct, Yuji Moriyama (Blazing Transfer Student, Maison Ikkoku) handling the character designs & leading the animation direction, & episode directors Masahiko Murata, Toshiyuki Tsuru, & Masaaki Kumagai doing the storyboarding & unit directing; even art directors Mio Isshiki & Yuji Ikeda return. Even then, however, this movie is very much a "traditional" cel-animated production, whereas the original anime was obviously a cel/digital mix; there is some CG, but it's actually rather limited. The end result is that the movie has a much, much softer & grainier look to it compared to the TV series, something that digital animation has never truly managed to properly replicate. Not just that, but since it's a theatrically-released production the animation is much smoother & fluid at every point compared to the TV series, which did admittedly use some obvious limited animation tricks. Still, the movie does maintain some of those tricks, especially the use of cut-ins & utilizing a TV-like "static" filter while using said cut-ins, which helps showcase how those tricks also helped give Gensou Maden a very strong style all its own.

Considering how much staff returned, it's then all the more surprising that Motoi Sakuraba did not return for this movie, instead being replaced by Akira Senju (B't X, Valvrave the Liberator). The end result is a complete about-face in terms of sound, as Sakuraba's TV soundtrack was very much rock-heavy & very video game-esque (no surprise, considering Sakuraba also does game soundtracks). Senju, on the other hand, is a master of orchestral compositions, and here it is much more focused on delivering strong emotion, especially those of dread & sadness, which really fit the generally somber mood the movie focuses on; Senju does toss in a rock theme or two at the start & end, though, which also work. The ending theme during the credits is "Tightrope" by Tetsu 69, which has no relation whatsoever with Gensou Maden's first ending theme, "Tightrope" by Charcoal Filter; it's just a wild coincidence that they have the same title. Compared to Charcoal Filter's fun ska/rock song, Tetsu 69's song is a more dramatic rock song that matches the general style of the movie well.

Obviously, the cast from the TV anime returned for the movie, and they all deliver pitch perfect performances. Toshihiko Seki, Shoichiro Hoshi, Akira Ishida, & Hiroaki Hirata all have iconic roles for voicing Sanzo, Goku, Hakkai, & Gojyo, respectively, and the same can be said for Takeshi Kusao & Yuko Minaguchi voicing Kougaiji & Yaone; Dai Matsumoto & Kaoru Morota wouldn't return to voice Dokugakuji & Lirin after Kibou no Zaika. That pretty much leaves the two original characters for this movie, who both do fine jobs, as well. Dougan is voiced by Ryotaro Okiayu, who honestly delivers a mostly out-of-typecast performance here, as he goes for a much lighter sound in his voice, which is different from the usually deep sound his performances tend to have. Houran is performed by Akiko Yajima, who hits a nice range, going from resigned to her fate to being strong enough to make a difference. Overall, it's a small major cast, but one that stays very good all the way through.

I've actually never heard ADV's dub for Saiyuki before, directed by the infamous Steven Foster (though here his influence in nowhere to be found), even though it became a fairly iconic dub for its time back in the 00s, so much so that there was some annoyance that Geneon recast everyone for its dubs of Reload & Reload Gunlock, followed by celebration that they were reunited by Sentai for Saiyuki Gaiden, and then followed once again by slight disappointment when FUNimation only brought back two of them for Saiyuki Reload Burst last year. David Matranga voices Sanzo, who matches Seki's gruff voice somewhat well, and I can see why he was brought back both times in the past few years. The other double-returner is Greg Ayers as Goku, who similarly matches Hoshi's high-pitched voice, but manages to give it enough of his own style to make it one of Ayers' most iconic roles. Hakkai is voiced by Braden Hunt (Okita in Peacemaker Kurogane), who left the anime industry in the mid-to-late 00s, but his performance was still considered iconic enough to have him come back for at least Gaiden; personally, I think Hunt isn't one of the stronger performances, though he's not exactly "bad". Finally, there's Gojyo, who's voiced by Illich Guardiola. Overall, Guardiola's performance is fine, slotting right between Matranga & Ayers' generally good performances, & Hunt's "okay" performance. Guardiola would return for Gaiden, but a year later in 2014 was arrested for sexual assault, which was later dropped because he was married to his 16-year old student... He was 41 at the time. Moving on, Andy McAvin & Kelli Cousins do fitting jobs as Dougan & Houran, especially McAvin's crazy moments, while the Kougaiji Party's cast is fine, but I prefer to not count them here. Really, the only nagging issue with the dub is the occasional odd name pronunciation, like "Dugan" & "Hulan".

I've had ADV's DVD for Saiyuki Reqiuem - The Motion Picture for a long while at this point, but I never bothered to actually watch it until now. Like many other examples in this blog's history, I now feel that I really shouldn't have held off on it for so long, because this is not just a great example of a long-running anime getting a theatrical movie, but it's also just a great anime movie in & of itself. Instead of focusing on the laid-back action that Kazuya Minekura's series was partially known for (we all know what another part of the appeal is for some people...), the movie decides to instead tell a more character-driven story, playing on the Sanzo Party's general respect/disdain for each other, their own individual pasts, & a villain who feels as though he could have always been around back in the day. The end result is a really cool slow burn of a film, and though it does reference events & characters from the main story (as far in as the Be There flashback arc), I could still see this movie working for newcomers well enough. Luckily, ADV's DVD, which features extras like the previously-mentioned text interview with Minekura & a commentary by Foster & the main dub cast, can still be had for less than $10, so I'd say that it's a no-brainer of a purchase if you're an existing Saiyuki fan that never picked it up, or if you've been curious about the series but hesitant to really get into it.

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