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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Sutural Sutra of Saiyuki: Can You Just Skip the Filler?

Kazuya Minekura's Saiyuki has been running on & off ever since 1997 via three series of manga, Saiyuki, Saiyuki Reload, & Saiyuki Reload Blast, and that's not counting prequel series Saiyuki Gaiden & Saiyuki Ibun, which both ran during the main series' runs. Since it became a rather fast success, it eventually got adapted into a TV anime in 2000, a couple of years before the original series came to an end in 2002. Due to a mix of not wanting to catch up to where Minekura was in the story & the franchise in general being really, really popular, especially with female audiences, the Saiyuki anime adaptations have become one of the most infamous examples of staff creating their own anime-original stories, which are often colloquially referred to as "filler", since they tend to do nothing but pad out overall runtime. In fact, according to the Saiyuki Wiki, out of a total 101 episodes spread out across three TV anime (not counting the Saiyuki Reload Blast anime from 2017), only 36 episodes actually adapt from the first two manga series; yes, just barely over a third of the anime is accurate to the manga. Over the years, I've managed to get all of the DVDs ADV & Geneon released for these original three anime series, and I've always wondered something: Can you actually just skip the filler & watch the manga-accurate episodes as a proper adaptation of Minekura's manga?

You see, filler comes in a variety of ways, but can be categorized into two primary forms that I've given names to. One form is "intrusive filler", which is when the original content mixes into the adapted content, making it effectively impossible to ignore or simply skip over. This can either be beneficial & expand on established story, like how Fullmetal Alchemist [2003] actually showed Basque Gran's death (whereas the manga simply referred to it), or it can be detrimental, like how Saint Seiya's early filler actively changed the way the plot actually happens when compared to the manga. The other form is "passive filler", which is when the original content is self-contained & doesn't really affect the adapted content, outside of maybe said original content being referenced to after the fact. This is usually the more common form of filler, as it allows for things like "filler arcs", which tend to not really interfere with the manga story too much (if at all) & act more like side stories; there are exceptions, though, like the end of Saint Seiya's Asgard Chapter tying into the manga-adapted Poseidon Chapter. Therefore, I decided to experiment & took note of which episodes of 2000's Gensou Maden Saiyuki, 2003's Saiyuki Reload, & 2004's Saiyuki Reload Gunlock are adaptations of the manga, and by only watching those episodes I want to see if Minekura's story is told with little to no interference from the filler.

Are you ready, you hellions?

Like most anime adaptations of manga, Gensou Maden Saiyuki starts off as a normal adaptation, with the first nine episodes all being taken straight from Minekura's manga. In fact, it's a rather steady pace, with every three episodes covering an entire volume's worth of content, so after Episode 9 we're all done with Volume 3. I've generally felt that 3-4 episodes per volume of manga is the ideal adaptation rate, and after double-checking against the manga, I can say that said episodes are pretty much accurate to the source material. Sure, there are a handful of minor details that are ignored, and some content is censored due to TV restrictions, but they're simply for the sake of pace, and nothing removed makes any real difference in the grand scheme of things; this stays the same for the remaining adapted episodes from here on out, for the most part.

These episodes introduce the plot of Genjo Sanzo being ordered by the Sanbutsushin/Three Aspects of Buddhism to head to India to stop the vile Gyokumen Koshu from reviving a powerful yokai named Gyumaoh after 500 years, which has resulted in a "minus wave" calamity that turns the normally friendly yokai of Shangri-La into crazed & evil beings, becoming hated by humans. Sanzo is joined by Son Goku, Sha Gojyo, & Cho Hakkai, three yokai friends of his who are unaffected by the calamity due to their own personal reasons. To stop the "Sanzo Party", Koshu sends various yokai at them, including forces lead by Kougaiji, Gyumaoh's son who is only helping Koshu because she sealed away his mother, and Koshu promises to free her in return.

This run of episodes is mostly episodic, dealing with the Sanzo Party stopping at various towns, temples, & villagers' homes to generally take a break or sleep for the night, only to wind up being attacked by yokai, though the last four are a pair of two-parters, dealing with more pertinent & character-focused storytelling. Episode 10 marks the first filler, dealing with a fake Sanzo Party that simply wants recognition & money (& are actually brought back much later in the first anime), but it's placement is really odd. The two episodes before it mark the introduction of Chin Yisou, a fortune teller who has a relation to Hakkai's past (when he went by the name Cho Gonou), and there's no reason why the first filler couldn't have been Episode 8 instead. This is because Episodes 11 & 12, which adapt Volume 4 of the manga, are the rest of the Chin Yisou Arc, which makes the use of a filler in the middle of a story arc that just got started really bizarre; at this early point, I'd figure that the staff knew where they'd be in terms of adapting. Anyway, the Chin Yisou Arc is similarly adapted very accurately, though we do get a case of the anime skipping over a chapter. Chapter 23, Survive, finished out Volume 4 & focused mostly the sutras that are essential to the revival of Gyumaoh, the Maten Sutra that Genjo Sanzo wears on his shoulders being one of them; the villains already have the Seiten Sutra, which Genjo's master Koumyou Sanzo once had. Double-checking the Wiki, it looks like this chapter was never actually adapted, which is odd, especially since one of the major plot points introduced, which is that the Kougaiji Party changes focus towards getting the remaining three sutras, is referenced not too long later in the anime. Not a major loss, but a curious one, regardless.

After skipping the next two episodes, which are also filler, Episodes 15 & 16 adapt the four-chapter Be There Arc, the first flashback story arc that explains how Gojyo met Cho Gonou, how Sanzo & Goku met those two, & how Cho Gonou became Cho Hakkai. As I mentioned in my review of Saiyuki Reload -burial- back in 2012, I've always felt that Kazuya Minekura's Saiyuki is at its strongest when the focus is on the personal stories of the Sanzo Party. She made four very relatable & likable characters, and seeing them aim to become better people & rise beyond their pasts tend to create the better stories in this series; it's also why the Chin Yisou Arc is so good. Anyway, skipping over the next three episodes (padding, padding, paaadding!), we get Episodes 20-22, which adapt the Sandstorm Arc, where a red herring story about a Sanzo who once got eaten & had his sutra stolen results in the Sanzo Party fighting with Kougaiji & his ally Dokugakuji (formerly Gojyo's brother Sha Jien). It's adapted extremely well, and this brings an end to Gensou Maden Saiyuki's accuracy to the manga. After another few standalone fillers the second half of this anime enters a giant filler arc involving War God/Prince Homura, which runs all the way to the end (Episode 50). As it does relate to Goku's past, & Minekura herself apparently designed Homura & his crew, there is a little bit of Saiyuki Gaiden adapted, & the final episode does adapt a paltry three pages from Chapter 35 of the original series. That being said, if you just want the manga story, then you can stop watching the first anime after Episode 22. Why the massive filler? The anime caught up, since Minekura decided to tell an actual, multi-volume story arc...

The End Result?
From those first 22 episodes, before it goes into endless filler until the end, Gensou Maden Saiyuki is mostly manga accurate, with only 8 episodes of filler mixed in with the adaptations. Much like how that results in 2/3 of the episodes being accurate, this gets you up through all but the last chapter of Volume 6 (#36), or about 2/3 of the original series. It does, sadly, skip out on Chapter 23, but overall the filler here is all "passive".

Minekura "ended" Saiyuki in January 2002, but that was simply because she decided to move the series from Enix's Monthly GFantasy, a shonen magazine, to Ichijinsha's Monthly Comic Zero-Sum, a josei magazine, just two months later; Saiyuki Gaiden would also move over the following year. Saiyuki Reload would be more or less as popular, and in October 2003 a second season of TV anime would debut. Instead of simply continuing where the last anime left off, however, the Reload anime moves that first "true" story arc to the second half of the show, so as to possibly end with a sense of grandeur, with the first half being nearly all filler. That being said, there are three episodes in the first half which adapt from the Reload manga, so let me see if that results in anything weird.

Episode 1 adapts the first chapter of the Reload manga pretty much panel for panel, right down to the Sanzo Party trying to pull a hoods & shades look, as they have become notorious among yokai, as now it seems like any & all yokai are hunting after them, instead of simply assassins sent by Gykumen Koshu; it made sense as a silly tease for the manga moving between magazines, and it works here, too. Instead of adapting the next story from the manga, though, the anime skips ahead to the end of Volume 1 & beginning of Volume 2 for Episode 3, to tell a story about the Sanzo Party fighting doppelgangers of them. It isn't all too original, but it's fun nonetheless, and the fact that the fake Sanzo Party wear the original manga outfits is a nice touch. After this we skip once again, but instead of an episode or two we jump all the way to Episode 13, which adapts a 14-page short story from Volume 2 where Hakuryu, the Sanzo Party's pet dragon, gets accidentally kidnapped by three kids. Obviously, with such a short chapter to use as source material, the anime embellishes a little by having a bunch of thieves find out about Hakuryu being a dragon that can transform into a jeep, but it's honestly a fun addition; plus, more Hakuryu is never a bad thing.

Following that we skip two more episodes of filler before we hit Episodes 16-25, the rest of Reload, which adapts the rest of the original manga that Gensou Maden couldn't get to. Unfortunately, Episode 16, which adapts the rest of Chapter 35 & explains what happened to Kougaiji following the Sandstorm Arc, plus some backstory for Goku, does a little bit of readjusting to make it follow a couple of filler episodes, but this is solely to re-establish Kougaiji as being heavily injured at the hands of Goku, since there were tons of filler in between that utilized the Kougaiji Party. Luckily, the reference to said filler is right at the start of the episode, and uses the same basic set-up (Kougaiji vs. Goku in a desert environment), so you can squint your eyes & just make believe that it's referencing the Sandstorm Arc, because everything else in the episode is manga accurate. Finally, the remaining episodes adapt the Kami-sama Arc, the first truly lengthy story arc, where, after getting involved with twins demon boys named Ginkaku & Kinkaku, the Sanzo Party find out about a man who calls himself "God", and eventually realize that "God", & his master Ukoku Sanzo, is a part of Sanzo's past. Following the same pacing as that of Gensou Maden, a.k.a. 3 episodes/volume, Reload's adaptation of the arc is very accurate, maintaining the high quality of the story itself, & is really the highlight of what's honestly a little bit of a disappointing second anime series, from a technical perspective. Simply put, Gensou Maden's use of various visual effects, like clever cut-ins, & Motoi Sakuraba's soundtrack helped give that anime an identity, while Reload is a much more "standard" production, with little to nothing giving it its own identity. Even the opening & ending themes, minus the second ED, are either blasé or trying way too hard to sound hip.

The End Result?
The Saiyuki Reload anime is, I feel, the point where these anime adaptations start getting their reputation for being "nothing but filler". Yes, Gensou Maden's entire second half is filler, but at least it's due to telling a long-form, giant story arc. Reload, amusingly enough, it technically more adaptation (13 episodes) than filler, but it's literally just because 25 can't be split into two even halves. Also, the only reason why there's even that much adaptation is because it's playing catch up with the original manga for the last 10 episodes; in terms of adapting the manga it's actually named after, you only have three episodes. While I would have preferred bunching the adaptations more closely together, I literally skipped DVD Volumes 2 & 3 since they were nothing but filler, overall Reload's adaptations more or less follow the motif that the previous series followed when it comes to adapting the manga, minus that one bit when it moves back into the original manga story. Luckily, the Reload adaptations don't interfere with the original plot, either.

Unlike the prior two anime series, which both aired in 6:30 pm prime time slots, Saiyuki Reload Gunlock, which debuted only a week following Reload's end, aired late-night at 1:30 am; I guess ratings for the second series weren't hot, but there was still enough interest in general. With the original GFantasy run finally adapted in full, this third series could focus solely on the Reload manga, which was still about five years from actually finishing up. Unlike the prior manga, though, Minekura wound up making most of the second manga revolve around a single, gigantic story arc, so Gunlock could really only adapt so much before hitting a roadblock half way through. Still, the first half is where the actual adapting is concentrated into, so let's see if Gunlock continues the generally "passive" use of filler that I've seen.

Unlike the prior two anime, Gunlock actually starts with filler, so we'll skip Episode 1 & instead start with Episode 2, which actually goes back to the original manga one last time to adapt the first half of Chapter 44, where it's revealed that Kougaiji has been brainwashed by Ni Jenyi, the evil doctor working for Gyokumen Koshu, into a heartless yokai after his loss to Goku back during the Sandstorm Arc; the Reload anime adapted the second half, which continued the Kami-sama Arc. This short bit of manga-accurate stuff is padded out with the Sanzo Party having trouble dealing with a pack of bears while in the forest, which is amusing filler, but it's still essential to watch this episode, as it sets up the next batch of episodes, which are completely manga accurate. Oddly enough, though, Gunlock doesn't bother to actually adapt the Reload manga in any sort of chronological order, which even the Reload anime did maintain, as Episodes 3-6 adapt the Against the Stream Arc, which runs from the middle of Volume 2 into Volume 3. It sees the Sanzo Party split up while trying to cross a river that's infested with yokai, resulting in Sanzo, Gojyo, & Hakkai having to deal with Zakuro, a master of hypnosis, while Goku winds up having to take on the crazed Kougaiji on his own, all while Dokugakuji & fellow party member Yaone try to bring their friend back to his senses. This story arc is likewise adapted very accurately, & though Gunlock's animation looks to be a bit lazier than Reload's at times, it also brings back some bits of Genso Maden's visual flair here & there, mainly the use of the TV static filter for some cut-ins &flashbacks, which is nice to see. After that, we move on to Episode 10, which goes backwards & adapts Snow Drop, a two-chapter story from Volume 1, where the gang comes across Yakumo, a yokai living in a snowy mountain who's been unaffected by the calamity, and takes care of some abandoned yokai children. When combined with the Reload anime's early episodes, we now have all of Saiyuki Reload up through the middle of Volume 3 properly adapted; it's just done so in a bit of a schizophrenic order.

Watch the Mighty Zakuro tell you where your hippocampus is!

Gunlock doesn't bother to adapt the Burial Arc, a flashback arc that would later gets its own (excellent) OVA series in 2007, instead trying its own hand at Saiyuki Reload's primary storyline, the Hazel Arc, also known as the Even a Worm Arc (since that's what the manga calls the chapters that tell this arc). In Japan, Gunlock would finish airing just two days before Volume 4 of Reload, which contained the beginning of this story arc, saw release, so Minekura had only just started the Hazel Arc by the time the anime staff decided to use the entire second half of Gunlock (Episodes 13-26) to do their own take. Still, considering that this arc has never been accurately adapted into anime, I might as well quickly go over how the manga & anime versions of the Hazel Arc differ, and if the anime's version works in any way as a viable replacement, even if only in a small fashion.

First of all, it's odd that the Saiyuki Wiki doesn't mention this, but Episodes 13 & 14 do adapt the first five chapters of Even a Worm from the Reload manga, with only a handful of minor changes for flow, which is admittedly better than I was expecting; I guessed it would barely adapt a whole episode's worth. Therefore, the Saiyuki anime technically had 38 episodes of manga adaptation. This results in the anime at least having the same basic set up, where the Sanzo Party meet up with Hazel Grosse, a Bishop from the Western Continent (a.k.a. North America), who has come to Shangri-La to kill all yokai & have a world without any & all demons & monsters. He also uses a talisman to accumulate yokai souls so that he can transfer them to humans who the yokai have killed, similar to his giant Native American bodyguard Gato; said revived humans all have yellow eyes & became crazed into killing yokai. The end of Episode 14 changes things up, however, by having Ni Jenyi convince Hazel to eventually steal Sanzo's Maten Sutra, turning Hazel into basically a villain. This is completely different from the manga, as Hazel actually knows Ni Jenyi under his prior alias, Ukoku Sanzo, as Hazel met him years ago as a child during Ukoku's travels. In the manga, Hazel is a well-intentioned extremist whose beliefs were simply corrupted as a child (& not just by Ukoku...), and his realization that humans & yokai really aren't all that different, both in the good & bad, is one of the larger overlying character arcs in the story.

Since it obviously can't tell the same story as that of the manga, then Gunlock's Hazel Arc at least has to offer something that the manga doesn't, right? Luckily, it actually does by bringing the Kougaiji Party into the fold starting with Episode 17. In the manga, Kougaiji & his pals are essentially ignored, minus one short bit where they're kept up to date on the basic idea that Hazel is a person that exists, but in the anime they are informed of Hazel's goal to eradicate all yokai, prompting them to actually confront Hazel & Gato directly; youngest party member Lirin gets her own interaction with Hazel right afterwards. At the same time, interestingly enough, the anime does still hit a surprising amount of the same story beats that the manga wound up hitting, as well. Stuff like Hazel's basic backstory is similar, Sanzo winds up separating from the others & travels with Hazel later on, & even Zakuro returns; hell, even the truth behind Hazel's resurrection power has some similarities. Obviously, the reasons & executions for these moments are completely different from the manga's take, but considering how many similar beats are utilized, I wouldn't be surprised if Kazuya Minekura possibly gave the anime staff some basic bullet-points of what she had planned for the Hazel Arc, & simply let them have fun with these concepts. Seriously, this is B't X Neo-levels of similarities between an anime version & the later, canon, manga take.

Overall, the manga's Hazel Arc is focused on a strong racism allegory, examining the idea of treating yokai as "less than worms", not deserving of respect or even life, even though they do indeed have the same feelings & thoughts as those of humans, even being willing to sacrifice everything they have to defend their right to exist in the same land as humans. The anime's Hazel Arc, though still having the racism allegory pushed at the end, really does villainize Hazel Grosse more, removing his arc of slowly realizing how similar humans & yokai are, but still manages to deliver on some ideas that the manga doesn't, so at least there is some benefit to seeing it.

The End Result?
Saiyuki Reload Gunlock is easily the least focused on delivering adaptations of the manga, with only eight episodes (a little over a third) delivering on that. At the same time, though, it does offer its own take on the Reload manga's primary story arc, and while it does differ enough to not deliver a similar experience so that one could simply ignore the manga, there are a surprising amount of similar story beats that still makes it worth finishing off the anime with.

This brings an end to The Sutural Sutra of Saiyuki, and the end result is actually not simply enlightening, but rather is a downright success. Due to the generally open nature of Kazuya Minekura's series, the writers for the anime were able to create filler that nearly never interferes with the original story, with the only real exception (Reload Episode 16) being one that you can simply ignore the interference, especially since it's a different production with new outfits, so you could just use that as an excuse for any potential continuity problems; Gunlock's filler intrusion early on is harmless, too. Unfortunately, while one can simply "skip the filler" & enjoy the proper Saiyuki story via the anime, it's not exactly an easy endeavor in this age of streaming. While you can watch Gensou Maden Saiyuki on DVD or via HIDIVE, as it's still under that overall Section23 Films umbrella, Saiyuki Reload & Saiyuki Reload Gunlock haven't been available since Geneon's original release via DVD singles; neither show even received a more compact boxset release. Luckily, all but two of Geneon's singles across both seasons can still be had for super cheap on the used market, even with the art boxes. Gunlock Volumes 5 & 7 are the only exceptions, with no listings even being found as of this piece, & when they were listed they weren't cheap by any means. Still, those hard-to-get DVDs are after the anime stopped adapting from the manga, so they're not exactly priorities, unless you really want to see how it handles the Hazel Arc.

If you're want a quick list, though, here's the easy breakdown:
-Gensou Maden Saiyuki: 1-9, 11-12, 15-16, 20-22
-Saiyuki Reload: 1, 3, 13, 16-25
-Saiyuki Reload Gunlock: 2-6, 10, 13-14 [15-26 (Manga Concept Only)]

Hmmm, since I've just covered half of the original Saiyuki TV anime productions (seriously, that wound up being 50 episodes, total!), I guess I should also check out that most recent anime from last year, & truly put an end to Saiyuki on this blog... But first there's one last OVA series to cover.

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