Returning from an extended break in adaptations, Saiyuki Reload Blast busts in after nearly a decade of OVAs succeeding its televised adaptations. I personally remember watching the first televised series Gensomaden Saiyuki back when it came out and I guess I could say I enjoyed it but looking back it, they stuffed a ton of yaoi undertones that the original manga is rather infamous for. Series loyalists will remember that this adaptation also went anime original, as with many series at the time, and it returned to canon adaptation material back with its next two seasons of Reload and Gunlock. I personally never bothered to watch too much of either but lets talk about the return of the old four and their perpetual quest to kill the demon lord.
Saiyuki takes place in a strange hybrid world where jeeps, cigarettes, lighters, complicated machinery, and Smith and Wesson revolvers exist surrounded by rural villages, demons, gods, and magic. I could never figure out if the setting was a post-apocalyptic setting but these facts are something I had already accepted by the time I was half-way through the first adaptation. Saiyuki, if you haven’t guessed it already, is based on the Chinese Classic, Journey to the West, but with its own strange take on things. Leading the unlikely group of disciples is Genjo Sanzo, the stern but trigger-happy leader and priest of the group who is renowned across China more for his seat of authority than his actual person. Son Goku, the happy-go-lucky monkey king thrown out of heaven who became really attached to Sanzo. Then we’ve got Sha Gojyo and Cho Hakkai, one being the flippant and womanizing demon-human halfbreed and the level-headed human turned demon who keeps the team together and also provides transportation with his pet dragon that also functions as the team’s jeep. On orders of the high orders of Heaven, Sanzo’s team was sent West to eliminate the demon king, Gyumaou whose attempted resurrection by his minions send out malicious energy that turns people insane across the land. Their journey of course is constantly hampered by assailants, playing heroes, credit card rejections, and the characters’ past catching up to them.
So if you haven’t guessed with how this series has had 4 separate continuations, this journey to kill Gyumaou doesn’t seem to be reaching a conclusion anytime soon. I’m not really the authority on explaining the adaptation quality of any of the anime seasons so I’m just here to talk about Blast and I can say that even after nearly a decade of forgetting about it, I was still entertained by the ongoing adventure to the west. How much of that statement is based on fond reminiscent of my early anime days is questionable but it’s nice to see the series again after so long.
As mentioned above, the four principal characters of the series are Sanzo, Goku, Gojyo, and Hakkai. Sanzo was always a favorite of mine and he’s sickeningly pretty for a man. Out of the four, I always preferred him the most since apparently, I have an affinity for stern blonde guys with sharp vocabulary. Sanzo’s main goal is to recover the holy scrolls from a former Sanzo priest that held his position and like the other two older guys, is a reincarnation of one of Goku’s old compatriots during his time in heaven. Goku is the eponymous Monkey King/Seiten Taisei who was kicked out of heaven after some mishaps involving politics and a certain other character. He has the mentality of a child, innocent, and very attached to Sanzo who was the one who rescued him from his stone prison. Goyjo is the womanizing chain-smoker who’s the younger brother to one of the guys in the crew’s rival group and he’s generally the least interesting character in the crew aside from Goku to me. He’s entertaining at times but the types of stories that accompany his archetype is something I’m not all that interested in. Hakkai is the level headed one who I don’t completely enjoy but definitely prefer over the two I mentioned. His appeasing attitude to make sure the group is financially afloat and the ever-constant straight-man routine is entertaining to say the least in the group of weirdos.
I’d like to categorize this series as an episodic one as there’s only a handful of reoccurring characters in this adaptation and the other ones too. The usually present rival group led by Gyumaou’s son, Kougaiji and his own posse of four is just reduced to two in this adaptation, the other present member being Gojyo’s brother. The crew up in heaven that they focused on for a few episodes will be addressed further down but Prince Nataku’s whole deal comes from that ordeal. A surprising amount of screentime came from Sharak Sanzo and her followers in the last 3rd of the series who I really enjoyed a lot more than I anticipated. All in all, it was your standard Saiyuki fare but with some additions with some newer characters that I was pleasantly surprised with.
I personally felt that all the Saiyuki adaptation had above average visuals in their character design and set-pieces. While the first reflected the color saturation of its era, Blast still looks pretty fantastic as far as characters and styles go. The bigger contention I have with the series however is the rather low-budget animation. Maybe it’s because this isn’t really meant to be a battle-centric series but every fight sequence in this adaptation was just a simple slideshow of stills of the character moving in for the attack and their enemies just get absolutely obliterated. Every time Gojyo got his chain sickle-spear thing extending and moving all over the place, it’s the chains moving around in the background while Gojyo just poses and stands still. The animations for the fights are absurdly simple but like I said, I think this series wasn’t really meant to rely too heavily on its fights, except not this adaptation since the rival fights only took place once. That being said, at least the effects looked pretty cool, especially the times when the scriptures needed to be used. Nataku’s little tricks were nice to watch since orb-based combat always looked cool to me. Not much to speak about the OST since nothing aside from the opening and endings particularly stood out to me.
It’s tough to address pacing for this show since it’s technically the 4th season of the series. The first third of the adaptation focused getting the viewer into the regular pace of the series which follows the usual episodic format, with some two-parters and the likes in-between. It mainly consists the crew arrive in a town usually afflicted with some local demons and they get involved with the townsfolks’ problems. The middle portion of this adaptation in particular made me feel like the producers were definitely trying to clarify one of the bigger points in the series involving the previous lives of the main 3 characters and Goku. The entire backstory to how Goku was kicked out of heaven and his friendship with Nataku was painted a lot clearer than the first season of the series ever conveyed to me, at least from what I remembered. The other confusing thing that contradicts what the producers might have been going for is that they didn’t provide any backstory on the incarnations of our 3 protagonists. Sanzo’s past is never elaborated on, neither is Goku’s, nor Hakkai’s. Gojyo gets some of his past elucidated on because of his brother but that’s mostly it. I’m aware that any returning fan would remember these elements and not need a refresher but if that’s the case, why did we need one for the heaven plotline? I can probably answer that on my own because Nataku’s reappearance and prominence in the last 3rd had a lot to do with it but I honestly wouldn’t have minded a few more history lessons of the past.
With all things considered and with a considerable dose of nostalgia value, I enjoyed Saiyuki for bringing me back into the fold of the series’ continuation. The action scenes don’t really lend itself to high praise but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t think portraying fantastic battles is the goal of this series when 90% of the fights are just dealing with mooks. The visuals on their own are still very impressive and the sound, while not particularly memorable, works when it has to. The episodic format is familiar to anyone who’s watched the series before and I personally appreciate the time the series took to establish the backstories of the main four protagonists’ previous lives in heaven. Whether or not that sequence of episodes were elucidated in the manga serialization is something I’ll find out in due time but it definitely fits together with Goku’s first reunion with Nataku but clearly the conclusion of their encounter will lead to something bigger in the future. I was expecting just another regular 12 episodes of a couple story arcs and a ton of episodic one-off episodes but I was pleasantly entertained by the “flashback” arc and Sharak’s arc that broke the pace of the story of which I was expecting. The pay-off wasn’t spectacular but compared to the first Saiyuki where, to my memory, dragged its one-off episodes a bit too much and go completely original in its 2nd half, I definitely had a better time with this.