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Saiyuki Complete Collection Anime DVD Review (2015 Edition)

6 min read

Saiyuki DVD Set FrontJourney West with that other Monkey King anime adaption….

What They Say:
Once demonkind and man lived together in harmony. But when a band of rogue demonic forces seeks to resurrect a diabolical monster, a dark spiritual energy begins to cover the land. Now, it’s up to a renegade priest, a monkey king, a lecherous water sprite, and a sympathetic demon to stop the resurrection and return harmony to a dangerous land.

Enter the world of Saiyuki! A unique universe of beauty and betrayal. Where sacred scrolls battle enchanted weaponry and where dragons can transform into jeeps. A land where four reluctant heroes are just as concerned about having a good time, a stiff drink, and a beautiful woman as they are about saving the world.

Contains episodes 1-50.

The Review:
The DVD features both English and Japanese language tracks in stereo with English 5.1 Surround Sound and Japanese 2.0. As with most anime, I watched this in English and didn’t pick up any mixing problems between the dubbed lines and notably good music of the series. If there’s one thing I actually do really like about this show, it the music. One quirky thing I did come across is that on Disc 5, a few of the episodes only play in Japanese, even if set to English. I don’t know if this was just the disc and my Playstation not getting along, but it was only present on that disc. That was the only issue I had with the audio for this series.

The series came out in 2000 and was released in America a few years later, so this collection does suffer from the dreaded 4:3 aspect ratio and slightly subpar video quality that was the norm back then but is quite noticeable now years later compared to current releases. That being said, the animation for its time is actually quite top-notch and distinctive, following the manga design faithfully.

The Complete collection comes in one thick clamshell plastic box containing 10 discs. The cover looks to be art by the manga artists akin to an art book spread, with the four lead characters on front. It’s a simple box set design with gorgeous art of very pretty-looking boys. In a way, the packaging is something of an allegory for the series itself- relatively simple with pretty boys.

This is a basic menu with nothing too fancy happening except for some art and episode titles set to a piece of background music. It’s an easy, old school DVD menu to navigate, and overall not one that sticks out when compared to more modern DVD menus like the excellent Sailor Moon box set DVD menus on the 90s series release via Viz Media.

Mirroring the thinpak set that was released back in 2008, there are no extras to be had on this set. The original singles did include things like the clean opening and closing, production sketches and a good number of cultural/background notes, and the loss of those with these sets continues to be unfortunate to say the least.

Saiyuki DVD Set
click for larger

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga by Kazuya Minekura, Saiyuki’s story is relatively simple- monk Genjo Sanzo teams up with three demons, Son Goku (the Monkey King), Sha Gojyo, and Cho Hakkai, to restore the balance between humans and demons by stopping other demons from trying to resurrect the Ox-King, Gyumaoh. Their enemies include Gyumaoh’s cunning mistress Gyokumen Koushu, the Ox-King’s children Kougaiji and Lirin, and other demonic agents out to set chaos upon the world. This makes up the plot of the first half of the series, with the latter story arc involving the Prince of War, Homura, and his plot to overthrow heaven.

Our four heroes have very different personalities- Sanzo is a fairly serious, tough monk who often at times can seem more babysitter than comrade to his friends. Goku is loud and energetic and brash and your typical hyper-ish young male hero, except he’s not exactly young and you definitely don’t want to see too much of his demonic side. Gojyo is easy-going and charismatic, and Hakkai is a very polite, pleasant, perfect example of still waters run deep. The unlikely group by all means on paper shouldn’t work together as a human and demons, but they do and become friends in the course of their journey.

One of the bigger side plots that runs through the show at first are the cryptic hints to Hakkai’s traumatic, secret past, and in between fighting Kougaiji and his ilk, we learn that each of our heroes has had something fairly awful and sad happen to them in the past that still find ways to reach forward. This felt particularly played up with Hakkai and Gojyo. I don’t want to go too much into it as their backstories ended up being one of the more interest parts of the show and what I found more engaging than the fights and good vs. evil parts. It could be also that their backstories were less paint-by-numbers predictable fantasy than some of the over-arching story elements.

It’s definitely accurate to say Saiyuki starts really picking up steam halfway through, but at that point you’re 26-27 episodes in and no series should really take that long to improve. It reminds me often of the Harry Dresden fans who commonly suggest the book series is great once you get to Book 7. For an anime of 50 episodes, the story shouldn’t take half that time to get better and gel. The Homura arc was definitely more interesting and it was as if the show finally felt comfortable to step out of the standard bishounen fare zone and get a bit more meat. By episode 20 I was starting to feel my interest wane a lot, and by the time it did get better as a series I was already at the same time a little exhausted with it.

Which is a shame, the latter part of the series is pretty solid stuff.

In Summary:
It was a few short years after I started going to anime conventions that ADV Films released “Saiyuki” and it gained some popularity, most notably amongst female fans. I remember the Hakkai/Sanzo pairing being a big thing online.

It wasn’t hard to see why this was popular then—the four leads fell squarely into bishounen territory and the story was easy enough to follow, if not almost too paint-by-numbers anime shounen fantasy. It also came out in a time when, while there was a better dearth of releases compared to the 80s and 90s, the early 2000s still paled in terms of available anime in the US compared to today and so only relatively few series saw big pushes each year. Saiyuki was one of them. Maybe it was a case of right place and right time in that period where the US market was still growing in terms of home release, where anime fans were keen to get their hands on almost anything. At its core, Saiyuki follows what at the time was a successful formula. It’s not a bad series, but overall watching it now in 2015, it’s not particularly outstanding either. It felt too long and oh myb4:3 aspect ratio! I will tolerate the dreaded square for only a few shows—Rurouni Kenshin and Escaflowne to name a few, but if I had to pick one thing in DVD releases from this era that drives me bonkers, it’s the horrible 4:3.

This all being said, if you came into fandom around the zeitgeist of this show’s popularity and have felt nostalgic for the bygone decade of the early 2000s, this is the sort of series that will definitely take you back to before streaming, before Crunchyroll, when ADV was king of the anime world and Saiyuki was one of the many feathers in their crown.

Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles

Content Grade: C+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: B-
Packaging Grade: B-
Menu Grade: C
Extras Grade: N/A

Released By: ADV Films
Release Date: April 28th, 2015
MSRP: $49.99
Running Time: 1250 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
LG HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Pioneer Home Audio System

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