Rereading Saiyuki Volumes 1-3

The manga moveable feast for this month is Wild Adapter. I’m not able to participate fully, because I only read the first two volumes of that series a long time ago. I didn’t follow through with collecting Wild Adapter because I was much more taken by Minekura’s other series, Saiyuki. I’ve read most of the first series and have collected a decent chunk of Saiyuki: Reload, but I haven’t read Reload yet. This Manga Moveable Feast is a good excuse to go back and remind myself why I liked Saiyuki so much in the first place. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a second pass through this series over the summer and finally read most of Reload.

Minekura’s Saiyuki is very loosely based on the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West. Saiyuki’s quartet of womanizing and drinking heroes set off on a journey to prevent the escape of a great and destructive Yokai who was sealed away centuries ago. The land they journey through is Shangri-La, an uneasy mixture of Heaven and Earth, populated by both humans and yokai. Many of the yokai have started to turn on humans and the great priest Genjo Sanzo is charged with preserving Shangri-La. With him are yokai companions, the powerful and irrepressible Monkey Kin Son Goku, the womanizing half-breed Sha Gojyo, and the enigmatic Cho Hakkai. The bickering relationship between the characters makes their quest sometimes seem like a very strange episode from one of the National Lampoon Vacation movies, if it was cast with a boy band who makes frequent stops to murder insane demons.

When rereading the first few volumes of this series I was struck by how well Minekura paces her story. It starts out quickly with the quartet heading out on their quest and quickly getting into trouble. In between the fights are stories that showcase the individual characters and giving the reader insights as to why their combative friendship works. They see how distrusting humans are of yokai. Sha Gojyo shows an uncommon degree of gentleness to a woman who is pining for her lost yokai lover. Son Goku seems to spend most of his time getting into trouble and obsessing over food, but he’s devoted to Sanzo and is likely to be the most powerful of the group if he was ever unleashed. Cho Hakkai’s smiling and calm exterior hides a tragic past. Sanzo resolutely maintains his cynical exterior.

As the character’s personalities become more defined, it is also fun to see the world they navigate through on their quest. Minekura blends fantasy elements with modern anachronisms. Cho Hakkai’s dragon transforms into a Jeep that the characters drive through the landscape of Shangri-La. The heroes are chain-smoking beer drinkers who love gambling. When other monks encounter Sanzo they are horrified by his dissolute habits, but he’s able to put down rogue yokai with his awesome sutra chanting or his gun. With a cast of bickering cuties with tortured casts and Minekura’s growing habit of drawing her men in random pin-up poses, it is easy to see why Saiyuki developed a huge female following. I’m not even sure if this manga ever actually ended, because it seems to spawn any number of sequel and prequel series. But the point of Saiyuki is the journey, not the destination. I think I liked it just as much when rereading these volumes that I last read several years ago.

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