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Saturday, October 17, 2009

review: Saiyuki by Minekura Kazuya

aka "Journey to the Extreme"
by Minekura, Kazuya

Gensoumaden Saiyuki is Journey to the West revamped with dragons changing into jeeps, a trigger-happy monk, a 500-year-old baby monkey, a playboy water spirit, and a not-pig who cooks and sews and generally mothers the crew, three of whom carry within them the blood of youkai/demons. They travel across Shangri-La, killing the youkai who have gone mad, on a quest to retrieve one of the Heavenly Scrolls that have fallen into the wrong hands, and to prevent the revival of Gyumaou, the youkai king. (Gensoumaden = "Fantasy Legend")

Saiyuki Gaiden brings the story back to 500 years ago, to the birth of Goku, the monkey born from the Earth itself, and the bloodbath in Heaven that banished the four main characters, formerly all residents of the upper realm, to be reborn in the mortal world. (Gaiden = "Another Story")

Saiyuki RELOAD follows up Gensomaden with more focus the other side of the story, exploring the lives of youkai trying to keep their sanity, and splitting up the heroes as they contemplate their loyalties to each of the warring sides.
(my summaries)

graphic novel ; fantasy ; historical { genre
PG-13 for violence and sexual content { rating
monthly serialization { status
GFantasy (Japan) 1997 { first released

Why I Read This
The Journey to the West and Monkey King legends had been my childhood obsession. I've even watched the really old 70s TV show in China, the Chinese cartoon adaptation, and all of the Hong Kong drama adaptations (Dicky is the Monkey King ♥). So of course when I found out there was a manga adaptation, I jumped at the chance to read it. The anime sucks though, don't watch it.

Overall Rating

Minekura has brought a gritty and flashy vibe to the classic Chinese myth of the Monkey King, throwing a bit of sci-fi into the fantasy mix, and twisting every character into her own tormented anti-heroes. The camaraderie and trust the characters place in each other, and the choices they have to face to survive are explored in detail and style, where there is no "right" answer, only the answers you choose to believe.

review posted to, goodreads, Shelfari
RELOAD review posted to, goodreads, Shelfari


The Saiyuki series is not just a "cooler" version of the original Chinese novels. Minekura takes fascinating themes of split identity, loyalty, and political manipulation that have not been explored before to spin her own take on the fantastical journey.
Gensoumaden Saiyuki is not a story about good and evil, but rather one of choices and consequences. The characters are all a little bit crazy, but they are family in a world where the gods have sent them on a suicide mission to stop the revival of Heaven's most dangerous enemy. This is as much a story of escaping past demons and ploughing through enemies as it is about fighting against an "inescapable destiny" and creating one's own.
Saiyuki Gaiden is the prequel to the series that explores the past incarnations of each of the other three main characters 500 years ago, when Goku, a youkai born from the Earth itself, stirs up unease within the Heavenly Court. It is a tale of political corruption in Heaven, chronicling the struggle and failure of the heroes to protect Goku from the Heavenly Army, and from his own destructive impulses.
Saiyuki RELOAD is the sequel to the series, making an almost complete reversal on perspective of the youkai/demons driven to madness and murder. Where Gensomaden Saiyuki (the main series) sets up the world and the characters, RELOAD delves into the other side of the story: the youkai who have not gone mad, surviving in a world of human distrust and want for revenge. The second half of RELOAD, the "even a worm" arc, deals with "what if" youkai souls could be harvested to bring humans back to life? The only catch is, they come back with an ingrained need to destroy other youkai. Ethics and alternate perspectives are the main focus in this sequel, and much is left ambiguous for the reader to mull over after the action ends.


Saiyuki is also a story of rebirth in sin and the tragic road of redemption. Each of the four main characters has a back story washed in blood, a punishment from their past lives as traitors to Heaven (explored in the prequel, Saiyuki Gaiden). They deal with it through violence, fighting a war against the army of youkai/demons who have gone mad. However, they know deep down that each of them (except the monk) harbors the blood of the youkai themselves, the only thing barring them from madness are the power-restrictors they willingly wear to restrain their demon blood. Minekura explores this facet of the characters through putting them in situations where they have to face the demons within themselves, literally, in order to save their friends.
In RELOAD, the Sanzo group have resumed their journey to the west, but as they encounter clusters of these fugitive youkai - some who are slowly falling into the clutches of madness themselves - they have to choose between who to trust and who to destroy. Of course, this also warrants a struggle of identity and loyalty within the three part-youkai members of the group.


The first series started when Minekura's art was still at a stage between crappy and so-so, so don't run away when you flip open the first page. The rebooted covers (see Gaiden and RELOAD) give a better indication of the beautiful art she is really capable of, you'll just have to trudge through the first few volumes to start to see it.
Minekura's dialogue is very quote-able and very indicative of the character who says it. The most memorable quote from this series is the line: "We are on nobody's side but our own." It is very reflective of the entire series, as well as the characters' struggles to define themselves in a divided world.
I must also say that Minekura is very adept at using art to express things rather than words. Her drawings in key frames are breathtaking and full of emotional impact, giving weight to silence and frozen moments in time. Her characters' expressions are wild and plentiful, giving them animation in their stillness. I really recommend checking out samples of her amazing artbooks series Salty Dog at this gallery.


The first series, Gensomaden, ended right after a very close encounter with a semi-boss type character. I personally found that it nicely knits the four characters closer together after their ordeal as one of the group "left" by himself to face the boss and the others only came to save him because they want to "kick his ass for leaving without a goodbye".
Gaiden ends on a very somber note, which is expected since the entire story is about how the four characters die/are banished from Heaven. The series does well to set up how these four had become so entangled in each others' destinies and the "promises" they made to each other before their separation. However, it is bittersweet and even hopeful since readers know that the four reunite, though without their memories of their past incarnations, in Gensomaden.
RELOAD ends almost in the same way Gensomaden does, where the four come back together after one of their group (a different one this time) is separated from them. The main boss is not defeated, but there is hope to his defeat. It soothed the anxiety built up over the four's separation and once again pulls them tighter together, though there may be some hints of reconciliation issues that I look forward to reading once the next sequel comes out.
As a series, Minekura plays off the audience's expectations and pulls the readers deep into the protagonists' (and antagonists') world. Saiyuki is above all a journey, no matter how many times Minekura "revamps" or reserializes the series under a new name (Gensomaden to RELOAD to RELOAD BLAST), you will want to see these characters triumph and reach their final destination, "the West".

The Saiyuki Series
#0 Saiyuki Gaiden - ZeroSum WARD (Japan), 1999-2009
#1 Gensoumaden Saiyuki - GFantasy (Japan), 1997-2002
#2 Saiyuki RELOAD - ZeroSum (Japan), 2003-2009
#3 Saiyuki RELOAD Blast - ZeroSum (Japan), 2010-present
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