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"Saiyuki Requiem" Not Exactly Legendary

On the outside Saiyuki looks like a typical “journeyman” action series. Four adventurers who normally wouldn’t even talk to each other come together to form one kickass fighting team out to stomp evil flat. But when that group is a gun-toting, angst-filled priest, a charming-yet-vicious dragon tamer, a suave, gullible demon, and a super-strong monkey boy, that’s a recipe for success. And I would consider 50 episodes and a sequel series a success. But the movie that came out of said 50 episodes, titled Saiyuki Requiem, is unfortunately another matter entirely.

Saiyuki is based on “The Journey to the West,” the same legend that inspired series like Dragon Ball and Monkey Magic. In it the always-angry priest Sanzo, with his charge, the monkey king Son Goku, the human-turned-demon Cho Hakkai, and the half-demon Shu Gojyo (no relation to Inu Yasha) are traveling to India (which is, obviously, west of China and Japan) to fight evil demons.

In Requiem, the group comes across a young woman named Houlan being chased by a Shinigami. After a short battle, the group enters the town Houlan resides in, but something isn’t right. The master refuses to meet them and the rest of the town is as barren as can be. To make matters worse, the group begins to suspect there is a traitor in their midst! What in the world is going on, and who exactly is the Master of the house?

Apparently, Saiyuki is one of ADV’s signature titles that they get tons upon tons of fan mail for. Naturally, I’d like to see what all the hype is about, but I have to say that this wasn’t the best way to start the series. The story is mildly interesting, but for the most part it’s your basic “first movie” plot, involving a character from Sanzo’s past that has a beef with each of the four heroes. Why he’d want to hang around this bunch, especially Sanzo, I have no clue, but that’s movie logic for you. There’s nothing really all that surprising about the actual plot, and if you’ve seen a reasonable number of movies over your lifetime you’ll see the plot twists coming a mile away. The action is serviceable but not exemplary. I will admit that the opening scene of our heroes going to town on a bunch of weak, nameless demons was pretty fun, but unfortunately that’s it for the fighting until the big final battle. To fill time, magic-user Kougaiji and his team (who just happen to have many of the same powers as our heroes) beat up random mud dolls while trying to enter the town Sanzo and company are trapped in. These scenes serve no discernable purpose relative to the plot.

Now, a cliché story can be saved by interesting characters. And while these characters aren’t bad, per se, I’m not exactly in a rush to go buy their plushies. Sanzo only has two expressions: pissed-off and more pissed-off. He comes off as not even caring about his mission or his friends, and after a while, his attitude just becomes irritating. Cho doesn’t get much screen time, and even less of it doing something other than talking or getting strangled, but he’s at least pleasant to watch. Of course, he’s the voice of reason, so it’s expected. Gojyo is the so-suave-it’s-cheesy pretty boy from every shonen ever created, and we never hear much about him, even though he develops a relationship with Houlan. All Son Goku needs is black hair and Cho’s ability to fire energy balls to be a complete carbon copy of Goku from Dragon Ball, but his personality is at least plausible, and he’s easily my favorite character. Unfortunately, as the pipsqueak of the group, he spends most of the movie being made fun of or beaten up. Houlan is your basic damsel in distress with a dark past, and the only thing setting Go Dougan, the main bad guy, apart from other insane megalomaniacs is his unhealthy obsession with paper airplanes.

Well, there’s got to be something worth watching, isn’t there? Alas, aside from Son Goku’s antics, there isn’t. The final battle goes through many stages, but they are all so short and bland the fifteen-minute segment actually drags. Hell, the whole movie seems like it takes 2½ hours to finish, even though the runtime is about 90 minutes. That’s not so good.

The animation is decent movie quality, though the CG flames and explosions look so bad it’s hilarious. At points it looks like the animators just borrowed the campfire animation from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Brak Show, or Space Ghost Coast to Coast and photoshopped it in. All three of which are better purchases, by the way. Another technique that makes much of the screen turn into static was pretty fun to see at first, but it got grating the 300th time they used it, which was about mid-way through the movie. The character designs just don’t work either. Goku is decent, but pretty much everyone else’s face is either too pointy or too round. Houlan, who would be cute in other series, just looks too disfigured. Kogaiji and the rest of B-D.I.C.E. (oops, wrong series) are all just plain ugly, including the “sexy” one.

The English dub is pretty good, and all the voices fit the characters as well as could be expected. Same for the Japanese dub. If you liked the dub for the TV series (the original Saiyuki, not Reload, since that one’s done by Geneon), you’ll likely enjoy the dub here as well. The music is hard rock with a bit of punk mixed in. It works fine for the film, but I won’t exactly be rushing out to buy the soundtrack. The movie’s theme song sounds like a slightly higher-pitched L’Arc~en~Ciel, so the singer sounds like he’s drunk (his Engrish is hilarious, though).

The nice thing about ADV is that they actually include some nice extras in their DVDs (unlike the majority of the DVDs from Geneon, Bandai, and especially Viz), and this movie is no exception. There are some character bios that proved a big help to newbies like myself. We also get the original Japanese trailers, which are decent, though I still have yet to see a Japanese trailer that can top most American trailers. There’s also a text interview with the creator, Kazuya Minekura, that should delight Saiyuki fans, as well as a full-length commentary from ADR Producer Steven Foster, with David Matranga (Sanzo), Illich Guardiola (Gojyo), Braden Hunt (Cho), and Greg Ayres (Son Goku) coming in at various times. The commentary is divided up into four sections, all recorded separately (the part with Matranga was recorded at 2AM) and pieced together, so the VAs never really interact with one another. Most of the commentary addresses the ins and outs of the dubbing process, with only about 5 minutes or so talking about the movie itself. Though they do go off on serious tangents, it’s still worth a listen. There’s also a fold-out poster.

If you’re a fan of Saiyuki, you’ll probably love (or at least like) this movie. If you’re new to the series, pick up the first volume of the TV series before this, it’ll make for a much better first impression. Me, I think I’ll stick to some of the other retellings of Journey to the West.

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