The story behind Saiyuki is a 16th century Chinese novel where a monk gets a mission from God, well Buddha, to go to India to find some sacred text. It’s been filmed and adapted in numerous versions, but this manga and anime is very loosely based on the original. The story is supposedly taking place in ancient times and starts with humans and demons living happily side by side, until something makes the demons lose their minds and attack the humans. Genjo Sanzo, a highly ranked Buddhist priest, receives a mission from the three aspects of Buddha to go to India and find out why. He is to take three companions with him on the journey.
The companions are three demons who aren’t affected by the general craze. Son Goku is a young boy, at least in appearance; in reality he’s an extremely powerful entity who has been captive in a mountain for more than 500 years for causing a disturbance in the heavens). But Sanzo set him free and has more or less adopted him. He’s always hungry, maybe since he didn’t eat for 500 years, but that’s a standing joke. The other two are Cho Hakkai, a mild-mannered scholar who was a human, but he slaughtered 1.000 demons when his lover was kidnapped and committed suicide, and turned into a demon himself. And then there is Sha Goyjo, half-demon, womanizer semi-professional gambler and all around bad boy. Wasn’t this ancient China? No, not really.
The anachronisms start fairly right away. For example: the case of Cho Hakkai’s pet dragon who can turn into a jeep. Yes, a car.
The bic and zippo lighters that Sanzo and Sha Goyjo use to light their cigarettes. Cigarette packs and cans of beer aside, there is Sanzo’s reading glasses and newspapers, not to mention the gun he wields and frequently fire bullets to make people shut up, when he’s irritated, at walls or at his companions. Not to mention the credit card he uses, presumably let to him by the three aspects of Buddha. This is one reason I love Saiyuki, it is so silly it’s wonderful. And Sanzo doesn’t just fight with a gun (filled with spiritual bullets), but when he’s really serious he’s using a holy text roll that otherwise hangs around his neck. Other than that it’s the usual fights, friendships, enemies becoming sort of friends and enemies that are too bad to even consider. Not to mention the backstory 500 years ago, taking place in heaven. I won’t spoil that, since it’s really one of the best parts of the whole thing.
It’s completely enjoyable, from beginning to end. There are four different parts: Saiyuki, Reload, Gunlock and Reload: Burial, with backstories of the four main characters. There is also a couple of OVA:s called Saiyuki Gaiden and two movies. Don’t miss the omakes called Urusai (shut up), they are completely silly and even more anachronistic than the real thing (answers to questions like “why didn’t the Sanzo gang go by airplane to India?” and other things like it).
Mangaka is Kazuya Minekura (I’ve seen her Bus Gamer or the fairly recent OVA Wild Adapter, a very bloody yakuza-yaoi mix.) Minekura’s drawing style is very distinctive and not everyone likes it. I’m not one of those. I can truly recommend the Saiuki art books too, with drawings of the characters in lots of different settings.