Minekura, Kazuya: Saiyuki, vol. 1

And now for something different: Saiyuki (volume 1), by Kazuya Minekura, a.k.a. my very first manga.

A number of smart people I know on LiveJournal read and talk interestingly about manga, and after reading Mely’s post on what appealed to her about anime and manga, I thought I might give manga a try sometime. Not so long ago, Borders had a sale on graphic novels, and after some recommendations and serious in-store browsing, I ended up with four opening volumes, spanning a reasonable range of the genre. (The others were Planetes (near-future sf), Hana-Kimi (romantic comedy), and Revolutionary Girl Utena (fantasy).)

I picked up Saiyuki because it fit the fantasy-action niche, I’d seen it widely recommended, and Mely made it sound like a lot of fun:

Summary: A whacked-out retelling of the Chinese classic, The Journey to the West, in which the four protagonists travel in a jeep (which is also a dragon) across an anachronistic ancient Chinese landscape in order to save the world from a plague of insanity that’s descended on the formerly peaceful youkai (demons). Or at least as peaceful as humans, which — okay, not so much with the peaceful. But formerly sane. In Minekura’s version, the holy monk Genjo Sanzo gambles, smokes, drinks, curses, and shoots people at the slightest provocation; about the only sin he doesn’t commit is unchastity, and that’s clearly because he doesn’t like people enough to let any of them touch him. The Chinese trickster figure, the Monkey King, is a naive teenager with an endless appetite and an extremely violent alter ego. The kappa (water sprite) Sha Gojyo is a womanizing gambler with a vulgar mouth and a heart of gold; the last companion, Cho Hakkai, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered scholar with by far the most violent and disturbing past of the four; Kanzeon Bosatsu, the goddess of Mercy, is a hermaphrodite with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for transparent dresses.

Also, for those looking for plot connections to Journey to the West, the people creating the plague of insanity (as a side effect to trying to free a seriously bad-news youkai) are using the stolen holy scripture of Sanzo’s murdered master.

I spent a good while browsing this in the store, to see if I could get used to reading right-to-left and if I could parse the black-and-white drawings. I’d previously flipped through randomly-selected manga and foundered visually on both these aspects. I decided that I could probably manage, and the snark of the characters appealed, so I brought it home.

Normally I’d wait and log the entire series, rather than just the first volume (as I’m doing with Lucifer), but since this is my first manga, I thought I would note down my experience processing a new form of art while it was still fresh.

Manga is quite different visually from Western-style comics; Mely (again) has a post on visual conventions that I found very helpful, when I remembered its existence halfway through reading Saiyuki. The most important piece of advice I got out of that post is that the first thing to look at is not the text, or even individual panels, but the entire page. This is rather hard for me to do—I’m a very text-oriented person—but it really is far more difficult, if not impossible, to read this type of manga without considering the page as a whole first. Once I remembered to do this, there were only a very few panels that I had difficulty with—mostly action scenes. (There were also one or two very narrow panels close to the inside edge that I nearly missed, because I don’t like to crack spines of my books. While manga often goes straight to the edges of the page, I’ve also heard it said that Tokyopop’s binding is sub-optimal in this regard.) Generally speaking, even (or especially) to my ignorant eyes, Minekura does a very nice job with making the characters look individual in black-and-white (a problem I’d had with some other manga I browsed), and with composing panels (look! more Mely posts! One, two, three close readings of pages from a later volume of Saiyuki).

[Edit: telophase also has interesting things to say about Saiyuki in a Manga Analysis Series; I haven’t read the other posts in the series yet.]

Perhaps the other main point of note about reading manga is the prevalence of sound effects. In this edition, they’re left untranslated, with translation notes keyed at the back by page number. I mostly gave up on the sound effects, because the vast majority of the pages didn’t have a page number displayed, making it too much work to look up the meanings. Also, the sounds I did look up didn’t seem to add a lot to my comprehension of the panel.

(I think my understanding would also be enhanced by knowing more about the clothes that the characters are wearing—including the crown-like thing Sanzo wears—so if anyone has explanations or links to references, it would be appreciated.)

Overall, reading this took more effort and a different kind of attention than reading Lucifer, but it was not unduly difficult or burdensome. And it is pretty.

What about the story itself? I enjoyed it and want to know more about the characters. Structurally, the volume has its peculiarities: the prologue is oddly redundant, and the main body of the story is made up of two somewhat-similar episodes: the four pause on their journey, get attacked by youkai, kick butt, and provide a Valuable Life Lesson for the people around them. However, they get through these episodes with snark (like deducting points from the assassin in the second episode: “Poor maniacal laugh. Minus 15.”) and tantalizing hints about their backstory and what’s to come. What will happen regarding the debt that Gojyo so pointedly tells Sanzo he’ll need to repay? Why are Goku, Gojyo, and Hakkai the only youkai who aren’t going insane? How did they all meet in the first place? What’s going on with the divisions among the bad guys?

I’ll be indulging my narrative craving very soon: starting tomorrow, Borders is discounting books 20% for Public Service Workers, so I’ll grab volumes two through eight [*]. I should have no great problem stretching them out until next month, when the concluding volume is released. (There’s a sequel, which has been licensed for US distribution, and a prequel (incomplete at one volume?), which has not.) I’m looking forward to it.

[*] Ten dollars per volume is less expensive than Western-style graphic novel collections, both absolutely and probably in value as well, but it still adds up; and Amazon appears not to discount manga.


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  1. For times when you don’t have your discount . . . I ordered my copies of the next few volumes of Saiyuki from Overstock.com. They were 30% off there, plus shipping, which comes out to slightly more than 20% off if you’re ordering multiple volumes. (Volume numbers weren’t listed in the descriptions, annoyingly enough, but it was easy enough to check ISBNs.) I’m also planning on rationing out my next volumes, but we’ll see if I’m actually successful at that! Willpower in such things is not really my forte.

  2. Rilina: good tip, thanks. Borders does Educator discounts moderately frequently, so I can always make Chad buy manga for me => , but I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

  3. I *heart* Saiyuki. It has, at least as far as I’ve read, gotten better and better with each volume. (And you will get as much character development as you could possibly want, and then some.) I’m so glad you like it, at least thus far. I *think* I’ve seen pictures of costumes like Sanzo’s in non-manga contexts, but I can’t remember for sure, so I’m afraid I am not helpful here… The “sequel” series, Saiyuki Reload isn’t so much a sequel as a continuation. Don’t be expecting much in the way of uber-plot resolution at the end of Vol. 9. If I correctly understand how these things work, the series changed magazines, and something in the way the Japanese publishing industry works meant that there had to be a title change, as well. There are other series this has happened with. It’s interesting what you say about difficulty reading manga due to being a text-oriented person; I had that problem with all comics for a really long time, and when I started really getting into the art form, it was pretty much equal parts Western comics and Japanese. At the time, I didn’t notice too much difference in style, but nowadays I find that many of the American comics I read have (to my mind) terribly dull page layouts. B&W doesn’t bother me; actually I’m surprised it would bother anybody–don’t we all read newspaper comic strips?

  4. Pam: I saw your Saiyuki comments on your booklog. I would like to briefly sulk at not getting any pretty glossy interior pictures. I take your warning about the sequel, thanks, though I understand there’s an arc closure at the end of volume nine. As far as B&W–I don’t read newspaper comic strips, and the ones I have occasionally (Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, Rhymes with Orange) are _much_ simpler than manga–linear, little to no background, much less action. Without color, I (or the artist) work much harder for the information color would convey, particularly to distinguish between characters.

  5. Glossy art: your printing doesn’t have the pretty color art? Tragic! While I don’t have any difficulty parsing B&W sequential art, Minekura is one manga artist who I’d really like to see do a Western-style all-color comic; her color work is amazing. (If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth checking out her web site, http://www.minekura.com. It’s mostly in Japanese, but there are many pretty pictures to look at.) Re: vol 9, yes, the plot arc does conclude, so you aren’t left hanging. I just wanted to clarify the situation. Re: B&W art and difficulty/ease of following, I can see that, especially if you’re dealing with an artist who draws relatively complicated art (like Minekura or the Planetes guy). There are manga that employ simpler visual styles. Also a good point about color making it easier to distinguish between characters; I think that must be one of the reasons so many manga characters have outre costumes and hairstyles–it’s the B&W equivalent of colorful superhero costumes. Now that you’ve taken the plunge and found manga to be at least potentially to your liking, I will recommend some that I think you’d particularly like: 1. Hikaru No Go: about a middle-school kid and his go-playing adventures. You might not think that a story about the Japanese equivalent of the school Chess Club would be so engaging, but it is. 2. Fruits Basket: a no-brainer, really; everybody likes this one. The protagonist comes off as a bit of a doormat at first, but don’t let that put you off–she comes through in the clutch. I look forward to reading about what you thought of the other titles. Especially the romantic comedy one–I haven’t read Hana-Kimi, but Japanese ideas of gender roles and what’s romantic (vs. what’s squicky) can be pretty wacky.

  6. Pam: The art of _Fruits Basket_ kinda gave me hives, it was so . . . cute. I know everyone likes it, and maybe after reading the others I got I’ll be more acclimated to manga styles (well, not so much _Planetes_). But when I flipped through it in the bookstore, it gave me hives. I will look at _Hikaru No Go_, thanks, and maybe also _Lone Wolf and Cub_–the teeny size of the books put me off, but I remember you really liked it.

  7. The only thing I can say about the mega-cuteness of FB is that the story is not comparably saccharine. All those adorable little manga characters have Serious Dramatic Conflicts to deal with. I still haven’t finished LW&C; I stopped reading it when I packed up to move from LA to Philly, and then I didn’t unpack most of my books while I was living there, and now I’ve kind of forgotten what was going on…I really should get back to that one.

  8. Pam: I know _FB_ has serious stuff going on, but I don’t know whether I can get past the instinctive allergic reaction to the art. We’ll see–I’ve got plenty of other stuff to get through first, including my shiny shiny _Saiyuki_ volumes.

  9. Overstock.com often has manga at discount, but you have to watch for a couple of things: shipping seems to change month by month, and sometimes within months via email specials; 2 you generally have to know the ISBN to get the volumes you want, as Overstock rarely gives any kind of description other than title and that is usually sans volume number! In case Borders doesn’t have a complete set available: I would not recommend starting volume two until you have volume three in hand, even having a shrewd idea of how volume three had to open didn’t save me much trauma, and I was reduced to hitting up Amazon’s search function in various desperate ways…. Since I am waiting for volumes 3 et al. to arrive in the mail, I can’t advise you beyond that.

  10. Thanks for the Overstock.com tips. I went to Borders as soon as the sale opened, because they showed all the volumes in stock on their online inventory and I wanted to get them before someone beat me to one. => The staff is well-trained and did not look at me funny at all for walking up to the counter with volumes 2-8 piled in my arms, brightly-colored covers and all.

  11. I am very happy you liked it enough to invest in further volumes. Minekura has a Website, most of which is in Japanese, but the Gallery’s pictures require no fluency.

  12. Mely: I’ve read vol. 2 now and am continuing to have a great deal of fun (it’s going faster too). You weren’t kidding about the Hakkai/Gojyo subtext–and batwrangler wasn’t kidding about the cliffhanger!

  13. batwrangler: I remember sweating that cliffhanger out for TWO MONTHS between volumes. (That was before I learned how to download manga from the Internet.) And the joyous joy I felt when I found it one week early at the Tokyopop booth at a con. I was, like, “Okay, Friends-Who-I’m-Attending-This-Con-With, I am going to go over there and read this, now…” Fortunately, they had their own things to read. Kate: I’m not sure I’d call what’s between those two guys as “subtext.” Actually, that raises an interesting question: in comics, where is the line between subtext and text, given that much of the story is not being told with text. When, in fact, the storytelling technique itself *requires* the reader to “read things in” based on facial expressions, body language, panel layout, etc? *goes off to ponder*

  14. Pam: the vol. 2 cliffhanger is less evil for me, considering, but not something I’d want to have to sweat out while they were being released. As for subtext–well, it’s non-textual, literally, since the things that were making me laugh remembering Mely’s line that they were “so totally married best friends”, were visual–where Gojyo was sleeping on the pallets, the inn scene, etc. I strongly suspect, given the little appendix to vol. 2, that Minekura knows perfectly well what she’s doing. At the moment, I have no particular opinion on whether I like or believe Gojyo/Hakkai. I have developed (to no-one’s great surprise) a soft spot for Hakkai, and am dreading vol. 4 as a result.

  15. You made me go back and look at V.2, since I don’t remember the Gojyo/Hakkai vibe really kicking in till Volume 4 or 5. The “They are *so* married” comment is really due to Volume 4 of Reload, I think. But yes, I see Minekura is already being generous with the subtext in V.2 — and it is deliberate, I’ve heard from several sources that she did yaoi doujinshi (m/m amateur comics) before going pro. But really, there’s plenty of subtext to go around. Hakkai/Gojyo is, unsurprisingly, popular in fanfic, but so are other combinations. Going back to V. 2 was instructive, because I see her art style’s changed–improved, I would say, although I did like it and think it pretty accomplished from the beginning. But I think the art gets kicked up a notch in v. 4 or 5, and the writing definitely does.

  16. I didn’t have an opinion on Hakkai/Gojyo until…well, I ended up reading Vols 4 and 5 and their “Burial” arc in reload– the one the ‘married’ cracks come from– pretty much on top of each other. Now it’s difficult to write other pairings with them in it. I’ll be curious if you have the same experience. (Got here via Mely, BTW.) Lone Wolf and Cub is excellent– I remember reading it from Dark Horse when they were publishing it full comic-sized and flipped and it still held up. Crazy. XD

  17. Renet, welcome. With all this talk of _Reload_, I would like to take a moment to pout and poke Toykopop’s website for release dates for volumes other than 1. Anyway, I don’t write fanfic, so I don’t expect that to be an issue, but as I mentioned above, I usually prefer not to read sex into strong partnership-friendship relationships. (I’ll be logging the audiobook _Master and Commander_ soon, frex, and Aubrey/Maturin just doesn’t work for me at all.) But, you know, more Hakkai is good. => I’m a little intimidated by how _much_ there is of _Lone Wolf and Cub_, but our library system actually has a fair bit of manga and may be a place to look. (It has all of _Clover_, for instance, which I’ll be getting later.)

  18. Trent Goulding wrote: I petered out on _LW&C_ around the 5th or 6th volume, only because the library system around here never seems to have the next installment on the shelf when I look. That aside, It’s good stuff, although I don’t know what you’ll think. Bad-ass outlaw samurai swordsman and his son vs. the world. I’m curious now about _Saiyuki_, particularly since my familiarity is with the Chinese story, and the more classical version at that, rather than the Japanese flavors. I’m particularly curious about what they’ve done with the Hakkai character. [I nuked this by mistake when getting rid of that damn poker spam.]

  19. Trent, it’s my understanding that Hakkai is almost entirely different; at the moment, he’s the polite sweet rational adult one (one of my favorite moments in vol. 2 is when he claps a hand over Sanzo’s mouth and says, “Please don’t use holy magic on civilians.”), with a dragon that turns into a Jeep and what appears to be whopping big *chi*. Bad revelations about his past are apparently in store in vol. 4. I have absolutely no idea what you’ll think about this, but I’ll try and keep it in mind as I work through the story. I’m sure that this reads a lot differently to someone who’s familiar with the source material, as well, and I can’t speak to that.

  20. With all this talk of _Reload_, I would like to take a moment to pout and poke Toykopop’s website for release dates for volumes other than 1. Through the summer, they are releasing Saiyuki/Reload monthly; after that I dunno. [crack dealer] If, after you’ve read through Book 8, you want scanlations, I can hook you up. Let me know. [/crack dealer] I, for one, cannot fathom what Trent would make of Minekura’s Saiyuki although I’m sure his comments would be fascinating.

  21. Pam: _Reload_’s subsequent volumes [*] aren’t listed on the monthly schedules at Tokyopop’s site, and don’t have their own pages yet. [*] Two through five; I don’t know if that’s as far as the series has gotten. I hope their website is just out of date, because I’d prefer to stick with paper copies and one translation (especially after a quick look at _Gaiden_ scanlations to test CDisplay), but I may not be able to resist the crack. I will definitely let you know, thanks. The more I think about Trent reading these, the more I want to know what he thinks. However, since he is rather busy at the moment, I will refrain from scouting up used copies to send to him.

  22. Five is as far as Reload has gotten. My husband is the same way as you– he usually prefers to see friendships as platonic and does a lot of eye-rolling at my habits. He, to my infinite amusement, is convinced Gojyo and Hakkai are a couple. But the nice thing about Saiyuki is the relationships can be read dozens of different ways, and the mangaka knows it and plays to us. XD

  23. Kate: I am very much with you on preferring printed copies; reading comics on a screen makes my eyes bleed. And bad scans of good art are especially painful to me. But, the crack is powerful.

  24. Mely: I’ll be interested if I can spot the art differences as I go along; it’s not something I’m usually good with. It’s odd that I _don’t_ yet have an opinion on the subtexty stuff, because normally I am strongly in favor of solid platonic partnerships . . . maybe it’s just the wink-nod nature of it.

  25. how do yuo download hana himi on the internet???

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