A long-delayed post: all nine volumes of Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki. (I booklogged volume 1 nearly 18 months ago). The delay is because I’d been doing LiveJournal posts on the art (spoilers inevitable), wanted to finish those before writing up the story as a whole, and never got around to volume 9 until just now. I haven’t re-read the other eight volumes for this post, but I’m mostly going to speak in generalities anyway to avoid spoilers.
First, a couple of notes on structure. Saiyuki is a nine-volume action/fantasy manga that sends four characters off on a roadtrip to save the world (see the volume 1 post for more details). The ninth volume wraps up a couple of arcs, but the story continues in Saiyuki Reload, which is still in progress; Tokyopop has currently released five volumes. There is also a prequel, Saiyuki Gaiden, which is set 500 years earlier when the major characters were in Heaven together; it’s almost finished and Tokyopop has licensed but not yet released it. I think you can pretty well get the general idea of Gaiden from the references in Saiyuki, but it probably helps to know that the backstory does exist.
[Spoil me for Reload and die. Since Gaiden hasn’t been released yet in English, spoiler-protect any comments referring to it with ROT13.]
(Oh, and there is an anime; apparently it is awful.)
The nine volumes of Saiyuki, as was helpfully pointed out in this LiveJournal post full of spoilers, have their own internal structure. The initial volumes superficially introduce the four main characters and then move beyond that to the backstory of three of the four (the fourth, Goku, gets his backstory in Gaiden, basically). The story then moves to the two strongest relationships within the four, Hakkai & Gojyo and Sanzo & Goku, and then to the weaker but still important relationships between the other pairs. (One of the things that I like about the series is that they each have distinct interactions and relationships with all the others.) Finally, the story considers the four collectively.
This summary suggests three things that I want to highlight about the series. First, it is ultimately character-centered: pretty much everything in it eventually comes back to the characters. Second, the pasts of the characters are vitally important; they didn’t just appear fully-formed one day when they were needed to save the world. Third, the series gets better as it goes along. I hate recommendations of the form “well, you really need to read eight gazillion volumes before it really gets good, but it’s worth it!”, but, well, the first volume in particular is not very strong. We get hints about the depths of the characters, but not more than that until the end of volume 2. Since the plots tend to be very character-centered, they aren’t that strong in the early volumes either.
(Also, the art in the early volumes isn’t exactly bad, but it also gets noticeably better in the later volumes: the lines are cleaner and the characters’ jaws get much less pointy. As I said in the original post, however, the page layouts are quite easy to follow—Minekura is very good at composing panels and pages so that the text and shapes naturally drawn the reader’s eye in the direction it ought to go. Since manga is read right-to-left, and since Minekura’s layouts are rarely rectangular boxes in succession, this is not insignificant.)
Right. I think those are all the caveats: on to the gushing.
Since, as I said, this is an ultimately character-centered story, the characters are naturally the main attraction for me. Like a lot of people, I started by liking one character best, but very shortly I found myself liking them all equally, and then loving them all. The characterizations are angst balanced by humor, threaded through with complex relationships, and anchored by really distinct voices (Tokyopop’s translation is apparently quite good), all wrapped around running themes of independence/dependence, attachment/detachment, Buddhism, and moving forward (there’s a reason this is a road trip). The series doesn’t have the deliberate and thorough worldbuilding of Fullmetal Alchemist—indeed, the world is deliberately anachronistic and the epic nature of the quest is frequently undercut—but it shares the virtue of carrying out sustained examination of themes through putting the characters in difficult positions.
The plots get better as the series goes along, partly because they are so strongly character-centered, and partly because they start inverting and subverting prior understandings in fun and interesting ways. I haven’t been panting after reading Reload because I knew it wasn’t complete yet, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Minekura takes things after the happenings of volume 9.
Anyway. As suggested by the fact that I wrote several posts analyzing just the art of the series, I really enjoyed this, both in itself and as an introduction to manga. If it sounds at all interesting, give it a browse.