Comparing Saiyuki and Journey to the West

Spoiler Free: I was re-reading parts of Journey to the West and Saiyuki and posting random thought dribbles on Twitter for two days before finally realising I was sending myself subconscious messages to write on them. Most likely something highly pointless but I want to do it. This will sort of be a silly post mostly off the top of my head because I’m tired out by a lot of IRL stuff these days. It’s also likely been done already hundred times but oh well.

Retrospective note: It was getting too long so I split it into two parts, the first comparing Journey to the West and Saiyuki and the second part comparing the four Saiyuki boys to their novel counterparts….which is one crazy departure.

I watched Saiyuki years ago as a kid knowing it was based on some Chinese novel called ‘Journey to the West’ but with zero context to what the novel was about. Then I grew older and gradually learned more about the source material. As I did, my love for Saiyuki and admiration for the sheer insanity of its mangaka Kazuya Minekura in creating something like this went up a hundredfold. I have promised myself I will keep this post short because meandering writing is my default.

What is Journey to the West?

Journey to the West is a 16th century Chinese classic novel written during the Ming Dynasty by a person called Wu Cheng’en and is the story of a monk Tang Sanzang (name changes depending upon culture) and his travel to India from China in quest of sacred Buddhist sutras. This is a dramatised version of the autobiographical account written by the actual monk who did undertake such a travel. He took some super convoluted route which took him West to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan before arriving finally at Vulture Peak in India (which is actually South of China) likely the Silk Road which was a common route of the time designed to avoid crossing the Himalayas.

This ode-to-terrible-geo-mapping of a novel has had a very strong impact in Chinese culture over the years and has been adapted way too many times to keep count. How it is adapted and which messages the end product enunciates has also changed drastically over the years as the country has transformed. By osmosis, influence of the novel also flowed into Japanese media resulting in stuff like this:

Dragonball Z, Saiyuki, Monkey Typhoon, Goku no Daiboken, Shinzo etc. are all loosely based on Journey to the West with references to the novel also made in other sundry anime including Love Hina, Doraemon, Digimon etc.

The whole story is one giant allegory for the journey each individual soul has to undertake to achieve Nirvana/enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of a human life within Buddhism. The struggle is both against external stimuli which may distract the soul from its journey and also against one’s own distracted mind, lusts, desires, and the failings of the human body. The story is 100 chapters long and has four main characters plus a transforming dragon/horse along with a sundry pantheon of supporting characters and a major “guide” for our protagonists in the Bodhisattva Guanyin. All of our main characters are metaphors too. Sounds cool right? Well, Kazuya Minekura took a look at all that and went…well…

Saiyuki versus Journey to the West

The Similarities

As per the Saiyuki wiki, the name translates to “Journey to the Extreme” which is a pun on “Journey to the West.” The show was broadcast on Animax over here under the title ‘Journey to the West’ so at-least Animax takes that connection seriously. Saiyuki is both almost exactly like Journey to the West while simultaneously being absolutely nothing like it. How is it alike? Well, its essence is the same with the general premise of a monk (Tang Sanzang/Tripitaka in the novel and Genjo Sanzo in the anime) setting off to India with his three companions on a quest. There is also involvement of Gunayin (called by her Japanese name Kanzeon Bosatsu) who helps the boys during their quest. The three companions do have some resonance with the metaphorical significance of their original counterparts as well. They encounter multiple demons and obstacles in this journey which they must overcome to keep achieving their goal….and that’s about where the similarities end really.

The Dissimilarities

Saiyuki is on a trip of its own and starts right at the quest unlike the book which has a whole arc of the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Sun Goku in Saiyuki) followed by introduction of our main man Tripitaka the monk, holiest of the holy. The book spends 12 chapters on this while the series spends around 10 minutes on it. The other two companions, whom Tripitaka travels to find, are already known to Sanzo and show up to meet him on their own like another 10 minutes later. The quest itself is being undertaken for very different reasons in both stories. Tripitaka travels on a horse which is actually a dragon. In the series, the dragon is tiny (and cute AF), turns into a jeep, and is owned by Hakkai, one of the other two companions.

Goku and Gojyo (the fourth companion based on the pig spirit Zhu Bajie) were the main fighters in the novel but in Saiyuki everybody is a fighter (even Sanzo). It seems set in an ancient time but there are random anachronisms like the presence of pistols, beer, cigarettes, motor vehicles, jeans etc. and the story arcs seem somewhat reminiscent of the demon-fighting of Journey to the West but not quite the same since the original involves Tripitaka getting kidnapped a whole lot which I don’t think is the case with Sanzo (been a while since I saw it so might need a refresher on this). The story doesn’t even try to stick to the original really with all the characters having their own new arcs and background stories more fitting to an anime. Also, the characters themselves are entirely rehashed versions of the originals, which I’ll cover in the next thing I am writing simply for the purpose of fangirling on Hakkai and Sanzo for a bit. Overall, if you like the typical quest, action, and humor anime, Saiyuki is a pretty decent watch.

Other Articles in this series:

  1. Genjo Sanzo vs. Tripitaka
  2. Son Goku vs. Sun Wukong
  3. Sha Gojyo vs. Sha Wujing
  4. Cho Hakkai vs. Zhu Bajie
  5. Special Mention: Kanzenon Bosatsu vs. Guanyin

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