It's International Saiyuki week! So change your default icon to something Saiyuki-related and post about why you love it.
In honor of the event, I'm posting a paper I wrote last week for the final of my fairy tales class. The assignment was to write about a modern retelling of a fairy tale or folk tale; guess what I chose. I feel compelled to point out that this was mostly written in the middle of the night and directed towards people who have never heard of manga, but feel free to point out anything I missed. ETA: Burial Arc spoilers! I forgot to warn for that, since I doubt my professor cares about finding out what happens.
Fairy tales constantly appear in modern culture, as these ancient stories are retold, reinvented and reimagined by people looking for the simplest of plots or complex ideas. Saiyuki, a manga series written and drawn by Kazuya Minekura, is the retelling of a famous and ancient folk-tale widespread across East Asia, known variously as "Monkey", "The Tale of the Monkey King" or "Journey to the West". This story has the same sort of significance and recognition that 'The Odyssey' does in Western countries, and has been the basis for many novels, movies, anime, and even a Playstation game.
Though the original tale contains many exciting adventures, rescues, and battles, being the story of four heroes ordered by a bodhisattva to travel to India in order to save the world, it has often been used to teach moral lessons. "The Monkey King", though primarily a Buddhist tale, includes Chinese gods as characters, and is centered around themes such as reincarnation, karma, and nirvana*. Saiyuki also uses the characters and events of this basic plot to convery deeper thoughts, but the message Minekura includes in her story is very different from the original. Although it is still largely based on the premises of Buddhism, it is a very modern, realist, individualist spin on the religion.
Propp's roles** can provide an interesting analysis of Saiyuki. Though the majority of the readers of the manga are most likely unfamiliar with his specific definitions, there are commonly-held unconscious assumptions about the roles of heroes, villains, and other character-types. Minekura deliberately plays against expectations with her characterizations.
The villains of Saiyuki are particularly interesting to examine. The role of villain seems to continually retreat from the reader and the heroes; whenever a character appears who seems to fulfill the requirements, new information is given that once again leaves the plot with no true antagonist. There is no character on whom the blame for the evil events that happen can be easily placed; much like in the real world, evil comes as much from confusion and unfortunate circumstances as from intent. The first villains introduced to the reader are a group of four characters, who serve as foils for the four heroes. These 'villains' are a prince, his little sister, his body guard, and a woman whose life he saved; each character has a parallel in one the heroes. The leader, the prince, is explicitly characterized as honorable and noble; he shows more concern for innocent civilians who might be hurt in collateral damage than do the heroes. He also is deeply dedicated to promises and keeping his word, a very fairy tale-like trait. The prince and his followers seem to be more closely linked to fairy tale symbolism and imagery than the heroes, yet there's always an ironic twist to these portrayals; after all, the prince of a fairy tale should be the hero, not the villain.
It is eventually revealed that the prince is being manipulated by his evil stepmother (of course! Who else could it be in a fairy tale?), who has his real mother under a curse. The reader then assumes that this step-mother, the Empress, is the true villain of Saiyuki. However, she too is eventually revealed as a victim of manipulation. Though the Empress is indeed power-hungry and greedy, she would not be capable of controlling the vast plots that have been set in motion. It is one of her servants, Dr. Nii, who is the true brains behind the operation.
Nii appears to fit all possible requirements for the villain role. Though his first few appearances depict him as a stereotypical 'mad scientist' character, he is quickly developed into a person far more chilling and complicated. Nii is charismatic despite his utter amorality, a genius who quite often sees and understands far more of what is going on than any other character. He is the type of character who would destroy the world just to see if he could, and never regret it. Nii seems to fulfill the role of ultimate evil in Saiyuki; here could be the source of all the problems that have sent the events of the plot in motion. An important set of symbolism in Saiyuki is the sun/moon/night triad, with a specific character representing each element; it is Nii who is the night, with all the standard implications of darkness and evil that typically entails. In a line related to these oft-repeated symbols which demonstrates how well he fits the villain role, he says, "All these people, chasing after the light. Like brainless little insects" (Saiyuki Reload 3, pg 68-69, translation by Tokyopop).
But even Nii is not allowed to be only a villain. As Minekura has overturned the reader's expectations about previous villains, so she will do with Nii. In fact, within pages of the line just quoted, it is revealed that Nii was once close friends with Koumyou, an important character who is the moral center of the Saiyuki universe. Koumyou is symbolized by the moon which, though it gives light and therefore is seen as good, exists in the context of the night. Koumyou and Nii appear to get along very well, though neither is fooled into believing that the other is like themselves. Minekura presents an interesting situation in this relationship: how can the ultimate good and ultimate evil share anything? What could they have in common? Though she doesn't give any answer, Koumyou and Nii are aware of the discrepancy themselves; Nii proposes a bet: "If you're the moon, and I'm the night, I wonder which one gets swallowed up?" (Saiyuki Reload 4, pg 99, translation by MangaCity) Though their bet has yet to be shown to have been resolved, a reader might assume one outcome: they are both overwhelmed by the sun, which is symbolized by Sanzo, one of the heroes.
Minekura plays with the roles of the heroes as much as she does the villains. None of Saiyuki's heroes are wholly good people; their back stories sound more like those of villains, in fact. Hakkai spent some time in an incestuous relationship with his sister, and when she dies, he goes insane and murders the people responsible, the bystanders, nearby innocents, and anyone he can before finally regaining his senses. Gojyo is the child of parents from separate races; in the world of Saiyuki, he is "a child of taboo", a sign of misfortune and bad luck. Goku has no memories of anything from more than five years ago and powers beyond anyone's control or understanding; he lives constantly with the possibility that he could lose control and kill his friends, and that it might have been just such a terrible sin that caused him to lose his memories. Sanzo, the leader of the group, is a high-ranking Buddhist priest, but he keeps none of the vows and claims not to believe in Buddha or the gods. His title was passed on to him by Koumyou, who raised Sanzo from an infant and died protecting him from an attack. The one Buddhist principle Sanzo does preach is 'non-attachment', but only as an excuse for him to avoid all human interaction and therefore all chance that he might lose someone close to him again. Sanzo is symbolized by the sun, but he is not a gentle or giving character; Sanzo's sun is the type that burns.
These characters are not just anti-heroes; they deliberately refuse the title of hero at all. When minor characters ask for their protection or aid, they are often refused. As Sanzo says, "I'm tired of going off on meaningless sidetracks [...] We are not heroes" (Saiyuki 7, pg 194-195, translation by MangaCity). These characters share certain traits with their original, folk-tale versions: Sanzo, Hakkai, and Gojyo were gods that for their offenses had been banished from heaven and sentenced to mortal lives; Goku is the incarnation of the Earth, the "Monkey King", who must be civilized and disciplined or whose power could destroy the order of heaven. In any version of the story, each character must deal with certain unchangeable facts about themselves, but Minekura uses this setup to convey a message about learning to change what one can. The heroes may be unable to change their pasts, Propp's roles may demand certain behaviors from characters, and reade's expectations may twist stories into dependable roles, but Minekura shows over and over again that none of that matters, as each person must make their own choices and walk their own path.
A Buddhist koan quoted repeatedly in Saiyuki goes, "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Patriarchs, kill them. Free of all, bound by nothing, you live your life simply as it is" (Saiyuki 4, pg 51, translation by Tokyopop). Though koans are deliberately written to be hard to understand, this one's message is about refusing to allow preconceived ideas or assumptions to hold one back from the truth. Though Minekura's characters often stumble in grasping all of its implications, taking a two steps forward and one step back method toward realization, she herself seems to be well aware of the deeper meanings. Her playing with the roles of hero and villain and other reader expectations are not just a parody or ironic twist, but a way of conveying her message even through the structure of the story.
Another interesting view of Saiyuki can be taken by examining the function of Propp's object. The object is, fairly clearly, for the heroes to get to India and put a stop to the events before the world is destroyed. Despite this fairly simple goal, they to be seem in no hurry to get there, and none of the other characters are particularly anxious to resolve the story either. Here again, the structure is being used to illustrate a theme of Minekura's: the most important thing is the journey, not the destination. Kanzeon Bosatsu, the bodhisattva who set the plot in motion, even says, "The point of the journey isn't just to get to India" (Saiyuki 1, pg 163, translation by Tokyopop). It is fairly explicit within the text that the object is nothing more than a Mcguffin, a device that exists only to drive the plot. While of course the heroes do not want to see the world destroyed, the goal is really there only as an excuse to tell the story of their journey. There is no hurry to reach a conclusion; Saiyuki is currently fifteen volumes long and continuing, while a novel written in the 1590s based on the folk tale reached 100 chapters. Given the nature of this story, manga is an ideal form in which to tell Saiyuki, because of its serialized nature. The retold fairy-tale is a common trope; in addition to Saiyuki, there is Dragonball Z, which tells the "Monkey King" story in a very different style, The Legend of Chun Hyang, a retelling of the Mulan story, Ragnarok, a very loose version of Norse mythology, and many others.
Manga in Japan is published in individual chapters that appear in a magazine along with chapters from several other series by different authors. Magazines are often advertised as either "shoujo" or "girls", meaning that the stories typically focus on romance or relationships, or "shounen" or "boys", with stories about action. Saiyuki originally appeared in the G Fantasy Magazine, but currently is being published through monthly chapters in Zero-Sum, a shoujo magazine which has published several other similar series which would seem to better fit shounen tropes, such as Weiss Kreuz Side B, a series about a team of four male assassins, and Xenosaga, a science fiction series about a war against aliens. Saiyuki, along with these other exceptions, seems to be classified as shoujo despite appearances because of their focus on character and character arcs over more traditional action plots, as well as for artistic styles that are more traditionally shoujo, such as the use of irregularly sized boxes. Many main characters are deliberately drawn as handsome, sexualized, or feminized, to emphasis their appeal to female buyers. However Tokyopop, the English publisher of Saiyuki, seems to be advertising the series with a focus on its shounen elements; although of course the distinction is much less important in America, Saiyuki is classified as 'Action' and receives most of its advertising in similarly-classified manga.
An additional discrepancy might be caused by the fact that the average American reader has very little familiarity with the "Monkey King" story. Minekura can reasonably expect her Japanese audience to know the story very well; therefore the interest in Saiyuki is not only in the plot itself, but in seeing what new twists are being added, and how the old story is used to convey a new message. In some ways, Saiyuki is similar to Anne Sexton's fairy tale poems, in which the stories of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty are used to convey feminist messages. Saiyuki is distinct and detailed enough that knowledge of the "Monkey King" is not necessary, but having it does provide an extra layer of understanding that is otherwise missing. Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which retold The Odyssey but set the events in the 1930s American South. Either way, the old story is twisted to convey entirely new ideas, even while remaining recognizable.
Audiences respond to Saiyuki on several levels. Not everyone is looking for anything more than a dramatic battle or a pretty face, and Saiyuki provides these in abundance. It can be read without analysis as the surface level of fights and interesting characters is complex enough to be entertaining on its own; Saiyuki has been one of Tokyopop's best sellers. However, Minekura is obviously using her work to also tell a deeper story. Her basic theme is that of change; to live is to change, and those who do not change are dead. This idea takes on several forms. It is in how she plays with the roles of heroes and villains: the characters may be stuck with their roles and their pasts, but they are always changing what it means to be a priest, a villain, a hero. It is in the emphasis on the importance of the journey rather than the object: the goal is to change, and to keep changing, not to get to one point and be complete. It is in the way Saiyuki crosses the genre boundaries of manga, taking elements from many places and combining them into a story that cannot be easily defined as any one. And it is in the retelling of the "Monkey King" itself; that an ancient and famous story can be made new and used for an entirely different message than the original. As Kanzeon Bosatsu says, "I despise things that don't change. They succeed only in boring me" (Saiyuki 5, pg 39, translation by Tokyopop). Even when appearing in a manga and portrayed as a trickster figure meta-joke, a bodhisattva can be counted on to point out the deeper message: in Saiyuki, the "Monkey King" story continues to change and, therefore, to live.
*I haven't read 'Journey to the West'. Watch as I make wild guesses at what it might be about!
**Something we spent a lot of time on in the class, which is why it has no citation. It's pretty much just a formal definition of all the typical things you except from fairy tale characters and plots.