I love anime for many things, it's irreverence, willingness to tackle and mess with big stories and ability to surprise. And this one manages all three. A classic piece of mythological Asian literature to some, the basis to a happily over the top live action TV series to others, but few would have seen it ever looking like this.
The story takes place in a rather unusual world. Having the social structures of the ancient world and some of the technology of the new. A world in which gods and magic must co-exist with a shockingly modern sense of character. And also a world in which both demon and man live side by side. In general they are enemies, but in one land they have managed to live together in piece. At least until a wave of dark energy swept the land and made all the demons go mad.
The spiritual forces of this land believe that an unholy mingling of dark magic and technology is being fashioned. The purpose to resurrect one of the most powerful of all demons, and one who considers humanity nothing more than food. Their answer, following the advice of the Buddha of compassion, being to summon their most holy and powerful priest. With the assistance of three half-demons, who he has worked with before, he is charged to travel to the far off western lands. There to find the truth of what is happening and put a stop to evil so that piece may return to the realm. Needless to say the demonic forces they oppose will not make this easy.
I'm still in shock to be honest. I watched, and liked, the `monkey' live action TV series. And, on that basis, bought and read a translation of the original story. But this is very unusual. Effectively it takes a truly classic story, pumps if full of angst and brooding bishounen, and let's it rip. The style and production is entirely, even aggressively, modern.
The lead character, Genzo Sanjo, is an extremely powerful priest with an anti-demon handgun and a number of powerful `spells'. But at heart he is cold, selfish and separated from humanity. The monkey spirit, Son Goku, is a child full of power, energy and desires with barely a shred of subtlety. However, like a child, he is easily hurt by emotions he cannot deal with. The `kappa', or water spirit, is a cool, womanizing rowdy sort who's gained no shortage of scars growing up as a half demon. Meanwhile the final character is all about control, with his mind, spiritual power and personality all carefully screened away...although he too has been wounded in the past. Powerful, but flawed, individuals on an extremely long quest. And, though they don't know it, the quest is as much about growing them as individuals and a team.
It's all rather odd really. The world is a total melange of elements. Frontier inns and small primitive human communities yet they travel around in a jeep (albeit really a shape-changed dragon) and the priest has a handgun. Likewise while there are gods, demons and ancient weaponry the characters all speak like street toughs from our time. Watching Buddha sitting down in heaven reading a paper and making ironic cracks to annoy his flunkies is something I haven't really seen before. The interaction between the party is more like a bunch of rowdies touring in their car than some sort of holy quest.
And the stories back this up. They generally have as much of a psychological angle and an action / adventure one. Sure, there's the evil demons from the west involved in a lot of them, and providing a ready supply of cannon fodder, but it prefers stories where it can get some angst and agony going. Where the flawed pasts, character weaknesses and modern cruelties can be brought out. It really likes to make the characters, whether permanent or episodic, suffer. But then, as this version of the Buddha would say, sometimes the worlds a bitch.
Is it good? Well, yeah, mostly. There's a sizable amount of novelty in the situation, there's a lot of deeper structure courtesy of the original source and there's a lot of interest in learning more about the characters. As such each story generally has multiple parts. Some character insights, some entertainment and some interaction with the main quest. While it's not the most brilliant thing I've ever seen it is quite addictively watchable.
On the down-side the animation is really cheap. While it attempts to use a lot of style this doesn't completely cover the limitations. The character art is a bit rough, the action is minimized and there's all sorts of cheesy visual effects to make up for stuff they can't afford to animate. Even the focus on character is, probably, partly as a result of them not being able to adequately animate the action. Also, as I hinted, the background design is more than a little erratic. Some of the visual tricks, such as a character close-up overlaid on the scene, actually work quite well though. The voices are good, and the dialogue has a pleasant complexity to it, the music is modern and aggressive but as a result has a certain degree of energy.
None of the sites I source from have a review of this title so far.