Saiyuki | Wrong Every Time

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’d like to once again take a look back at the classic Toei Doga film catalog, this time exploring their third film feature Saiyuki (or “Alakazam the Great!” in international releases). As with Hakujaden, the animation of Yasuji Mori will undoubtedly serve as one of the highlights of this film; Mori handled all of the animal animation in Hakujaden, and in Saiyuki, I’m told his sequence of one character collapsing in the snow stands as a highlight of the overarching Toei Doga catalog. Mori also serves as animation director on this film, a testament to his utter cruciality in defining Toei Doga’s style. And of course, Hakujaden’s other key animator Akira Daikubara will also be making key contributions, presumably once again focusing on the film’s human characters.

Alongside Mori and Daikubara, this film features animation from a young upstart at Toei Doga, a man whose vivid contributions to their previous film (his first work as key animator) led to an increased role in Saiyuki. That man is Yasuo Otsuka, an incomparable animator who’d go on to become a key mentor for Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and who here is already demonstrating his singular approach to larger-than-life animation through Saiyuki’s impressive action sequences.

Like Hakujaden, Saiyuki is an adaptation of a classic Chinese story, illustrating the familiar Journey to the West. I’m guessing you already know the tale well, but as a brief summary, Journey to the West centers on a powerful yet mischievous monkey named Son Goku (yes, you’ve probably seen one or two riffs on this narrative), who as punishment for abusing his powers is tasked with accompanying a monk as guardian on the titular journey. The two gather more allies along the way, and eventually Goku grows into a genuine hero – it’s a brief narrative and accommodating template, allowing for any number of twists or embellishments depending on the teller’s whims. I’m eager to see how these legends of anime handle the tale, so let’s not waste another moment, and get started on Saiyuki!

And We’re Off!

The opening credits add a tenor of regality to the proceedings, accompanying a traditional horn fanfare with a series of engraving-derivative background paintings depicting various portions of Saiyuki’s narrative. This opening seems to be quietly establishing a sense of aesthetic continuity, implying that animation is the modern era’s continuation of prior forms of aesthetic veneration of these classic stories

Incidentally, if you haven’t read Journey to the West yet are invested in diving into animation history, you really should check it out. It’s a quick read, and once you’ve read it you’ll notice that maybe one in a dozen anime contain some reference to the tale. Dragon Ball’s an easy one, but even Log Horizon pulled off an episode-long riff on the tale, and many other shows present it in the form of an in-show stage play (like Love Hina, probably the first time I ran into it)

We open on ominous fog clouds that slowly part like curtains, revealing a river of stars in the distance. Already, we’re seeing the application of new techniques for distorting the frame relative to Hakujaden’s fairly conventional composite work

The stars actually twinkle unevenly, like real stars. I wonder if they used some form of shining glitter to create this effect

It’s a very interesting effect. The relative “volume” of this background compared to flat color fills means the characters feel less connected to it, but considering we’re currently hanging out with the gods, them feeling disconnected from their environment isn’t actually a big problem. And of course, early anime was in general far less concerned with convincingness of composite, and more concerned with seeing what these tools could do

Meanwhile, the actual character animation is wonderfully fluid, with the body language of each of these gods clearly evoking their personality – stiff and anxious for the taller one, abiding and peaceful for the rounder one. Presumably Daikubara’s work

A strange monkey was just born from a stone!

Their surveillance of this monkey offers another neat visual effect, as a spotlight on the monkey’s silhouette eventually expands to fill the canvas. Again dispensing with naturalism of aesthetic in favor of creativity of form, something I’m always happy to see

The backgrounds are wonderful! Rather than Hakujaden’s stylized, tapestry-like backgrounds, this forest is blooming with natural details. I actually loved Hakujaden’s evocation of traditional paintings, but I can’t fault this Ghibli-esque verisimilitude, either

Also a strong sense of depth in the composition, with foreground obstructions and birds flying in front of the frame. And the composite here is totally convincing, with this monkey and his companions feeling perfectly at home against these backgrounds

Remarkable sense of personality in the young Goku’s movements; lots of little shivers and slips to evoke his fright and youth

A flower-adorned girl monkey appears, and proceeds to laugh at Goku for his idiocy

It’s interesting seeing this mix of broad emotional beats and nuanced flourishes of character acting; there’s a specificity of motion to the characters that evokes more emotional complexity than the situation actually possesses

Also, so much of this is just about celebrating the beauty of great animation. Their story is conveyed almost entirely through character acting and physical movement

Sequences like this also seem to embody Toei president Hiroshi Okawa’s desire to make a Disney of the East. Early Disney classics like Snow White and Bambi were also stuffed with these naturalistic sequences of woodland activity, pure celebrations of animation’s unique visual potential. It feels like nowadays, we’re so accustomed to animation that fewer productions even attempt to celebrate the beauty of animation in its own right, as an end unto itself. That’s probably part of why I’m so enamored with Yuasa or KyoAni productions; the joy of characters in motion is always central to their works

Yeah, we literally get twittering birds and frolicking deer as the monkeys climb overhead

And again, narrative conveyed through motion: no words for the monkeys’ courtship, just a joyous walk through the forest

Goku relates his strange birth, and the girl reveals her name is Rin Rin

More effective use of a fog overlay as we transition to the base of a waterfall, with the fog evoking water dissipating into steam after the crash. The animation of the water itself is also quite convincing

The next, somewhat convoluted segment of this tale is helpfully conveyed through song, as a group of comic monkeys sing that whoever dives off this waterfall will become their king. Turning exposition into musical comedy, a neat trick

And another use of that initial screen-in-screen partition, this time framing Goku and Rin Rin as observers to a spotlight aimed at the cliff top. Love it. Naturalism is overrated, this is animation!

Being a stone monkey, Goku sinks to the bottom, and finds himself before the entrance to an underwater palace

This sequence feels more reflective of the art and color design from Hakujaden, returning us to the diverse pastels of the princess’ dream home

It’s interesting; for this dance before the king, the monkey dancers are clearly animated more in the fluid style Daikubara uses for humans than the expressive style Mori uses for animals. You can immediately tell that these animals aren’t Mori animals; his style is just too distinctive to miss

Goku is, of course, immediately dissatisfied with his station as king

Rin Rin describes humans as “the most intelligent creatures on earth,” which Goku takes further offense to

The tricky thing about Goku’s story is he’s basically a prick for most of it, until he suddenly hits upon one of those deus ex machina religious conversions near the end. It’s a good story for attesting to the power of Buddhism, but not necessarily a great character drama; modern adaptations generally demand some conversion from religious doctrine to conventional narrative, which is here being realized through sequences like that first, wordless sequence in the forest. Here, Goku doesn’t start out as a prick – it’s wealth that changes him, allowing this film-original romance between him and Rin Rin to have some emotional weight

Oh, I love it – Goku’s unruly thoughts are conveyed as a crack-lined pane of glass behind him, spinning and lit with variable colors to evoke his building frustration

An evocative dream sequence sees Goku chained and mocked by humans. This feels like it might be a tad inspired by Dumbo’s similar sequences

Goku elects to go on a trip in order to become smarter than humans, refusing to let Rin Rin come with him. Goku’s hubris and subsequent punishment embody fundamental virtues of buddhism, wherein you are expected to fulfill your “dharma,” ie the duties befitting your station in life. There’s a lot to like about buddhism, but also a lot that’s reflective of its role in maintaining a caste hierarchy

Rin Rin sings a sad song as Goku traverses more gorgeous environments. The introduction of her character is a very good choice, adding significantly more pathos to Goku’s choices

At the top of a mountain, Goku finds the Cave of the Three Stars

This chase between Goku and the mountain sage neatly illustrates the differences in their animation styles; Goku is all nervous energy based in a keen articulation of his skeleton and musculature, whereas the sage is all flowing movements, his body seemingly contorting more to the whims of his robe than the other way around

The articulation of Goku’s training also feels like it’s drawing a bit from Disney, this time in the form of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Goku’s sage is a clear mirror of that film’s sorcerer

And at last, he is actually given the title Son Goku. A film adaptation of Journey to the West must necessarily be a bit of a summary; a lot of the key turns are actually expository in the original text, and the bulk of it is taken up by repetitive trials

Rin Rin comes to visit! Her presence really is the emotional element in this story, furnishing an original narrative that’s mostly a mix of comedy, action, and moral instruction

Goku rebukes her gift of chestnuts, already embodying hubris and a desire to denounce his station

Goku’s made up a whole song about how great he is, which Rin Rin sees as evidence that he truly hasn’t changed

He decides he’ll impress her by stealing food from heaven. Once again, Rin Rin’s appearance gives Goku’s decisions a more sympathetic dimension, rather than the original text’s “I’m the great Son Goku, and I’m here to cause problems on purpose”

I feel like Son Goku must be one of history’s first “breakout characters,” where they’re not necessarily initially intended as the protagonist, but they’re such a hit that future adaptations are mostly all about them

Interestingly, this “heaven” seems to be an amalgamation of various established heavens, drawing imagery from a variety of faiths

Oh my god. Heaven is defended by officers in white capes who ride clouds like police cars. Some delightfully imaginative nonsense here

Goku summons an army of himself to fight, a classic Goku power, and one that I’m only now realizing likely informed Naruto’s signature power

And at last, Goku claims Nyoibou, his signature shape-changing staff

With a far fuller animator staff to draw on, this film is offering a copious number of fluidly animated fight scenes. It’s a perpetual celebration of movement, seemingly uninhibited by any need to conserve its best talents

Ooh, I love how the shimmering texture of heaven’s stars and traditionally painted backgrounds are interwoven as we reach the palace of heaven

Goku runs into Buddha himself, and immediately begins bragging about how great he is

And so Goku is imprisoned within a stone mountain, never to escape until the seal is removed from his cage. Goku’s imprisonment and subsequent release as the guardian of a holy man feels like another way in which Journey to the West has inspired countless subsequent works of fiction, and anime in particular. How different is this concept than Inuyasha’s story of a shrine maiden with a demon servant, or Hellsing’s story of a vampire hunter with a vampire assassin? Even without direct textual references, the bones and concepts of Journey to the West inform a vast array of fictions

Trapped in this prison, none of Goku’s powers work. Only the comforts befitting his original station can help him now: his friend Rin Rin, bearing a suddenly precious burden of food

But the proud Goku refuses her gift

Fortunately, it just takes one more terrible winter for him to learn a little humility, and actually treasure her next appearance

Jesus christ. I knew this film’s highlight was going to be this Yasuji Mori sequence of Rin Rin trudging through the snow, but I still wasn’t prepared for how impactful this animation feels. The sense of weight, the contrast between her clear conviction to struggle on and the way her body is failing her – it feels as real as anything, the true realization of animation’s ability to convey the felt experience of a moment. These films are suffused with treasures, and this moment is an incredible one

They even weave Rin Rin into Goku’s introduction to the monk Sanzou, positioning her as the person who unites the two of them

And Sanzou arrives, the first character to be drawn in the style Daikubara used for Hakujaden’s human protagonists

Goku is bound with a gold circlet that forces him to obey, another conceit that’s been carried through many, many iterations of this story

Once again, it’s really Rin Rin who’s serving as the emotional heart of this journey. Goku basically just acts on instinct, but Rin Rin is embodying virtues like self-sacrifice and pious duty here, sacrificing her own joy in spite of having done nothing wrong in order to ensure Goku fulfills his sacred task

Interestingly, for the actual journey, we immediately return to Hakujaden’s style of impressionist backgrounds, with splashes of full color interspersed with isolated trees in the distance. This actually matches the tenor of the original story as well, which shifts to a land of total fantasy once the monk and Goku begin their march

They arrive at a grand home, where they learn a terrible monster has his eye on the lord’s daughter. That daughter’s design feels quite reminiscent of Hakujaden’s heroine

This somewhat halting, episodic style is a hallmark of Journey to the West, and also something its inheritors have frequently embraced. Who knew the ramblings of episodic shonen narratives had such lofty literary inspirations

It’s wild seeing a Mori character animated in a Daikubara style, as evidenced when Goku transforms into this lord’s daughter in order to trick the monster. I also wonder if there’s a particular animator who specialized in the style of character embodied by the lord here or the guru earlier, with their voluminous folds of facial tissue; it’s a very different style from either Mori’s playful simplicity or Daikubara’s elegance of motion

And so the monster arrives, an anthropomorphic pig man in human clothes

The animators are clearly having a wonderful time contorting one of Daikubara’s elegant human characters into all these unseemly facial expressions. The expression work is some of the best so far

The pig man attempts to woo Goku with a variety of regional dances, doing little to convince our disguised monkey, but certainly winning over the audience’s affection in the process. This is one of the monsters that will become another traveling companion to the group, and this telling is doing a fine job of making him likable through visual comedy, rather than pure authorial fiat

The charade ultimately resolves in Goku whacking the monster with his stick, a pretty standard conclusion to one of these vignettes

This is followed by a dynamic sequence of the two racing on clouds, once again taking advantage of that partial smoke effect used earlier for fog and water spray

The monster retreats and asks after his brothers, the demons Kinkaku and Ginkaku. Two more names that you might recognize from anime; I believe they show up as a pair in both Naruto and The Eccentric Family, along with any relatively direct adaptation of Saiyuki itself

And our pig is Cho Hakkai, their half-brother

I like how Goku’s confrontation with these brothers is visually synced to the clashes of the percussion accompanying them

But oh no, Goku is absorbed into a gourd! Another fragment of this tale that Naruto adapted directly

And yet another use of these fog overlays: presenting the pleasant aroma of food as tendrils of visible wind

Goku is dropped into a pit trap, where he encounters a giant scorpion! This is one of Otsuka’s major sequences, and he certainly impresses; the scorpion’s movements are extremely evocative, often contorting the body in ways that emphasize its alien threat, and the layouts are also more inventive than the film’s mid-distance shot standard. The wholly black background allows Otsuka far greater flexibility in moving the characters around the canvas without worrying about redrawing the perspective

This little demon’s one horn extending into a radio transceiver is just fantastic

The demon lord demands the monk be brought to the flaming mountain, another detail any Dragon Ball aficionados will certainly recognize

And so the party sets off again, with Hakkai now carrying their supplies while also bearing his signature nine-toothed rake (here reduced to four teeth to limit animator headaches)

Nicely textured backgrounds for this sandy hellscape in the vicinity of the flaming mountain. The integration of characters into their environments seems a little looser in these fantastical territories

Ahaha, this little devil is threatening the monk with a switchblade he pulled out of his shorts. This film’s playful modern embellishments are great

Of course, the neat thing about Journey to the West is that it doesn’t need much modern updating to appeal to audiences. “Hot-headed young hero gathers a group of allies and goes on an episodic series of action-packed adventures” is pretty close to the shonen template by itself, once you shave off the moral instruction elements

In an oddly tender moment, Goku summons a shade of Rin Rin to enjoy the full moon with him. This is also something the story needs, and which this adaptation is demonstrating with finesse: some sort of humanizing element to make Goku more than a trickster who’s transformed by the grace of Buddha. That sort of character arc works for a religious text, but not for a character-driven family film

The animators are having a lot of fun with the weird bodily contortions of Hakkai. His style of character acting seems very much like the motions of this film’s wrinkle-covered old men, making me wonder if Toei Doga has acquired some specialist in that sort of aesthetic, excelling at characters who look like the cover to In The Court of the Crimson King

As in most every adaptation of this story, the monk feels like a bit of a non-character relative to all his companions. He essentially represents the end state of pious religious fealty, which means he’s totally boring as a person, because he has no inner conflict. The fact that he’s able to fade into the background relative to his rambunctious companions is probably another reason this story endures in adaptation; many religious fables are essentially didactic stories modeling good behavior through the actions of their protagonists, which makes for far less engaging narrative drama than a story about a bunch of idiots following their base urges and screwing up as a result

Speaking of, the idiots in question have just walked into a fort, through a goblin-faced double door, and up to a banquet hall lined with skull-faced chairs, still certain they’re about to receive a delicious meal. See, stories are just more fun with idiots!

The castle’s master Sa Gojou states he’s going to eat them instead

After our heroes attack, Gojou flees in a giant whirlwind. Once again, it seems this partial obscuration evoking wind or fog is one of this film’s proudest visual innovations. In both live action film and animation, the history of the medium’s artistic output is intrinsically tied to the history of its scientific innovations; many great works are conceived through a director or creative team thinking “how can we apply this new capability to the greatest possible creative result?”

The animators are having an immense amount of fun bringing Gojou’s strange body to life. A sequence where Goku sneaks inside his body serves as a perfect excuse to twist him into all manner of painful bodily contortions

And so, having been defeated by Goku-prompted indigestion, Gojou joins the team

The tiny devil attempts to sow dissent among the monk’s three disciples, which he accomplishes with ease because they are idiots

Yeah, all the monk can ever offer the dynamic is some “hey guys, be nice to each other” comments. He’s too pure to be much of a character

Suddenly, a volcano trap erupts! Another contribution by Yasuo Otsuka, and just as impressive as his first major sequence. The animation style here is totally unlike anything else in the film, dispensing with linework entirely to convey the outburst of lava as a sequence of pure morphing colors in angry paint splashes. The way Otsuka creates a sense of momentum across these morphing arrays of colors is remarkable; the sequence is truly awe-inspiring in the most formal “great and terrible” sense. Otsuka’s animation feels like the unfiltered wrath of the gods

A friendly rabbit tells them that only the magic wind fan Bashounen can quell the mountain’s fire

Though relations between Gojou and the others are still cool, Goku and Hakkai are on excellent terms at this point, as they gleefully devise a plan to steal the fan

Gyuumaou the bull demon (who you all may know as the far more genial Ox King) spirits the monk away! Whatever will Goku do!?

Another cute fusion of visual and aural design, as the strike of chimes in the soundtrack is matched against Goku’s icy body clanging off the rocks. A lot of this film’s sound design cues seem more reminiscent of television animation than feature films, echoing the whimsical timed-to-the-action cues of western cartoons

There’s no way to get Rin Rin here at the moment, but Rin Rin embodies Goku’s most noble instincts, and so they have her voice reach to him across space, urging him to rally his strength for the final battle. Gotta do what you gotta do!

We are greeted by a delightful array of whimsically designed ghoulies as the film nears its climax, and Gyuumaou holds a massive fiery celebration

This leads into a dance sequence by one of the monsters, which is apparently the key animation debut of another Toei Doga luminary, Sadao Tsukioka. Wild how in the context of an early film like this, a “key animation debut” can be a full scene from the climax of your upcoming film

Both the musical keys and some of the monster designs here seem to intentionally call back to Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain. Though Fantasia didn’t do well commercially, I imagine it was a profound inspiration on animators worldwide

Yeah, the sprightly dancing monsters, the musical motifs, the way it frequently uses gusts of flame as wipe transitions – there’s no way Bald Mountain didn’t play some role in influencing this sequence

So Gojou at last proves his worth, digging a tunnel for Goku to reach the monk through

Presented with the demon who froze him, Goku willingly forgives him, completing his own spiritual journey

Genuinely quite satisfying seeing Gojou and Goku work together in harmony during this last battle. Journey to the West is just a plain exciting story, it doesn’t need too much revision or embellishment

Otsuka spearheads the final battle against the bull demon, which once again involves all manner of contortions in perspective. Otsuka seems uniquely comfortable creating dynamic layouts for his sequences, where character form shifts substantially due to relative “camera” placement

And the little demon breaks off his horn, departing happily with a wave from Goku. I believe he’s also an original character, seemingly another one added to give this story a clearer emotional arc

After a warm welcome in India, Goku swiftly returns home, where his presence restores Rin Rin to health

And Done

That was terrific! While Hakujaden felt a bit stiff and disjointed relative to modern anime films, this one was propulsive, well-shaped, and extraordinarily generous in terms of its animation. You can definitely see how the film was influenced by other recent works of world animation cinema, but like the film’s approach to Journey to the West, the team at Toei Doga clearly made this material their own way in countless ways. Rin Rin’s character in particular gave the film an unexpectedly poignant edge, while the actual journey portion of the narrative was just one humorous, exciting spectacle after another, clearly demonstrating why this story has such enduring appeal. Far from just being an intriguing historical artifact, Saiyuki is a genuinely great animated film, and a testament to the remarkable talent of Toei Doga’s core team.

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