It's well-known that we're willing to take our cultural heritage and rewrite it in amusing ways; red-bearded, bearish, Norse warrior god Thor becomes a tall, blonde warrior speaking faux-Olde English in the comics; Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is remade as a gang war in modern times; the world of Greek Mythology is mixed up with Egyptian, Roman, and a bit of Wuxia film for Xena, Warrior Princess.
The Japanese are no less willing to do this to our cultural heritage… or their own. Saint Seiya was a peculiar, to say the least, take on Greek mythology. Nadia: Secret of Blue Water took an idea from the animator Miyazaki and then infused it with a huge dose of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Dragonball began with a mangling of the classic tale Journey to the West and then mixed in a little bit of everything, and Yoroiden Samurai Troopers brought some of the less-used Japanese mystical traditions forward into the 20th century.
Gensomaden Saiyuki is an anime adapted from the manga by Kazuya Minekura. It is loosely based on Journey to the West (AKA "Saiyuki") and takes place in a world where demons and humans have been living in relative peace for many years. Suddenly, however, the demons all begin to go mad, changing from perfectly ordinary if odd citizens into murderous, often power-mad creatures.
Genjyo Sanzo, a monk who is the custodian of the Maten Scripture, one of the five great Scriptures with which the entire world was made, is commanded by the Sanbutsushin (Aspects of Buddha) and the goddess Kanzeon Botatsu (Goddess of Mercy) to gather his companions to put a stop to this; the cause, he is informed, is an attempt to revive the Ox-Demon king Guyamaoh. For his companions, the Goddess selects Son Goku, the Monkey King; Sha Gyojo, a half-demon warrior; and the scholarly Cho Hakkai, who was once a man but turned himself to a demon under terrible circumstances. These versions of major characters from the original Journey to the West are… not exactly what one might expect.
Genjyo Sanzo is a cynical, hard-drinking, gambling, gun-wielding (yes, gun wielding) monk who seems to be almost the complete opposite of a holy man. His holy nature is only seen in fits and spurts, and much of the time he comports himself as a bitter and morose man doing a duty only because he knows he cannot avoid it. He was once a much more innocent and optimistic child… until his master, the prior holder of the Scripture he carries, was murdered mysteriously and he was suddenly chosen to be one of the Sanzo Priests, carriers fo the Scriptures. The loss of the one person he really trusted in the world and the sudden demands of Heaven placed upon him have made him deeply resentful of being manipulated by forces out of his control. Nonetheless, he remains actually dedicated to the protection of the world and when forced into action is a frighteningly formidable opponent.
Son Goku appears to be a short, hyperactive kid – maybe 12-14 – with a tremendous appetite, a short attention span, and an eagerness to befriend almost anyone (except Gyojo, whom he squabbles with constantly); his weapon, as befits his name and position in the story, is a gold-capped battle staff. Goku is almost pathetically devoted to Sanzo, despite Sanzo's often abusive demeanor towards the "annoying little monkey". This is because Sanzo freed him from five hundred years imprisoned in an isolated cave. He was there so long he had actually forgotten who he really was. In actuality, the golden headband Goku wears is a "power limiter", the most massive limiter we ever see – and for good reason. Without the limiter, he becomes the true Monkey King, who in this world is a monster of capricious and nigh-insane savagery, with essentially unmatched power; while the gods have the mystical power to create a restraint for his, they have nothing to match him in direct combat. Goku is very much the Saiyuki equivalent of the Incredible Hulk; there's really pretty much nothing that can stand in his way, but there's also no way to keep him from trashing his friends as well as his enemies.
Sha Gyojo is a red-haired half-demon; he's a womanizing, gambling prankster with, it turns out, an affinity for water (he's half water demon); his weapon is an apparent staff with a crescent-moon blade on one end, but it can break apart into long chain-connected sections. Unlike his companions, Gyojo has no apparent overt powers aside from water breathing; he's just a complete badass and stubbornly unwilling to quit. Gyojo is in some ways the most "normal" of the group, and has lived with ordinary people for many years. His womanizing reflects a twisted part of his past; he was the product of his father's affair with another woman and his father's wife, effectively his stepmother, hated him as a symbol of his father's infidelity. He tried desperately to please her but failed and in the end, his older half-brother had to literally kill his mother to prevent her from killing Gyojo. Never having gotten approval from the one woman he'd known, his womanizing is an obvious compensation.
Cho Hakkai is the calm, wise peacemaker of the group, so gentle that his deadly capabilities in combat often come as a surprise. He is a master of ki energy, capable of projecting powerful bolts of spiritual power or of using that same power to heal. Once a human named Cho Gonou, he became a demon when he killed a thousand demons in succession in an attempt to rescue his wife from the demons who had kidnapped her; he was, however, too late to prevent them from doing things so terrible that she committed suicide quite literally in front of him. For a short time he was mad with vengeance, but stumbled, mortally wounded, into Sha Gyojo, who nursed him back to health and gave him some semblance of sanity. Gyojo convinced Sanzo and Goku – sent to capture and punish the mass murderer Gonou – that there was more to the story than they knew; in the end, Sanzo found a way out, by declaring "Cho Gonou" dead… but giving to the "dead" man a new name, Cho Hakkai, and a second chance at life. Hakkai wears three power limiters on his ear, and is tremendously powerful; he has been shown to be able to nearly match Goku when he takes the limiters off, but – like other demons – he cannot control himself in that form, especially with the dark influence of the ritual to renew Gyumaoh.
Hakkai also has a pet dragon named Hakuryuu who can fly, breathe fire, and turn into a fully-functional Jeep.
Yes, a Jeep. This is a strange world, in some ways as peculiar as that of Naruto, where modern-world things like Jeeps excite little comment as they drive through apparently medieval villages, or where a mad scientist can use magical genetic engineering to make monsters and tinker with the magical secrets of creation.
Together, these four oddball characters travel (generally) West, seeking the fortress of Gyokumen Koushou, former concubine of Gyumaoh and the one trying to resurrect him with the assistance of the mad scientist and former Sanzo priest Ni Jiyani. "Doctor Ni", as he is called, is one of the creepiest and frightening antagonists in anime, one of the few competitors to Naruto's Orochimaru. Dr. Ni manipulates people like a master chessplayer; even those who know him often fall victim to his ploys. Koushou herself is a lot less subtle, but she is a very powerful if temperamental demon herself and is more than capable of acting on her own. She also has a squad of enforcers/ emissaries, but her cavalier treatment of them rather quickly leads to them spending at least half their time figuring out how to not be as effective against the Sanzo party as they might be, without betraying their oaths.
Sanzo's group of questionable heroes often seem more interested in conflict with each other than in their mission; yet whenever the chips are really down, it becomes clear that there is a bond between them and even Sanzo, in the end, does care what happens to them. After such revelations there are often subtle cues, even in the arguments, that indicate the bonds that are there (though Sanzo does his level best to eradicate that appearance himself, often threatening the others with death or smacking them with paper fans he can apparently produce from nowhere).
Perhaps, though, I shouldn't have said "questionable heroes". Whenever presented with truly nasty moral situations, they generally don't back down, but confront evil head-on. Despite the cynicism of all of them except Goku (even Hakkai has a gentle cynic within him), they won't allow evil to win without a fight, and – most of the time – they succeed in beating it back.
"Most of the time" is important. There are times our heroes fail, and a couple of those times are truly heartbreaking, emphasizing that sometimes even the powerful heroes can't fix everything… but that they still need to keep trying.
The characters are quite complex – and have deeper backgrounds that go back much farther. The main characters are apparently reincarnations of gods or servants of the gods who were involved in some sequence of disastrous events in Heaven, and for this their spirits were sent down to Earth (except for Goku, who was unable to be dealt with in that fashion so he was sealed in the cave). The main adversaries they face are also fully developed characters; in fact, we often spend several episodes observing what these main adversaries – Kougaiji, son of Gyuamaoh, Lirin his half-sister, Dokugakuji (Sha Gyojo's half-brother), and Yaone, a fighting alchemist – are up to and not even seeing the Sanzo party at all; they're not really bad guys so much as honorable adversaries who are actually in spirit as much heroes as the main characters.
I need to get the rest of this series; I've seen the first two series, but not the third, and I really want to see how it ends… or not.