Thursday, April 28, 2022

Knights Of The Seiya Zodiac

portions of this article originally appeared at Anime Jump.
Back in the 1980s – I know this is a cliché but it’s all I got here, so work with me - while the Gundam franchise was napping, before Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water made Gainax stars, Knights Of The Zodiac was pretty much all we had. Of course we referred to it by the Japanese title, Saint Seiya, even if at the time we had no clue the show’s title was a pun on the Japanese word for “constellation,” which is “seiza,” get it? American 80s anime fans spent many a happy, pre-Internet hour watching fuzzy VHS copies of the show, translating dialog and writing synopses of episodes. Sure, the show’s blend of fighting tournaments, Jack Kirby-esque cosmic drama, and manly male bonding appealed to nerds here, but in short order Saint Seiya made waves around the world, especially in South America and Mexico, where Los Caballeros Del Zodiaco penetrated the popular culture to such an extent that bootleg Seiya toys could be seen hanging, like executed banditos, from the fixtures of Tijuana street vendors. Years later the series would finally arrive in the States in a truncated series of weirdly modified DVDs from DIC and ADV. However, that 2003 DVD series ended prematurely and it took the advent of streaming video before English-speaking audiences could fully feel their cosmos, Seiya-style.

But what is this Knights Of The Zodiac, this erstwhile Saint Seiya? What made it a hit around most of the world? Well, when the weekly manga powerhouse Shonen Jump began publication back in ‘68, the editors conducted a survey of their target audience, Japanese schoolboys. The editors asked their potential customers about their ideals and their dreams and what they valued most; the children said they believed in friendship, perseverance, and victory. Of the many manga serialized in Jump, none exemplifies these ideals more than Masami Kurumada’s Saint Seiya.
Born in 1953, Kurumada was a manga-drawing delinquent who answered his Shonen Jump rejection letter by showing up at the offices to ask why. He learned the trade as an assistant to Samurai Giants artist Ko Inoue, and his first Weekly Jump series was “Sukeban Storm,” to be followed by his first success, the 1974 boxing drama “Ring ni Kakero” (Put It All In The Ring). "Ring" would be the template Kurumada would follow for the rest of his career, adventures of a band of manly-virtue-extolling men battling anything and everything that stands in their manly way with guts and fortitude, drawn in a distinctive style that streamlines the rougher men’s sweat aesthetic of Hiroshi Motomiya/Naoki Tsuji/Tetsuya Chiba aesthetic. Kurumada’s characters feature well-defined musculature and flat, iconic faces, as if Tomorrow’s Joe fought wearing a Halloween mask, a look common to the Japanese comic world, but perhaps seems odd and unfinished to the unprepared Western eye. 
Kurumada Saint Seiya manga pages from Nov. 17 1986 Shonen Jump

Halfway through "Ring" the merely physical struggles became absurdly metaphysical as the spiritual power of our heroes erupted out of the subtext and right onto the page, as boxing blows began to smash windows and destroy real estate. This physical manifestation of fighting spirit would feature in Kurumada’s works from then on, from "Ring" to "Fuma no Kojiro" to "Bt’X", and most popularly in the series we’re talking about today, "Evil Crusher Maya". I mean, Saint Seiya
Kurumada’s original Saint Seiya manga ran in Shonen Jump from 1986 until 1990, a total of 28 compiled volumes. Toei’s anime TV series ran for 114 episodes from 1986 until 1989. The Hades OVA series had 31 installments released from 2002 until 2008. The 25th anniversary anime TV series Saint Seiya Omega ran for 97 episodes between 2012 and 2014. Saint Seiya: Soul Of Gold was a 13 part “Original Net Animation” broadcast on the internet in 2015 and 2016. Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō , a prequel story of Saori Kido’s all-girl Saint bodyguard squad, appeared in 2018. Knights Of The Zodiac: Saint Seiya was a CG Netflix series streaming 12 episodes in 2019/20. And of course there are the theatrical Saint Seiya movies; the 80s films “Evil Goddess Eris,” “Heated Battle Of The Gods,” “Legend Of Crimson Youth,” and “Warriors Of The Final Holy Battle,” with the films “Heaven Chapter- Overture” in 2004 and “Legend Of Sanctuary” in 2014. So if you want to settle in and binge-watch Saint Seiya, set aside about a hundred fifty hours or so - more if you watch the TMS series Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas, an alternate-universe story of 18th century Saints battling Hades. This is why I stopped reading Marvel comics, guys.
Saint Seiya, or Knights Of The Zodiac as various marketing departments would have us call it, is at its core a cosmic gumbo of gods and goddesses playing endless role-playing games, with human beings as their tiny lead figurines. Awesome, world-shattering forces are brought into play every time characters blink or twitch, and when battling each other, the very fabric of the universe itself shudders with the force of their blows. Our heroes struggle through this melodramatic world – five knights, each with their own fighting styles, tragic backstories, and rough-hewn friendships forged in the heat of battle. It’s the kind of thing that 12-year old males think is cool, and 17-year old females draw doujinshi of. Just ask CLAMP. Leaning into this almost-shoujo look are the TV anime character redesigns by Shingo “Rose Of Versailles” Araki, making Saint Seiya practically nonbinary in its cross-gender appeal.

The Seiya story is this: sometime in the near future, the entire world is absolutely crazy for a gigantic martial arts tournament. The GRAAD Foundation, chaired by beautiful, enigmatic Saori Kido, has established the Galaxian Wars, in which armored fighters battle each other for what appears to be the privilege of winning a different set of armor, or, in the Seiya mythos, “Cloth.” Our hero Seiya, an impulsive, brave, loyal, clean-living Japanese youth, has spent six years at the training center on Greece learning to focus his cosmic energy and use it to pound foes with lightning-fast blows. He didn’t enter the tournament simply to be the greatest – he’s looking for his missing sister, and like Sue Cat, felt that worldwide fame would help. He wins the final round of the qualifying tournament, and receives the Pegasus Cloth. Once in Tokyo, he meets the rest of his Zodiacal chums: Hyoga/Swan, who fights with the icy blasts of Cygnus; Shiryu/Dragon, a Chinese fellow with a helpful back tattoo that reveals his weak point; and Andromeda/Shun, a very pretty boy who fights with his Nebula Chains. All have varying hair colors, national origins, and different primary colored tights. As the series opens we’re looking forward to seeing them battle each other, but quickly the tournament aspect of the show is ditched for a much more satisfying storyline, giving us Dragon Ball in reverse.

As our heroes vie for the top slot, a new drama unfolds – Phoenix, who may be and in fact is Andromeda’s brother, shows up with an army of Phoenix disciples, and instead of fighting for the prize like everybody else, he just steals it outright in a shocking display of unsportsmanlike behavior.
As it all turns out, Saori is actually the goddess Athena, and the purpose of the tournament is to fine the warrior who can wear the golden, super powerful Sagittarius Cloth and return her to her rightful throne as Goddess of Wisdom. Aligned against Athena and her Saints, or Knights as DIC would like us to call them, are Ares, the God of War, who has his own legion of armored fighters. As the show progresses, we meet more and more Saints on both sides of the struggle, all with progressively bizarre armor based on zodiacal signs that might not even exist. New mythologies are strewn about the place as powerful objects are stolen and regained, armor is destroyed and rebuilt, and heroes die and are reborn, a cycle of death and rebirth that Seiya itself echoed in its on-again, off-again American release.

In the years since that first Knights Of The Zodiac DVD, the Jump style of supernatural martial arts champions battling for friendship and honor has become familiar to the West; Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have all Adult Swimmed and Netflixed their way into our collective hearts. But what did this genre look like to Americans unprepared for this style of story? What was the marketing justification for selling a 1986 anime series to a 2003 audience without decades of sports-manga context to place Saint Seiya in, to viewers who might merely see this as some kind of gender-flipped Sailor Moon?

The pre-DVD 1980s American anime fan scene had its Saint Seiya devotees, enough to make the Seiya merchandise a staple at early anime conventions and to make Seiya fan art a part of every anime fan publication for the last half of the decade. Saint Seiya’s most prominent exponent was Pat Munson-Siter, whose research and fan artwork was powerful enough to fill 112 pages of her Saint Seiya Series Review. This was quite an accomplishment, considering the sum total of official English-language Seiya material at the time was... pretty much nothing. Munson-Siter’s work became the basis for the Saint Seiya Role-Playing Game, an unofficial RPG system by John Lash that gave late 80s gamers the chance to throw dice and battle as the Saints. How many other anime series inspired American fans to create role-playing games? (the answer is 2.) Pat sadly passed away in 2020 and is missed by anime fan friends and family alike. 
At heart Seiya is a simplistic show where every defeated villain leads to another defeated villain, where every hero’s power-up is trumped by another power-up, which is in turned trumped by yet another power-up. Toei’s mid-80s television animation is serviceable enough, and actually has more life and movement than much of the TV anime seen in 2003, thanks to existing before deadlines tightened, budgets shrunk, and primitive digital compositing made shows obsolescent right out of the gate. Seiya’s characters actually move, and while the movement may be clunky from time to time, it’s at least honest. 

Episode 5 in particular stands out, titled “Miracle of Rebirth! Friendship of the Cosmos.” Directed by Kaname Pro director Shinichi Masaki, episode 5 pops with a lot of the bouncy flash and punch of the OVAs Kaname was producing at the time with of anime legends like Yoshinori Kanada and Mutsumi Inomata. Ep. 5 looks great, with lots of zooms, close ups, figure animation that actually moves, characters that shake their heads and blink and sweat, and plenty of anime cameos in the crowd scenes. This is the one to watch if you can watch only one, and it's the only one with this creative team, sadly.
Minky Momo and Fandora guest star in episode 5

Kurumada’s angular style was softened somewhat for television, but it’s still a singularly flattened vision and one that’s a lot less “cute” than anime contemporaries like Dragon Ball, much less a 2000s industry overpowered by shoujo and bishoujo visuals. Saint Seiya’s seriously dated clothing and hairstyles aren’t as dire a handicap, but honestly, you can’t look at Andromeda’s jeans-and-suspenders combo or Seiya’s sleeveless T’s without having flashbacks to Swatch watches and Duran Duran.
Regardless of changing fashions, Saint Seiya’s most appealing visual aspect remains untouched; the way the entire universe trembles whenever characters fight. Seiya throws a punch and galaxies whirl in the background; Dragon smacks some hapless lackey while planets explode and stars collapse. Our heroes are tied into the very life force of the universe itself, and when they battle, the fabric of space-time itself begins to warp and buckle. It’s both inherently silly and awe-inspiring on a sub-adolescent, almost primal level.

America’s first licensed Seiya was the ADV/DIC Knights of The Zodiac release, which of course was dubbed. I’ll give the localization points for resisting funny accents (Hyoga was just begging for a few Minnesotan “you betchas”), but on the other hand, the aggressive sameness of the voice talent fails to distinguish any of our heroes. They’re all bursts of hyper extreme sports Mountain Dew commercial enthusiasm, punctuated with large doses of instantly dated slang. While that may very well appeal to the crazy kids of today with their hair and their clothes, it’s hard to get into seeing somebody unleash a punch that destroys entire buildings, while the script has them mouthing wisecracks. 

The dubbing was one of the least jarring creative changes to this version of Saint Seiya. All the punching and kicking and wrestling is left intact, but what used to be healthy all-natural red blood is now green, or blue, or sometimes white. What this is supposed to accomplish is anybody’s guess. Was cartoon blood a bridge too far for potential television syndication in the early oughts? DIC has also seen fit to add superfluous transitional elements between scenes, just to distract viewers from the fake blood colors, I guess. In practical terms this means a cheesy-looking Great Value Saint helmet zooms across the screen and is destroyed by Seiya’s fist. 
What’s sadly missing from the DIC version is the music. The original show had a powerful rock/orchestral soundtrack, with a theme song by glammy rock act Make-Up, all choruses, guitar solos and a driving beat that helped to sell the entire idea of young fighters with giant hair battling to feel their cosmos. Knights Of The Zodiac replaces this with Wichita Falls alt-rock act Bowling For Soup’s cover of the Flock Of Seagulls hit “I Ran”. Perhaps a nod to the show’s 80s roots, a warmup for Soup’s “Phineas And Ferb” theme song, or merely an attempt to force some kind of cultural relevance into the show, in practice the song elicits double-takes from the Gen-Xers and shrugs of indifference from everybody else. Meanwhile the show’s new incidental music is a fakey EDM beat more suited to late night TV commercials. The original music was and is perfectly fine, thank you.

Changes aside, I found myself entertained by the show all over again. The brave youths struggling against the odds in a downright nonsensical universe full of gods, semi-gods, and increasingly outlandish armor are all still there, in spite of dopey dubbing, off-color blood, and poor music choices. There’s definite charm in a show that willfully combines male-bonding melodrama with convoluted mythology in the service of having heroes punch out the fabric of space and time. None of it really makes much sense, but that’s part of the appeal, which didn’t quite make the grade in 2003; ADV/DIC’s release fizzled out before completion and North America wouldn’t get more Seiya for years. 
The world of Japanese animation, and in fact the world in general have definitely changed since Seiya and his gang first premiered. As Western anime fandom moved through clubs, conventions, Facebooks and Discords and its enthusiasms moved from Dragon Balls to Gundams, from Evangelions to Narutos, Saint Seiya was a constant, kept relevant by a dedicated European and Asian fanbase, by a parade of sequels and side stories and a mountain of Bandai merchandise. 

Here in the 2020s we in the West can enjoy Saint Seiya without having to Bowl For Soup or swap for VHS off-air copies rented from the local Japanese grocery store. Saint Seiya Omega and Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō are streaming on Crunchyroll. The four 1980s Seiya films are streaming on Retrocrush. The Lost Canvas series and the 1980s films are also available on disc from Discotek. Hades, Soul Of Gold, Saintia Sho, Lost Canvas, and the 80s films are also streaming on Tubi. However, the original series recently was cut from Netflix and its most recent 2014 DVD release is out of print. For now, we are sadly bereft of our 80s champions until the time, hopefully not far off, when new Saints of Hope rise to rock the heavens for justice, or at least let us stream a TV show.
-Dave Merrill

Thanks for reading Let's Anime! If you enjoyed it and want to show your appreciation for what we do here as part of the Mister Kitty Dot Net world, please consider joining our Patreon!