Where to start...admittedly I feel as though I should wait to write a review for this. Just finished watching not more than two minutes ago and have not yet sat to reprocess the series. But I can't wait.
First off, I knew nothing about Saiyuki prior to watching, and hadn't realized that this is a long running manga & anime. Second, since I've never read the manga, nor watched the prior anime, my take will probably differ from dedicated fans (please forgive). Alright, (get to the point already) enough exposition... this WAS AWESOME!
After slogging through countless of semi-entertaining, assembly line, same (but not quite the same), anime...this WAS AWESOME! I get it, this is a variant Journey to the West, a story so old that to recognize it as such would be redundant. But this was not Journey to the West. Nor was the story similar to anything I've seen before. It was an original take on a classic tale.
The story was both driven and direct. Yet, the characters still had time enough to breathe, grow, and are individually "invest-in-able." Can't wait to go back and watch the previous stories, and come back around to watch this one again. Simply well done.
The Sanzo party is back, and the anime is actually following the manga from what I recall.
Now, it has been quite a while since I read the manga past Reload volume 9 (where it stopped being printed in the US due to Tokyopop going out of business), but I do remember some of the things in it.
Genjo Sanzo, Hakkai, Goku, and Gojyo have finally arrived in India in their journey west. They're surprised to find out that many shops don't accept their Golden Credit card, and get a bit of culture shock on top of a few minor incidents...
...at least, until a familiar yet unfamiliar face shows up as they're stopped at one of the cities which homes another Sanzo who carries a scripture!
Same as always with the group; there is a little bit of character development, but since it's due to some plot reasons, I'm not going to detail it.
Kougaiji and his crew also makes an appearance, and a major battle goes down on holy grounds in his attempt to steal the Earth scripture from the other Sanzo. There's a tiny bit of character development with Kougaiji if you squint, but nothing to really talk about.
Sharak Sanzo is the 28th Sanzo of Arhat, and has a personality similar to Genjo Sanzo. She's blunt, matter-of fact, and stubborn, and also weilds guns in battle (in addition to her scripture, which seems to be more of a barrier in nature). She runs a sanctuary protected by relics connected to her scripture's powers to shield the city from youkai (the mission she had received).
Hassan is her most loyal follower, knows a little bit of holy attacks/chanting as well, and is also in charge of the defense brigade...plus is in love with Sharak despite her status.
Nataku reappears in this season as more than just someone who sits on a chair like a lifeless doll all day, though I don't want to say more so as not to spoil things.
I don't usually touch on this specifically, but I feel I have to.
For about 75-80% of the anime, the colors are dull and gives off a vibe of either bad things to come or the color fading from the world. Perhaps it was an attempt by the animators to remind us that they're getting closer to the Minus Wave's source, and so things are going to get worse, but the washed-out colors doesn't fit for all the situations.
Compared to the first few episodes which had vibrant colors, many of these episodes gave off the same feeling as the colors: Dull and lifeless.
They also changed some colors, such as Hakkai's eyes. In this season, his eyes are more of a silver color when they're supposed to be green. Gojyo's hair has been getting progressively a darker red with each passing season, but the major issue is definitely the change to Hakkai's eye color.
The animators also made a mistake that a lot of anime is making:
Having the "camera" move during fight scenes to try and give a sense of action.
If you watch an old 90's anime with some good fight scenes (like Rurouni Kenshin), you'll see that the animators don't have to resort to such tricks in order to pull out heart-racing and tense fights.
This is a personal thing as well as something from the point of view of someone who took classes in video creation and editing back in school.
Many movies and animes are doing this "let's shake the 'camera'" trick, but instead of making the fight scene look more like a fight scene, it's making it harder to discern what's going on...and I feel sorry for anyone who gets motion sickness easily.
On the subject of the battles, I'm glad that they're still adding blood for realism purposes (as the first season avoided blood as much as possible), but seeing the splatters on the "camera lens" combined with the shaking "camera" made it extremely difficult to see what was going on in the fights.
All the tension was lost due to it; I didn't even feel like I was playing an FPS game or anything, it was just a poor decision in terms of animation.
I don't know where this goes, so I'm putting it here:
This anime wastes a total of THREE EPISODES referring back to what every Saiyuki fan knows as "Saiyuki Gaiden".
While Saiyuki Gaiden's anime version had a giant chunk left out (such as Nataku's order to kill Goku, which was the breaking point for all of the unleashed chaos), there was no need for this season to spend three episodes going over something every Saiyuki fan has already seen and-or read...for three entire episodes. Three episodes of 13 were spent on this subject which was already covered; that's just an obvious ploy to contain the season to one plot arc.
In essence, those re-runs of the past were the filler episodes.
Sadly, I have to dock points off the Overall score for that; it's not appreciated.
This is a personal thing, but I didn't particularly enjoy the opening/ending songs nor the soundtrack BGM. Saiyuki is hit and miss with the OP and ED songs; these just felt obnoxious.
Another HUGE minus were the flashbacks to scenes which were never animated before.
Anyone who hasn't read the manga will be confused about the references to when Hakkai removed his limiters and went beserk, amongst other things involved in that saga.
In the manga, the saga involving Hazel happened VERY differently, and there were many disappointed and angry fans (me included) when we found out just how bad they made it.
Not only that, but rather than animate it, they give us these teaser flashbacks; those scenes with Hakkai rampaging with the vines over his body are from that "Just a Worm" arc of the manga.
Speaking of the manga, the rest of the plot this season follows the manga fairly well...it's just too bad they couldn't do that for the previous arc, especially since they decided that they were going to show flashbacks to scenes which never happened in the anime (so don't bother looking through your Saiyuki anime collection; you won't find those scenes in the anime).
Those flashbacks are from volume 7 of the tankoban (manga) of Saiyuki Reload.
Overall, this season was interesting and finally started to follow the manga again, but it felt a little "too little, too late". The animated references to a fight that fans really wanted to see animated was more like a kick in the gut than a "look, we animated a few seconds of parts of it" service.
Fun for a single watch, and is finally on track with the manga, but the poor decision in how to handle the visuals of the fight scenes and teasers from manga volumes which were never animated are huge minus points.