It's quite a pleasure getting back to this series after a long break. A modern fable based loosely on an old Chinese story, Saiyuki follows four men - the priest Sanzo, the demons Gojyo and Hakkia, and Goku, a reincarnation of the monkey god. They are on a quest into the west to track down some sacred scriptures before they are used to resurrect an evil god.
What makes the story unique is that this great story arc isn't really the focus of the series. Instead is the relationships of the men and their internal stories, even as they go from one picaresque tail to another. I like to think of this as part Chinese legend, and part Don Quixote - an adept mixture of adventure, humor, and human nature.
This set opens when one of their enemies, young Lord Koukaiji unleashes a great dragon, not at the four travelers, but at another group of opponents, a group of gods who have descented from heaven for purposes not entirely clear. Sano wanders into the middle of what has become a tragic and deadly conflict, and it is up to the monk and his companions to save their enemies in an ironic twist of fate.
The two central stories are pure human interest. In the first, Gojyo becomes trapped in a cave only to find that his older brother and sometimes opponent has been caught as well. A servant of Homura, one of the gods from the first story has decided to redeem himself by killing the two. To solve the problem they must look past their current disagreements.
The second of these episodes brings up into the past of Hakkai as he returns to the orphanage where he was raised as a child. He meets with a nun who was a close childhood friend, and he finds himself trying to help a bitter young boy who is the image of what he was. To save a village he must save the child.
Finally, the last episode is a humorous drinking contest where Sanzo gets to show of what he learns as a boy in the monastery. All thanks to a jug of monkey wine.
Strong stories and equally strong artistic values make this a notable series on most levels. The only flaw for US audiences is that the English dubbing makes a bit free with the original Japanese. Not horribly so, and the acting itself is quite good, but enough to irritate the purists.