by Faye Hopper,

Saint Young Men

GN 1

Saint Young Men GN 1
Praise be, for they are risen! After centuries of acting as the icons of spiritual belief for millions, Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ himself have decided they need a break from all that holiness and devotion to higher purpose. And so, they rent a cheap apartment in Tokyo, where the AC barely works, and begin living together as roommates. Thus begins a friendship at once peculiar and beautiful, as the two religious icons spend their days lazing around, visiting tourist attractions, playing video games and reading manga, as anyone else would do. After all, when you've spent millennia being the most important people in the world, perhaps a mundane existence is all you could ever ask for.

A couple years ago, I watched the first episode of Arakawa Under the Bridge at an anime club. Even now, its offbeat, peculiar, and instantly endearing sense of humor still lingers in my mind, making me wonder if I should have kept watching. I never knew, until a few days ago, that it was drawn by the same artist as that Buddha and Jesus manga I'd been hearing whispers about for years. It's this revelation that colors my feelings on Saint Young Men more than the sheer outrageousness of the premise, because like an old catchy song you'd forgotten the name of but recently rediscovered, I missed Arakawa's hilarious and bizarre comedic nature. I wanted more, and I sure got it in a manga starring two of the most important religious figures to ever exist.

Like most English-speaking audiences, I first became acquainted with Saint Young Men as a meme. The premise carries a lot of comedic weight; you hear about it and are instantly intrigued, or at least made morbidly curious. What's surprising about Saint Young Men, despite the eye-catching quality of its central conceit, is that it's incredibly laid-back and placid, almost a slice-of-life series. It doesn't revel in the shock and awe of its premise's sheer audacity, instead choosing to just present Buddha and Jesus as people with different worldviews and interests. Not in the way of The Last Temptation of Christ or Osamu Tezuka's Buddha (which Saint Young Men's Buddha is a huge fan of), where the point is to excavate grounded emotion and human realities out of stories that have lost relatability due to their deification. No, Buddha and Jesus are basically just out-of-college bachelors with crappy jobs living in a serviceable apartment. It's less commentary on religion than recontextualization of famous images for comedy. And it works well, because the absurdity of the premise meshes wonderfully with Hikaru Nakamura's awkward and low-key sense of humor, creating a gag manga as surprising as it is hilarious.

Saint Young Men's format is twofold: running jokes based on Buddha and Jesus's religious icon status (such as how their natural charisma causes people to flock to them, even though they want to hide their identities as two of the most important figures in world history) and comical Japanese cultural references. Surprisingly, it never grates or gets old, almost entirely because of the affable and warm characterization Nakamura gives Buddha and Jesus. They're oddly relatable, and Nakamura mines the details of their history for a lot of great running gags (such as Buddha's Urna being a sensitive spot, or Jesus accidentally convincing a gangster that he's the son of a mob boss), which work to give the volume callbacks that make it more than just a collection of chapters.

Of course, you can't play around with images this culturally loaded and not expect some degree of backlash, especially considering the blithe tone of the whole endeavor. For my part, I was raised Episcopalian and left the church the moment I reached adulthood. I'm extremely agnostic by most measures, so I'm not the most qualified to speak on how Saint Young Men chooses not to comment on organized religion and its historical realities, but I feel like it's not disrespectful or covering up the way these beliefs have manifested in the world. It's not even like Life of Brian, where the whole thing is a gleeful controversy. Instead, it remains small in scope and gentle in cadence, which I think is a valuable perspective. Stories as long-lasting as those of Buddha and Jesus naturally elicit revisions, and this is a really entertaining and charming take on their legacies.

Saint Young Men doesn't do much aside from deliver charming gags, but that's okay. In terms of its thematic goals and storytelling, I can't find much wrong with that. It's strange for something this instantly iconic to be so modest in its ambitions, but that fits with the philosophies of its central figures. Buddha taught modest living as a means to end vicious karmic cycles, and Jesus gave up all comforts and privileges for the sake of self-sacrifice. In a way, it's authentic to their moral codes. But on top of that, it's just unabashed fun. Maybe, like a lot of gag manga, the premise will wear itself out and repetition will fade away the humor, but even so, there'll be nothing else quite like it. Saint Young Men is one of a kind, and even if just for a volume, you owe it to yourself to experience it. Who knows? Maybe you'll have an epiphany.

Production Info:
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B

+ Hilarious and laid-back look at Jesus and Buddha, never buckles under the weight of its concept, incredibly addicting
Format can get repetitive, nothing in the way of deeper commentary, perhaps too blithe for its own good

Story & Art: Hikaru Nakamura

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Saint Young Men (manga)

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