Saiyuki: Sanzo and the Problem With Athiesm

The Sanzo Himself. . . And His Gun. . .

The first anime I would like to address in this blog is Saiyuki, mostly because it is one that, at first glance, is a pretty stereotypical anime: lots of swearing, poorly-drawn characters, minimal plot, and lots of diagonal lines denoting action. It was the first anime I ever watched that I almost turned off after the first two episodes because it seemed so stupid.

I’m glad I kept watching. Because it gets awesome, and explores many worldviews.

Of course, what better way to delve into animated personhood than with Genjyo Sanzo, the main protagonist?

Embrace nothing.

If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.

If you meet your father, kill your father.

Free from everything, you are bound by nothing.

Live the life that is given to you.

Sanzo’s character immediately irked me, and I wasn’t sure exactly why until I realized that he was the quintessential athiest antihero. Forced to go on a mission he did not want to go on, without anyone or anything to believe in but himself, the jaded monk is my polar opposite. There is nothing that makes me cringe more than a character who has no faith.

But wait. Is that really true? Does Sanzo have no faith?

As the series continues, it becomes clearer that most of what Sanzo says is bravado. He’s not a cold, heartless jerk at all, but cares very deeply for the other men in his party (and even the random strangers they encounter). Neither is he fully able to follow his credo of “Embrace Nothing.” Even as he claims to do so, his attachment to Son Goku is clearly a violation of this belief. But before I call him a hypocrite, I want to analyze this worldview and illustrate why it is impossible for anyone, even Sanzo, to follow.

Emptying yourself and embracing nothing sounds like a good idea in some regards. Surely, forsaking possessions can be a good thing. This points us towards faith and other things that are more important than material goods. And forsaking the opinions of others in order to form our own is what allows us to become free individuals.

But note that Sanzo says “embrace nothing,” not “embrace no goods or outside opinions.” Nothing. And with this word, we find the key problem in Sanzo’s worldview.

If we as human beings are truly to embrace nothing, that means we can have no relationship with the divine. That is a serious issue, because we need to know the divine to truly be able to know ourselves. And furthermore, it means we can have no relationships with other people. Not even friendships. And that leaves us isolated, alone, and trapped within ourselves. Not a pleasant existence.

Even worse, if we are to embrace nothing, we cannot even embrace our own selfhood. That’s a truly frightening thought. Without embracing our selfhood, the I, we lose everything important, and become nothing more than dust. All motivation, emotion, and everything else which makes us human vanishes in an instant. What are we then, but an empty sack of meat?

Therefore, I give Sanzo credit for forsaking this worldview. And it is within his effort to find his new path that his journey becomes truly heroic, as the influences of the rest of his party turn him from a man without faith to a man of faith.

Next time, we will discuss Hakkai, Saiyuki’s Catholic character.

Embrace no material goods. Embrace yourself, your companions, and your God.

-The Anime Philosopher


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