I remember a few years ago when I first heard about an anime where Jesus Christ and the Siddhartha Gautama Buddha were living as roommates on Earth. The premise was definitely attention-grabbing, but I was skeptical about how creative and enjoyable the humor would actually be. I never got around to watching the show, but I recently got the opportunity to read the manga which inspired it: Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men. Vol. 1, published by Kodansha Comics, introduces the series’ premise and follows Jesus and Buddha as they go on all manner of adventures around Japan. Were my doubts well-founded, or does the manga prove me wrong? Is Saint Young Men Vol. 1 good?
The series does a good job establishing its premise and tone right off the bat. No more exposition is given beyond the minimum necessary: that Jesus and Buddha are living together on Earth to get a taste of modern human life. They’re in search of the everyday, and that’s what we get. The pair visit different cities and festivals, experience the awkwardness of subways and social interactions, and find all manner of things to delight in. Basically the whole point is to have fun, and the reader gets to as well. The religious subject matter isn’t revered as too serious to joke about, but it’s also not handled in overly obvious or try-hard “edgy” ways.
With that said, the religious references still contribute a lot to the manga. Well-known iconography such as Jesus’s crown of thorns and Buddha’s elongated earlobes become sources of comedy when regular people notice them. Buddha must contend with others pulling on his ears, while passersby who come too close to Jesus end up getting cut by his crown. Not only that, but Jesus’s crown even starts to bloom in moments when he’s feeling serene.
There are references to specific stories from both figures’ lives sprinkled throughout the volume, and they often come up at unexpected times or get utilized in creative ways. On the plus side, one doesn’t need to have a textbook knowledge of Christianity or Buddhism to enjoy the humor. The sharp comedic timing and context provided make most of the jokes enjoyable regardless. If you’re curious to learn more though, there are several glossary pages in the back with great background info told via short and easily understandable language.
Nakamura’s art throughout is also well-done. His takes on Jesus and Buddha look great. They’re rendered simply enough to match the tone and convey gags well, but they still have identifying features that make them instantly recognizable. Jesus pretty much has the exact face one instantly thinks of (historically inaccurate though it may be) and the previously mentioned crown of thorns. Buddha also looks more or less like you would expect provided you were thinking of Siddhartha. (The popular overweight, laughing Buddha statues are actually depictions of Hotei, a figure from later in the religion’s history.) The main duo usually just wear t-shirts and jeans throughout the volume, further adding to the laid-back, casual atmosphere. The backgrounds throughout are also notable for how well they’re detailed and shaded, giving the manga’s world a sense of depth.
Overall, Saint Young Men Vol. 1 is a very enjoyable read. The art throughout is pleasing to look at, fits the tone well, and renders the main duo recognizably. The writing is also solid with strong comedic timing and smart, creative usage of the religious source material. There’s very little to criticize here. Some segments are less funny than others, but given how short the chapters are one never gets stuck in a weak spot for too long. As far as both religious and gag comics go, you won’t find many better than this.