Review: Saint Young Men #1 by Hikaru Nakamura

It’s not often that I review digital-only comics, but I’ll make a concession for Saint Young Men #1, a long-running slice of life comic from Kodansha Comics. This book is officially available to purchase in English as of yesterday, but has been running in Kodansha’s anthology Morning 2 since 2006. This is the works’ first official English translation; it’s been a long-requested work by manga enthusiasts, but because of its subject matter, has been a difficult license to acquire. For a long time, Japanese licensors considered the comic too abrasive for the American market.  

Not that Saint Young Men is particularly offensive, at least to this reader. The central plot of Saint Young Men is that Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha have decided to come back to modern-day Japan on sabbatical and are living as roommates in Tokyo. The book captures their adventures at local festivals, going to the community center to swim, starting blogs, and other day-to-day activities. Jesus loves shopping and writes a TV-show review blog; Buddha is penny-pinching but loves manga (especially the manga Buddha by Osamu Tezuka). The American evangelical movement is not likely to love this kind of work (having railed against Harry Potter for being witchcraft), but it’s quiet, silly fun.

The comic envisions the two central figures of Christianity and Buddhism as ordinary people, although they still sometimes perform the random miracle at times of stress or high holiness. The book is chock-full of puns and silly jokes; at one point Jesus is mistakenly presumed to be the son of a mob boss, and that misunderstanding continues throughout the first volume. Buddha turns out to be good at aiming a rifle at a carnival game because all the local kids are always trying to hit the urna spot on his forehead with rocks and paper airplanes. Jesus is revealed to not be able to swim well, and parts the water of the local swimming pool a la Moses rather than swim in it, and Buddha’s head shines brightly whenever he has a mood swing.

Nakamura’s cartooning is attractive, but less remarkable than I would hope. Both Jesus and Buddha are illustrated in a sort of josei/bishonen style, thin and handsome. To Nakamura’s credit, she handles all of the pages so cleanly that I felt like I had to really focus on pages in order to “see” her style. This effect speaks highly of her ability to lay out pages and focus the reader’s attention on the plot of her comics.

I’m not a huge fan of comedy manga, but this book works for me as a reader. There’s a sly and subtle nature to the humor of Saint Young Men, which plays mostly in its favor. The comedy has a high barrier of entry, and the first volume has a pile of endnotes. For many of the jokes to be successful, you have to have a background knowledge of both Buddhism and Christianity. For people who have a passing knowledge of either religion or its history will likely find less enjoyment from some of the jokes in the book. Thankfully there is a thorough notes section at the back of the volume that helps explain most of the references. I was charmed by Nakamura’s Jesus and Buddha ribbing each other about their desires, purchases, and hobbies. I openly laughed a few times while reading this book, and that’s unusual for me. That said, the book is mostly fluff; there’s no strong character development as Nakamura sets things up and settles into her vision of the two men.

While the hyper-conservative Christians that scared off Japanese licensors in the mid-2000s are likely still not going to like Saint Young Men, I found the work to be a sweet meditation on friendship and a funny and irreverent comedy about the main figures of two major world religions. Saint Young Men is a little fluffy, and anyone looking for criticism or hard-hitting theology should look elsewhere. But this was an enjoyable read, and I’m hoping for future volumes (hopefully in print).


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