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Andrew Osmond on the anime behind the T-shirts

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The long-lived franchise Saint Seiya, one of Uniqlo’s T-shirts lines, reminds us that, contrary to the impression given by Star Trek and Doctor Who, English isn’t the only language in the universe. Alternatively known as Star Arrow, Knights of the Zodiac and, indeed, Les Chevaliers du Zodiaque, Saint Seiya is an action mega-franchise, made by Toei Animation, stable of Dragonball, One Piece, Sailor Moon and Fist of the North Star, all snorting franchise warhorses. Saint Seiya was vastly popular in a great many parts of the world; in South American and European territories, it even outshone Son Goku and his Dragonball gang. For whatever reason, it’s always been marginal in English-speaking territories, though British fans need only take a ferry ride to a French anime convention to see how big it is.

The glib description of Saint Seiya is that it’s Sailor Moon with boys (though it predates Sailor Moon by several years). The show features heroic boy warriors called “Saints,” who don magic armour and fight battles on behalf of the goddess Athena. The title Seiya is an orphan Japanese boy who travels to a fabled, faraway land – Greece – to train as a saint and receive one such armour, the Pegasus Bronze Cloth. Yes, the Japanese writers choose to refer to metal protective gear as “cloths,” a Japlish quirk for foreigners to process!

As in any long-running action anime saga, the boy Saints fight for various purposes and prizes through the story arcs. The levelling up of their powers is signalled in a hierarchy of Cloths, including Steel, Silver and Gold. There is also, naturally, an inner force for the Saints to draw on, called Cosmo. Reportedly, the ‘80s version of the show was pretty bloodthirsty; well, it was from the same studio as Fist of the North Star, with which its production overlapped.

As you might gather from the references to Greece and Athena, Saint Seiya draws on the classical mythology of ancient Greece and Rome (not to mention Ray Harrhausen pics and Lucy Lawless franchises). Greek myth was fashionable in ‘80s anime, both in features such as 1986’s Arion and the French-Japanese Ulysses 31 on TV. There’s a strong link between Ulysses 31 and Saint Seiya – both feature the designs of the late Shingo Araki. His co-designer on Saint Seiya was the woman Michi Himeno; for more on their long partnership, see this article by Mike Toole, which has a fascinating compare-and-contrast of their respective designs for Ulysses 31.

Much of the Seiya anime, based on a Shonen Jump strip by male artist Masami Kurumada, was made in four years, with 114 TV episodes from 1986 and 1989. A decade’s “hiatus” followed, though the word is fairly meaningless given how the episodes were being screened and re-screened around the globe. In Japan itself, there was a live stage musical in 1991, featuring (go on, guess!) members of the boy-band SMAP. The anime returned in the twenty-first century with video series: the recent Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas is a prequel about a previous Saint generation, set in 18th century Europe.

Seiya also returned to more mainstream TV last year. Saint Seiya Omega, as this incarnation] is called, features new recruits to the ranks of the Saints, as well as fresh designs for the characters. The hero is now a lad called Kōga, raised by Athena herself, who goes to battle when the evil Mars kidnaps Kōga’s divine “mother.”

The show’s premiere was simulcast in Taiwan, Brazil and France, and a new arc has just begun as of writing. Currently, the Saints’ foe is an army of warriors who can manipulate time; just the thing for a franchise nearing its thirtieth birthday to hold back the years.

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