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First of all: I'm acknowledging up front that I won't be able to do this justice.
Second: If you happened to have watched any of a series shown in the US as Knights of the Zodiac – well, just forget what you saw. In so many ways, in all the ways that count, that wasn't Saint Seiya.
The premise, in a very tiny over-generalized nutshell: Every 250 years or so, the god Hades (yes that Hades, from Greek mythology) and the goddess Athena are reincarnated as humans. Once they reach maturity they raise up their respective armies (bad guys called Spectres, good guys called Saints) and wage a Holy War for the fate of the earth and all the human beings upon it.
Like angels, Athena's Saints are ranked at several levels of power – at the bottom are the 72 Bronze Saints (the "Seiya" of the title is a Bronze), then 24 Silver Saints, and twelve Gold Saints. Each Saint is associated with a constellation; for example, Seiya with Pegasus, and other comrades for Draco and Cygus. The Gold Saints are associated with the twelve Hellenistic zodiac sun signs (Aries, Taurus, Cancer, Libra, etc.) .
The Gold Saints and Athena live in temples in a hidden area (called "Sanctuary") near the Acropolis. For day-to-day organization Saints are organized under the "Kyoko" (usually translated as Pope; I personally use the term Pontifex or Holy Father).
The particular armor that each Saint (and the gods and goddesses as well) wear is called a "Cloth". The Saints use the power of the universe ("cosmo") and their own spiritual focus to transcend the weakness of their human bodies and do truly superhuman things.
And if I don't stop there, you've going to get entirely buried in minutiae: this is a very well thought out universe. So let's go to ...
Why I love it
I'll say it up front: Saint Seiya is cheesy, melodramatic, at times badly drawn – and yet for 25 years has managed to remain one of the most popular anime ever made. (I've been told that it has been shown in syndication in parts of Latin and South America continuously since it was dubbed.) It's a wonderful example of the shonen genre, where the scrappy underdogs have so much spirit and heart and determination that not even 100 broken bones, losing 2/3 of the blood in their body, or being punched at the speed of light can stop them. It was the direct inspiration for Sailor Moon, and was one of the series that provided raw material for the earliest waves of doujinshika. If you love BL and shonen ai, Saint Seiya is one of the series you can thank for it.
Because what else are you going to get from a series where the female characters are so overwhelmingly outnumbered? Saint Seiya was unabashedly "bromantic" decades before that term was heard, chock-full of beautiful bishonen and biseinen wearing colorful latex, tossing waist-length hair of every color imaginable, and shedding manly man-tears over the heroic sacrifices of their fallen comrades.
The first few episodes are not that great; one might even say they're bad. But once you get to the fight between Seiya and Shiryu… well, you might find yourself falling under the spell, like I did back in 2003. (By episode 10, I was so hooked that I marathoned the remaining 104 episodes plus the newly-released first third of the Hades arc. All that solidified my love for the characters, and inspired what I still think are two of my best fanfictions, Intermezzo and Legacy.)
I'd like to note that the Saint Seiya material I used as canon back then was primarily the original manga, the fansubs of the first 73 episodes (Sanctuary arc) of the original series, plus the first 13 episodes of the Hades arc of 2002-2003. The universe has continued to expand since then: Lost Canvas manga and anime, the Soul of Gold OVA, the Legend of Sanctaury live action film, and yet more manga -- Episode G, Next Dimension. (Lost Canvas especially threw canon wenches into my previously canon-faithful fics, but I haven't gone back and tidied yet. :p)
What some people don't like about it (and my response)
"The original series looks dated."
Well, yes. it's old enough to be oldschool.
"The storylines are just .. ridiculous. and no one could survive the kinds of injuries they incur. And ..."
Pffffbt. If you can't get in the spirit of the series, watch something else.
Characters I write
Though there are literally dozens to choose from, there are 4 characters that have received most of my fanfic love.
Dragon Shiryu, one of the Bronze Saints that, along with Seiya, are considered the "main characters" of the original anime series. Shiryu is calm, respectful, physically powerful, and like all Athena's Saints entirely dedicated to his mission (almost to the point of masochism.) He has a dragon tattoo on his back that fades when his life force is low. He is the only Bronze Saint I write extensively, mostly because, in my universe, he is the recipient of an unrequited and mostly Platonic love from ...
… Gold Saint Aries Mu. I admit that I was predisposed to like Mu, as his seiyuu in the original series was Kaneto Shiozawa. I adore Shiozawa's voice so much that watching whatever I could find that he had voiced guided most of my anime viewing for the first few years. (Iason Mink in Ai no Kusabi, Narsus in Arislan, Ageha in Basara, Shin Kazuma in Area 88, Shadi in series 1 YGO, D in the original Vampire Hunter D … I still continue to track down his more obscure performances.)
But even without that, Mu would have become a favorite. He gets one of the more interesting introductions and backstory – we find out that he had fled Sanctuary at the age of 7 when his Master, Aries Shion, was killed. (Shion had also been the Pontifex of Sanctuary; his killer impersonated him for many years until he was finally defeated by .. oops, shouldn't tell ya :p) Mu seems to have lived on his own in Tibet, perfecting the "Cloth Repair" skills that Shion had taught him, fending off assassins from the "false pope", and training his own apprentice, the rascally Kiki.
My only quibble (if you can call it that) with Mu is that he doesn't seem like a "traditional" fiery Aries.
We don't learn much about Gold Saint Aries Shion until the beginning of the Hades arc – and even then, for a long time the only things known about him were: a) he's like Kiki and Mu in appearance (a "dothead" – I'm not sure if it's fanon or canon that they're from Atlantis or Lemuria); b) he was one of the only two Saints to survive the Holy War of 1743 (the other was Libra Dohko); c) he was Mu's master, and d) the Kyoko of Sanctuary until he was killed.
Shion seems a bit more like a typical Aries in the Hades arc – his temper and emotions are more on display (although it's difficult to know how much of what he does in the Hades arc is an act.) He seems to have a dry, wry, almost sardonic wit (though this may be colored by his seiyuu, who is the same actor who voiced Akabane "Dr Jackal" Kurodo in GetBackers.)
Shion's goodbye scene with Dohko in the Hades arc – brief as it is – sealed Shion/Dohko as my Saint Seiya OTP. (Well, that and some gorgeous doujinshi :p)
As I have decided that the dotheads are a different race than humans, I've given them a physiology that essentially replaces pubic hair with a tough membrane covering the genitals (this membrane, the tegimen, thins sufficiently in the presence of the appropriate pheromone that the cuspis breaks through it) and an external nerve cluster meant for pleasurable sensations (the occasus).
Gold Saint Libra Dohko is known for most of the Saint Seiya series as a Roshi, a purple Yoda who trained Shiryu and who spends most of this time watching a waterfall in Rozan, China. ~ We find out a number of things about Dohko in the Hades arc: a) he's spent the time since the last Holy War guarding the prison of the 108 Specters of Hades army b) he's got a tiger tattoo on his back and c) he's not nearly as old as he looks.
Go ahead, fire that canon at me:
So … back in 2004 when I was inspired to write Shion and Dohko and Mu develop a backstory for them, I teased out the few details in canon and studied their few appearances, and based on their voices and what I saw (Shion and Dohko were essentially personality opposites) I made Shion the fiery, impatient one and Dohko the calm, steady one. With the help of friends (and inspired by a fabulous French fanart) I invented names and nationalities for the rest of the gold Saints from 1743. ~ I took a lovely color panel of the two limping off after the end of the war and used that as the opening for both Intermezzo and Legacy.
And then, as I mentioned above, new works came out that shot that all to hell. Turns out that Kurumada meant Shion to be the quiet steady one, and Dohko to be the firebrand. (Well, that explains all the girly Shion uke fanart I've seen for so long :p) ~ I do still think my characterizations & stories stand on their own for the most part, as the stories are about the relationship more than big plotty tie-ins to canon.
If you want to tackle Seed, my strange "erotic gothic yaoi drama with demons, Spectres, Silvers, Bronzes, love, angst, twincest, kink, violence, yuri, and WAFF" or one of the other Saint Seiya fics I haven't mentioned yet, then here are quick summaries of my takes on the other Gold Saints.
Taurus Aldebaran, Mu's genial Brazilian neighbor. In my fics he's had a low-key crush on his best friend Mu since they were kids. Physically, he's a gentle giant – 6' 9".
Gemini Saga – one of the bad boys. He was a candidate to succeed Shion until he lost patience and killed him instead: canon was sort of undecided whether it was his "evil side" or a possession by the god Ares (and to top that off, he later was revealed to have a "black sheep" evil twin named Kanon. I sort of rolled all that together in Chiaroscuro.) ~ Anime gave him cobalt blue long hair.
Cancer Deathmask – in the original anime he comes across like a complete sadist – he throws women and old men down cliffs and has no problem attacking a blinded, cloth-less Shiryu until Mu intervenes. He decorates his temple with death masks of those he's killed (hence the name). I enjoy making him a swaggering, foul-mouthed prick.
Leo Aiolia – younger brother of the defamed Sagittarius Saint, Aiolia seems to be one of the noblest and purest Saints – to me he has a definite Galahad vibe. Short brown hair.
Virgo Shakais said to be the reincarnation of the Buddha. Often referred to as "The Man Closest to God," to me he's very difficult to write IC in a serious piece (his chapter in Seedtook me four months of revision.) He generally keeps his eyes closed unless he's getting ready to blast someone. In a comic piece, however, he's "golden," because he can be whatever you want. I like him prissy and sort of repressed (The Gold Hussy). Long long blond hair.
Scorpio Milo… ah, Milo. Fanon wise, he's the resident priapic sex god. Canon, he's a merciless, vindictive assassin if he feels he has right on his side. Pairing him with Camus has been done so often, for so long, that most people are sick of it, but it still works. (This is one of those cases where a small detail in the anime became the foundation for acres of slash.) Longish blue-violet hair, the index finger of his right hand acquires a long red fingernail/stinger when he's getting ready to use his "Scarlet Needle" attack.
Sagittarius Aiolos – deceased. He was the older brother of Aiolia, the Leo saint. When Aiolos caught Saga trying to kill baby Athena, he saved the baby but was framed by Saga instead. He died getting the baby (who was raised as Saori Kiddo) to safety.
Capricorn Shura gets kinda short shrift in my fics. I'm sorry, but there are just too many pretty boys, and too little time!
Aquarius Camus, my personal favorite for the sexiest Gold Saint, is a French Saint who trained in Siberia (and was the Master of Bronze Saint Cygnus Hyouga) has all ice-based attacks and a very cool, aloof manner. (His seiyuuis also in the goo-inducing range for me, so …) Plus, woo, Long Blue Hair!!
Pisces Aphrodite – one of the Saints who is often mistaken as a woman. Fights with roses, beauty marks, and aqua hair. As in many doujinshi, I make him buddies with Deathmask just because … it's kinda cracky.
Ophiuchus Shaina – a powerful Silver Saint, she (like all female Saints) wears a mask. To conceal her gender. (Because that's the only thing that would give it away, right? :p)
Aquila Marin – another Silver Saint, she trained Seiya.
Where to get it: anime
(Apologies for covering just Region 1 here) There were two previous Region 1 releases. DiC (now Cookie Jar) released the 32 heavily edited episodes that had been shown on Cartoon network as Knights of the Zodiac. ADV released the first 2 seasons ( 60 episodes) uncut/unedited with dual audio.
According to wikipedia, "A DVD set entitled "Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Classic Complete Collection" will be released to DVD in the US on November 5, 2013 from New Video, containing 12 discs, and the English dub of the first 73 episodes (marking episodes 61-73's debut in English). However, it contains no Japanese audio."
Saint Seiya: Lost Canvas has been available to stream on Crunchyroll. It covers the eighteenth-century war, and includes Shion and Dohko as major characters.
One of the Saint Seiya wiki: http://saintseiya.wikia.com/wiki/Saint_Seiya_Wiki
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Written May 2009; edited 24 Dec 2015