Saint Young Men sounds like the set-up for a George Carlin routine: Jesus and Buddha spend a “gap year” on Earth, sharing an apartment in present-day Tokyo while wrestling with the temptations and banalities of modern life. The manga’s prevailing tone, however, is more silly than satirical, focusing not on big theological or philosophical questions, but mundane ones: how to stretch a monthly budget, where to find the best souvenirs, how to fend off drunken commuters.
Most of the humor stems from Hikaru Nakamura’s portrayal of Jesus and Buddha as opposites, with Jesus as a cheerful spendthrift with a fondness for t-shirts and tschotkes, and Buddha as a frugal “big brother” who agonizes over every purchase. The two have a kind of Ernie-and-Bert dynamic in which Buddha frequently chastises Jesus for his impulsive behavior, whether Jesus has purchased a “shinsengumi set” or wants to wear a pair of Mickey Mouse ears in public. Though their bickering provides most of the series’ comic fodder, there are also jokes about walking on water and turning water into wine, as well as a few sly pokes at Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha.
Anyone hoping to be outraged by Saint Young Men will be sorely disappointed, since its most blasphemous idea is that even Jesus and Buddha can’t resist the temptations of social media and shopping for melon bread. Anyone hoping for more insight into the human condition will likewise be disappointed, as Nakamura settles for easy laughs in lieu of real insight or religious critique—a missed opportunity, I think, since her premise offers plenty of latitude to reflect on Buddhist and Christian teachings, or the perils of modern-day materialism. A few good sight gags land well, but the manga’s eagerness to please blunts the edge of its best ideas. Your mileage may vary.
SAINT YOUNG MEN, VOL. 1 • STORY AND ART BY HIKARU NAKAMURA • TRANSLATION BY ALTHEA AND ATHENA NIBLEY • KODANSHA COMICS • 152 pp.
4 thoughts on “Saint Young Men, Vol. 1”
Manga Worth Reading says:
I really liked that Saint Young Men didn’t go really critic religion but the comedy was more just the normalcy of life for divine beings (and them being a double act). I enjoyed it as a playful romp through “modern day” Tokyo. I hope you got a few laughs from it 😊 Buddha gain weight and the parting of the “sea” was a highlight for me.
Katherine Dacey says:
I have a feeling I might have liked Saint Young Men better if I hadn’t been hearing about it for years; my expectations were impossibly high! That said, I certainly enjoyed some of the jokes, especially Buddha’s obsession with Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, which I thought was one of its best running gags. I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue with this one, since my survey of the manga-blogging community suggests that the manga follows the same basic formula in later volumes as well. But I can definitely see the appeal of low-stakes humor for a lot of readers.
I think you mean Ernie and Bert, unless you’re talking about Ernie Kovacs and Burt Reynolds, who now that I think about it would go together pretty well… double mustaches… I would watch that.
Katherine Dacey says:
Thanks for the correction–I just fixed that typo! I will say, however, that a manga about Ernie Kovacs and Burt Reynolds sounds like something I might read. (Just saying.)
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