Saint Seiya is one of the most beloved manga/anime series that you have never heard of. And that's OK. The original manga series was created by Masami Kurumada in 1986 and has sold more than 34 million copies in Japan, but it was not published in the United States until 2004. If you are a manga fan, and you can appreciate how manga is adapted to anime, then starting with the first volume of the manga, Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac, is as good a place to jump into the franchise as anywhere else.
But no matter where you begin with Saint Seiya, there will always be some confusion about beginnings and endings. And some of this confusion is rooted in the core conceit of the series itself.
In the world of Saint Seiya, there is a recurring Holy War. Every 200 years or so, the Holy War begins anew with new incarnations of saints, gods and goddesses. Thus, the Seiya you encounter in the new, computer-generated Netflix series is a modern-day protagonist.
But Tenma, the protagonist from the 2009 Lost Canvas anime series (also available on Netflix) is fighting the Holy War in the 18thcentury.
Saint Seiya is a glorious mash-up of manga/anime tropes within the pantheon of ancient Greek mythology. The main character, who goes by various names, becomes the Pegasus Saint. As a saint -- basically, a guardian warrior -- the character who wields the Pegasus "cosmo," leads a group of bronze saints to protect the goddess Athena. There are silver saints, who are far more powerful than the bronze saints while the gold saints are more powerful still. Depending on what version of the story you are reading or watching, the saints fight each other, specters or gods hellbent on destroying the earth.
The anime series were more popular in Europe and in Latin America than they ever were in the United States. The anime version of the series came to the US in 2003 on the Cartoon Network but it was sanitized for a young American audience to become less violent. The 20th-century production of the series couldn't compete with its glossy competitors in the 21st. That original version of the anime didn’t last, which is probably why most of the American audience will encounter Saint Seiya via the 2019 Netflix offering.
SEIYA SHOULD BE SERIOUS
The 2019 Netflix version of Saint Seiya is not a good place to start. In fact, of all the various versions -- manga, anime, or full-length film -- the most recent version of The Knights of the Zodiac is probably the weakest. And this is not simply because the creators shifted the gender of Shun, a beloved queer-coded character in the original anime series.
The new series is CGI, which for many purists is an automatic deal-breaker. But the central problem of the updated version is in tone. Throughout each version of Saint Seiya from the 1980s into the 21st century, there is always some form of comic relief but the overall tone of the series is serious. The battles are epic. And in some versions -- e.g. The Lost Canvas -- long-form battles are the essence of the series.
The 2019 Netflix version of this well-loved IP simply isn't serious enough. Seiya seems wholly inappropriate as the lead character. His 2019 tweeny cynicism always seems out of step with what Saint Seiya has been about. Earlier versions of Saint Seiya embrace a certain gravitas. These earlier versions are more like the earliest versions of G-Force or Voltron; they are both epic and intricate.
The 2019 version of this series is more like Jimmy Neutron. (No offense to Jimmy Neutron or his fans.) But Saint Seiya is more drama and tragedy than comedy. And it is not clear that these current creators have figured that out as of yet.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
The best place to start with Saint Seiya is, obviously, at the beginning. The manga version published in the US is easier to find than any of the earliest anime versions as there seem to be some licensing issues with the original anime series at the moment.
But manga might not be your thing and, if it isn't, then the 2009's Saint Seiya: Lost Canvas is also a great place to begin your love affair with these classic anime stories. These 26 episodes serve as a prequel to the original and they are produced in a more traditional anime style with the dramatic intensity that any Saint Seiya series requires.
For those who prefer CG anime then consider starting with Saint Seiya: Legend of Sanctuary from 2014. This feature-length film is set in the present and it is also fairly faithful to the original manga version of the story. Somehow the CGI in Legend of Sanctuary is more appropriate for Saint Seiya than that in the 2019 Netflix series.
Again, tone matters. Saint Seiya is an extraordinary amalgamation of Greek mythology and epic anime-style warfare. It works best when its creatives appreciate the weight of the original versions of the story.