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Author’s note: Since Saint Seiya’s classic run has never been fully adapted into English, some of the terms that I’m using are direct translations of the Japanese and Latin American versions, in case there is some confusion.
“It’s because you already renounced the idea of being victorious (…) Didn’t you listen to my words? You may be prepared to die fighting against Abel, but since you already renounced the idea of winning even before starting, that is the same as losing without fighting.”Gemini Saga
As I have mentioned in several of my articles, anime has become a worldwide industry that has reached pop culture as a whole. Anime series such as Demon Slayer, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Attack on Titan, Jujutsu Kaizen, and many more are commercial successes all over the world, not only for longtime fans of the series. And while the medium is enjoying a lot of recognition, it is important to always give recognition to the forefathers of the industry.
Anime series such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Sailor Moon, and even One Piece helped make the medium a lot more popular in the West, plus you have franchises such as Devilman, Fist of the North Star, and Berserk that, while never getting a successful anime adaptation in this side of the pond, were extremely influential in series such as Demon Slayer or Attack on Titan. But if there is an anime series that was very important and doesn’t get enough recognition in English-speaking countries is certainly the subject of today’s article, Saint Seiya.
Me being a Latin American anime fan, the influence of Saint Seiya, or Caballeros del Zodiaco (Knights of the Zodiac) as it was known in our part of the world, is very notorious, with the franchise rivaling Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon as the most popular anime series of the 90s. But what is Saint Seiya? What is it about? And why did it become so popular? Today we’re going to talk about that and a little bit more.
What Is Saint Seiya?
If you want the most direct explanation of this, Saint Seiya is a Japanese manga series written and drawn by Masami Kurumada and its original run went from 1986 to 1990. It follows five warriors known as the Bronze Saints that have sworn to protect the Greek Goddess Athena from several threats, including people from her own army of Saints and even the Greek gods themselves, which involves the likes of Poseidon and Hades as the story progresses.
All of Athena’s Saints’ armors, known as Cloths, are named and themed after a specific constellation and they draw their power from the Cosmos, which could be a variation of Dragon Ball’s Ki if you want a simple comparison. There are Gold Saints, who are named after the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the Silver and Bronze Saints, who are named after the remaining constellations.
Our main protagonist is the titular character, Seiya, who accepts to undergo the training to become the Pegasus Saint and have the power to find his sister, Seika, who went missing several years ago. But as he returns to Japan after becoming a Saint, he gets involved in a dangerous competition known as the Galactic Tournament and he has to join other like-minded Bronze Saints to stop the Phoenix Saint, Ikki, and this escalates to war against the corrupted leader of the Sanctuary that has sworn loyalty to Athena, the Patriarch, but there is a lot more to this situation.
Seiya and his friends have to protect the real Athena, a young lady they met in their childhood known as Saori Kido, and this is how the plot of Saint Seiya begins.
What Makes Saint Seiya So Great And Appealing?
Saint Seiya is a very simple story: there are good guys, there are bad guys and there are challenges for our heroes to overcome. It is an accessible shonen story with charming characters, and a strong theme of loyalty and friendship, and Kurumada’s art and storytelling abilities are quite appealing, even if they are somewhat simplistic.
Then, what is the appeal of Saint Seiya? Why did it become a worldwide phenomenon in Latin America and Europe?
Well, there are a number of reasons. One of the most obvious when it comes to this series is escalation: Saint Seiya follows a very clear structure of constantly raising to the challenge and threats in a logical manner, which is why we see Seiya and his friends going from facing Bronze Saints to Silver Saints to Gold Saints to other deities’ soldiers and the fighting against outright gods. From a storytelling perspective, this is a method sure to generate interest.
There is also the element of Greek mythology. Back in the mid-80s, manga series were pretty much always set in Japan or in futuristic sci-fi worlds, so setting a story in the modern day with a lot of characters from different countries with a lot of emphasis on Greek myths was a very bold move by Kurumada. There are characters such as Gemini Saga who is Greek, Capricorn Shura is from Spain and Aquarius Camus is French, so there is a lot of variety in that regard.
This being a visual medium, you also have to talk about Masami Kurumada’s abilities as a mangaka artist. While he has certainly lost a step or two in recent years (more on that later), back in the mid-80s he already had over a decade of experience in the industry and this is definitely shown in Saint Seiya as the story is very well-developed, the worldbuilding is clear and effective and combining such a traditional masculine topic (soldiers waging war to protect their land and goddess) with characters that have such boyish and androgynous looks was a very intriguing move.
All of this, combined with a main cast that is likable and with every character having their own sets of motivation, made Saint Seiya one of the most appealing franchises of its time, with the added element of gore, violence, and sheer brutality being a stark and yet effective contrast to the aforementioned “pretty boy” feel of the characters.
Our Main Cast
The main cast of Saint Seiya is the five main Bronze Saints and the Goddess, Athena, whose human name is Saori Kido. Saori, must be said, is not the most proactive of characters and she often plays the role of the damsel in distress, which was a very common trope at the time, but she is likable and fits her role well.
When it comes to the five main characters, Seiya is our leader and he is a fairly standard shonen protagonist: he is rash, impulsive, has a good heart, and never gives up. His determination to keep fighting is one of his major traits and something that leads him to win several of his battles. He is not the most complex of characters, but he serves as a solid lead, particularly in the first couple of arcs.
Then we have Dragon Shiryū, who is one of the most popular characters in the franchise. Seiya saves Shiryū’s life after his heart stops during their battle in the first couple of chapters, and he proves to be a valuable ally, constantly willing to sacrifice his life for others. One of the most iconic moments of the series is when he decides to blind himself to win a battle against an enemy, which goes to show the lengths Shiryū goes to in order to fight for the cause.
One of the most interesting characters, at least from my perspective, has always been Cygnus Hyoga. While Hyoga, due to his ice-themed abilities, always seemed like the coldest and most calculative of the five Bronze Saints, he is a very passionate and noble person, with a lot of strong attachments to his mother, who lies frozen in the depths of the ocean of Siberia. He also has an interesting contradiction of being deeply Catholic while also serving a Greek goddess, which is something that is referred to in some instances of the franchise.
The case of Andromeda Shun is one of the more fascinating situations: he is a very gentle soul and a pacifist by nature, which oftentimes leads him to avoid conflict, thus making him a walking contradiction due to his role as a Saint. Shun can fight with the Andromeda Chains, and he has proven to be a capable fighter several times within the story, but his soft-spoken and pacific nature makes him avoid conflict in many different situations. Plus, he is the most androgynous character out of the entire cast, which is saying a lot. That eventually led to a bit of a controversy in a reboot when he was turned into a woman, much to the fandom’s frustration.
The final member is also the antagonist of the first major arc, Phoenix Ikki. He is Shun’s older brother and his time training to get the legendary Phoenix Cloth, which no one had obtained before him, turned him into a more sinister individual, but after being defeated by Seiya and his friends, he goes through a redemption arc and aids Saori and the Saints when push comes to shove. He is the residential cool guy of the franchise, arguably the strongest Bronze Saint, rivaling the might of the Gold Saints, and his stoic personality makes him a fan favorite.
This is a cast of characters that goes through a lot in the series, they build strong bonds during each arc and while they are young soldiers waging constant wars against equally or more powerful enemies, they always have each other’s backs, with friendship and camaraderie being one of the strongest themes in Saint Seiya.
The Gold Saints
The Gold Saints are the main antagonists of the most iconic and most celebrated Saint Seiya arc, the Twelve Houses. In this arc, Seiya and his friends have to go through each House of the Gold Saints, defeat them, and keep moving forward until reaching the Sanctuary, the home of the evil Patriarch, to get the weapons that can save Saori, who has been struck with a special arrow. They only have 24 hours to achieve this goal.
In the context of this arc, the role of the Gold Saints becomes all the more impressive. Some of them had been shown in the series before this storyline, and they proved to be quite superior to any threat the Bronze Saints had faced, but it is even more interesting when you consider that they are not bad guys (well, two of them are, but that’s another story). They are loyal to Athena, but the evil Patriarch lies to them and made them believe that Saori was an imposter, leading to this conflict.
So, a lot of these battles are not only physical conflicts but those of ideas. Gold Saints such as Virgo Shaka or Aquarius Camus challenge the Saints to see if their resolve is good enough; and if it is, it means that they are loyal to the real Athena. Some of the Gold Saints even die during these battles because of that, but they view it as a way to accept responsibility for striking Athena. It’s a powerful, poignant, and tragic arc, which befits the Greek mythology element of the series.
The Gold Saints are also quite popular because they are the Knights of the Zodiac, so you always have fans saying that they are this Gold Saint or that one. They are Athena’s elite guard, and while they are not as prominent as you wish them to be after the Twelve House arc, they are often charismatic and enjoyable characters, with their relationships with one another being very complex. Some spinoffs would explore said relationships with a lot of varying results.
It helps a lot that every Gold Saint has his own set of values and motivations. Aries Mu sees right through the evil Patriarch and realizes that he is the imposter, which is why he aids the Bronze Saints in their quest. Cancer Deathmask and Pisces Aphrodite are in it just because they enjoy evil. Virgo Shaka, Aquarius Camus, Scorpio Milo, and Capricorn Shura serve Athena, and their resolve is just as strong as that of the Bronze Saints. And just like them, the rest have their own points of view about the whole Sanctuary situation, which makes the conflict all the more exciting.
In fact, I would go as far as saying that the Gold Saints were one of the first groups of antagonists in manga and anime history. Later on, you can see a lot of franchises creating their own teams of strong antagonists for the heroes to battle against, but Saint Seiya was one of the first series to do this trope and to do it so well.
Sadly, An Ending Doesn’t Seem Close
Despite the series being very successful, having sold over 50 million manga copies across the world, and having an anime adaptation that has become a classic of the medium, the reality is that Saint Seiya is also a franchise that has been dealt a lot of blows due to its creator and the many different adaptations it has suffered over the years. All of that has resulted in the series being stagnated, as of this writing.
It could be argued that the decline started in the early 1990s when Kurumada was finishing the Hades arc, and there was some groundwork to adapt it to the running anime series. But the author decided to call it quits at the time due to exhaustion (remember, Masami had been doing manga since the early 70s) and the manga wasn’t selling as well as it did a few years ago. So, we would have to wait twelve years to see the Hades arc being adapted, and even that was a tortuous process where the animation quality of the mid-2000s left much to be desired.
A follow-up movie to the Hades arc, called Overture or Tenkai-Hen, was done in the 2000s, with the Saints having to face the god Apollo and his men, and the film ending on a massive cliffhanger, but the product proved to be a commercial failure despite having Kurumada’s input. The movie was very philosophical, depressing, and atmospheric, not really capturing the feeling of classic Saint Seiya, which proved to be very costly in the long run.
Kurumada had been teasing for decades the follow-up to the Hades arc, the now-infamous Zeus arc or Olympus arc, as you prefer to call it, but the commercial failure of the Tenkai-Hen made him backtrack, which led to the creation of the manga called Saint Seiya: Next Dimension, a prequel of the original series and one that has been going on for so long that most fans have lost interest, not to mention the notorious repetition of the tropes we already saw in the Sanctuary portion of the story. As of this writing, Saint Seiya doesn’t have an actual ending beyond what we saw in the final chapters of the Hades arc.
Several spinoffs, reboots, and remakes have been with the series, both in manga and animation format. Most of them have had subpar results, although I would like to highlight Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas, written and drawn by the extremely Shiori Teshirogi, which was a prequel of events that took place a couple of centuries ago when the Athena and Saints of that generation had to face Hades and his men.
It is a very fun project that gives a lot of classic Saints their time to shine, the art is some of the best that the series has ever enjoyed and you get a more consistent approach within the themes and concepts of Saint Seiya. It is now regarded as non-canon, but both the manga and the canceled anime series are worth your time.
Sadly enough, Saint Seiya finds itself in a declining stage. At a time when anime is enjoying a lot of success, there hasn’t been a modern Saint Seiya adaptation that can captivate new and longtime fans, with most projects ending up in failure. I for one would appreciate a modern reboot of the original series, with much better animation and consistency of the story’s evolution–I feel that it could generate a lot of interest if done well.
Despite not having a proper ending and not being handled well in recent times, Saint Seiya is one of the definitive anime series of its time and its influence cannot be understated. It has become a worldwide phenomenon in most parts of the world, and I can testify that the love for this series and its characters has not waved in Latin America. The classic series is still very much a fan-favorite around here and for a good reason as its themes of friendship, loyalty, and camaraderie are so needed in this day and age.