It's a concept that is instantly going to catch the attention. Especially if you're a Westerner accustomed to shaking your head with a faint smile at the surreal things that always seem to be coming out of
Japan. Saint Onii-san is a gentle, rather silly sitcom from the
mangaka behind Arakawa Under the Bridge about two young foreigners learning to
live comfortably in a Japanese apartment despite not quite fitting in
culturally. Only the two young men are Jesus and Buddha.
It's one of those ideas that are so bizarre and silly and yet so simple that they are quite inspired. It's also the kind of idea that only comes naturally to a society where the attitude to religion is rather more relaxed and the fear of deeply offending is less of a concern - meaning both that there's less inclination to tip-toe around possibly offending someone, and also less inclination to be edgy and subversive by setting out to be offensive.
Instead, Saint Onii-san presents the son of God and the enlightened Siddhartha Gautama as rather naive but very pleasant guys who want to see the sights of Tokyo - including a rather sweet trip to a thinly-veiled Disney Sea - and occasionally get a holy glow when they do something virtuous and their halos 'come out'. They are slightly scared of the strict landlady and the neighbourhood kids who have decided Buddha is a 'Button alien' and have made it their mission to press the bindi on his forehead. Generally, however, they have a simple and low-key lifestyle of going to the local family mart or trying to shop for bargains, getting keen on Osamu Tezuka manga or going to the public bathhouses and Jesus accidentally convincing a local Yakuza that he is the son of a crime organisation's boss.
This works because it is not an attempt to belittle or trivialise the religions named for the two lead characters. They are a bit hapless, and even Jesus doesn't know what the true meaning of Christmas is, but they are also very good-hearted and virtuous guys - Saint-like, even, to use the surname they decide to live under (the series title is based on the pop song 'Saint Oji-san' and I think managaka Nakamura Hikaru thinks that 'saint' generally denotes a transcendent holy person and thus would actually apply to Jesus). Much of the comedy comes from their true selves manifesting, be it animals flocking to the apartment seeking nirvana from Buddha or hoping to sacrifice themselves virtuously for the nourishment of the son of God (even bringing their own matches for the cooking), or the train they are on being raised to the heavens and surrounded by worshippers and angels, and the two of them trying to pass these miracles off as normal. They gain a reputation around town for their silly T-shirts with religious references on that Buddha likes to make and for their quirky oddities - Buddha's bizarre hair and Jesus actually wearing a crown of thorns at all times, which causes bleeding when he's distressed and bursts into roses when he's amused - and it's very sweet when they leave for a time and the local community grows to miss them. The brat who likes to bully Buddha as an alien becomes something of the emotional centre of the whole piece, showing his real emotional vulnerability and abandonment issues when things go a little too far, and the bond that grows up between the holy men and the seemingly unpleasant child is very sweet.
If there's a downside to Saint Onii-san, it's that its gentle tone is just a little too gentle. The truth is that it's just not all that funny. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, but once the original concept has passed there's a lot of dead space of the two just being generally pleasant. It's very sweet that Buddha wants to get Jesus a birthday cake, and that they love awful puns (like hotoke (Buddha) and hottoke (‘leave me alone’) the best being as simple as 'Jesu' sounding like 'Yes' in Japanese), but I feel like the pacing was much too slow getting from joke to joke.
Visually, this is quite a departure for A-1, certainly a long way from the cutesiness of Welcome to the Space Show, Kuroshitsuji or Magi. Sticking closely to the style of Nakamura's manga, albeit making it slightly less ugly, the sketch-like quality that spans rather realistic faces for Jesus and Buddha to the kid with dots for eyes is less universal than most A-1, and closer to more abrasive comedies like Detroit Metal City. For me, it works perfectly as the right mix of quirky and everyday, but it won't be for everyone.
And I can't help but feel that while there's a huge amount of philosophical ground that could be at least poked, it's rather the point of Saint Onii-san that it stays superficial. That's how its gentle humour can thrive. I just don't know where else the title can go beyond that, which is why it perhaps suits this format of a couple of OVAs and a feature film better than a series. I'm glad I watched it, and I'd welcome more - but if more comes, it will have to progress beyond what we've seen so far, or else the whole thing will just become stagnant.