Saint Young Men by Hikaru Nakamura is a slice-of-life comedy featuring Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, serialized by Kodansha since 2006. In Saint Young Men the two gods go on vacation in contemporary Japan so that they can experience daily life and relax while cultivating their human personalities and hobbies.
Saint Young Men: Gods on holiday
Living as common people in a suburb of Tokyo, Jesus and Buddha learn the beauty of mortal life. From buying a new rice cooker to visiting public baths, they experience the pros and cons of living. Even though the protagonists never lose their godlike condition, Saint Young Men feels like a reverse Bruce Almighty. Jesus is excited about everything he does, he loves shopping and playing video games. His personality clashes with Buddha, much more reserved and moderate, especially regarding spending. The two gods convey ideas of compassion and modesty closer to the common people, but Saint Young Men never actually engages in religious discourse. Jesus and Buddha’s adventures rather help to bring closer the two faiths, finding similarities between them.
A Japanese comedy experience
Saint Young Men displays a sense of comedy strongly rooted in Japanese culture. It employs Japanese folklore and constant puns about similar-sounding words. The two religions are of course an endless source of jokes. For example, Jesus is afraid of swimming and parts the waters of the pool he and Buddha are in. In the same way, when the two go on rollercoasters, Buddha starts reciting a sutra to calm himself. This kind of irony, though, never gets insulting and the comic’s main purpose is not satirical.
The manga also entails problematic aspects of Japanese society but never ends up being a social commentary. A Yakuza member mistaking Jesus for a crime boss is an occasion to stress the comedy angle and nothing else. Since comedy is so tied to the Japanese worldview, non-Japanese readers may encounter issues in understanding all the gags. To help in understanding all the gags, the pages are full of notes detailing the religious tales. In addition, international versions also have to explain Japanese culture and puns, weakening the effect of the jokes for non-native speakers.
Saint Young Men follows the trend of other Japanese slice-of-life mangas by not having a definite plot and by switching themes by the chapter. It uses common tropes, such as having airheaded protagonists, to present a relaxing atmosphere. Even the non-Japanese phrase usually related to slice of life of “cute girls doing cute things” can find a match, as funny situations include Jesus and Buddha acting almost like a married couple. Compared to the eye-opening social critique of Welcome to the NHK, Jesus and Buddha’s experiences act as escapism. The two Gods’ excitement with dabbling in humanity’s boring life creates a sense of wonder even for the most mundane events. Scenes like Jesus struggling to find the perfect price for a new laptop help to re-contextualize daily life. If even a God can have issues, a normal person isn’t so hopeless after all.
A Glorious success
Saint Young Men was an instant hit in Japan. An anime adaptation by A-1 Pictures ran from 2012 to 2013. In the same year, the company released a feature film. The comic was nominated for numerous prizes and in 2009 it won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. International editions appeared in countries such as China, France and Italy. Initially afraid it would create controversy and offend American readers, Kodansha did not publish Saint Young Men in the United States until 2019, when they started distributing the comic in digital format.