The world of cinema is bursting with films that boast weird and outrageous premises, but sometimes you run into a film that goes beyond everything else and simply begs to be seen based on its premise alone. Saint Oniisan (Saint Young Men) is one of those films, as it tries to answer the question of what would happen if Jesus and Buddha hooked up to spend their vacation in modern-day Japan. The result is comedy gold.
Like many other anime films these days, Saint Oniisan is preceded by a popular and long-running manga and a tentative OAV. Once these formats proved successful enough, producing a feature film was the next logical step. Don't expect a traditional feature though, Saint Oniisan is structured like Takahata's Hohokekyo Tonari No Yamada-kun, meaning you get several vignettes that are at best linked together by seasonal coherence. There's no real beginning or ending, just some things that Jesus and Buddha set out to visit/experience.
I am unfamiliar with the OAV and the manga, so it's difficult to grasp how much recycling is going on here, but without prior knowledge of the previous instalments the film is still pretty easy to follow, probably because there is no real goal or point to the whole setup. Some of the stranger points are left unexplained at first (like Jesus' stigmata), but since they reappear as running gags you quickly catch on. It's also quite handy to at least have a basic grasp of both religions, as the film is built around some smart religion-based gags and punchlines. Surprisingly though, none are actually offensive.
The vacation of the two deities starts off in summer, as they go and visit a theme park in Tokyo (obvious reference to Disney World). From there on out the film carries on to cover supermarket sales, bullying kids, a hot spring trip and Christmas and New Year festivities. Each vignette finishes off with a nice vacation picture and that's about all there is. Some people will have a hard time accepting a structure like this for a feature film, I'm fine with it as long as the comedy is sound enough.
Animation-wise Saint Oniisan is definitely a low-budget affair. Don't expect fluid animation or amazing eye-popping craftsmanship, instead the film relies on a strong manga-esque vibe, a vibrant, colorful art style and the bare necessary amount of animation to get by. Some tried and tested camera tricks (focus changes and cameras moving over static images) are used to fake motion, but it hardly hides the limited amount of frames that went into this film.
The good thing about lesser-known animes is that there are no horrible dubs to take into account. The subtle, soft-spoken voices that go with Jesus and Buddha are perfect, complementing their character while adding some extra comedic effect. The soundtrack is pretty bland though, falling back on rather generic J-Rock tunes to fill in the voids. It's not awful or irritating, but it's hardly memorable and it does little or nothing to help the film forward.
Saint Oniisan is pretty much a one-trick pony. It doesn't really pay too much attention to its plot or its audiovisual qualities, instead it puts a strong focus on the comedy it is able to draw from its premise. And that it does surprisingly well. Without being aggressive or judgemental it pokes fun at religion with no chance of anyone being offended (unless you're a true religious nut I suppose). It houses a pretty chill, good-natured and dry kind of comedy that felt refreshing and to the point.
I can't vouch for the originality of the film as I haven't read the manga or seen the OAV, but if you go in fresh and you can appreciate the calm yet smart comedy that is laid out over several shorter vignettes, then Saint Oniisan is a great little title. There's not all that much to see beyond that, but for a comedy that's acceptable.