"'We've done well to get this far,' you chuckle, and light up a cigarette." (B'z, 'Run')
Neogandhara is the self-published thirty-someodd page oneshot pilot chapter of Saiyuki, predating the series proper by about two years. Although it has the characters and core plot elements fans know and love, like many other series' pilot chapters it has a number of differences -- but despite its discrepancies in style and characterization and a page count a bit too short to clarify its intentions with the plot, it's a fun read for anyone and a priceless artifact for any Saiyuki fan.
With its limited page count, Neogandhara doesn't have
a lot of space to spread out its story, and it does a good job of hitting on the main themes and hinting at some subtler ones without trying to stuff too much in. The story is a familiar one, setting up the ragtag quartet traveling west and a clash with some youkai who overestimate themselves; content-wise, it would be fairly at home between any given story arcs in the Saiyuki series. The team's reasons for traveling are briefly explained, the primary villains make cameos, and Goku's backstory is hinted at -- it even ends with the jeep headed west into the sunset. It doesn't really give anything that the manga volumes don't provide, but its nicely consistent with the material fans will be familiar with and presents itself skillfully and entertainingly.
The art style is easily the most obvious discrepancy between the doujinshi and the Saiyuki manga, but it's not without its merits. It presumably predates Minekura's recognizable trademark style and is practically unrecognizable, but the characters are still readily identifiable and visually appealing enough to dodge complaint. Compared to the more familiar style seen in Saiyuki, Neogandhara's style is simple (though not simplistic), more typically 'shounen manga', maybe even a bit cartoonish. While it's strange to see familiar characters in an unfamiliar style, the art is nonetheless consistent, adequately detailed, and conveys the story and action without difficulty.
Although the characters are sufficiently recognizable, this is not to say they're the same as the series' better known characterizations. Perhaps because the limited duration prevented the inclusion of any backstory save an offhand mention of Goku's, the characters lack the brooding, restrained qualities of their series incarnations. Notably, Sanzo is almost peppy -- he smiles! Frequently, even! The characterization might seem to lack complexity compared to the emotional depths the manga demonstrates, but for a short entry there's not as much need for it, and it is definitely charming in a quirky kind of way. Peppy Sanzo has me charmed, I'll admit it!
Although its self-published nature and limited duration result in what might seem to be a string of shortcomings from anyone hoping to find the same style and substance as the manga, Neogandhara provides the comfort of a familiar story coupled with entertaining and charming unfamiliar aspects that give a peek into Minekura's development of a story that has become well-known and well-loved. Its value to a fan who holds Saiyuki close to their heart can't be underrated; for anyone who wants a look into what Saiyuki was before it really 'was' or just wants another chapter to devour, Neogandhara is a must read.