First of all, for a film that uses such a controversial hook, I must state my inevitable bias, and that is I am a Christian who is somewhat knowledgeable (I dare not proclaim myself an expert) about my own faith with a bit of understanding of Buddhism and its teachings. Therefore, before you get heated and declare me unhelpful, know where I stand in relation to you on this subject, thus if you are not a person of faith and have no real interest in hearing what I might have to say, then just do us both a favor and skip my review. With that said, I am very disappointed in this movie, despite my initial curiosity and desire to enjoy it. The execution did not live up to the concept.
Before I jump to the criticisms, let's talk about the positives first. From the first shot to the very last, Saint Onii-san is a very colorful, eye-catching confection packed full of artistic sensibilities like a sketchy style, DOF shots, slow motion, hyper dynamic perspectives and attention to detail. On the surface, it seems to have captured the style of its source manga and breathed life into these larger than life figures. If nothing else, I thoroughly enjoyed absorbing the energetic visuals of this adaptation. The voice acting is lively and energetic (disregarding the actual interpretation of these figures), and a wide range of vivid emotion is on display in perfect sync with the animation to ensure the viewers will never be bored of listening. All in all, the presentation is almost flawless.
As more of an observation than a criticism, what became apparent to me very quickly is the portrayal of Buddha is a lot more thorough and developed than that of Jesus (and possibly more accurate), which makes sense considering the author and his intended audience are Japanese, hence their exposure and empathy to Buddhism would naturally be a lot higher than towards Christianity. We solely hear Buddha's internal thought process, more than likely positioning him as the protagonist. This I had no problem with, and I understand why it was such.
What I did have problems with, was just about everything else.
Saint Onii-san reminds me heavily of Tentai Senshi Sunred, in that what is often fixed or limited perceptions and interpretations of known figures and characters are subverted and extended beyond the source material for comedic effect. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, provided the author is well-versed in his sources and maximizes what he has chosen to parody or deconstruct. In the case of Tentai Senshi Sunred, it worked well because the source itself, Super Sentai type shows, were often fairly shallow, silly, and populated by two dimensional characters who are flawed anyway -- an easy target that the author took full advantage of through wittily observed writing and situations. Now I understand some non-believers out there find religion to be shallow, silly and populated by two dimensional characters anyway, but the truth is much manpower and resources have been spent in human history, and continues to be spent today, towards the study and understanding of various religions, especially ones so storied and nebulous as Christianity and Buddhism. In other words, it is a sensitive and complex subject for many. Passing references and brief jabs in shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy are mostly innocuous, but when the entire premise is built around the topic and subject, the religious aspects should be handled with wit and subtlety. Unfortunately, Saint Onii-san fails to do this, as much as it sincerely tries to, and often times insults my intellect as an initiated viewer.
What could have been a very stimulating and thought provoking but humorous exercise in theology turned out to be a meandering, wanton, and hackneyed ultimatum of annoyance against my patience. Ancient deities, which the show acknowledges these figures to be off the bat, act like jumpy adolescents or frivolous teens in a manner in which they could be anybody. Perhaps the writer did this to make these usually perceived to be distant and unfathomable figures to be more empathetic and down to earth, but he overdid it. Not a shred of wisdom or wit is to be found in these two vacationing nincompoops, who have trouble dealing with the most minor of issues. It's not that the duo are unlikable -- far from it, because if they were not claimed to be two specific holy men they would be lovable buffoons. They just bear very little resemblance in action and personality to what one envisions of these two figures if knowledgeable beyond a superficial degree about either of their texts. If Jesus and Buddha were barely going retain what their respective texts imply about their personality and intelligence, why bother using them? By painting these two as such incompetent beings, the writer sets a very low bar; Without maximizing their potential, the presence of these two important characters I am watching interact on screen become an empty gimmick.
I waited and waited for more references to Jesus's and Buddha's respective texts, for their personas to exchange conversation intelligently on topics beyond groceries and floor mats, but they never came. When the occasional trickle of reference dropped onto my tongue, it was banal at best and offensive at worst. Some inaccurate interpretations made me shake my head, but I couldn't bring myself to be angry at this show. It was just too dumb to be malicious, too naive to be biting. It was as if someone who only knew these figures through a few children's books and from looking at their statues took a stab at paying tribute or making fun of them. So much inspiration from the New Testament could have been used to flesh out Jesus as a character, for fun or for otherwise, and while I am not anywhere close to being as familiar with Buddhist texts and sutras, I'm sure there's a lot of material there as well -- the author simply chose to flirt lightly with it all in a safe manner, over-humanize the duo in typical anime self-depreciating manner, and fill in the rest of the screen time with non-sequitur comedy. The worse part was the addition of the children, whose gag overstayed its welcome and detracted from the already thin dynamic of the duo. I thought they would somehow learn something about religious tolerance or there'd be there would be some commentary about children and religion, but alas, their story arc went nowhere. They took up so much screen time I felt like the writer ran out of material for the interaction between Jesus and Buddha, which is ridiculous because there is so much potential left unused.
Perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps all the creator of this story wanted to express was that people from drastically different backgrounds could get along just fine and his very intent was there wouldn't be any religious discussion to get in the way. But if that were the case he wouldn't have needed an hour and a half movie full of air to do it; a single 4-koma could have done just as well in promoting this well-intended but simplistic message. I don't believe this toothless approach was the only way to make a Jesus-Buddha roommate combo funny. For example, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the graphic novel) comes to mind, a brilliant story that took liberties with its serious characters to form a grand new tale while remaining true to their personalities. If only the writer of Saint Onii-san made Jesus and Buddha less dull-witted, and delved deeper into their respective lore while maintaining the absurd situations, this movie might have been orders of magnitudes funnier at a higher level. Instead, we have this insipid, unfaithful disappointment of a film. In my opinion, the mistake this movie made was having the guts to give top billing to two of the most respected figures at opposite ends of the religious spectrum in a single movie but not the writing and intellectual humor necessary to back up such an ambitious pairing. Hopefully someone else in the future will attempt this concept again with more respect.