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Jesus and Buddha’s Excellent Adventure

Cover art for the first volume "Saint Young Men", published by Kodansha.

Cover art for the first volume of "Saint Young Men" manga series, published by Kodansha.

Ever wondered what a young Buddha and Jesus would do if they left their celestial realms to take a stealth vacation in modern day Tokyo? This is the premise for Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan), a manga series that is hugely popular in Japan. Written and Illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura, the series follows the lives of best friends, Buddha and Jesus, as they live together in Tachikawa, a western suburb of Tokyo. The roomies do many of the things that average twenty-something guys do, like blogging, playing video games and going to amusement parks, all while attempting to keep their true heavenly identities a secret. Though the besties try to blend in with modern Japanese society, their unique appearances sometimes attract attention. Teenage school girls often remark on Jesus’ Johnny Depp-like good looks, and Buddha’s unique bun-style hairdo is a subject of teasing with the neighborhood boys. Their divine nature unavoidably shows through at times, as when Buddha grows incandescent with heavenly excitement and Jesus inadvertently changes the local public bath water into wine.

The series debuted in the manga magazine Morning 2 in 2007 and by 2009 Saint Young Men was one of the top ten best selling manga series in Japan. Author Nakamura approaches the subject of religion with much humor. Jesus’ generosity and benevolence turns him into a bit of a shopping addict, and Buddha’s rationality and asceticism can sometimes make him priggish. But, this humor does not belie any disrespect to Buddhism or Christianity. “Her story is not an introduction to abstruse religious doctrines, nor does it feature much overt commentary on the role of religions in contemporary society. Rather, she invites her readers to view contemporary Japan through the eyes of protagonists who are unambiguously religious,” states an article in The Guardian discussing Nakamura’s work.

As modern Japanese culture is seen to be moving away from organized religion, this manga series can also be surprisingly educational for readers. “While Saint Young Men hardly exhibits strict fidelity to canonical sources, Nakamura has done her homework. She seamlessly weaves tales of the Buddha’s former lives and gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry into her narrative, loosely citing the biographies of these founders while (literally) drawing those stories into the present…While religion may be a laughing matter for Nakamura and her audience, the role this manga might play in building and sustaining familiarity with the biographies of religious founders is certainly not to be scoffed at.”

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