Jesus Christ (イエス・キリスト, Iesu Kirisuto, voiced by Mirai Moriyama in the anime) and Gautama Buddha (ゴータマ・ブッダ, Gōtama Budda, voiced by Gen Hoshino in the anime), the founders of Christianity and Buddhism respectively, are living together as roommates in an apartment in Tachikawa, part of the suburbs of Tokyo. While taking a vacation on Earth, they attempt to hide their identities and understand modern Japanese society. Each chapter shows their lives during an average day, when they are sightseeing, drinking beer, blogging, or playing video games.
While Jesus is portrayed as an impassioned person for his love for all (even for shopping), Buddha tends to be calm and thrifty, and also likes manga. The comedy often involves visual gags and puns, as well as jokes in reference to elements of Christianity and Buddhism; for example, Jesus creates wine from water in a public bath and Buddha shines when excited.
Before writing Saint Young Men, Hikaru Nakamura was working on Arakawa Under the Bridge, which started to be serialized on December 3, 2004, in the first issue of Square Enix's manga magazine Young Gangan. It attracted the attention of an editor of the magazine Weekly Morning, who wanted Nakamura to publish a series for the magazine. She accepted the offer because of her admiration for Kaiji Kawaguchi's works, such as Zipang and The Silent Service, that were serialized in Weekly Morning. The series' title is derived from a song by Denki Groove and Scha Dara Parr called "Saint Ojisan" (聖☆おじさん, Seinto Ojisan, literally "Saint Old Man"). Starting from sketches of two friends wearing casual shirts, she conceived the idea of portraying Jesus and Buddha as average people.
Nakamura envisioned a comedy manga in which the protagonist would be a "very very powerful character", and realized a divine character would fit this premise. She first planned Jesus to be a character in the series, but to make the gags work well, Buddha was added to the series. Their opposing personalities was inspired by Nakamura's sister and her sister's husband; by observing their relationship, she saw some amusing situations. She also saw a resemblance between her version of Buddha and Osamu Tezuka's version.
Despite the religious references in the series, Nakamura stated she used only her personal knowledge and some aspects of modern society, such as yakuza and blogging, which were not intended to be critical but were added because they fit the story. Similarly, secondary characters were only introduced in the series if a chapter needed a new character to introduce a topic. The themes of the chapters were created before the situations and jokes. However, if Nakamura had a specific theme, she created several jokes and then connected them to form a story. When creating a simpler chapter as compared to the more elaborate, thematic ones, she wrote without worrying about creating jokes and situations in advance. With the help of her four assistants, on average she took between ten days and two weeks to make a complete chapter.
Saint Young Men, written and illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura, began its serialization in Kodansha's seinen manga magazine Morning 2 on September 26, 2006. The series was put on hiatus between September 22, 2011, and March 22, 2012, because of Nakamura's pregnancy. Its first tankōbon (collected volume) was released by Kodansha on January 23, 2008, and the thirteenth volume was published on October 21, 2016. A guidebook was released on April 23, 2013.
The series has been translated in other languages, including Chinese by Tong Li Publishing, French by Kurokawa, Italian by J-Pop, and Spanish by Norma Editorial. Ed Chavez, editor of the American publisher Vertical, contacted the Japanese licensor of the series to request its publishing in North America. The Japanese licensor of the series refused to allow it to be published in North America, because it was thought that Americans might take offense to it.
The production of an anime film was first announced in issue No. 44 of Weekly Morning. Before the film release, a guidebook to the film was published on April 30, 2013. The film was directed by Noriko Takao and written by Rika Nezu. Its characters were designed by Naoyuki Asano and the music was composed by Keiichi Suzuki and Ryomei Shirai. The film was produced by Aniplex, Kodansha and Toho, was animated by A-1 Pictures, and distributed by Toho. It premiered in Japan on May 10, 2013. Its soundtrack was published by Aniplex on May 8, 2013. Later, on October 23, 2013, it was released in DVD and Blu-ray formats. In addition to the film, the same staff produced an original animation DVD (OAD) that was released along with the eight manga volume. A second OAD was released along with the ninth volume.
In an interview with NHK World, the staff for the anime noted that they wanted to stay loyal to the artwork of the manga while creating the movie. They decided to focus more on the art and character designs, and decided to give it a "sketched" look, instead of the traditional "bold, dark lines" typically used. All the shadows were colored by pencils, sometimes even scribbled to make sure that the "sketched" look came through. Like the manga, the anime film also recreates various attractions of Tachikawa, including the Showa Memorial Park.
Saint Young Men received the 2009 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for Short Work Manga. The 2009 edition of Takarajimasha's guidebook Kono Manga ga Sugoi!, which surveys people in the manga and publishing industry, named it the best manga series for male readers. It was nominated for the category "Best Comic" at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. As the result of its popularity, issues of Morning 2 started selling out on newsstands; because of this, in May 2009 Kodansha began making the magazine available online the day it is published. It has been among the top 20 of best-selling manga series in Japan in 2009, 2011 and 2013. All individual volumes except for the 12th appeared on lists of the 50 best-selling manga of their respective year in Japan. By May 2013, the manga had sold about 10 million copies in Japan. The manga was also displayed at the British Museum in 2011. In 2014, The Daily Dot reported a growing Western fandom that spread various Tumblr GIFs of the series.
Comics writer Paul Gravett chose it as one of the best comics of Japan in 2008, while writers Shaenon Garrity and Jason Thompson elected it as one of the most wanted titles for licensing in 2010. Japanese manga critic Kaoru Nagayama has noted that the manga is "fun to read" and commended Arakawa for keeping Jesus and Buddha faithful to their real character—of kindness—even when confronted by evil. Carlo Santos from Anime News Network criticized it for its art and questioned its capacity to evolve into something other than "Jesus and Buddha hanging out, while normal people do embarrassing things to them". Santos complained that Jesus' and Buddha's philosophical differences and personalities are not explored. However, Santos praised the series' comedy, noting its simplicity and saying, "its brilliance comes not from purposely trivializing two of the world's great religions, but by highlighting the quirks of the secular world when these famous religious figures are placed in it". According to him, the series does not lose its capacity of making readers laugh as it progresses, unlike other manga. Jolyon Baraka Thomas of The Guardian praised the constancy of "visual gags and puns", and wrote: "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."
The anime film adaptation of Saint Young Men debuted at number nine in Japanese theaters, grossing ¥49,930,836 (US$491,369) on 75 screens. In the subsequent weekends it decreased on its placement from nine to eleven, and then to twelve, closing its run with ¥300 million yen ($1,888,062) grossed. Its DVD release ranked seventh on its first week on the list of best-selling anime DVDs in Japan, dropping to twenty-ninth place on its second week on the list.