The Mike Toole Show
Too Many Gokus!

by Michael Toole, Jun 19th 2011

There are four works of especially great renown in classical Chinese literature. The oldest of these is the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a confoundingly vast semi-historical tale of the collapse of the Han Dynasty with at least half a dozen main characters and dozens of major and minor players. Then there's The Water Margin, sometimes called Outlaws of the Marsh, a tale of 108 heroes and their struggle against the corrupt Song Dynasty. The most recent of these works is the 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber, a tale of lost love and political intrigue between two great houses. But sandwiched in between Water Margin and Red Chamber is perhaps the most widely popular of these works, Wu Cheng-en's Journey to the West.

Journey to the West was written, in its most current form, in the 1590s, more than 400 years ago. Despite that, it holds up remarkably well - its story is ostensibly the tale of a monk and his devout followers heading into the west to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures to save the corrupt and chaotic east, but in practice it's a marvelous, action-packed comic book, filled end-to-end with pitched battles, dramatic escapes, and magic that can move cities and level mountains. The central character of Journey to the West is the monk Hsuan-tsang, but the tale's hero is unquestionably Sun Wukong, the arrogant and impetuous, but noble monkey king. Every single anime fan has encountered the monkey king at one point or another - the character, along with trappings of Journey to the West, has figured in at least ten anime productions. Let's explore them.


It all starts, unsurprisingly, with 1960's Alakazam the Great, a wonderful cartoon which I've mentioned in this space at least four or five goddamn times already. It's a charming and guileless adaptation, straightforward in its introduction of the monk, the monkey king, and the group's other companions, the lazy, lusty, and shape-shifting Pigsy, firm and focused Sandy, and nearly silent Oolong, another shape-shifter who usually serves as the monk's horse. I won't expound further on its lush animation, bright colors, or fine voices and music, because the sad fact is that it's tough to find the stupid thing in English. It's shown up periodically for rent via online channels through its licensor, MGM, but these versions are always crappy pan n' scan jobs. Seek out the laserdisc if you're truly curious, because it's widescreen - if nothing else, the movie is worth seeing just to hear Arnold Stang's performance as Sandy - there's nothing so amusing as listening to the voice of Top Cat angrily threatening to boil and eat our heroes. ("First I beat 'em, then I eat 'em!")

Alakazam's credits include the name of the medium's most storied creator, Osamu Tezuka. Dr. Tezuka had a popular manga about Goku, the monkey king, running at the time, so it seemed natural to involve him in Toei's production. But, as Tezuka later confessed, his name was just thrown into the mixer for PR purposes - he didn't actually work on Alakazam. This didn't stop him from eventually putting his My Son Goku to animation, first as a pilot film and then as 1967's Goku's Great Adventures. Goku's story encompasses the entire opening quarter of the original novel - in it, he's portrayed as a monkey born from a fallen rock, who learns magic from a hermit and menaces the heavens themselves before being tricked into a stone prison by the Buddha. Tezuka's version takes the edge off the character's fierceness and arrogance, choosing instead to portray him as a likeable but naughty and irascible schoolboy. The monk Hsuan-tsang, who's called Sanzo in most anime adaptations, plays the part of wise and flustered schoolteacher. This adaptation is probably the most gentle and silly - it's very cartoony stuff.

Toei Animation, Tezuka... who would be the next great anime master to put a new spin on Journey to the West? Why, it'd be Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Captain Harlock and co-captain of the good ship Star Blazers. Matsumoto's star had risen pretty high when Toei tapped him in 1978, and true to form, he went with a science fiction angle. In fact, the resulting 73-episode TV series, Starzinger, is even referred to in its subtitle as "SF Saiyuki" - sci-fi Journey to the West! Here, the monk and his companions are changed pretty radically, but are still recognizable. Sanzo becomes Aurora, the comely princess of the moon who leads our heroes in their quest to retrieve the scroll-- er, restore galactic energy! Goku becomes Kogo, a fierce, unruly man with huge sideburns who carries the character's signature golden headband (used by the monk to keep his temper in check) and extendable staff. Sandy is Djorko, a quiet, measured man who fights with a fearsome trident, and Pigsy is Don Haka, a wacky fat guy. I grew up watching Starzinger in its American version, Spaceketeers, which was part of Jim Terry's Force Five TV package. Terry took a novel approach to making the largely unknown wrinkles of Journey to the West comprehensible to western kids - he changed it all into a Three Musketeers pastiche, with Jesse Dart serving alongside the gallant Aramis and Porkos.

The next big adaptation of Journey to the West is unquestionably the most famous. It's the story of a monkey-like boy who learns his powers from a hermit and goes on a great quest with a monk, a shape-shifting pig man, and a bandit. Then he spends hundreds of episodes powering up, and yeah, I'm talking about Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball Z would move away from the show's comedic roots, but the original is an obvious fusion (haaaa!) of Journey to the West and Superman, with Goku portrayed as an orphaned alien with great strength but little brain. This Goku also carries the character's trademark staff, as well as his flying cloud, Kintoun. The river bandit Sandy becomes the desert bandit Yamcha, and the two shape-shifters Pigsy and Oolong are combined into one character. These two guys are pretty awesome characters who basically never get to do anything again after their initial storylines. Well, I guess Yamcha got a haircut at one point, didn't he? Anyway, this cartoon's Goku is the most famous one, a character who has given kids all over the world a glimpse of Journey to the West.

Then there's 1989's Goku: Midnight Eye, probably the most tenuous adaptation on this list. The story is a lurid men's SF adventure tale by Space Adventure Cobra creator Buichi Terasawa, and while title character Goku Furinji retains the monkey king's bad temper, almost omniscient power (instead of magic, this Goku's got a robot eye that can tap into any computer system that it sees), shaggy hair, and extendable staff, precious little else of the original tale remains. The anime was directed by action/SF great Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and it bums me out that it's not available on DVD - it's snappy, entertaining stuff.

One of my favorite anime convention memories dates back to 2000, when anime on DVD was still a pretty new thing and VHS was the preferred format. Anime fans are, of course, early adopters, and many were clamoring for their favorites in shiny-disc format, visions of Cowboy Bebop and Gundam dancing in their heads. At Bandai Entertainment's packed Anime Central panel, company rep Jerry Chu was taking questions from the audience, and was quickly asked when the company was going to start releasing fare on DVD. He looked perturbed. "We are already releasing anime on DVD. Haven't you bought our premiere title yet? It's Monkey Magic, of course!"

Jerry was having a laugh - Monkey Magic wasn't exactly a target for most anime fans, despite being an early all-digital production directed by Tameo Kohanawa. The show's curiously flat visuals aren't at all evocative of most anime imagery, and it's an unquestionably simplified, juvenile take on the legend. Here, the monkey king is called Kongo, and he teams up with Sanzo to fight a very specific set of bad guys invented for the cartoon. Nobody watched the cartoon and nobody bought the DVDs, so after just 13 episodes Monkey Magic was canceled. They never even got to meet Pigsy and Sandy!

Once you get past Dragon Ball, perhaps the most well-known Journey to the West pastiche in these parts would be 2000's Gensōmaden Saiyuki. I like the title, a homonym - it's still pronounced "Saiyuki", just as the original story is in Japan, but the kanji translates to "Journey to Extremes." I dig the premise, a modernized spin on the tale that comfortably includes science, automobiles, and firearms along with the original's magic. In this case, the monk Sanzo isn't just fetching scrolls - he's trying to deter the resurrection of the evil Ox King! Along with the monk, there's the boyish and rowdy Goku, lusty and unruly Gojyo (Sandy), and polite and relaxed Cho Hakkai (Pigsy). Even Oolong, the dragon/horse mount, is portrayed as the dragon Jeep. He's called this because he can turn into a jeep. Anyway, the show takes its story from Journey to the West, but its hook is that all of the major characters are sleek, handsome men. Mumble the phrase "unresolved sexual tension" into the target audience's ears, and you've got more than a hundred goddamn episodes of this version of Saiyuki. It was very popular in the first half of the 00s, but it's fallen off a bit since then.

Right on the heels of Saiyuki came 2000's Mushrambo, which sees the story transplanted into a far-future science fiction setting. Instead of Sanzo, we've got Yakumo, a girl tasked with reviving the human race instead of retrieving sacred scriptures. Instead of Sandy, there's Sago, and Pigsy is replaced by Kutal, who transforms into a lion. The monkey king character is called Mushra instead of Goku, but there's no mistaking that golden headband and telescoping staff. Originally tipped as a toy tie-in, Mushrambo was retitled Shinzo for English-speaking markets and unleashed on our shores in 2002. Despite its toy trappings and obscure release, it's a series that still has loyal fans.

2002 would ante up with a yet another futuristic version of the myth. The aptly titled Monkey Typhoon (original title: Assobot War Chronicle Goku) features Goku and company as artificially intelligent robots, nicknamed "assobots" (association + robots, get it? Yeah, I'm snickering, too...) who follow the directives of the human Sanzo. The group heads west through a ruined world, racing against time to thwart the progress of a life-destroying virus. Like so many other shows on this list, Monkey Typhoon uses Journey to the West as a jumping off point, before introducing all manner of vehicles, characters, and terrible CG. The show was dubbed in English in its entirety, but curiously, was never shown in the US. I caught it on vacation in Costa Rica a few years back.

Saiyuki's sexual tension was, for the most part, implied. 2005's Patalliro Saiyuki! is a bit more obvious about it. This comedy TV adaptation comes forth from a shonen-ai gag comedy that's been running for more than thirty years. Its premise is simple enough - a comely man named Bancoran is bodyguard to Patalliro, 10-year old crown prince and perhaps the most annoying person on the planet. The assassin Maraich comes to kill Patalliro, but instead he falls in love with Bancoran, and the resulting avalanche of bad jokes and cute moments have kept creator Mineo Maya in clover for decades. This version is just what the title implies - the characters are transplanted into Saiyuki-land, with Maraich as Sanzo, Bancoran as the bad guy, and Patalliro as Goku. The resulting 26-episode series is a nonstop barrage of references, fourth-wall breaking, and puns and wordplay that are so awful that every character in sight collapses in impotent fury. It's kind of weird, and pretty amusing.

After hearing about ten different takes on Journey to the West, you might be curious about the source material. I can't recommend it enough. Journey to the West has been translated several times, but my favorite is Arthur Waley's version, simply entitled Monkey. Waley's version is abridged, but speaking as someone who's also clawed through an unabridged translation, Waley does the work favors by cutting out the chaff. I'm a completist, but there are an awful lot of chapters in the original manuscript that can be summed up thusly: The heroes were traveling west when Hsuan-tsang was captured by a local warlord. Pigsy and Sandy used amazing tricks and cunning to free their master, and then Sun Wukong, in his wrath, beat the everloving crap out of the bad guys.

Along with all of the above versions, there are yet more worth checking out that aren't Japanese anime. There are multiple live-action TV and film versions. One of the most popular ones is Japanese in origin, 1979's Monkey!, which was slapped with a campy dub, an incredibly infectiously catchy theme song, and aired in the UK, where it became a cult hit. Another crucial version of the tale is the animated Havoc in Heaven, released in 1960 and directed by Wan Lai-ming. This is the real deal: a fiercely traditional, Chinese-animated retelling of the fable, complete with Peking opera music and expansive narration. There was even an American TV movie, The Lost Empire, starring Russell Wong. It is mostly good for laughing at. Finally... well, there's a hentai version called The Karma Saiyuki, which I definitely have never seen multiple times. Scout's honor. I'm not gonna talk about that one, though. This is a family column, dagnabbit!

See, this is one of the many ways that anime is valuable - it exposes us to stories and myths we might not have otherwise sought out, and in doing so opens our eyes up to a larger world. After all, kids all over the world might not know all about the exploits of Hsuan-tsang and his companions, but they sure as hell know who Goku is. One final thought about the monkey king himself: his title is Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. That's not just a clever moniker he came up with, that's actually the title that Heaven's bureaucracy awarded him to keep the dumb, arrogant ape off their backs. Man, I want that on my business card!

Got a favorite version of Journey to the West? Tell us all about it in the comments!


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