Reviewby Carlo Santos,
The Monkey King
Goku the Monkey King has set out on a westward journey to Tenjiku (India), accompanied by his pig companion Hakkai and the mystic nun Sanzo. Along the way he meets monsters, warriors and demons and fights them off with his magic staff and savage fighting technique. When Goku challenges Shaka (Buddha), however, he finds that pure physical strength is useless against someone who has abandoned physical existence. Maybe some five hundred years of rest and a re-awakening by the monk Genjo will get Goku back on track.
Manga and anime fans might have heard of Journey to the West as "the story that Dragonball is based on." Or perhaps they know it through the bishounen adventure Saiyuki, or even the children's anime that aired in Japan recently, Patalliro Saiyuki. None of these, however, could prepare anyone for Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King, a sexed-up, ultra-violent version of the classic story. Mischievous Goku is now a bloodthirsty ape, his companions are symbols of depravity, and his foes are horrific monsters and demons. The most stunning difference, however, is that The Monkey King is in color. It's grotesque, it's twisted, but with artwork like this, how can you look away?
With 100 long chapters of story, the original Journey to the West provides plenty of source material for adaptation. Thus, Terada's job isn't so much to spin fresh tales but to interpret well-known characters and scenarios. Goku's exploits are described in short, violent outbursts, each chapter being just eight pages long. This staccato pacing, often featuring huge jumps from scene to scene, takes some getting used to for manga readers accustomed to the 20- to 30-page chapters of more typical works. Even in the space of eight pages, though, the story always gets somewhere: Goku makes sure to defeat an opponent (or two, or twenty) whenever he takes another big step westward.
Of course, this setup would probably be a generic adventure story were it not for Terada pushing everything to the extreme. Goku doesn't just beat his opponents; he shoves his staff through their heads. Seduction doesn't just happen with a smile and a flirt, but with straight-out intercourse. Despite the emphasis on gory battles and sexual decadence, however, there's still enough interaction and dialogue to reveal each character's personality. It takes maybe five pages to learn that Goku is a ruthless warrior that's part human, beast and god, and he stops at nothing to get what he wants. Complementing this pure surge of aggression is weak-willed Hakkai, who often needs Goku to get him out of unexpected scrapes. Even Sanzo the nun, who spends the entire first volume bound and gagged, establishes her role in the story with just a few potent words.
Terada builds a world of primal instincts and feelings with a powerful but rare manga technique: full color. Each panel takes on a mood of its own as it illuminates Goku's journey with otherworldly shades and hues. Such vivid colors and backgrounds make it easy to miss the well-planned character designs: Goku's fierce man-ape stature is all but a physical manifestation of his personality, and likewise for Hakkai's lumpy body. The various women and woman-like creatures (clearly Terada's strong suit) in the story often show up nude, but it's a forbidding kind of sensuality. The rules of this world are clear—if it's got boobs, it probably wants to kill you, and if it doesn't have boobs, it probably still wants to kill you. However, it's Goku who does most of the killing, his attacks brought to life by striking angles and special effects. The action scenes can be hard to read, though; with so much emphasis on color and stylish illustration, the flow and movement of the characters gets lost.
"Character design" takes on a new meaning with Terada's creative use of kanji characters as sound effects, going beyond the typical kana sound effects (don! guru guru!) of mainstream manga. Because of kanji's complicated nature—they represent words and meanings, not just sounds, and are often rendered in this manga more like art than text—Dark Horse leaves these characters untouched and explains them with a glossary in the back. The glossary, however, often gets so wordy that you'll have to read this volume twice, once for all the explanations and again to get the flow of the story.
Even with all that special care to preserve the "special" characters, Dark Horse slips into its usual habit of translating and altering the simpler sound effects into English ones. If they're going through so much trouble to explain a handful of effects, why not just leave all of them alone? Fortunately, the choice of font and design helps to blend the English sound effects in with the artwork. Dialogue also rolls along smoothly, even though it tries too hard to sound archaic; at least it's better to have dialogue with a distinct personality (in this case, the language of ancient legends) rather than no personality at all. Carl Gustav Horn's afterword also provides insights into the Buddhist history and events surrounding the Monkey King legend.
The Journey to the West may be a familiar tale, but Katsuya Terada takes it into the world of the unfamiliar with his vivid and often disturbing visuals. More than that, he takes into the world of full color, which is about as unfamiliar as it gets when it comes to manga. This might not suit everyone's taste—too much sex and violence just gets mind-numbing after a while—and it's probably not the way to go if you want to know the real story. As far as interpretations go, however, Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King is the manga of choice for a harsh, uncompromising view of East Asia's most well-known man-beast-god.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Outstanding color artwork and intense, graphic action.
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