Journey to the West, better known as Monkey, is one of the great tales of world literature and the Monkey King one of the great heroes of fiction. He's certainly one of the coolest. Being one of a vast many with this belief is largely due to that super-funky '70s TV series Saiyuki, known in English as Monkey, often and affectionately referred to as Monkey Magic! Big in the UK, bigger in Australia than even in Japan, it has maintained and grown a mega-cult following. Really, it's what cult followings should be about.
Monkey has appeared in other forms since that groovy show. One very notable version that I have not seen is a long running Chinese series in the mid-80s called Journey to the West which was very successful in its homeland and garnered praise for being the most loyal of versions.
Not at all a faithful adaptation but one I have a lot of affection for is by Stephen Chow of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Released in 1994 as two films, A Chinese Odyssey - Part One: Pandora's Box, Part Two: Cinderella, they quickly became cult classics with Chinese cinemagoers.
The Monkey King doesn't properly appear till the second film, the first being largely slapstick as Stephen Chow's bandit character Joker is caught up in the affairs of demons who have been waiting 500 years for the Monkey King to reappear. Throughout the film we receive clues
to what is actually going on, but you need to hold out till the second part for the proper appearance of Monkey as lead character.
For the most part it's a lot of fun, providing you have a taste or tolerance, to the wacky style of Chinese comedy, but when it becomes a full fledged Monkey film it surges with classic Hong Kong operatic bravado. However my affection for A Chinese Odyssey is because of the final act. The last part is not of action or even plot but of character dénouement. Indeed, I can only describe it as The Last Temptation of Monkey and though the whole thing is not faithful to the original texts it made me feel like I had just watched classic Monkey.
That was more than ten years ago, but the Monkey King is making fresh appearances. There's the hugely successful circus opera Monkey: Journey to the West an east/west collaboration with the Gorillaz guys, musician Damon Albarn and artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Planet Blog already talked about this in October last year. But their Monkey seems to be an ongoing project that has since included this cool short film depicting a classic scene from the Monkey story.
The Monkey King also turns up in the Hollywood martial arts epic-let The Forbidden Kingdom. Besides the pleasure of seeing Jackie Chan return to his character of the Drunken Master we have Jet Li in duel roles of the Silent Monk and, yes, the Monkey King himself. Taking into account that this is a Hollywood film with the forced conditions of being so, like an American teen lead, it is still surprisingly better than you'd expect. Indeed, it was not hated in the land that has mastered and creatively owns such cinema.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, the fan following brought about the return of Saiyuki, perhaps in the same manor that returned Doctor Who. This 2006 series is a very respectful revisit to the world of the original Monkey series. It tries for the same humour and general characterization, though smart enough to update it for current audience tastes, although, it maintained the tradition of a female in the role of the boy monk. Still, that may not entirely satisfy tastes for the original, but you can't really and shouldn't go back; retro needs revisioning to succeed as retro rather than retread.
I've not seen any of this new series, except brief excerpts like an amusing one where the new Monkey encounters a character played by Masaaki Sakai, the original Goku aka The Monkey King. What I have seen is the movie. After one season and the ratings being not much better than luke-warm, the network and producers decided not to do a second but to go with a theatrical movie. This paid off with a big hit in Japanese cinemas. In Australia, Madman Entertainment was smart enough to pick up the movie, which they titled Monkey Magic and gave it a decent DVD release.
It has a bit of a slow start and suffers just a little for being aimed at an audience taken for granted has followed the series. However, the beginning meanderings can be used to acclimatize oneself as this is so much like the original Monkey, but different enough, that you need to be able to separate yourself from preconceptions to allow this one to breathe on its own. Especially with Monkey himself. Shingo Katori plays the sage rather differently, making him more like a rock star and emphasizing more crude habits. You might also need to get used to the blond monkey fur.
About half way through the film, the point you're likely to have fallen for the charms of modern Monkey, the film takes off, literally. Though adventures abound, the action you were hoping for finally takes off virtually the moment Goku jumps on his flying cloud (though, in this case a large surfing feather). What follows is a great special effect sequence of aerial combat, exactly the sort of thing you'd want from a Monkey show with new film technology. And when they hit the ground we get the martial arts action you expect and it doesn't let up till the classic style climax featuring Takeshi Kaga, aka Chairman Kaga of Iron Chef, as the villainous demon King Golden Horn.