MONKEY! was a Japanese television series made from 1978 to 1980, based on the Chinese classic Journey to the West by Wu Ch’eng-en. When it hit here in Oz it was a pretty big deal. It blew Doctor Who clean outta the water; hell, it was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of my childhood (except without the endless pizza product placement or the oversized terrapins). You’d race home from school, dump the bag on the cat, leave off fighting with your sister for once and settle in for 50 mins of magic fu action with a hefty side order of Buddhist philosophy.
The characters were your classic sitcom ensemble. Monkey was — you have to say it — irrepressible (pronounced IRREPRESSIBLE!), Pigsy was endearingly annoying, Sandy was endearingly prudent, and Tripitaka was just plain endearing. (You may laff, but it wasn’t until years later that I realised that Tripitaka was played by a chick.)
Now, the problem with things you’re fond of when you were a kid is that by and large they turn out to be utter crap (Basil Brush is a lot less funny when you realise some guy’s got his hand up his arse). My chance to revisit old times finally came when Siren began releasing all 39-episodes of MONKEY! on 13 VHS tapes and DVDs. There was no avoiding it, it was time to face my past and check out the chimp. With hesitation and trepidation I slid the first tape into the VCR and — Born from an egg on a mountain top — goddam — Funkiest monkey that ever rocked — soon began to grin from ear to ear. More than two decades on, this show still rocks!
There’s an energy that can’t be denied, partly from the peppy storylines packed with fights against nifty monsters ‘n’ demons ‘n’ shit, but mostly because the show’s dubbed and that always means the English-speaking actors have to bark out lines at double speed to match the action. The translated scripts are as witty as hell and packed with freeform quasi-swearing (I damn near fell off the couch when Monkey pounded on the door of a demon yelling “Come on out, you poofter!”, or when he quips to Buddha “I always thought you were a fella!”).
The special effects are strictly trippy hippy seventies shit and dammit, it works — a few crappy coloured lights and a bit of mellotron and monkey magic happens, baby. The music is funky-monkey-delic and utterly groovy, with spooky riffs for the creepy monster parts, prog rock stupidity for the fight scenes and acoustic clap-your-hands sing-a-long over the closing credits.
The storylines are folksy parables with a bonafide Buddhist moral in every one. Generally there’s some chance for Monkey to run amok, some chance for Sandy to dither, many chances for Pigsy to eat food and feel up alluring women who invariably turn out to be vampires, and a chanting chance for Tripitaka to stand around looking worried (yet endearing) until he convinces his three stooges to take the middle path.
So, who’d a’ believed that this was spinning out the minds of an Aussie generation in 1981? And who’d a’ believed that, 20 years later, it’s still fresh? Put it down to the inspiration of the creators, the vigour of the presentation, the righteousness of the themes, and the fact that Masaaki Sakai is so darn convincing as the eponymous primate that you’d swear he was hiding a prehensile tail down his trousers.