Part two in an awesome community-written feature series!
[Community member Sideshow has been running a fascinating series of C-Blog posts on Journey To The West and its many influences on Japanese pop culture, and such amazing efforts deserve recognition - and promotion! If you've got similarly amazing insights, opinions, and thoughts to share, get yourself recognized and promoted by writing something in your community blog, or by participating in our regular "Bloggers Wanted" invitations! - Josh]
Armed with over two hours of material (I wish I was kidding) let our journey begin!
Monkey - Episode 1 (Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven)
Now to be fair I've forced myself to watch Monkey without my nostalgia glasses. Why? I'm going to point at the common Sonic fanboy "arguments" and go "thats why". You'll see what I mean when we head over to Saiyuuki.
First things first, 90% of the voice acting is fantastically offensive. The whole "oh! Daniel-san!"stereotypical asian accent reminds you of the kung-fu films of yesteryear which does fit with certain characters I guess. But I'll admit it does get offensive very fast. The narrator especially but I feel he is the only person in the show that justifies the accent simply because he is portraying an all knowing wiseman.
Second thing is that the special effects are cheesy as all hell. Shots of Monkey cloud-flying comprise of a tiny figurine on a cotton ball. Summoning his monkey army can be recreated with still images of a single person, copied multiple times and animated on a moving plane in Adobe After Effects. Having said that, this IS a show made in the 1970's so I'm letting it slide.
The opening to the show is by far one of the flashiest openings I've seen in ages. From the song alone, it gives the sense that this is the most epic story of all time. "Born from an egg on a mountain top. Funkiest Monkey to every pop." etc, etc. I highly recommend you track this song down just to see for yourself. (Its Monkey Magic by Godiego for those at the back of the class)
Trying to recap all 43 minutes of Monkey in a single paragraph is extremely hard partly because its 43 minutes but mostly because I didn't do so well at english in high school. The entire episode is an origin story for Monkey, who made of stone and capable of magic, telling the tale of how he acquired the magic Wishing Staff and how heaven tried to control him as a precaution.
So they hire him as the Heavenly Stableman. But he started fighting when he found out that's not a high status in heaven.
And then they refer to him as "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" in name only and make him a Gardener of the Heavenly Peach Garden. But then he ate all the peaches, thus making him immortal and then goes crazy and fights all of heaven.
And this is from being told he's not invited to a heavenly party.
All of these scenes are sown together with fight scenes. And it must be said that the "staff VS sword" fight scenes are decently choreographed to the tune of drums and bass guitar playing in the background making it almost addicting. They're no Mark Musashi (Kodama from Garo) but its close. Speaking of production, the visuals overall are something that warrant certain frames of the episode to be sent into an art exhibition with its beautiful costume and set designs.
But getting back to the last bit of the plot...
Desperate to stop Monkey, Budda appears in his female form, making a first in many gender reversals for characters in the series, and places Monkey under a mountain for five hundred years...harsh. Budda then turns to heaven and hints at a journey that must be taken to save man kind.
If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned Sandy, Pigsy & Tripitaka yet, its because this episode isn't really about them. Hell, Tripitaka is seen in the last minute of the whole thing. I'll go into detail about them in my next post when I compare them to their Saiyuuki counterparts.
Saiyuuki - Episode 1 (Land of Fire)
(I just thought I'd start by saying that.)
Saiyuuki gets right in the action with the Goku, Hakkai/Sandy, Gojou/Pigsy & Sanzou Hoshi/Tripitaka taking on a bird demon and an army of ninjas. Now if I said Monkey's fight scenes are close to Mark Musashi then Saiyuuki is Musashi's genetic clone. A battle royale of animal spirits and ninjas. I think the main reason they chose this as a way to start the show is because Monkey is a cult classic and assumes that Saiyuuki's audience already know how they came to be. And to be honest, if I was writing a remake, I would start like this to.
The show's opening is something that I'm still confused about. It starts with a beautiful painting and has the traditional storytelling narrator. After that is a shot of the mountains with Goku spinning his staff and then the show's name and episode title are seen on the mountain side accompanied by modern-ish music. It gets confusing trying to pin point what tone they're going for.
But one thing that doesn't get confusing is the comedic writing.
You'll have a scene of Goku, Hakkai & Gojou fighting over who gets to drink their water supply when Hoshi empties his bottle on a plant and gets shouted at since that's the only water they had left in the middle of a desert. So Hoshi starts to cry while the rest of the gang try to calm him down by pretending to see a town in the distance. This is the only joke I'm choosing to ruin since it happens after the opening but there are better ones.
After reaching a town they encounter Hoshi's former master whose faced with a problem. His daughter is marked as a sacrifice to keep a demon from causing more chaos in their town. Hoshi volunteers to help. Their plans immediately backfires as Goku discovers that Hoshi's former master offered Hoshi up to the demon so his daughter wouldn't be sacrificed. Resulting in Hoshi and the others to be kidnapped. Goku then saves them...by bringing Hoshi's former master and his daughter into the demon's lair and once again, things don't go as planned as the daughter is left behind. Afterwards Hoshi demands why Goku did that. And after a heated argument with Hoshi trusting his former master than his own pupil, Goku leaves, expelled from Hoshi's travelling party.
And this is where I start having problems with the show. The next scene is a discussion between Goku and a cook called Rin-Rin which is basically to frame a flashback to when Goku was trapped under a mountain. From where I sat if they didn't include this scene I would think "Well Goku is reckless. He's a danger. It makes sense not to trust him.". But to include this scene something was rattling around in my brain. "Why go through all the trouble of getting someone out of a five hundred year prison, travel with them for god...budda knows how long and yet NOT trust him???" Up to this point the show has portrayed these four pilgrims as brothers, close friends, etc. What I'm saying is that if you're going to travel with someone on a journey that would take years to complete, how could you not trust that person?
Hoshi is kidnapped, again, and discovers out Goku WAS right. Goku finally goes to rescue him, in the form of cloud-flying, after a pep talk. And while I say "cloud" I really mean leaf. A giant leaf. To be honest, I like this change. Its different but I think what makes it work is the scene itself. Quick scenes of Goku flying on the leaf created with CGI rather than a figurine.
People with CGI knowledge, tell the others how hard it would be to do that?
Nice, gentle flying music accompanying it. Its certainly one of the things that keeps audience members intrigued. And while its not as cheesy as Monkey's special effects, its on par with shows like Garo and Kamen Rider......and Super Sentai...you get the idea.
Then, a final showdown which pretty much runs exactly like how the episode started, with everything returning normal. But I'll share my thoughts on that later. Trust me, it's going to take me another post to explain that.
Oh yes. And after all this, Hoshi tricks Goku to put the headache sutra headband on. A headband that hurts Goku when Hoshi recites a prayer, which I'll remain silent about that prayer because I'll have to put on my Monkey nostalgia glasses on. But I will say that after this whole trust plot has finished and Hoshi has to trick Goku to wear this precaution, seems to scream out "Hoshi doesn't trust Goku as much as you think.". And its one of the biggest slaps to the face.
What makes Saiyuuki work is it's comedy and fight choreography. Its visual aspects (costume & set design) however, aren't as impressive. It seems that they were going for a bright and colourful costume set but its overshadowed by the massive amounts of detail they give them and the dullness of most sets. An over detailed costume for the likes of Goku or Gojou seems impractical.
And special mention should be given to Monkey Majik, the band who wrote and sung the ending theme forSaiyuuki, further illustrating how much nostalgia the producers are trying to generate. (Around The World - Monkey Majik)
The Edge: Neither
After seeing the first episodes of both I'm struggling to see who has the edge, the upper hand, etc,Monkey has amazing costumes and the special effects are something that SFX students should study up on. Saiyuuki, on the other hand, has a simplified script (for an 83 minute episode) and amazing fight scenes. So lets just see what the rest of the series (50 episodes of Monkey, 11 episodes and 1 movie forSaiyuuki) has to offer as we continue our
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