Cult TV

Cult TV Essentials: Monkey

Saiyūki, also known by its English title Monkey, is a Japanese television drama based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Filmed in north-west China and Inner Mongolia, the show was produced by Nippon Television (NTV) and International Television Films in association with NHK, and broadcast from 1978 to 1980 on Nippon Television.

PLOT

Monkey is described in the theme song as being “born from an egg on a mountain top”; a stone egg and thus he is a stone monkey, a skilled fighter who becomes a brash king of a monkey tribe, who, the song goes on to claim, was “the punkiest monkey that ever popped”.

Monkey achieved a little enlightenment, and proclaimed himself “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven”. After demanding the “gift” of a magical staff from a powerful Dragon king, and to quiet the din of his rough antics on Earth, Monkey is approached by Heaven to join their host, first in the lowly position of Master of the Stable (manure disposal), and then—after his riotous complaints—as “Keeper of the Peach Garden of Immortality”. Monkey eats many of the peaches, which have taken millennia to ripen, becomes immortal and runs amok. Having earned the ire of Heaven and being beaten in a challenge by an omniscient, mighty, but benevolent, cloud-dwelling Buddha, Monkey is imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain in order to learn patience.

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Eventually, in 630 CE, Monkey is released by the monk Tripitaka, who has been tasked by the Boddhisatva Guanyin to undertake a pilgrimage from China to India to fetch holy scriptures. The pair soon recruit two former members of the Heavenly Host who were cast out and turned from angels to “monsters”, as a result of Monkey’s transgressions: Sandy, the water monster and ex-cannibal, expelled from Heaven after his interference caused Heaven’s Jade Emperor’s precious jade cup to be broken, and Pigsy, a pig monster consumed with lust and gluttony, who was expelled from Heaven after harassing the Star Princess Vega—the Jade Emperor’s mistress—for a kiss.

A dragon, Yu Lung, who was set free by Guanyin after being sentenced to death, eats Tripitaka’s horse. On discovering that the horse was tasked with carrying Tripitaka, it assumes the horse’s shape to carry the monk on his journey. Later in the story he occasionally assumes human form to assist his new master, although he is still always referred to as “Horse”. Monkey can also change form, for instance into a hornet. In Episode 3, The Great Journey Begins, Monkey transforms into a girl to trick Pigsy. Monkey’s other magic powers include: summoning a cloud upon which he can fly; his use of the magic wishing staff which he can shrink and grow at will and from time to time, when shrunk, store in his ear, and which he uses as a weapon; and the ability to conjure monkey warriors by blowing on hairs plucked from his chest.

The pilgrims face many perils and antagonists both human, such as Emperor Taizong of Tang and supernatural. Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy are often called upon to battle demons, monsters, and bandits, despite Tripitaka’s constant call for peace. Many episodes also feature some moral lesson, usually based upon Buddhist and/or Taoist philosophies, which are spoken by the narrator at the end of various scenes.

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