Monkey Magic! ‘Monkey’ Blu-ray Box Set Reviewed

❉ Monkey is one of those beautiful TV oddities whose appeal spans continents and generations.

“Of course, true enlightenment is not going to come to us via a daft martial arts adventure that has as much in common with The Young Ones or Rentaghost as it does with the true wisdom of the ancients. The show is not without its problematic side, shall we say… But there are fewer more forgivable candidates for the ‘It was a different time’ defence than Monkey, and if we just let ourselves relax a bit, we’re in for a rip-roaring good time.”

Throw a rock into a crowd of forty and fiftysomethings. Go on. Actually, don’t do that, it’s a serious felony and needlessly nasty. But if you WERE to do that, chances are you could revive the concussed Gen-X-er by softly crooning the following lyrics:

“Born from an egg on a mountain-top/ Punkiest monkey that ever popped/He knew every magic trick under the sun…”

Then you’d pause a moment. Nine times out of ten the dazed victim will mutter “He teased the gods and everyone and haaaad some fun…” back at you, before you both raise your voices in an enthusiastic chant: “Monkey Maaaagic/Monkey Maaaagic/Monkey Maaaagic/Monkey Magic ooooohhh…”

This is no doubt a daft, implausible scenario, but it’s an aptly silly and violent metaphor for how deep an item of pop-culture trivia can embed itself in our subconscious. For if you were a child (of any age) in the early 80s in the UK you’d have that damn song ricocheting from side to side in your head all week. You’d be picturing our 4 heroes and their trusty steed (formerly a dragon) plodding their way endlessly but eventfully to India to pick up Buddha’s sacred scrolls as you sang the zany lyrics under your breath. And if you were feeling sparky, you’d whip your fingers back in forth in front of your face, blowing on them to summon an imaginary flying cloud that might whisk you away from the playground of your school and into the playground of your imagination.

Produced in Japan in 1978 to celebrate 25 years of the Nippon TV channel Monkey is one of those beautiful TV oddities whose appeal spans continents and generations. Like that other great Japanese export the Godzilla franchise, Monkey creates an entire world in front of our eyes, not at any great expense or with any serious attempt at verisimilitude, and lets its gallery of roguish demons and impish animal spirits frolic and fight one another to their hearts’ content, not forgetting to sprinkle tiny gems of Buddhist wisdom along their path. This show could stage an aerial battle between a monkey-god and a bird-demon that would really make you think.

Based on the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en (a kind of Grimm’s Fairy Tales of the far east) and spanning some 52 episodes Monkey’s unique blend of violent slapstick, earthy humour, high-flying fantasy and high-minded philosophy became such  a phenomenon in its native Japan that it was soon exported to the west (aptly enough) riding in on the coat-tails of the 70s martial arts boom here, an obsession that had started with the blinding agility and jaw-dropping gracefulness of Bruce Lee and continued with the epically-staged battles and intricate palace intrigue of The Water Margin (another product of Nippon TV and Monkey’s direct precursor). Like The Water Margin, Monkey was adapted by the quietly ingenious David Weir, working only with bare descriptions of the plot and no direct translations of the text.

Despite these strictures, or more likely because of them, Weir went hog-wild, crafting memorable, immensely fun English dialogue for the already-magnetic Japanese cast and tweaking the characters in his voice-casting to produce something uniquely charming in the annals of telly history.  Masaaki Sakai’s gruff-voiced, spectacularly-sideburned Monkey is given a grumpy joie de vivre by David Collings (doing a pretty fair impersonation of Sakai’s gravelly growl). Tripitaka, the boy-monk that Monkey is charged with protecting is portrayed (principle-boy fashion) by the slight, delicate-faced Masako Natsume, and voiced by Maria Warburg with quiet authority.

Pigsy, the disgraced Commander of the Heavenly Host who has been punished by being forced into pig form is played by the squishy-faced, Benny-Hill-like Toshiyuki Nishida in Series 1 and the smaller, more boyish Tonpei Hidari in Series 2: both incarnations are capably voiced by Peter Woodthorpe, having a whale of a time giggling and double-entendre-ing his way to India. Sandy the Water Spirit is embodied by the lanky, gormless-looking Shiro Kishibe and Gareth Armstrong excels himself by giving him the sing-song voice of a bookish, precocious adolescent. The supporting voice cast is rounded out by the likes of Miriam Margolyes at her breathiest and most seductive and Andrew Sachs (who later gets promoted to the voice of our heroes’ horse, played in human form by the satisfyingly Andrew Sachs-like Shunji Fujimura).

For those who have never tasted this sweet, exotic candy themselves 2020 is their lucky year (finally!) as Fabulous Films are re-releasing the whole kit and caboodle on Blu-Ray for the very first time. When the series was first acquired by BBC2 in the 80s only 39 of its 52 episodes were redubbed and (slightly) re-edited for western consumers. The still-available and pretty comprehensive DVD box-set added the 13 extant non-dubbed episodes in the original Japanese and the contrast is striking. The show seems more serious, more ‘proper’ somehow (or as proper as a big, daft colourful panto such as this will allow). Subtitles tend to convey class that way.

Here all the remaining episodes have been dubbed by the original English voice cast, which took place in the early 2000s, and what the box-set loses in classiness it makes up for in continuity. The voices sound a LITTLE scratchier in places, but not so you’d notice. Peter Woodthorpe sadly died soon after recording Pigsy’s voice parts, and of all the returning voices his is the one that has changed the most, that sounds weariest, which is an odd contrast with Hidori Tonpei’s baby-faced, energetic performance. Frank Duncan who voiced the wise narrator in the earlier episodes was not alive for the re-recordings and so is replaced in the later ones by the trusty, assertive, instantly recognisable tones of the great Burt Kwouk, a safe set of tonsils if ever there was.

Of the show itself it’s hard to give an account of it that would make sense to a neophyte. With its parsimonious budgets it was never going to make us believe a monkey could fly, but half the fun is the sense that the production team couldn’t give a…uuuhh…toss about that and so concentrated on making the low-fi effects as amusing and delightful as they could. The model shots of mountains and monsters bring to mind Godzilla of course (Jun Fukuda who directed a number of episodes here cut his teeth on Toho monster films, and it shows) but also the charm and childlike beauty of Gerry Anderson productions like Thunderbirds.

The stories are all simple morality tales that can be understood anywhere, and at some point Tripitaka, the narrator or Buddha him/herself will dispense some florid, pithy wisdom to us, so we can end each episode feeling that we are at least a TINY bit closer to enlightenment.

Of course, true enlightenment is not going to come to us via a daft martial arts adventure that has as much in common with The Young Ones or Rentaghost as it does with the true wisdom of the ancients. The show is not without its…problematic side, shall we say. To 21st century ears the ‘white people doing silly Oriental voices’ act may take some adjustment, and Pigsy’s unquenchable lechery which is always played for easy laughs has aged about as well as Pepe Le Pew in the post #MeToo era. But there are fewer more forgivable candidates for the ‘It was a different time’ defence than Monkey, and if we just let ourselves relax a bit, we’re in for a rip-roaring good time.

In the intervening years Journey To the West has taken the fancy of western creatives more than once: Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett created a sweeping, lyrical, acrobatic opera from it about a decade ago, and the ubiquitous Netflix has recently given us New Legends of Monkey, a kind of post-Whedon, post-Xena, post-MCU take on the material, where the actors are more youthfully ripped (apart from Pigsy…) and the focus is squarely on action over philosophy. It’s not a bad show as it goes, and has its own puckish charm (Sandy is a woman now, but still the quirkiest, most amusing member of the team), but does it have Japanese prog-funk-pop band Godiego serenading every stage of the quest with mad free-jazz freakouts and sweet balladry? Does it hell.

There is one Blu-Ray extra on this set worth mentioning: fairly well-hidden on the final disc is a half-hour documentary about the revival of the show in the early 2000s and its legacy in the UK. It’s an entertaining watch, if only because it puts pasty western faces to the enthusiastic voice cast, and ends with a touching dedication to Peter Woodthorpe. It really seems to have been as much fun to work on as to watch, and it’s nice to visit the Soho recording studio where so many bickering arguments between our heroes were brought to life over 40 years ago.

If you’re a parent who wants to get their youngster into eastern philosophy this is a must-have, mainly because the lessons are served with so many spoonfuls of absurd, near-the-knuckle sugar.

Once you’ve seen a Monkey King unwittingly pee all over the fingers of a giant, serene Buddha, you won’t forget it, and maybe the lesson in humility our simian hero learns will stick with you just that little bit longer.

❉ Monkey: The Complete Series (Restored) was released on Blu-Ray and DVD, 5 October 2020 by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. BBFC Cert. 12. Price BR: £99.99. DVD: £69.99. Click through to order directly from Fabulous Films Ltd here: DVD | BLU-RAY

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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