Saiyūki – original title: 西遊記 – also known by its British title Monkey, is a Japanese television fantasy drama based on the classic 16th-century 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.
Although primarily a comedic fantasy show, Monkey frequently featured supernatural and horror elements, often taken from Chinese and Japanese traditional folklore. The main adversaries of the heroes were demons – often living in human guise – and other monsters included vampires, shape-shifters, and cannibalistic monsters. Despite this, and the frequent martial arts violence, Monkey was broadcast as family entertainment in the UK without complaint.
Two 26-episode seasons ran in Japan: the first season ran from October 1978 to April 1979, and the second one from November 1979 to May 1980, with screenwriters including Mamoru Sasaki, Isao Okishima, Tetsurō Abe, Kei Tasaka, James Miki, Motomu Furuta, Hiroichi Fuse, Yū Tagami, and Fumio Ishimori.
Starting in 1979, Saiyūki was dubbed into English (a BBC production) and subsequently broadcast in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and by ABC Television in Australia, with dialogue written by David Weir.
Only 39 of the original 52 episodes were shown by the BBC. The remaining episodes were dubbed by Fabulous Films Ltd in early 2004 by the original cast, following a successful release of the English-dubbed series on VHS and DVD; then they aired on Channel 4 in the UK. Alongside The Water Margin, which the show replaced in the BBC schedules, Monkey is a rare example of a Japanese TV show playing on British TV.
A Spanish-dubbed version of Monkey aired in Uruguay in the early 1980s. While Monkey never received a broadcast in the United States, Saiyūki was shown on local Japanese language television stations in California and Hawaii in the early 1980s.
Monkey, the title character, 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. He 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 centuries and 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.
Eventually, in 630 CE, Monkey is released by the monk Tripitaka, who has been tasked 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, and Pigsy, a pig monster consumed with lust and gluttony. Monkey’s 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; changing form; and the ability to conjure monkey warriors by blowing on hairs plucked from his chest.
The pilgrims face many perils and antagonists both human 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 on Buddhist and/or Taoist philosophies, which are spoken by the narrator at the end of various scenes.
The songs in the series were performed by the five-piece Japanese band Godiego. In the UK, BBC Records released “Gandhara” as a single in 1979 (RESL 66), with “The Birth of the Odyssey” and “Monkey Magic” on the B-side. The single reached #56 on the UK Singles Chart, eventually spending a total of seven weeks on the chart.
Monkey is considered a cult classic in countries where it has been shown. Among the features that have contributed to its cult appeal are the theme song, the dubbed dialogue spoken in a variety of over-the-top “Oriental” accents, (except for Sandy who inexplicably speaks with an English accent), the reasonably good synchronization of dubbing to the actors’ original dialogue, the fact that the young priest Tripitaka was played by a woman and the fact that Guan yin, who is usually depicted in statues and paintings as a female, is portrayed by a male.
Series 1 (1978-79)
- “Monkey Goes Wild about Heaven”
- “Monkey Turns Nursemaid”
- “The Great Journey Begins”
- “Monkey Swallows the Universe”
- “The Power of Youth”
- “Even Monsters Can Be People”
- “The Beginning of Wisdom”
- “Pigsy Woos a Widow”
- “What Monkey Calls the Dog-Woman”
- “Pigsy’s in the Well”
- “The Difference Between Night and Day”
- “Pearls Before Swine”
- “The Minx and the Slug”
- “Catfish, Saint and the Shape-Changer”
- “Monkey Meets the Demon Digger”
- “The Most Monstrous Monster”
- “Truth and the Grey Gloves Devil”
- “Land for the Locusts”
- “Vampire Master”
- “Outrageous Coincidences”
- “Pigsy, King and God”
- “Village of the Undead”
- “Two Little Blessings”
- “The Fires of Jealousy”
- “The Country of Nightmares”
- “The End of the Way”
Series 2 (1979-80)
- “Pigsy’s Ten Thousand Ladies”
- “The Dogs of Death”
- “You Win Some, You Lose Some” (dubbed 2004)
- “Pigsy Learns A Lesson” (dubbed 2004)
- “The Land With Two Suns” (dubbed 2004)
- “The House of the Evil Spirit” (dubbed 2004)
- “Am I Dreaming?” (dubbed 2004)
- “The Tormented Emperor” (dubbed 2004)
- “Between Heaven and Hell” (dubbed 2004)
- “The Foolish Philosopher”
- “Who Am I?”
- “What is Wisdom?”
- “The Fountain of Youth”
- “Better The Demon You Know” (dubbed 2004)
- “A Shadow So Huge”
- “Keep on Dancing”
- “Give and Take”
- “Such a Nice Monster”
- “The Fake Pilgrims” (dubbed 2004)
- “Pretty as a Picture”
- “The Tenacious Tomboy” (dubbed 2004)
- “Stoned” (dubbed 2004)
- “Hungry Like The Wolf” (dubbed 2004)
- “Monkey’s Yearning” (dubbed 2004)
- “At the Top of the Mountain”