Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Monkey Challenge: Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven

The first episode of Monkey was so utterly unlike anything I'd ever seen before that, the first time I saw it, I was instantly hooked on the series and spent the next few months staying up into the early hours of the morning to watch the Channel 4 repeats c.2002.

A Japanese series about a Chinese myth that was dubbed into English with such wit as to mix Buddhist philosophy with fourth-wall-breaking asides, by voice actors who stay just the right side of taking the piss.

Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven is atypical of the series as a whole, as it takes until the end of the third episode for the main characters to be united and begin their journey that is the main set-up of the series.

Most of this episode is set in Heaven and concerns the attempts of the Jade Emperor of the Western Heaven and his useless advisor, the spirit of the star Venus, to deal with the Stone Monkey King who has learned some magic tricks and who now styles himself "Great sage, Equal of Heaven."

I call Venus "useless" because his advice is always to appease the Monkey - first by offering him a position in Heaven in the hopes that this will keep him quiet, and then (when this fails utterly) by giving him a position with some actual responsibility.

Once Monkey has eaten of the Peaches of Immortality he is become such a nuisance that the Jade Emperor is forced to call in Buddha to deal with the troublesome ape, and Buddha responds by dropping a mountain onto Monkey for 500 years to teach him a lesson - literally; the lesson is "learn patience."

While causing trouble in Heaven, Monkey meets the "Commander of the Hosts of Heaven" and the "Marshal of the Heavenly Host" - both of whom end up being expelled from Heaven to become Sandy and Pigsy, Monkey's future companions.

Having read the Penguin Classics version of Monkey by Wu Cheng-En, translation by Arthur Waley, I can say the story told here is pretty faithful to the original, though cut down rather a lot, and further that reading the book helped me to understand a bit more of what is going on, as it is not always clearly spelled out for the uneducated viewer.

Still, the gist of the plot is easy to follow and Monkey is an immediately likable character, appealing to the rebel in all of us against the stuffy, eternal bureaucracy represented by Heaven.

The production of this episode is first-rate (for the time) and holds up well today. Where the sets or effects are sub-standard they make up for them by careful direction and the aforementioned wit.

I would definitely recommend watching the beginning of the series of Monkey because, while it loses its way later on and becomes somewhat repetitive, the initial storyline is a classic. Monkey Magic.

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