The Year of the Monkey cycles anew, so what better time to reflect on the King of Monkeys himself?
Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is the breakout star of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel, Journey to the West, and he’s enjoyed several centuries of influence on Eastern fiction. Think of him like Robin Hood or King Arthur; a timeless hero whose story mixes history and legend in true mythopoeic fashion. And most relevant to otaku, he’s the direct inspiration for the most colossal anime franchises ever, Dragon Ball.Photo Credit: Jiyou Liu
A quick primer first. Journey to the West is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, a highly venerated collection of literature which also includes the oft-adapted wuxia epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book mythologizes China’s adoption of Buddhism, angling it as a heroic quest wherein the monk, Xuanzang, literally retrieves sacred scriptures from India.
So, what’s that got to do with Dragon Ball? Well, it’s easy to over-state the connection. Akira Toriyama didn’t intend his series to be a tribute to the novel, nor even a consistent parody. It’s just that the scenarios and iconography are so familiar in Eastern culture that they are often taken for granted. Saying Dragon Ball is “based” on Journey to the West is akin to saying Shrek is “based” on Sleeping Beauty. Still, parallels are present at the beginning. Instead of Xuanzang searching for sutras, you have Bulma Briefs searching for wish-granting Dragon Balls. Instead of the Xuanzang’s disciples, the warrior Sha Wujing and the pig man Zhu Bajie, you have Bulma’s friends, the warrior Yamcha and the pig man Oolong.
And it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Son Goku” is the Japanese name for “Sun Wukong.”Photo Credit: Akira Toriyama
The Monkey King’s bio reads like a Z-Fighter’s stats card. He has super speed, an arsenal of magic spells, an immensely heavy battle staff, and every hair on his coat can transform into a perfect duplicate of him. On top of all that, he can shape-shift into 72 other forms (but can never lose his furry tail to make these transformations totally convincing). Prior to Journey to the West‘s plot, he rebels against the heavenly court of Taoism, and is imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha for his roguery.
Toiryama intended Goku to be an even goofier riff on the already-mischievous hero. As a “wild child” raised amid secluded mountains, Goku has super strength and agility, and keeps a staff-like “Power Pole” and ride-able cloud at ready. He can’t transform into as many things as Sun Wukong, but when he does, he becomes a rampaging ape. And his pesky monkey tail does keeps getting in the way. While he can’t create clones from his scalp, his later “Super Saiyan” incarnation turns his hair gold (just as the Monkey’s King coat is traditionally depicted).Photo Credit: the Weinstein Company
Goku, of course, is just one of countless homages to Sun Wukong in contemporary comics, film and games. He’s also been a popular role for leading men in China. Jet Li played him in The Forbidden Kingdom and Into the Badland‘s Donnie Yen starred as him in the blockbuster Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven just recently. Again, imagine trying to list every time King Arthur has shown up in some story or served as a model for some character.
Let’s dig even deeper into the tree of inspiration for a sec, though. Monkeys are generally more heroic warriors in Eastern tradition, and it’s widely thought that Sun Wukong is based off the monkey god Hanuman from The Ramayana. There’s no mega-popular anime series styled off that Hindu epic, sure, but there is a record-breaking James Cameron blockbuster movie you may have heard of. Hanuman is an ardent follower of the hero Rama, a blue-skinned master archer with a long black ponytail who looks more than a little like “Jayk Sooly” of the Na’vi. Oh, and he’s an avatar to the deity, Vishnu. That’s not quite coincidental.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
With centuries-unto-millenia of stories here, we could go on for a very long time about what parts of pop culture have been shaped by Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Still, hopefully this quick glance has made you see your favorite anime a little differently. And even more hopefully, you now understand why the monkey being celebrated this year is the most badass out of the entire Zodiac.
Has your view of DBZ changed forever? What other tributes to Wukong have tickled you? Do more warrior monkeys deserve tribute? Shake the pillars of Earth below!
Featured Image Credit: Mandarin Films