Monkey Magic

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Back to the world of reviews now, although I still have a number of “On…” ideas.  I have struggled all week with this one (usually it is done as a quick stream of furious typing, and I just let the posts happen, spelling and sense be damned), as I am pretty sure it is going to be like every other review of this movie you will find on the net – nostalgic for a treasured memory.  But then again, why not?

A long long time ago, in a world long since forgotten, ThingFallApart Towers was in a totally different place.  This was a world before Blu-Ray, before DVD, before the Internet, even before CDs.  Yes I really am that old.  Located in a small village in the south of England, this lonely young geek-to-be had to make do with a mere three TV channels (that all went off air around midnight), and whatever books the local library had decided to invest in.  I knew little about anything outside my small village, I had popped over to France a couple of times, and frankly that was pretty much exotic enough for me.  But I do remember some late afternoon/early evening programming on BBC2 that enchanted me back then (and for those of you trying to work it out, it would have been 1978/9, and I would have been, well 7 or 8).

There were two shows from this magical land called Japan.  The first was a tale of Bandits called “The Water Margin” which to be brutally honest I really did not understand.  But proceeding that on what must have been ‘imported Japanese TV show night’ on BBC2 was a crazy tale of a Monkey God and his companions, with a totally rocking theme tune, and the coolest flying cloud.  Yes my friends, I am talking about “Monkey”, “The funkiest Monkey that ever popped”.  Did I understand it?  Probably not.  Did I spend hours in the playground pretending to be Monkey?  Of course!!

The older and wiser, and frankly more knowledgeable me now of course knows that this was but one of hundreds of media interpretations of Journey To The West – some are comic, some are played very much straight.  It has come up on the blog a few times before, and it will be mentioned in the next post or so very soon.  However, a gentle recommendation from Best Friend, and a frankly bargain DVD price led to to the Film version of the most recent Japanese TV Version.

Monkey Magic” (to help us poor little nostalgic Westerners grasp the link between our childhood’s and this film, it is named so in the UK – you might find it called “Saiyûki” or even “The Adventures of Super Monkey” in your territory) is an extended tale of a side trip taken by the gang on their way to India and enlightenment.  Coming across the ruined Kingdom of the Tiger people, they are asked to help a spunky little Princess rescue her people from the evil Silver and Gold Kings (and the rotter’s have been so evil, they have turned the King and Queen into tortoises).  Adventure is performed, fights are fought, and laughs are had, and on the way,  the Monkey King learns a little about friendship and sacrifice.

At the end of the day, this is just an extended TV show, with better than usual special effects.  It does actually stand on its own rather well, with just enough information given during the credits to clue us all in on who these strange people are, and whilst there are obviously a couple of call-backs to events in the show, it really does hang together as its own thing.  The SFX are pretty good for a Japanese TV show, even if it does occasionally stumble into the level of Power Rangers.  The core extended battle scene is pretty good though, managing to be large and exciting, whilst pausing for comic effect at times.

Tongue is firmly in cheek for most of the film, and the actors are obviously having a huge amount of fun.  I do suspect that the central performance of Shingo Katori as the Monkey King is going to be rather like Marmite – you will either hate it, or find it fun.  I fall in the latter camp, as I liked the ay he actually seemed to remember that he really is a Monkey, a little over emotional and some nice stuff done with his movements.  The biggest disappointment is that although the film runs for a definitely overlong 2 hours, much of the cast are woefully underused, concentrating mainly on Monkey, the Princess (Mikako Tabe) and Tripitaka (Eri Fukatsu).  It wisely concentrates on values such as friendship, avoiding a potential romantic subplot that whilst hinted at, really would be rather wrong if you thing about it too much.

It is what it is – a family friendly film, that neither challenges nor offends.  There is enough in there for us nostalgaists to enjoy, and you are a hard person if much of it does not make you smile.  At the end of the day, I don’t think it is a terribly necessary or vital part of the Journey To The West Canon, but it is far from horrible.  Recommended.

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