Dragon Ball Z and the Legend of Son Goku

Helen McCarthy on just a few of the many faces of the Monkey King

Dragon Ball Z

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless eons wheeled and passed. Time, and the pure essences of heaven, the moisture of the earth, the powers of the sun and the moon, all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation, and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named Thought. Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: ‘With our thoughts, we make the world’. Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey! The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

Most Western fans know the name Son Goku best through Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. Toriyama’s mad quest for rotund reptilian relics, said by some overly-hopeful admirers to have outsold the Bible, is one of a select few manga to have the distinction of circulating in Catalan. Yet its innocent lead character has little in common with his great namesake, and all pretense of shadowing the original legend is sidelined early in both manga and anime versions. The first Son Goku was a very different person, and his story has been a staple of Asian culture for centuries before the first animators started messing around with this new film stuff.


Irrepressible, irresponsible and a pain in the backside of more sober, sensible spirits, the Monkey King first sprang to written fame in a book by Wu Cheng En. The 16th century tale Xiyouji records a hazardous, adventure-packed journey to India by a seventh century Buddhist priest intent on bringing back priceless sutras to his Chinese homeland. In Japanese, the same characters are read Saiyuki Journey to the West. In the legend, the Monkey King is one of the priest’s magical companions on this great journey, but the legend is firmly rooted in reality. A real seventh-century priest made a real journey along the Silk Road, the great trade artery that ran from China to India and beyond and supplied Europe with many luxury imports, returning 16 years later with over 600 sutras. Along its own journey from travelogue into legend, the world’s first road movie picked up many souvenirs of its adventures. The Monkey King may be one of these, a snapshot of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.

In the legend, a Stone Monkey is born full-grown from a rock by the ocean. His boastful, irrepressible nature soon starts to cause a stir on Earth as he makes himself king of all the monkeys by finding them a wonderful new home, a cave on a mountain laden with fruit and flowers. His followers change his name from Stone Monkey to Handsome Monkey King, and, with touching faith in his powers, ask him to find the secret of immortality so they can enjoy their new life on the mountain forever. The quest leads him to a great spiritual master, Subhuti, who teaches him martial arts, magic and the Buddhist Way and renames him Sun Wu Kong (in Japanese, Son Goku) meaning Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. However, simply renaming the vain and mischievous creature isn’t enough to change him, and he is thrown out for causing trouble. He returns home with his magic cloud for transport, knowledge of the 72 Transformations and much increased potential for mayhem, but still no immortality and no enlightenment.

Back on his mountain, he finds that demons have taken over his cave, but the skills he has learned from Subhuti enable him to throw them out. The Demon King’s brothers, realising that he’s not quite as smart as he thinks, trick him into sneaking into the Dragon King’s palace and stealing a famous weapon, a miraculous iron staff that can change size on command. Sun Wu Kong is brought before the Jade Emperor for punishment. In an effort to keep him out of trouble he is given a post in the Heavenly hierarchy, but causes more problems and is thrown out again.


Home again and still as vain as ever, he proclaims himself as “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven”, and despite being challenged by deities he manages to trick his way back into Heaven. There he proceeds to eat all the Peaches of Immortality and wash them down with the Elixir of Life. An army of 10,000 heavenly warriors chases him back to earth to kill him, but he defeats them all. Finally restrained in a magical diamond noose, he is taken down to Hell, but since he has eaten the Peaches of Immortality there isn’t much the Gods can do to punish him. The Jade Emperor appeals for help from the Buddha, and Buddha bets Wu Kong that he can’t jump out of his palm. Of course, Wu Kong loses [Note: betting against Buddha is not recommended – Ed] and is imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain in China. Born from a rock, he is once more held inside a rock awaiting ‘rebirth’ to freedom. But the freedom he finds will not be what he thinks.

After 500 years, the priest Xuanzang (aka Tripitaka) frees Wu Kong to accompany his pilgrimage to India, controlling him by a magic circlet that tightens round his head whenever he causes trouble. However, to help him guard the fragile boy-priest the Monkey also gets three magical hairs which will help when trouble comes looking for him. On the journey the pair meet a pig-changeling called Pigze and Monk Sand, a river spirit who was once a Heavenly guard. After Wu Kong defeats them, they both join the pilgrimage.

Princess Iron fan

The legend was rewritten into many forms, and made its way into Japanese animation as early as 1926, in the black and white short Legend of Son Goku, which used cut-out figures animated by stop-motion. Just two years later, it was animated again as the two-reel Son Goku, directed by Takahiro Ishikawa. Monkey’s first truly big splash in Japan came when the 1941 Chinese cartoon Xiyouji (dir. Zhang Shankun) was released as Princess Iron Fan (above). Featuring one particular chapter from the legend, when Monkey and friends need to steal a magic fan from Mount Inferno, the film so impressed a 16-year-old boy called Osamu Tezuka that he resolved to make his own version. Ten years later, he began writing My Son Goku in 1952, using the same Mount Inferno chapters as his base.

In 1957, Taiji Yabushita’s New Adventures of Hanuman harked back to Monkey’s Indian ancestry, but it was an American rather than a Japanese production, made by Occupation staff to promote harmony and friendship between the Japanese and their American conquerors. The choice of Hanuman rather than Son Goku was deliberate – the US Government wanted the Japanese to get the idea of individual freedom, but felt that a character whose main aim in life is revolt against authority was not the most suitable folk hero for the times (for similar reasons during the war, the Japanese censor lopped 20 minutes off the running time of Princess Iron Fan).

Son Goku Tezuka

But Yabushita would return to Monkey in 1960, when he directed the anime version of Tezuka’s Boku no Son Goku. Retitled Saiyuki in Japan and Alakazam the Great in the US, the film featured many similarities to the Chinese film that inspired Tezuka. Not only did it keep to the Mount Inferno scenes, but it also played up the moment when Monkey, Pigze and Sandy decide to cooperate for the first time, and featured a final aerial battle when the characters’ feet were surrounded by airbrushed cloud.

Before long, Tezuka’s Monkey was back again, this time in the 1967 television series Goku’s Great Adventure, directed by Street Fighter’s very own Gisaburo Sugii. Sugii was so taken with the story that he, too, would remake it as a TV movie with Hideo Takayanagi in 1982 as Son Goku Flies the Silk Road. Others were infected, too. Leiji Matsumoto, whose angst-ridden tales of heroes nobly doing what a hero’s gotta do include Captain Harlock and the more recent Queen Emeraldas, was the first to take Son Goku into SF territory in the 1978 TV series SF Saiyuki Starzinger, where the legend was warped into a quest to save the universe by a beautiful girl, helped by three cyborg exiles who will win freedom if she succeeds. Starzinger II followed, and the series eventually crossed to the US as Spaceketeers. Taking Matsumoto’s SF influence less seriously, the Fujiko-Fujio duo explored the idea of parallel worlds in yet another of their longrunning series of Doraemon films in 1988, with Doraemon’s Parallel Journey to the West.

Midnight Eye Goku

A year later, at the other end of the SF spectrum, Buichi Terasawa used the legend as the basis for Midnight Eye Goku, in which the Monkey King is a hardbitten ex-cop with a cybernetic eye, a direct link that lets him control any computer in the world and a miraculous iron pole of his own. His adventures bring him up against a menagerie of deadly exotica including a woman with a truly hypnotic tail and a biker girl with a difference. Despite his amoral and cynical nature, he uses his new powers against the truly evil men of this world, just as his rumbustious precursor was drawn into helping a virtuous priest, at first by coercion but increasingly out of affectionate admiration.

Among the many manga artists who have followed in Tezuka’s footsteps, Johji Manabe (of Outlanders fame) produced the Saiyuki-inspired Viva! Rabbit. Go Devilman Nagai made his contribution to the Monkey comics collection with Super Saiyuki and Dirty Pair creator Haruka Takachiho collaborated with Nagai’s sometime partner Ken Ishikawa on Southern Cross Kid. US fan favourite Ippongi Bang made her own contribution to the myth with Change Commander Goku, an everyday tale of sex and drugs and rock ’n’roll in modern Tokyo. There are also ‘guest appearances’ by individual characters from the myth embedded in many anime and manga, like the blue-faced Yohei of Giant Robo with his magical size-shifting staff. The new versions continue even today, with the serials Monkey Magic and Total Fun (in Japanese Sai Yuki, geddit!), a 1999 video that has just been converted into a fully-fledged television series, which all goes to show that the nature of Monkey is irrepressible.

But it’s the 1979 live-action television series that sent Monkey on a genuine journey to the West. Made by NTV for the Japanese market, but bought for UK transmission with dizzying speed, the BBC didn’t waste licence-payers’ money on anything as soppy as a translation; instead, the Monkey series was adapted by David Weir, who unblushingly claimed in the Radio Times that he was “the reincarnation of a 19th century Mandarin”. He spoke no Chinese or Japanese and claimed no prior interest in the Orient whatsoever. Luckily for him, someone had already done the really hard part – the Japanese had been properly turned into English by an anonymous translator; all Weir had to do was tart it up.

Armed with this support and a superb confidence all his own, Weir set about filleting the hour-long episode scripts for Western consumption. He told the Radio Times that he had “cut out hours of samurai sword-fighting and re-interpreted the dialogue so that the plot and motivations would be comprehensible to Western viewers”. The result was handed over to future Manga Video dubbing director Michael Bakewell and a classic was born.

The English voice cast enhanced the effect by giving it the full chop-socky treatment, yet the essential nature of the characters transcends the limitations of the dub. Masaaki Sakai was perfectly cast as Monkey, with expressively simian facial features and seemingly superhuman acrobatic ability, as well as a very powerful pair of lungs. He has the legend’s magic staff and flying cloud, and his magical hairs have survived – he can clone himself from strands of his fur, as well as transforming himself in other ways. The young priest Tripitaka was given the perfect combination of physical delicacy and spiritual strength by actress and model Masako Natsume. Matters were confused further when the boy who was played by a girl was given a girl’s voice in the English dub. Shiro Kishibe played Sandy, aka Monk Sand, as a seriously wet spirit, morose and sometimes maudlin. Yet for all his misery, he could pack a good wallop with his bladed staff. Pigze is now Pigsy (Toshiaki Nishida) a spirit kicked out of Heaven for greed and lust, who brings his own muck-rake to battle when he’s not chasing human girls.

NTV made a second 26-episode series, replacing Nishida with Tonpei Hidari and adding a new character from in the form of Tripitaka’s shapeshifting horse Yu-Lung, played by Shunji Fujimura. There was life after Monkey for all the actors, but sadly not a long one for the beautiful Natsume, who died of leukaemia in 1985. Sakai continues to thrive as a television host , covering material from cookery to game shows, in which capacity he made a return appearance to UK television in one of Chris Tarrant’s infamous compilations of world television. Nishida, meanwhile, carved a serious career in drama, while Kishibe became a ping-pong champion.

The series continues to be popular in Japan, its theme song even inspiring the 1998 anime series Gandhara, but the journey was never shown in its entirety on British television. The second season was cherry-picked for its best moments, and episodes 3-9, 14, 19 and 22-25 were omitted. The final chapter “At the Top of the Mountain” made it through, but anyone who genuinely wants to see the whole Monkey will need a pal in Japan who can tape it off the telly (and it’s still on, even now!). Tripitaka and friends never reached Gandhara in the series, although they did get there in the opera Journey to the West, heavily inspired in equal parts by the original legend and by the Japanese TV series that first introduced it to co-creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. A suitably Buddhist finale shows the young priest realising that “enlightenment is a journey, not a destination”, and continuing with his guardians on the road to India. Now they’re on the road again, spreading enlightenment to a whole new generation of fans and reminding us that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, as long as you can have some fun and do some good on the way. [That’s enough. Nothing lasts forever. In all the universe there are only two constants, and these are one. There will be change, and something that changes. The eternal things are natural, like the seasons, and the life and death of stars. – Mystic Ed.].

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