Since its 16th-century publication, Journey to the West has been a massively popular cultural phenomenon in China, spawning approximately a quadrillion retellings and adaptations (it’s true – I got that number from the dramaturg). A popular TV version was produced for a 17-year run and still airs today. Film adaptations date back to 1927. Countless works of Beijing Opera feature Sun Wukong, and dozens of other art forms reference the story.
Wherefore the massive popularity? Is it perhaps safety in sequels, refuge in remakes? One interviewee from last year’s story gathering mentioned his frustration with Chinese cinema not taking more risks or exploring new ground, due to fear of the censors. Maybe — but still, there’s something innately self-popularizing about the story of Journey: ridiculous humor, crazy action sequences, a classic story of a hero’s journey, and a lasting resonance of humility and transcendence.
For today, I want to look past the Beijing Opera, films, and TV shows (of which there are many) and talk through some recent, slightly more off-the-beaten-path adaptations.
MUSIC – This album was part soundtrack, part adaptation-of-soundtrack for Monkey: Journey to the West, a stage musical created by Wu Cheng’en (author of the 16th-century novel), Chen Shi-Zheng, Damon Albarn, and Jamie Hewlett. The play was generally regarded as visually stunning but underdeveloped in terms of character arc and cohesion of story (Lisa and Jp saw the 2013 tour that came to Lincoln Center and gave that production a thumbs down). The soundtrack strives for a wide range of sounds, employing classic Beijing Opera instrumentation but also including an eclectic mix of C-pop, electronica, folk, and modern experimental music. Albarn says: “It’s very much a modern piece, it’s not trying to evoke the time of legend at all. It’s very much in sort of downtown Beijing, Shanghai or Tokyo. It’s very much the modern Asia: slightly kooky, very colourful, quite sexy, but still a quite sinister place.”
GRAPHIC NOVEL – Last season, Touchstone board member and all-around awesome person Alexis Leon introduced me to American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and it was a total game-changer for me personally. The Monkey King’s headlong pursuit of increased power and personal betterment unfolds alongside the story of a Chinese-American youth struggling to carve out a place and identity for himself. It’s absolutely beautiful. When asked about the cultural relevancy of the Monkey King across cultures and years, Yang responds: “In a very real sense, the Monkey King is universal. He’s been around a long, long time, and I think he’s sturdy enough to follow us wherever we go, to embody whatever philosophies and beliefs we arrive at.”
ANIME – Man, if I could spend a whole blog post on this one. Alakazam the Great, one of the first Japanese anime series to be released in the US, was a riff on the Monkey King. The original classic Dragon Ball manga/anime (also Japanese) is definitely a Monkey King riff, with its monkey-tailed protagonist, Son Goku (the Japanese transliteration of Sun Wukong). American-made webseries/anime RWBY features a character with parkour/martial arts and a monkey pendant… named Sun Wukong. The list goes on. I suppose Monkey – as a mischievous, acrobatic, magic-and-superpower-wielding demigod on a quests – fits right in with plenty of anime genres.
VIDEO GAME – (okay, I confess, this was the first category I thought of when brainstorming modern adaptations of Journey…) We’ve got Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a story of a war-torn, post-apocalyptic world which sees a tough loner named Monkey playing escort duty for a nineteen year old girl named Trip (a.k.a. Tripitaka). It diverges enormously from the source material, but it shares some character names, several of Sun Wukong’s accessories, and thematic elements of interdependence. Also, the game features more robots than in the original Chinese text. The game received mostly positive critical reception, with special notice going to its excellent visuals and strong storytelling. There’s also Ether Saga Odyssey, an MMO set in Journey‘s mythic world and featuring demigods, animal spirits, and dragons. And for the younger kids, there’s The Journey to the West: The Birth of the Monkey King, a multi-lingual
eBook/phone game learning aide (available for $2.99 on the Apple Store).
You get the idea – Journey to the West and Sun Wukong the Monkey King are huge cultural celebrities. This April, Touchstone is proud to add Journey from the East to this smorgasbord of Journey adaptations. We don’t have giant robots or C-Pop, but we think it’ll be a worthwhile addition to the list, and we can’t wait to share it with you.
— Emma Chong