TV

1970s Japanese TV series ‘Monkey’ had a magic that has never been matched

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

For anyone of a certain vintage, the 1970s Japanese TV show “Monkey” — which aired in the U.K. in 1979 and acquired a long-standing cult following — is likely to instantly transport you back to the age of “Happy Days,” “Blake’s Seven” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The show was an even bigger hit in Australia and was widely broadcast across Latin America from Mexico to Argentina. (Notably, though, it was never shown on national networks in the U.S.)

It was truly a unique event in TV history — a Japanese drama series that conquered much of the world.

So, the news that “Monkey” has been remade by Australia’s ABC in a co-production with TV New Zealand and Netflix — and is now showing Down Under — is likely to cause those in the know to fan two fingers in front of their mouth, Monkey-style, to summon a flying cloud. But they might also wonder why, 39 years after its stunning international success, the Japanese themselves have never managed to reproduce live-action entertainment that captivates a global audience like “Monkey” did.

“Monkey,” an adaptation of a Chinese literary classic, “Journey to the West” (“Saiyuki” in Japanese), told of the monk Tripitaka’s adventures as he travels from China to India to retrieve some precious sutras. He encounters a variety of wicked rulers, demons and bandits en route but is protected by his motley retinue: cloud-flying Monkey God, morose ex-cannibal and sea monster (kappa) Sandy and Pig Monster “Pigsy,” an embodiment of gluttony and lust.

The original “Monkey” truly had it all, starting with a cast to die for — the ebullient Masaaki Sakai as Monkey, Japanese national treasure Toshiyuki Nishida as Pigsy (both of whom, nearly 40 years later, are still going strong) and Shiro Kishibe as Sandy. Somewhat unusually, the male priest Tripitaka was played by the beautiful young actress Masako Natsume, who tragically died of leukemia in 1985 at the age of 27 yet still attracts legions of fans today.

Yet even months before broadcast, the Australian remake, “The New Legends of Monkey,” found itself mired in controversy. Back in April, when the production was announced, there was criticism that the leads were not being played by Asian actors, raising concerns of “yellowface” (white actors pretending to be Asian, or in this case, Chinese). However, since three of the central characters in “Monkey” are not humans but lovable monsters, the issue was more nuanced.

The Australian production also has actors of mixed ethnic backgrounds, with Chai Hansen, an actor of Thai descent, in the lead as Monkey and Luciane Buchanan (Tripitaka) and Josh Thomson (Pigsy) hailing from Pacific Island and/or Maori backgrounds.

But hardly had the new production navigated these concerns than another outcry began — American accents! When a trailer for the show was released in the new year, viewers were horrified to discover they spoke not with the British-dubbed accents of the 1970s but with an American lilt.

Yet the truth is that “Monkey” has always been a smorgasbord of international influences and appeal. Far from being classically Chinese, the original show was distinctively Japanese and, when picked up by the BBC, the dubbed dialogue never took itself too seriously, concentrating on being easy-on-the-ear colloquial.

For me and many others of my generation, the show would nurture a lifelong interest in the cultures of China and Japan.

I was a child of 7, sitting in my cousins’ lounge in England, when a TV series called “The Water Margin” appeared on the BBC in 1977. It too was based on a Chinese classic novel and recounted the heroic exploits of outlaws in rebellion against a corrupt government. And like “Monkey,” it was dubbed like a comical spaghetti Western into entertaining if slightly incongruous English.

In 1978, when “The Water Margin” finished, the BBC followed up with “Monkey.” For the kung-fu generation excited by the films of Bruce Lee, here was a home-grown Asian entertainment full of spectacular martial arts sequences. The music (by rock band Godiego), sets, action sequences, characterization and dialogue were all superb.

By the time I encountered “Monkey” on the BBC at the age of 10, I was clear that — although set in China — this was a Japanese show, and one of such color, spectacle and panache that it planted the seeds of an idea in my mind: that this must be a culture worth investigating further.

Given the success of these Japanese series on the BBC and ABC in the late 1970s and early 1980s — at a time when there were only three terrestrial TV channels in the U.K. and two in Australia — an excitable young lad could only imagine that the future would see a veritable profusion of Japanese TV talent.

Yet, astonishingly, “The Water Margin” and “Monkey” were mere blips in TV history. No comparable Japanese live-action series would ever garner such international popularity.

How could this be? Was it that “The Water Margin” and “Monkey” were of a uniquely high quality and international appeal, or are Western audiences less receptive than they once were?

Certainly, “Monkey” has been remade on several occasions in both China and Japan. When Fuji TV rolled out a new version 11 years ago with former SMAP star Shingo Katori playing Monkey (Masaaki Sakai also made a cameo appearance), nostalgia for the original “Monkey” was so strong that reports of the remake featured in numerous Western newspapers.

One factor in the original success of these shows was the scriptwriter David Weir, who adapted them brilliantly. Such a visionary seems to be acutely lacking at the moment: Imported dramas in the West tend to be noirish, samey and ultimately forgettable thrillers with subtitles.

On the Japanese side, part of the success of “The Water Margin” and “Monkey” lies in the fact that they were joyful adaptations of world classics loved but not “owned” by Japanese audiences. The shows were already straddling the considerable cultural divide between China and Japan, attempting to tell thrilling stories in as accessible and entertaining a way as possible.

Japanese dramas can have an astringent aesthetic, with cultural references and acting conventions not readily accessible to international audiences. Japanese TV can also sometimes draw on boisterous kabuki styles that can be equally confusing for Western audiences, but which found a natural home in the color, spectacle and zest for life of “The Water Margin” and “Monkey.”

These days, the seeds of interest in Japan are planted in the minds of young audiences around the world by the limitless universe of anime and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I would still like to believe, however, that there could be a second coming — an eye-catching, vibrant Japanese live-action TV adaptation of a world literary classic, which, like “Monkey,” could be a truly international hit once more.

“The New Legends of Monkey” is now airing on ABC ME in Australia. The series will be released soon in 2018 on Netflix.