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Edging Towards Japan: Yearning for vibrant Japanese TV classics

Monkey Magic: Monkey leads his three friends in "Journey to the West" (Photo courtesy of Shizhao)

By Damian Flanagan

    The 1970s Japanese TV show "Monkey" aired in the UK in 1979 and acquired a longstanding cult following. The show was an even bigger hit in Australia and was widely broadcast across Latin America from Mexico to Argentina.

    It was truly a unique event in TV history -- a Japanese TV drama series that conquered much of the world. The only question is: why did it never happen again?

    "Monkey" -- an adaptation of a Chinese literary classic, "The Journey to the West" ("Saiyuki") -- 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 of cloud-flying Monkey God, Pig Monster "Pigsy" -- an embodiment of gluttony and lust -- and morose ex-cannibal and water monster (Kappa) Sandy.

    Masaaki Sakai (1983 Mainichi file photo)
    Masako Natsume (1982 Mainichi file photo)

    The original "Monkey" had a great cast -- the ebullient Masaaki Sakai as Monkey, Japanese national treasure Toshiyuki Nishida as Pigsy and Shiro Kishibe as Sandy. The male priest Tripitaka was unusually played by the beautiful young actress Masako Natsume, who tragically died of leukemia at the age of 27 in 1985, though she still attracts legions of fans today.

    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 fun and easy-on-the-ear colloquial dialogue.

    Its impact on me and many others of my generation was to nurture a lifelong interest in the cultures of both China and Japan.

    Yet, astonishingly, "The Water Margin" and "Monkey" were mere blips in TV history. No comparable Japanese epic series would ever garner such international popularity, despite the fact that today there are scores of content-hungry channels on which they could play.

    Certainly "Monkey" has been remade on several occasions in both China and Japan. When Fuji TV rolled out a new version 13 years ago with then 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 Western newspapers.

    These days it is perhaps in the world of anime and the films of Hayao Miyazaki that the seeds of interest in Japan are planted in the minds of young audiences around the world.

    I would still like to believe, however, that there could be a second coming of an eye-catching and vibrant Japanese TV adaptation of a world literary classic -- and, like "Monkey," that it could be a truly international hit once more.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 3 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

    Profile:

    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. One of the books he authored was "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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