9.03.2007

TV NOSTALGIA #5: MONKEY MAGIC


Last night I had a dream about Monkey Magic. I’m serious. I dreamt I was the fishy dude Sandy, but (clearly) I was a girl: call me Fish-She Sandy. And I still found Pigsy repulsive. And I could do cool things with a wooden staff (though it wasn’t magical like Monkey’s, and hold the rude jokes please), kind of like Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, if she happened to be a human-fish hybrid.
(Now before I go on, I learned while researching this story that Monkey Magic didn’t originally make it to the US, for copyright reasons. And I must say, you guys were SERIOUSLY missing out. This is the funniest, most ridiculous program EVER to be seen on television. And since I want you to read and enjoy this article, I suggest you preview Monkey Magic – which debuted in 1979 – right now. Here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iUMWy4hqAg. Now read this article. Then go buy or hire the DVDs.)

Ok, back to my story.

I’m a huge Monkey Magic fan, but even I don’t quite understand its appeal.

I mean sure, it’s got the weird, retro, cross-cultural production thing going on: Monkey, filmed in China, is a Japanese adaptation of a 16th-century Chinese story (Journey to the West, tracing the origins of Buddhism), the actors are all Japanese, but the voices are dubbed in English, with bad and generally unidentifiable ‘Oriental’ accents. Oh yeah!

And all of the main characters are monsters. Monkey himself, who hatched out of a stone egg and flies around on mechanical clouds, is the leader of a monkey tribe (go figure). At one time he was guardian of some mythical peaches, but he got greedy and ate them all (can you blame him? everyone loves peaches), becoming immortal but also getting himself imprisoned in a mountain for several centuries for his crime. His companions Sandy (a water monster) and Pigsy (a pig monster) also got in trouble at the same time as Monkey.

Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy were rescued by the priest Tripitaka in AD 630 (Tripitaka is a man, played by a beautiful young woman, I have no idea why), and now they’re all on a pilgrimage to India to find some holy scriptures. Oh and even the horse is a monster: the dragon Yu Lung ate the priest’s first horse, but when it found out who the horse belonged to, it took equine form to carry the she-male priest around.

Got all that?

And if you can’t quite remember (or never knew) the kinds of adventures this motley crew got up to, here’s a reminder. In one episode, they all got swallowed by a fish monster. Inside the monster’s belly, Monkey and Sandy stumbled across a fairy who was complaining that she’d met a pig who tried to molest her (Pigsy had an eye for the ‘ladies’). They asked her if she knew a way out, but when she suggested they might make it out through the rectum, nobody was keen to try. So instead, the fairy threw a big party where they all got drunk, feasted on food the fish had eaten, and disco-danced to the Monkey Magic theme tune. Now THAT’S my kind of party.

When I was little, my mother, brother and I would gather around the television every day after school to watch Monkey together. And we’d mimic the bad Oriental accents throughout afternoon-tea: “Aw, Moms-eay, I ruv you. Canna preese have raisin-toast and hot chocorate again?”

And I do understand why we adored it. It was funny, magical, and there was a quest: classic fiction for children. What I don’t understand is why I and so many others continue to love this ridiculous program well into adulthood. And why my mother even loved it back then.

In Australia, we really embraced Monkey Magic. We gave it a cult following, and in fact it was (and remains) more popular here than in both Japan and the UK. In 2004, the Chinese Year of the Monkey, we even released postage stamps featuring the main characters.

I’ve tried to find out why we loved it so much, but so far, no answers have emerged. The best Wikipedia could do was praise the theme song, but all I remember of the song is: “Monkey Magic, Monkey Magic. Monkey Magic, MonkeyMagIC”. And when you’re competing with “fighting for your rights / in her nylon tights” (thank you Wonder Woman), I really don’t think it can be the theme song that did it.

No, I suspect that the appeal of Monkey relates more to the fact that it’s just, well, weird. And weird people like watching weird stuff. And Australians as a nation tend to be, well, weird.

Consider: Our first police force was a group of 12 convicts who had impressed their bosses. In 2003, our human population officially reached the same numbers as our kangaroo population. Thongs are our footwear, not underwear, so a group of women wearing black rubber thongs may not be as exciting as you’d hoped. Our $2 coins are tiny, but our 50 cent coins are enormous, and dodecagonal. When we say the word “can’t”, people from North America think we’re being VERY rude indeed. We shorten everything – the smaller your nickname, the better you are liked. A Volkswagen van is a combi; sunglasses are sunnies; the afternoon is the arvo; a sandwich is a sanga; sausages are snags … you get the idea. We’re responsible for Crocodile Dundee and we practically deified the late Steve Irwin. Oh and we do weird things with Tim Tams (look them up).

So … Japan’s Fuji TV released a remake of Monkey Magic early last year, managing to pull in one-in-three Japanese viewers for each episode, and selling it across Asia and the UK. But for me, and possibly for a lot of Australians, it’s just not weird enough. I mean, some of the effects actually look realistic. What’s with that?

2 comments:

nitrous.o said...

"Born from an egg on a mountain top.
Spunkiest monkey there ever was,
He knew every magic trick under the sun,
He teased the gods, and everyone and had some fun".
Ah, Monkey!.... The memories. I agree, it was weird Naomi, but it was also just plain fun. The way Monkey zipped around on his cloud, how sleazy Pigsy was, and Sandy!.... well, I remember how they used to rub that metal disc on Sandy's head to get him to do stuff. Actually that was kinda disturbing.
It was a great part of an afternoon lineup, with inspector gadget, the goodies, and doctor who. Hurray children of the 70's and 80's!!!

Sanjay said...

This is very funny picture how so all great guys.