The Monkey King shouldn’t be cute. He’s a raging id, a shameless and dangerous trickster. He embodies Lewis Hyde’s definition of the trickster as “ridden by lust” and driven by “hyperactive sexuality.”
“Monkey…bears traces of an older lusty beast whose hungers might lead Ghandi himself to buy a gun,” Hyde writes in Trickster Makes This World. “In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser.”
The brilliant vision of the Monkey King by Katsuya Terada takes this aspect of the famous Asian myth and blends it with equal parts Conan the Barbarian, Heavy Metal, and ero guro. There are also elements of the myths of Prometheus, Loki and Lucifer (among others), and perhaps even some Planet of the Apes, for if nothing else, Terada’s Monkey King is one damned and dirty ape.
It’s bracing work, muscular, kinky and bloody; a gorgeous, fully-painted work of manga, the first volume of which was published in 2005 by Dark Horse. The book states that it’s the first of a trilogy, and according to the Anime News Network, the second volume should be out soon.
In a recent essay, “On Myth,” mythographer and cultural historian Marina Warner discusses work by Jorge Luis Borges, where he “praises the murmuring exchanges of writers across time and cultures, and points out that the more literature talks to other literatures, and reweaves the figures in the carpet, the richer languages and expression, metaphors and stories become.”
“Writers don’t make up myths”, she writes. “They take them over and recast them.”
With The Monkey King, Terada seems to weave Eastern and Western myths, as well as fantasy pulp and manga. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s Conan, especially Frank Frazetta’s book covers, and the Marvel Comics drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema.
The first volume of Terada’s tale follows the Monkey King as he begins his journey to the west with his surreal band of companions, which include a pig, a severed head, and a nun bound in fetish gear. She represents the traditional (male) character of Tripitaka, and the reasons for the gender switch (and the bondage) comes near the end of this volume.
Along the way, we witness the birth of the Monkey King from a stone, and his epic battles with the Buddha, who chains him to a rock for 500 years. Terada reinterprets and reinvigorates well-known elements from the Journey to the West, including the classic story’s allegorical side.
“[Just] as was true of many lurid and picaresque tales of medieval Christianity, such as The Canterbury Tales or Sir Gowther, readers of Journey to the West could always defend reading the exploits of The Monkey King…as a fundamentally moral exercise,” writes editor Carl Gustav Horn in a fascinating and thoughtful afterward to Terada’s book. “No matter how much hell the Ape raised, it was all part of an eventual road to enlightenment. But…it’s a mighty long road.”
This is a fundamental aspect of Journey, which made its most notable appearance in English in a 1942 translation by Arthur Waley, who wrote: “Monkey is unique in its combination of beauty with absurdity, of profundity with nonsense. Folk-lore, allegory, religion, history, anti-bureaucratic satire, and pure poetry—such are the singularly diverse elements out of which the book is compounded.”
A drastically abridged version of the story, Waley’s work is possibly the most literary-minded of the English translations. David Kherdian’s 1992 retelling, Monkey: A Journey to the West, covers more of the original’s 100 chapters, and heightens the playfulness and picaresque nature of the tale, while maintaining its allegorical elements. In both translations, the journey is meant to describe the difficulties and battles a person must face on the way to enlightenment
“The many demons and monsters encountered along the way can be seen as projections of the mind; once delusion is conquered these obstacles disappear and the goal is attained,” states the forward to Kherdian’s work. “Indeed, the entire journey can be seen as a spiritual allegory of the struggles of self-cultivation and the accumulation of merit on the spiritual path.”
As interesting and valuable as those versions are, they seem downright flaccid and stale (even new-agey) next to Terada’s beast. His version returns a sense of danger and taboo to the myth, and fits well with Lewis Hyde’s descriptions of the trickster figure as a “speaker of sacred profanities.”
“We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction,” Hyde writes.
Terada’s Monkey King crosses every line possible. He sees himself as equal to the Supreme Being. “Do as you like,” he tells the Buddha, “but you smell the same as me…and someday you too shall be slain.” This places Terada’s work in a continuum of Monkey King stories.
In Khardian’s version, the Monkey King’s showdown with the Buddha conveys a similar sentiment: “Why should Heaven have but one master, when on Earth king follows king? If might is honor, then none are mightier than I, or more honorable. This is why I dare to fight, for only heroes deserve to win and rule.”
Waley has this speech take the form of a poem that Monkey recites to the Buddha: “The strong to the stronger must yield precedence and place,/Hero is he alone who vies with powers supreme.”
A final comparison: even though their stories appear to be drastically different, there seems to be a sort of kinship between Terada and Gene Luen Yang, who tells a version of the Monkey King’s tale in his acclaimed graphic novel, American Born Chinese. His version of the Buddha battle concludes with Monkey saying, “I don’t care who you say you are, old man. I can still take you.”
One significant place where Terada appears to stand apart from other popular versions of the Monkey King is in his use of sex and violence (which borders on phantasmagoria and grand guignol), but this places him squarely into the tradition of classic trickster tales.
As Lewis Hyde explains: “Monkey is known as the Monkey of the Mind, a phrase that echoes an old Buddhist image for the restless mind (leaping from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from bough to bough) but also echoes the colloquial expression, ‘a mind like a monkey,’ which, at the time Journey was written, denoted someone possessed by sexual desire.”
This sense of transgression, rule-breaking and boundary-crossing adds a fascinating element to the myth. As well as being an allegory for spiritual transcendence, it becomes clear that this can also be a way of looking at human imagination.
“Creative mobility in this world requires, at crucial moments, the strategic erasure of ethical boundaries,” Hyde writes. “They lose that mobility who cling to beauty, or who suffer from what the poet Czeslaw Milosz has called ‘an attachment to ethics at the expense of the sacred.’”
Appearing every other Monday, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.