Press Archive

Animerica March 1998 (Volume 6, Number 3)

The Monkey King

How the legend of the simian sovereign fits into Dragon Ball

As Akira Toriyama explains, Dragon Ball hero Son Goku was modeled on the legendary hero of the same name.1 The protagonist of the beloved Chinese saga “Journey to the West” (also known as “The Monkey King,” or, simply, “Monkey”), this prince of primates has been a familiar figure to generations of children in both China and Japan. But the resemblance runs more than fur-deep, as the original Dragon Ball storyline itself parallels the folk tale in question.

Aside from a few telltale simian characteristics and his prodigious strength, young Son Goku has little in common with the Monkey King of legend. Like his model, you could say he was born from a stone egg (or a spaceship…), and he also employs a magical cloud for long-distance transportation. But whereas the original Son Goku turned Heaven and Hell upside down with his mischievous shenanigans before Buddha himself put the long arm of the law on him, Toriyama’s cheery hero was no trouble at all after a bump on the noggin knocked all the Saiyan fighting spirit out of him.

When Bulma and her Dragon Ball quest enter the picture, however, the mythological references come fast and furious. In the original tale, Buddha released the rebellious Monkey King from centuries of imprisonment so that he could help a Chinese monk make a pilgrimage to India to obtain sacred sutras; substitute Bulma’s scavenger hunt for the divine errand, and an endless supply of capsuled cars for the monk’s magical horse, and we have ourselves an analogy.

The legendary parallels are also manifested in Bulma’s choice of traveling companions. Like her monastic predecessor, she is joined by a pig-headed ne’er-do-well and a savage bandit (though our Yamcha is a desert brigand rather than a river-dwelling sea monster). And since Toriyama’s Goku is so well-behaved, it’s the porcine Oolong who gets the special disciplinary gadget.

Once Bulma’s odyssey has been completed and the Dragon Ball saga continues on its martial-artistic way, the mythological parallels pretty much come to an end. But then again, the further adventures of the original Son Goku were never recorded; perhaps he ended up on the tournament circuit, too.

Mark Simmons

The following historical notes are included for the benefit of the reader as supplemental information and were not originally published in the book.

1 The monkey king is given the name 孫悟空 (Sun [a double-meaning with “grandchild” and “monkey] Wukong [“awakened to emptiness” or “aware of vacuity”]) by his first master, Subodhi. These same Chinese characters are used and read aloud in Japanese as “Son Goku”.
Transcription & Notes: VegettoEX