Sun Wukong, who was born from a magic stone, has been imprisoned underneath a mountain for five centuries for his mischief in the heavens. One day, the Diety Guanyin told Wukong that the Monk Tangsen will set him free, and Wukong will join him on a pilgrimage from China to India. The next day, Xuanzang came and set him free, and the two started their Journey to the west. Along the way, they meet two new friends, Zhu Bajie and the Hermit Sha Wujing who joins them on the journey; together, they face many dangers and evil creatures and sorcerers and learn to get along.
This show was key in introducing my childhood self to ancient Chinese mythology, culture and literature. It made one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels” extremely accessible to a younger audience. I swear China has at least one new modern adaptation for “Journey to the West” every year (what can I say – we all love it!), but this cartoon remains one of the best. The original story remains a huge influence for modern media, from Dragon Ball, to RWBY, to League of Legends.
This review will be a blend between my impression of this show as a young child first experiencing it and as a
young adult revisiting it.
It’s a classic story that works really well for adaptation purposes: it has a huge expansive world, a wide cast of characters firmly cemented in something the audience already knows (in this case, classic Chinese mythology), a tale of unlikely friends banding together to achieve a great goal, dynamic and round characters who all have their own extensive past, a huge variety of obstacles and villains to conquer, etc. These are the hallmarks of great adventure stories, and are common elements in successful stories today as well.
The story structure is familiar; there is one big overarching adventure with a huge goal that the protagonists slowly approach, and smaller arcs with different antagonists and supporting protagonists. It’s a narrative structure that has withstood the test of time, and one that is used by modern stories (like shounen) over and over.
Now that I’m older I can recognize and appreciate these themes, but honestly as a little kid I just had a blast feeling like I was a part of the adventure and friends with the characters, defeating all those who stand in our way and being badass. When you watch this, you can read into it deeper and delve into some Chinese myth, history, and culture to enrich your experience, or just enjoy this as an easy-viewing fun filled adventure. Both work well for this show.
This is something I couldn’t really appreciate as a child, but watching the cartoon recently, I can see the limitations in traditional animation from the 90s. Keeping that in mind as the basis of judgement, I think the quality is wonderful. The character designs really captured the personality the cast. The way the characters move also represents their personality. The background art is beautifully coloured and detailed. The animators did a wonderful job of translating traditional Chinese art into a modern cartoon – not only representing the fashion and architecture of the time, but also drawing inspiration from classic Chinese paintings.
This story is filled with action, and the fight scenes are dynamically animated. You won’t find any lame freeze frame character glamour shots with a blurry background whizzing behind them here. The characters move fluidly and the hits have weight. Due to the nature of the character’s powers, the fights are especially flashy.
The opening and closing themes are absolutely iconic. I still know them by heart after almost two decades. The background music is great at communicating different moods, particularly comedy and tension.
The voice acting is solid and all the actors sound exactly the way the characters should. After over 50 film/television adaptations of this story, there are specific voices people associate with the cast, and this cartoon does all of them very well. (Note: I have only ever seen the Mandarin version. I only just found out there is apparently an English dub, though I’ve never managed to find it. I recommend trying the Mandarin version with subs. I checked out a bit of it and the translation seems to be as accurate as a Chinese to English translation can get.)
This show begins with the origins of Sun WuKong, establishing him as the main focus of the show. I think WuKong might be the original “overpowered protagonist”. Out of the main cast of 4 (or 5 if you count the horse), he is without a doubt everyone’s favourite. One of the simplest pleasures of life is watching a lovable character become stronger and stronger, and outsmart and defeat their enemies in spectacular ways. The other characters also have interesting pasts that are depicted in the show (even the horse), but there is no doubt WuKong is the star. He has been many people’s childhood hero (including me for sure).
A lot of WuKong’s personality and powers can be seen in modern shounen anime (Goku and Naruto for example). He is the original lovable hotheaded but trustworthy and playful guy with incredible skills who is always fighting for what’s right and defending his friends. Without a doubt, Journey to the West has been a huge influencer of Eastern culture and media. Because this story draws so much from Chinese mythology, I could recognize characters from other stories I’d heard, and connect everything in my mind to form a richer narrative. Foreign audiences may lose this layer of detail, but the characters are strong enough on their own that this won’t detract much from your experience.
I was completely enamored with this series when I was growing up. I would watch the whole thing endless on repeat with my box set of DVDs. One day recently I was feeling particularly nostalgic and watched it again for old time’s sake. I wasn’t completely mind blown and rendered motionless by pure wonder like I was as a kid, obviously, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a surprising amount of detail and subtlety that I realized I had missed as a kid, which makes me believe that an older audience can enjoy it as well.
If I was still 5 years old I would give this show an 11/10. Nostalgia often clouds people’s vision when judging something they loved as a kid, but I genuinely think this is an unbiased review. For this one show that I loved as a kid that I still love now, there are dozens of other shows that I have tossed out of mind.
Watching this show at my current age, I can see how the animation may feel outdated, or how the plotline and characters may feel too simple for a more mature audience. Its also very possible that someone with no background in Chinese culture or mythology will find some parts of the plot or characters harder to understand. This story is built upon a lot of established myths and deities, and doesn’t always explain things in depth. A significant amount of cultural significance is lost without this background knowledge, but even without it, a foreign audience can still appreciate this show and perhaps even use it as a starting point to learn more about Chinese culture. The fantasy world this show builds is strong enough on its own to stand as an independent work of art.
This cartoon or “dong hua pian" is still viewed as an example of great classic Chinese animation, and it has played a role in being the predecessor of the all the successful elements of adventure stories. Of course, it's also just good fun to watch, and easy to take in.
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