Broadcasters in a spin as Monkey swings back to TV
From Leo Lewis in Tokyo
RIDICULOUS sideburns, preposterous sets, a fighting stick that can shrink to fit inside the human ear and a faithful sidekick called Pigsy. For the whole of Japan, and a generation of British fans, it can mean only one thing: Monkey is back.
Fuji Televisionâ€™s bold and expensive project to remake the most successful Japanese television drama of all time has broken records: the new version of Monkey is the first to glue one in three Japanese viewers to each episode of the season.
The remake has generated a stir around the world. Companies in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are jostling to buy the rights to the new show and inquiries are pouring in from China and Malaysia.
For the British Monkey faithful â€” and there is a generation now in its 30s who fell in love with the comically dubbed version shown on BBC Two in 1981 â€” there is even better news. An undisclosed British television company has secured the rights to the new 11-episode run and is expected to air it this year.
Fuji Television has given its remake every chance of success, the most significant decision being to cast Shingo Katori in the bombastic role of Monkey. Katori, one of the five singers in the group SMAP, is among the most bankable stars of Japanese drama and, as an exclusive glimpse of his rehearsals revealed, is extraordinarily skilled with Monkeyâ€™s legendary Nyoibou fighting stick.
â€œThere is a major difference between my Monkey and the old one,â€? Katori said. â€œMy Monkey is spiritually more Punk Rock than the old one.â€?
But the 2006 remake is still a massive gamble for Fuji Television. Even in Japan, where traditional samurai stories and fairy tales are endlessly made and remade by competing television companies, Monkey is a story that nobody has touched for more than 25 years.
The reason is simple: the 1979 television version of the centuries-old Chinese adventure myth is seen by many as the peak of Japanese drama. You may have been able to see the supporting wires in a few shots, and the rocks always looked fake, but the excessive fantasy romp will be very hard to beat.
Monkey purists may be upset with the new version. The opening scene of each old Monkey episode retold the legend of his birth from a stone egg on a mountain-top. â€œThe nature of Monkey,â€? shrieked the excitable narrator in the British dubbing, â€œwas irrepressible!â€? That scene will not appear in the remake, nor will the incident in which Monkey achieves immortality by gorging himself on 9,000-year-old peaches.
The old Nippon television version, made in 1979 and starring the heart-throb of the day, Masaaki Sakai, had everything: lavish magic effects, jokes that worked on two levels, farce, fighting and an appallingly catchy theme tune â€” Monkey Magic.
Yoshihiro Suzuki, the producer, has at his disposal a host of digital and special effect technologies that his predecessors did not. But he has used them sparingly so that the emphasis is on the characters. There are even places in the new version where more sensitive audiences may be moved to tears, he claims. But he has made one key exception in the magical cloud Monkey uses to transport himself for great distances.
â€œI hated the old one: it looked like a box on wheels,â€? said Mr Suzuki. â€œThe new one is like a snowboard swooshing around the sky.â€?