Thursday, 24 March 2011

China | Fiction | The West's Journey To The East For Journey To The West

"My only hope was to be able to return to the Real and attain the right fruit, to cleanse myself of sins and destroy the deviates. How could I know that any elder could be so ungrateful! He cannot recognise any virtuous cause, nor can he distinguish between black and white."

"Tell me," said the Bodhisattva, "a little about the black and white."

I do love Journey to the West. And, as a lover of the bizarre, I do appreciate how out of the four canon classics of Chinese literature, it's grown into the hip Western consciousness more thoroughly than, say, Story of the Stone. Honestly, which is the better hook: the subtle coming-of-age story of Jia Bao-Yu, featuring poetry, the decay of wealth, and a feminised, isolated artificial environment, or a mad romp featuring a monk, a monkey-god, a pig-man and a sand-monster going on an adventure to India to meet Buddha? It fits in so well with our own great comic odysseys (particularly Tom Jones and, to some extent, Don Quixote, with the bickering dependency of Sun Wukong and Zu Bajie mirroring the master-servant pair) and - I'd argue - even surpasses them in terms of invention, ambition and sheer bloody cheek.

But with appropriation, as they say (disclaimer: as I say. I have literally never heard anyone else in the history of the world say, 'But with appropriation comes dilution') comes dilution. I speak not - necessarily - of the Japanese, dubbed-into-English Monkey TV series, nor of Chinese television's two-part adaptation, which I haven't seen but which is apparently very good. Nay, I speak of such gems as The Forbidden Kingdom, the hilariously-quickly forgotten American-produced movie which stole away Su Wukong from the entire story of Journey to the West, and put him into a kung fu battle with some generic baddies instead. Oh, and it also features a young American lad who's magically transported back in time in order to save the day. Oh, and Su Wukong himself is played by Jet Li, perhaps the actor least in the world suited to playing a trickster hero and spirit of undisciplined mischief who finds a new lease of life through religious fulfillment. C'mon - really? Jet Li? Jackie Chan (who even appears in the movie) would have been a far more sensible choice if you desperately needed the actor to be a martial-arts superstar.

Oddly enough, the versions of our heroes who appeared in the BBC Sport adverts for the Bejiing Olympics had more of the requisite vivaciousness to them, as did Damon Albarn's cartoon-and-reality, undeniably-Gorillaz-esque opera interpretation. But the former style in particular - all manga-style leaping and hitting things and kicking and generally representing the free spirit of mayhem rather than, say, a sporting ritual carried out under the watchful eye of a corrupt and repressive power - missed out on the other half of the equation; Su Wukong's attempts towards self-control, which begins as forced control under the yoke of his restraining collar, and which he eventually transcends ('Piggie', of course, Zu Bajie, never succeeds in learning control, remaining a force of lust and indiscipline, and only gains access to a lower level of the heavens in the end).

And then we have Enslaved: Odyssey to the West; for a very short time, a game that was hyped as finally lending credibility to the stealing a classical literary storyline and hiring the 'cool', acclaimed books 'n' movies writer Alex Garland to write it up. (Need I argue that this is not the way to lend credibility to the medium? Particularly when you add in giant machine monsters.) The Wikipedia page says it all - not that Journey to the West doesn't have a lot of fighting in it, but that it's presented in such a dully mathematical, game-y fashion. Piggie doesn't even get his rake.

In combat, Monkey utilizes a staff that doubles as both a close-combat and long range projectile weapon. The staff has two forms of long-range ammunition in the form of power cylinders: orange cylinders used for blast damage and blue cylinders used for stunning foes. Monkey can also stay stationary and charge his staff to use the same stun attack in close-combat. Enemies come in different varieties of combat mech, some of which may have shields and can only be damaged after being stunned while others can't be stunned at all, requiring different approaches to combat.*

But this isn't even the least of Enslaved's problems, which is nevertheless to be credited for trying to do something different without pissing all over Journey to the West. Garland, siding with Monkey-as-free-man rather than Monkey-as-pilgrim, in a Paradise Lost sort of way, shifts the tone, turning the story into an anti-religious tale which ends with Tripitaka (who's called 'Trip', which is actually rather cute) destroying Heaven - which is itself an illusion created by a man called Pyramid who forces his slaves to experience 'happy memories' of a time before the war through psychic headbands, one of which Monkey is himself wearing.

It's all a bit cack-handed and Matrix-like, and it never explores the nature of gaming or of self-discipline as much as it originally intends; Monkey's collar-substitute headband is forced on him by Trip, giving him a geas-like enforced-motivation to tackle the storyline, but it all gets tangled up in the idea of the headband as a brainwashing device rather than a controlling one. Meanwhile, Piggie self-sacrifices in a highly un-Piggie way, and Sha Wujing, the sand-monster, doesn't even get a look-in. Why does Sha Wujing always get ignored? He's the dark horse of the gang.

We do love Journey to the West - but we need to come to terms with the religious elements at its core. Much like Milton's epic, there's a lot of ambiguity - I think I've written before about the fascinating depiction of the afterlife as a highly-structured, stuffy bureaucracy that has no practical defence against chaos (as when a character is resurrected simply by descending into the Underworld and changing the 'death date' in the enormous book that keeps track of such things, or Monkey's many triumphs against the forces of heaven). But the temptation is to see Su Wukong as a free Promethean hero who is unfairly bound by religion as a whole, whereas the book itself draws a fairly firm line between the Jade Emperor's court, which fails to control Monkey, and between Buddha, who teaches him through external discipline to discipline himself.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

*Honestly, mainstream gaming needs to get over the idea that combat is a necessity. Action of some kind is a necessity, sure, but combat isn't. It's become an obsession in some quarters.

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