What do you think of when you hear the name Son Goku? Don’t answer that, I already know exactly what you think of. It’s my header gif. You think of DBZ like any normal little otaku would. And I don’t blame you at all, he’s by far the most famous anime Goku I can think of as well. But Son Goku is actually a pretty common “name” or personality in the anime industry. You’ve seen references to him in Persona and and a whole slew of Capcom games. He’s a main character in Saiyuki and a recurring one in RWBY. There are mentions and tributes to him in HxH, Digimon, Naruto and countless other shows.
And yet it seems not everyone is familiar with the origins of Son Goku. I figured it may be fun to explore those together, today.
Son Goku is in fact the Japanese reading of Sun Wukong, a classic Chinese folklore legend. And like most traditional folk tales, his is completely bonkers. Of course I love it! The character is most commonly known from the epic tale Journey to the West, a 16th century novel considered one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels and therefore something I had to read in school.
For the record I only read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West but I like them both quite a bit so I should pick up the other two at some point.
Long story extremely short and almost unforgivably vulgarized, Journey to the West is a buddy comedy road trip about a Buddhist monk on a quest to recover some sacred texts and his three supernatural companions. Sun Wukong is chief among said companions.
First, it really should be said that originally Goku is a Monkey. The Monkey king in fact. Or at least something Monkey like. You see, it seems Goku was “born from the earth”. As in he was born from a magic stone and his body may be more mineral than animal. As a result, he’s both incredibly strong and ridiculously resilient. He basically roams around his mountain for a while, getting to know all the creatures there and eventually declares himself “Handsom Monkey King”. Gotta love this guy. I’ve always said that there’s no need to wait around for other people to call you pretty.
These are magical mystical olden times mind you and Sun Wukong’s mountain is inhabited by demons and spirits. The Jade Emperor himself resides fairly close by. As such, Wukong’s influence starts being felt all over and he eventually becomes a powerful demon in his own right. At this point, he figures he needs a bit more swag so he sets out to find himself some sort of worthy regalia. After causing some ruckus with an assortment of dragons he ends up with an assortment of magical treasures that give him various powers and his trusty, golden rimmed, 8 ton staff to smash whoever happens to annoy him.
You may have picked up by this point that Wukong or Goku is sort of a carefree troublemaker and a bit of a badass. Not necessarily the image you had in mind of the lovable, if slightly slow hero. Well stick around, we haven’t gotten to the good part yet.
So now that he’s all decked out, our little monkey friend makes his way back to the mountain and basically forms a powerful alliance with other similar supernatural beast lords, living in decadence and luxury until the day he dies.
You suspect there’s more to the story don’t you. I mean, the post goes on for quite a bit after all. You are right!
When Hell comes around to collect his soul (He is a demon after all) instead of reincarnating like a good boy, Goku (I realize I’m changing the name nonstop and it may be hard to follow, but it’s going to get much worse) sneaks off and erases his name from the Book of Life and Death along with the names his monkey posse (hiding them from death itself). So at this point, he is grating on a lot of people’s nerves and having had enough, both the Dragon Kings and the Rulers of Hell end up filing a complaint with the Jade Emperor. I love a nice dose of bureaucracy in my epic supernatural legends. I can’t help imagining a huge white gleaming Chinese dragon all hunched over a desk with little half-moon glasses, grumpily trying to figure out if he’s completed all the required paperwork and whether he missed a signature somewhere.
The Jade Emperor was always an unusual guy. – I am so sorry for how irreverent I am being, I mean absolutely no disrespect and I assure you I am very fond of this story. It was written with a lot of warmth and humour in fact and I am recounting it in the same spirit. – His idea to deal with Sun Wukong was to give him an official place in Heaven hoping this would steady him. That he would essentially rise to his post. Unfortunately, the position in question was more or less stable boy, the lowest possible rank, and all it did was piss him off.
At this point, Goku decides to throw a monumental hissy fit. First off he gives himself the title “Seiten Taisei” which means “The Great Sage, Heaven’s Equal” (his tendency to give himself super pompous titles is one of my favourite things about the character, I’m sad we never really see that trait in his many adaptations). Then he lets the cloud horses all loose, and goes on a rampage. Heaven placates him again by giving him the much more important job of protecting the Heavenly Peach Garden (which has the peaches of immortality) and things settle for about 5 seconds until he gets left out of a party and goes apeshit again. Of course.
This time, he goes way beyond just making a scene. After eating a bunch of magical food (peaches included) and drinks he goes for all out bloody rebellion against heaven and makes a real good show of it before they finally manage to capture him. The guy may be a petulant pest but he is strong!
After failing to execute him a number of times, the powers of heaven finally decide to imprison him under a mountain where he remains for 500 years. At that time, a young monk called Tang Sanzang, is about to depart on a pilgrimage to retrieve some sacred sutras and Wukong offers to go with him as a servant and protector in exchange for his freedom. The monk accepts, despite everyone telling him he must be cuckoo crazy pants to take such a handful along with him, and Journey to the West begins.
Yeah, that’s just the preamble. The character’s backstory before the main event. Told you it was a wild ride. And I skipped over a lot! When we come across reimagining of the Goku character in media, we occasionally see some signs of his Monkey nature and often his outrageous strength but not so much of his actual character.
Although mostly a trickster, Goku can be and often is quite terrifying in his own right. He is a conqueror in many ways. Like most trickster gods, he tends to be selfish and short sighted although some tales do show him in a more magnanimous light. He does have a redemption arc but as all his failings are entirely (and enthusiastically) of his own making, it’s easy to think that he could decide to just make some more trouble for everyone whenever the mood strikes him.
It’s a bit of an odd choice to use as a template for a heroic white knight type of character and maybe that’s the point. Even without stating it, representations of Son Goku bring with them an element of whimsy and duality. They cannot be entirely trusted or taken at face value. They are impulsive and occasionally brash. It’s in their very nature and therefor, the narrative doesn’t need to establish it any further. Adding this layer of personification to it has always made Dragon Ball’s Goku a much more interesting character in my eyes. I hope it adds a little something for you too, next time you come across a Son Goku or Sun Wukong, or Handsome Monkey King… or Seiten Taisei….