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.

Sun Wukong
this will make sense in one second

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.

RWBY version, something seems a little different

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.

what’s “Seiten Taisei” about you ask? – you are gonna love this

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.

yup, also Son Goku

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!

slight overreaction, it wasn’t even that fun a party or anything

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….



38 thoughts

  1. I remember hearing Goku character was based on the Monkey King from Journey to the West. It’s interesting when we look at the similarities like the nimbus cloud and pole and poses.

      1. I know, right? I was very surprised. Especially since the library system here in Las Vegas is very good. I mean, I can find books in actual Japanese… so why not these? It seems like they would be here if they are important enough to be taught in school.

        1. They’re really considered great classics of eastern lit. Could they be under their original titles?

  2. Really enjoyable and informative post! I’ve had a copy of Journey to the West for years now, but never go around to reading it.. maybe I need to amend that…

  3. I’m with wingking78 – I devour Saiyuki (well, what I can get of it in this day and age) but never got into Dragon Ball. The original manga was pretty crass…but not as much as Naruto was in the very beginning…

    (On a similar note, I studied Medea one year. Let’s just say its ending is really…something…in the best way possible.)

    1. This probably says more bout me but I have the first 40 volumes of Naruto staring at me right now (in French) and never found it particularly crass. Naive sure…
      I’ve only seen bits of DB here and there. I remember the team4star retelling much better than the actual show.

      1. My definition of “crass” is probably around what your idea of “naive” is like then, considering I have a low tolerance of toilet humour and think the defacing of monuments “for fun” isn’t really something that should be condoned (but that’s just speaking as someone who’s seen my fair share of unwanted graffiti).

        The only things I really know about DB are pop-cultural osmosis things like “It’s over 9000!”, to be honest…

        1. See I think of grafitti as art. I have even paid rather dearly for works from my favourite grafitti artists… But then again the monuments are art too.

          I don’t remeber either toilet humour or a defacing scene in Naruto. I remeber a lot of sit ups. Maybe I should reread it at some point

          1. I probably exaggerated too much by counting graffiti of poop as toilet humour (and this is from a vague memory, as I tried it years ago)…but I clearly remember in the first few pages there was graffiti of the 4 monument heads in Konoha village (which probably have a better name).

            1. It’s possible, like I said, I mostly remember him strapping himself with a belt to the bed to do sit ups. For some reason this really stuck with me…

          2. There was that part of episode 3 (dunno the manga chapter) right after team 7 were assigned together where Naruto drank some spoiled milk and has to keep running to the bathroom. And later on when he accidentally farted on Kiba during their chunin exam fight. Those are the two toilet jokes I can think of off the top of my head.

        2. In reply to magicconan14 (Aria) (just in case this pops up in another place I don’t want it again), what’s crass? I’ve never heard of that word before.

          1. @Brooke – Google def.: “(adj.) showing no intelligence or sensitivity.”

            @Irina – Tiramisu’s fine according to the 3 eps I’ve seen of it..I’ve heard there was a talking pubic hair (!!!) though and that definitely crosses my threshold of…whatever humour that is.

            1. The first season is mostly toilet humour. Gleeful toilet humor but very childish. At least it’s not pretending to be something it’s not.

      2. I don’t think I like the sound of the character so far but I try not to judge a book by it’s cover most of the time… I’m just tired & depressed today………………………..

  4. There’s this anime I dimly remember that sounds a lot like what you’re describing. I’ve never read the Journey to the West and am only marginally aware of the story, but I always felt that that anime might have been pretty close to the source, but I coudn’t check because I couldn’t remember the title and googling stuff like Monkey King and anime is… well, let’s say you get a lot of results and I never cared that much.

    I think it was a half-length show (around ten minutes). The monk had an androgynous shoujo design (blond and blue-eyed), and there were quite a lot of BL jokes around him. The Monkey King himself was a squat figure (with a rather typical closed-eyes disign), and he’d be extremely shrewed and perceptive but was easy to trick if you appealed to his ego or greed. I barely remember anything else, so looking for it is… hard.

    Maybe someone knows the show?

          1. No, it looks way more anime. A lot deliberate genre clichés in the design.

            Anime Planet to the Rescue: it’s Patalliro Saiyuki.

  5. Wait, you got to read Journey to the West in school? That’s cool! I would’ve loved that kind of assignment. Most of our assigned reading for school was really boring; if I never read another John Steinbeck novel again it’ll still be too soon. I finally bought Romance of the Three Kingdoms as an ebook and read it about five years ago.

    And I may be one of the only people on the planet who’s watched Saiyuki and not watched Dragon Ball.

      1. Three Kingdoms is…thick. There are a ton of characters to keep track of and a lot of different story strands woven through it, with all of the political intrigue and wars and alliances and betrayals and everything else that plays out. It’s almost like reading an oriental Game of Thrones, but if you like that kind of thing, it’s really good.

    1. ……………….. He looks a bit like a gorilla or a monkey to me…………………….

      1. Have you not seen the original sketches for dragon ball?
        XD He had to change them because her was almost plagiarising this particular version.
        it’s a very popular show with some very famous Japanese actors (1978-1980).

Leave me a comment and make my day!