Monday, June 30, 2014

Ninja Sentai Kakuranger and Journey to the West : a comparative analysis

Ninja Sentai Kakuranger, as a ninja themed sentai with Yokai themed villains, has obviously a Japanese theme. However, it's very striking to notice how Kakuranger has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Indeed, Kakuranger takes a lot of its elements of one of the most important novels of all Chinese literature : Journey to the West.
I must admit that I've not read that major novel and most of my knowledge about the it comes from what I've read on various sites, mostly Wikipedia. However, with that information, I was able to find very striking similarities between Kakuranger and Journey to the West, which i'm gonna detail in that following post :

1) Protagonists

Journey to the West's has four main characters, with very different personalities, who are traveling together on a quest, and must work together to face various obstacles, in order to stay alive for succeeding in their mission. In a sense, Journey to the West can eb seen as an acestor of the "sentai" concept. Those characters are one Buddist monk, who is the wise one, and three disgraced creatures from heaven, who protect him from danger and are his disciples.  Kakuranger's rangers show some similarities, since the leader is a wise princess- like young lady (Tsuruhime) who is helped by a bunch of slacker boys who have to help her in her mission (Sasuke, Seikai, Saizou and Jiraiya).
Except Jiraiya, all the main heroes have a Journey to the West counterpart :

a) Sasuke/Ninja Red and Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) : both are the major characters, arguably the main characters of their respective stories : they are strong, hot blooded, but also wise, and they both are the most important member of the group. Both are arguably the smartest of the group, even if at the start, they are involved in the quest for atoning for a sin ( Sasuke's involvement in the release of the Yokai, and Sun Wukong's various misdeeds in the Heavens). Sasuke is a monkey themed warrior : his mechas are all monkey (or more precisely ape) themed : which indeed fits his Journey to the West counterpart. Sasuke and Sun Wukong also share the ability to clone themselves (even if Sasuke's is just ninjitsu illusion). Sun Wukong and Sasuke both are, among their team, those who are the most able to see through the demonic enemies's deceptions. Sasuke and Sun Wukong  also share character development : they start as pretty medicore character to end up better at the end of the quest.

b) Tsuruhime/Ninja White and Xuanzang : both are the nominal main protagonist of their stories : Tsuruhime is the leader of the Kakurangers, and Xuanzang is the one who receives the mission to go the Dahila Kingdom to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. Since the other heroes of Journey to the West are his disciples, one can argue he is the nominal leader of the group. Both Tsuruhime and Xuanzang are the most virtuous of their group, neither in need for redemption for past sins, or showing sinful tendencies. It's true that they are also very different : Xuanzang is weak, naive and unable to defend himslef while Tsuruhime is skilled in combat and much less naive. However, both need the strength of their companions to face the obstacles in their quest, and defeat the demonic enemies.

c) Seikai/Ninja Yellow and Zhu Bajie : both have pretty much the same flaws: they are lazy, gluttonous and lustful. Indeed, most of the arcs involving both characters in their respective stories involve either their big appetite or their lust towards female characters. Both are also shown to be very strong and able to work a lot if they're motivated enough.

d) Saizou/Ninja Blue and Sha Wujing : both are involved in their mission to atone for a past sin (Saizou releases the Yokai, Sha Wujing for breaking  a vase from heaven). Both are also water themed warriors. However, the similarities pretty stop there, since Sha Wujing is pretty a low profile and polite character, while Saizou is the comic relief butt monkey of the group.

While Jiraiya doesn't have any counterpart, it's interesting to see that the characters both use a vehicle which is actually a supernatural creature : Xuanzang's horse is actually Yulong, a dragon deity while Nekomaru is a sentient  Yokai like cat bus.

2) Supporting characters and antagonists

It's interesting to notice how important deities are in both Journey to the West and Kakuranger : Journey to the West involves the Buddha and gods from the Buddhist and Taoist pantheon, while Kakuranger has its own pantheon, the Sanshinshou, three gods. In both cases, they are important guides for the main character's quest, and they are involved in helping the characters in their quest.

The antagonists of both Kakurangers and Journey to the West are "demons" supernatural beings who want to destroy the main characters for their purposes. In fact, Journey to the West, with its use of plenty of different demons that are eventually defeated by the protagonists, are pretty much an early instance of the "Monster of the week" theme seen in toku, and notably Super Sentai (including Kakuranger). Kakuranger's Yokai and Journey to the West's demons are both based on natural creatures or elements, often animals (most of Journey to the West 's demons are animal themed, while a lot of Kakuranger's Yokai are as well) and both usually disguise themselves as humans to deceive the protagonists. When the heroes face the demons, they are often involved in helping other people from the demons's misdeeds. Some of them show either appetite or lust towards either Xuanzang or Tsuruhime.

3) Storyline and themes

Journey to the West's main quest has two main aims : by retrieving the Buddhist scrolls, Xuanzang hopes to bring back some spirituality in a sinful and materialistic world and his three companions hope to find redemption by helping him. Kakuranger also has as a theme the way the world became too materialistic and mediocre, with today's youth more interested in slacking and messing around than being brave and virtuous. Indeed, Sasuke and Saizou are pretty much flawed characters at the beginning, and they are easily tricked by the Yokai into opening the cave where they were sealed. As such like Su Wukong and his companions, Sasuke and Saozou are forced to fight with a virtuous figure (Tsuruhime) to find their redemption and fix their mistakes. While Kakuranger is more about defeating Yokai, one key arc of Kakuranger also involved retrieving sacred scrolls, the Shinobi scrolls, which are very important to their quest. Journey to the West has the characters travelling trhough Asia, confronting demons as trials in order to fulfill their quest and find the scrolls. Likewise, the Kakuranger are also travelling through Japan, fighting Yokai.
At the end of the Journey, all characters find some enlightenment and have improved comapred to the beginning of the story. And both Journey to the West and Kakuranger have anothe rbig theme in common: the importance of being together to accomplish stuff that couldn't be done if all protagonists were by themselves.
Another important element is the prominence of comedy : both Kakuranger and Journey to the West have a lot of comedic elements, usually related to the main character's flawed behaviour.

I know that this analysis is flawed, because of my limited knowledge of Journey to the West, but even with the few elements I know, the similarities between both works of fiction were enough to be worthwhile of a blog post.
Your thoughts (especially from those who have read Journey to the West)?

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