Manga genius Osamu Tezuka drew one of his first hit comics at age sixteen with My Son Goku, his take on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Tezuka revisited the tale of the Monkey King several times over his illustrious career, including his first feature film Alakazam the Great (1960), the zany comedy Goku’s Great Adventures (1967) - which wound up getting banned on account of its foul language! - and this unusual, semi-autobiographical anime that was one of his last works before his untimely death from cancer in 1989.
Divided in two parts, the first recounts the author’s boyhood. Taunted by neighbourhood kids, young bookworm Osamu Tezuka (voiced by Kunikazu Ishii) escapes into flights of fancy, daydreaming he is surfing the skies atop Goku’s magic cloud. He grows up fascinated with insects (Tezuka’s first animation studio, Mushi Productions was named after his pet bug) and by the cinema, especially when his mother (Mari Shimizu) takes him to see Princess Iron Fan (1941), a groundbreaking Chinese animation made by the Wan brothers. Although not a faithful recreation of this vintage cartoon, these scenes capture the impact those lively images must have had on the young Tezuka’s imagination.
Tezuka also strikes up a Cinema Paradiso (1990) style friendship with projectionist Higeoyaji (Kosei Tomita) who encourages him to pursue his dreams. Thereafter the aspiring artist fills sketchbooks with hundreds upon hundreds of drawings, from whence Son Goku (Mayumi Tanaka) himself springs to offer encouraging words. The monkey king continues to reappear at crucial moments in Tezuka’s life.
The Second World War disrupts his youthful idyll. As bombs fall on Tokyo the now-teenaged Tezuka is conscripted as a junior cadet in the army, where he is brutally beaten by his cruel commanding officer for drawing while on duty. Beautiful aspiring actress Kyoko Okamoto (Fumi Koyama) retrieves his manga and offers further encouragement, becoming the young Tezuka’s first love.
Since Tezuka sadly passed away midway into production, the film boasts distinguished co-directors in the form of Rin Taro and Masami Hata. In their capable hands this is a charmingly told story. A treat for Tezuka fans, the film crams a handful of amusing anecdotes about the maestro’s early career but also highlights some tragic events that shaped the staunchly humanistic philosophy that shaped his entire manga and movie output. Excerpts from his breakthrough manga Treasure Island pass by all too quickly and keep a sharp eye out for a small cameo from the Phoenix, the subject of one of Tezuka’s most ambitious works and several movies including the part-live action The Phoenix (1978) and fully animated Phoenix 2772 (1980).
After the tragic events of WWII, the narrative jumps forward to 1959 where a returning Son Goku finds the driven, thirty-something Tezuka well into his prolific career - illustrated with vintage clips from Astro Boy (1962). While on a visit to China, Tezuka finally meets his idol Wan Dai Min, director of Princess Iron Fan and as they walk across the Great Wall of China he tells him about his own science fiction spin on the Monkey King legend.
Whereupon the second narrative begins as space-faring Buddhist monk Sanzo (Kaneto Shiozawa) and his cute monkey girl sidekick Rular (Fumi Koyama again, in a neat conceit alluding to Tezuka’s muse) visit the happy-go-lucky alien planet Sapphire. Its peaceful inhabitants are terrorised by naughty, all-powerful Son Goku who flies down with his friends Hakkai the pig (Toku Nishio) and Sagojo (Hiroshi Masuoka) and trashes the place. Sanzo teaches them a lesson with his challenge to crush a humble seed that grows into a super-strong plant. He then creates the high-tech of equivalent of the magic collar that traditionally keeps Monkey and co. in check.
Tezuka cleverly updates the Monkey King saga for a post-Star Wars audience, delving a little deeper into its Buddhist themes than Dragonball: Curse of the Blood Rubies (1986) though not quite as inventive. Encounters with evil aliens on distant worlds mimic episodes from Journey to the West as the animators craft a charming mix of traditional Chinese fairytales and space opera with ingenious alien flora and fauna, but the narrative does lapse into a series of straightforward battles. The explosive final face-off against the demon god Gyu-mao (Kenji Uchiumi) is notable in that for once Goku lies unconscious while other characters save the day. Tezuka typically includes a tragic self-sacrifice that may have traumatized a few children but was intended to teach a lesson on life, death and karma. Son Goku is much like Tezuka’s young audience, rowdy, undisciplined but bright, intelligent and full of potential.