ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

ISSN: 1549-6732
Home » Vol. 8 , No. 1 » Articles »

Erotic Grotesque Redemption:[1] Transgressive Sexuality and the Search for Salvation in Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King Volume 1

By Caleb Simmons


When Dark Horse released Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King Volume 1 (henceforth The Monkey King) in English in 2005, it was immediately recognized by many as one of the most violent and sexual retellings of the classic Chinese story of Monkey. In this Japanese retelling, Terada reconstructs the narrative of the Monkey's Journey to the West and introduces an eroticism that far surpasses most previous renditions. As the graphic novel unfolds, the scenes are shown in gruesome detail that inundates the reader into a grotesque sado-voyeuristic experience. Terada re-imagines the whimsical characters are as monstrous, through both words and art, in a way that did not exist in earlier retellings which used other mediums. The sexual acts, which in and of themselves are not novel—as even the Ming versions are replete with sexual encounters—permeate Terada's version; however, in The Monkey King, these acts are portrayed as non-normative and violent in a manner that represents the deeds as transgressive in nature. In this recreation of the ancient narrative, the author intimately links this transgressive sexuality with the ability of the pilgrim-protagonists to achieve redemption for past misdeeds through immediate salvation from a variety of fierce, demonic, and gruesome enemies.


The inspiration for the narrative contained within The Monkey King is derived from the events surrounding the pilgrimage to India by Hsüan Tsang (ca. 596-664), a Tang period Buddhist monk. Upon the historical monk's heroic return, legend and fable arose, which immersed the narrative within a realm of fantasy and adventure. Over time, the story of the Tang mixed with pre-existent folktales of wildly sexual white apes and epic hero narratives. (See Liu Ts'un-yan's 1964 "Prototypes of 'Monkey (Hsi Yu Chi)'.") In the sixteenth century, these tales were synthesized into a one hundred-chapter master narrative titled Xi You Ji or The Journey to the West by Wu Ch'êng-ên (ca. 1500-1582).

By the time Wu Ch'êng-ên had complied and published this epic (in genre and in length) Ming period novel, the emphasis had shifted from the Hsüan Tsang's religious journey to the exploits of the foremost of his four travel companions, Sun Wu-k'ung/Monkey. In Wu Ch'êng-ên's and subsequent retellings, Monkey, an immortal primate, converts to Buddhism to aid the monk in his scripture quest. Along the way, Monkey vanquishes innumerable demons in order to redeem himself of the demerit incurred by his previous rampages on earth and the great mischief he once inflicted on Heaven. Evidence of the shifting emphasis is immediately evident in the beginning of Wu Ch'êng-ên's novel, in which the first eight chapters relate the magical origination of Monkey from a stone egg, his subsequent search for immortality, his accumulation of supernatural powers, and his exploits in Heaven, where he stole the Heavenly peaches of immortality and Lao-tzu's elixir before being imprisoned under Five Phases Mountain by the Buddha. Only one chapter, the ninth, describes the origins of the monk, who was renamed Tripitaka in the novel. (See Anthony Yu's 1975 "Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in The 'Hsi-Yu Chi'.") In fact, the importance of Monkey within the text is so overwhelming that in popular culture the novel and all subsequent tales are simply referred to as Monkey. The monkey and the monk are also accompanied by three additional monsters (Pa-chieh/Pig, Sha Monk/Sand, and the dragon horse), who have converted to Buddhism and aid the monk in order to eradicate previous offenses.

While Journey to the West is considered a Ming classic and has been canonized as such, the narrative has been told and retold through a wide variety of media, including oral traditions, anime, comic books, and film. The stories of Monkey's rebellion are popular children's tales, reiterated from generation to generation separate from the one hundred-chapter tradition, which developed from Wu Ch'êng-ên's original compilation. The massive appeal of the tale of adventure and fantasy transcends national lines: it is widely known in both Japan and Korea and has recently been performed as a rock-opera (in a combined effort from the British musical group Gorillaz and the UK Chinese Ensemble) titled Monkey: Journey to the West. All of this has led to the manifold plurality of Monkey narratives within China and abroad, and it would be an egregious error to assume that the multiple narratives derive from or are folk or popular versions of this classic text. This top-down view of culture is harmful to the full understanding of narrative traditions. Instead, the many Monkey stories act as a hall of mirrors reflecting the cultures and languages from which they originate as well as the other expressions of the narrative. In this essay, I will examine the narrative contained within The Monkey King Volume 1, written and illustrated by Katsuya Terada, as yet another mirror reflecting the tradition of published retellings of Monkey started by Wu Ch'êng-ên.

The Monkey King was originally published as Saiyukiden Daienō in Japanese in 1995 by Shueisha, but translated and published in English in 2005 by Dark Horse. In order to discuss the comic, it is first necessary to situate it within its literary and cultural context. Manga can be divided into several major categories: shōjo (girls'), shōnen (boys'), redizu (ladies'), kodomo (youth), and seinen (adult). Each of the genres have specific aesthetics and styles associated with their format and subject matter, which further subdivide the categories (i.e. romance, sci-fi, eroticism, etc). As Lynne K. Miyake has shown, the genre in which the tale has been created holds a great amount of influence in the construction of a manga. In her 2008 study of various manga versions of the Japanese Heian literary classic The Tale of Genji, Miyake demonstrates that the conventions of the aforementioned categories necessitate a focus on certain subject matter, thus shaping the narrative to fit the audiences' expectations. Therefore, given the content and subject matter, The Monkey King is best classified within the fantasy action subcategory of the genre seinen. Like those in many other seinen, Terada's characters, as I will demonstrate below, are portrayed in an overtly erotic manner that develops the mood and orientation of the narrative, catering to the desires and fantasies of a target male audience.

Terada's The Monkey King is not only a novel seinen presentation of Journey to the West, but also a unique adaptation that develops the story into a Japanese narrative that builds upon indigenous understanding of monsters and demons. In Japanese literary circles, there exists a paradigm for the representation of the grotesque monster or demonic figure, oni. Prior to the modern Japanese period, which is loosely marked by the Showa period, these monsters had been portrayed as completely malevolent figures who sought only destruction within the human realm. However, the burgeoning self-reflection brought about by the moors of a modern globalized world shifted the portrayal of the oni from monster spirit to anthropomorphized beings with desires and emotions similar to those of humans. Many have argued that the re-imagination of these monstrous spirit beings functioned to counteract the growing disillusionment of the world and to preserve the traditional interest in demons and the supernatural within the natural world. (See Noriko T. Reider's 2007 "Onmyōji: Sex. Pathos, and Grotesquery in Yumemakura Baku's Oni.") The modern conventions of representing grotesque monsters inform the humanized qualities of Monkey, whom Terada depicts within The Monkey King as very much a ravenous monster with human characteristics and qualities, though those qualities are completely lacking in humane-ness.

Alternative content

If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. Once installed, Flash will allow you to play the ImageTexT Comics Viewer here in your browser.


The contrasting identities of Monkey make the manga an interesting subject for inquiry. Terada's Monkey is monster and human, Buddhist and iconoclast, friend and foe to the monk, and both transgressive and on a search for redemption. Terada also explicitly constructs duality in the figure of the monk, who upon meeting Monkey is transformed into the hypersexualized sadomasochist nun Sanzo (Figure 1). Terada masterfully structures his creation, highlighting the narrative's duality by arranging the books chapters in non-chronological order. The Monkey King begins with a scene in which the pilgrims already on their journey and Goku[2] (Monkey) beheads a demon in the guise of young girl. The second chapter tells of Sagojo's (Sha Monk) conversion to the Buddhist path after also being beheaded by Monkey. Chapter three is yet another tale of vanquishing a demon. In this scene, as in the first, the demon has taken on the appearance of an attractive young female only to steal away Hakkai (Pig) before Monkey can thrust his golden-hooped rod in her mouth and out of the back of her head. Next, Terada again shows Monkey saving the pilgrims, but this time through the power of transgressive sexual acts with the nun and Pig—to which I will return. Chapter five tells of Monkey, Seiten Taisai,[3] and his rampage of heaven. In this episode, Terada does not portray the mischievous tomfoolery for which Monkey is beloved, but instead constructs a scene in which he terrorizes nude and blindfolded Heavenly nymphs until he eventually bites off one's head in the last frame. The following episode shows more of Monkey's rebellions in heaven: this time, he slaughters a lovely high-ranking Heavenly lady who was trying to seduce him into placation. Chapter seven shows Monkey's capture by the Buddha. Chapters eight and nine return to the pilgrimage and Monkey vanquishing demons. The next chapter brings the narrative back to the period before Monkey's conversion or his imprisonment under the Five Phase Mountain, which continues until he is chained to Gogyosan (Five Phase Mountain) by the Buddha at the end of chapter twelve. The final chapter shows the monk, Genjo Sanzo (Japanese for Hsüan Tsang) freeing Monkey and taking on the form of the nun Sanzo. The chaotic arrangement of scenes reinforces the varying roles of Monkey: the disrupter of Heaven and the guardian of the holy nun/monk. It also forces the reader to try to decipher what is good and what is evil, which can be nearly impossible if the reader is not already familiar with the legend.


The boundaries of normative action are blurred most clearly in the portrayal of sexuality within The Monkey King. Though the entire narrative is replete with sexually vivid imagery, sexual acts serve as a tool through which Monkey and Sanzo overcome evil demons and achieve their ultimate goal in service to the Buddha. Because of time and space restrictions, I will highlight only the episodes from chapters four and eight, which illustrate the power and efficacy of sadomasochistic sex for spiritual advancement.

I have deemed this representation of sexual activity "transgressive" for two reasons. The most obvious is the sadist motif that permeates the narrative. The women are more often than not blindfolded, gagged, and/or bound, and they are always nude. This creates a power dynamic that places the female characters in a position of vulnerability and conjures sado-voyeuristic emotions in the reader, who is assumed to be male given the seinen manga genre conventions. When scenes are overlain with a voyeuristic and sadomasochistic rape fantasy motif, the reader is unsure whether he (my gendered language is intentional) watches a scene of alternative eroticism or sexual assault. Certain episodes (chapter eight) erase the ambiguity, and the act becomes transgressive because, though still an explicit act of violence against the nun, it serves as an effective measure in the pilgrims' ultimate release from danger. The second cause for my usage of "transgressive" is the role of sex within the narrative as it relates to Buddhist monastics. Though the pilgrims are on a quest for spiritual attainment through the acquisition of scriptures, they (Monkey, Sanzo, and Hakkai) all engage in sexual activity, which is strictly forbidden for a monk or nun. Thus, any act of sexual congress in which they are engaged would not only be considered transgressive but an impediment to their journey. However, the sexual activities of Monkey and Sanzo function within the narrative as methods of salvation rather than obstacles to spiritual attainment.

The role of the sexual acts as redemptive is more clear when viewed within the larger context of the narrative; this is especially true of the episode contained within chapter five. This chapter depicts Monkey's birth from the cosmic stone egg, long before his conversion to Buddhism. The chapter functions to introduce the reader to Monkey's trouble background, in which he wreaked havoc on both Heaven and earth. At the moment of his birth, two nude and blindfolded celestial nymphs are attending the egg. As the fully grown and aged Monkey emerges, he does not entertain the seeming sexual advances of the voluptuous creatures.[4] Instead, he immediately rips off the head of a nymph as the chapter concludes. Therefore, within the context of Terada's work as a whole, though there are other times in which Monkey has the opportunity to engage in sexual acts, it is only within the context of the pilgrimage and salvation (both salvation from danger and metaphysical salvation) that Monkey employs transgressive sex as a means of advancement—to which I will now turn my discussion.

Alternative content

If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. Once installed, Flash will allow you to play the ImageTexT Comics Viewer here in your browser.

Chapter four opens with Monkey holding a supplicant Sanzo, wading next to Pig inside the belly of a flesh-made cauldron in which they are about to be distilled into liquor. On the next page, we see two demon fiends, the brothers Ginkaku and Kinkaku who abducted the pilgrims on their journey, plotting how they ought to blend their captives into the wine of immortality. Pig, worried that they will soon be dissolved and fermented, implores Monkey to do something (Figure 2). Following this injunction, Terada breaks from a close-up of a concerned Pig within a small frame to a sidelong gaze of a contemplative Monkey. The next frame shows an even closer view of monkey's face, now furrowed with a plan of action. The next line of frames opens with Money staring at the nun and stroking her exposed breasts as she makes a muffled sound questioning Monkey's actions. Pig, startled by what he sees, objects to this action, but only because of its possible effect on their safety. In the following frame, Monkey slips the gag out of Sanzo's mouth, which is open and dripping with saliva. The final frame of the page focuses closely on Monkey's outstretched tongue, about to lick the breast of the nun. All of this is overlaid with a word balloon, presumably coming from Pig, that reads, "NO! I SAID 'LIQUOR,' NOT — —."

Alternative content

If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. Once installed, Flash will allow you to play the ImageTexT Comics Viewer here in your browser.

The next page opens with an image that takes up nearly half the page, highlighting the erotic nature of the scene (Figure 3). The audience peers at Sanzo, whose legs are spread open, as Monkey touches her genitals, which are covered only by a small drape of her robe. The next frame shows a close-up of the same scene. It focuses on Monkey's face, again furrowed in action, not in amorous romance. The nun's face is mostly hidden from the frame, but the reader can see her fair skin, which contrasts sharply with Monkey's dark features and bright red lips, uttering a moan: "oh." The frame depicts Monkey, his open mouth harboring vicious fangs, screaming "AH!" This frame breaks from the illustration style found throughout the rest of the novel. It is drawn as though light is being emitted in and around the frame, overexposing the act. Additionally, Monkey's form is represented more abstractly: he loses the concrete and realistic qualities as he loses himself in the act, expressing the supernatural dimension of the scene.

Alternative content

If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. Once installed, Flash will allow you to play the ImageTexT Comics Viewer here in your browser.

In the two next images, we find Sanzo bent over as Monkey continues to squeeze her breasts and Pig watches. The next page clarifies what is taking place within the episode (Figure 4). In the third frame, the audience plainly sees Monkey penetrating, possibly raping, Sanzo as an on-looking Pig masturbates, and all three exclaim, "!" Given the laconic nature of the frame and the vague imagery, the meaning of the exclamations is ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder whether the screams are of fear or of pleasure. The exclamations coming from the cauldron are so great the demon fiends open it to investigate, allowing Monkey to escape and slay them both. Immediately afterwards, Sanzo begins chanting the tight fillet spell, which she uses to control the monkey—a supernatural safe-word if you will—forcing Monkey to gag her once more.

In this episode, it is clear that Monkey uses sex as a tool of salvation. He does so first in a very literal sense by using the sounds of their screams to obtain release from captivity within the cauldron. But sex as salvation also has broader metaphysical and soteriological implications for Monkey. Within the broader plot of The Journey to the West, and in folk and popular retellings of the narrative, Monkey has embarked on this journey to India in order to obtain merit to free him of the negative karma that he gained during his exploits into Heaven, depicted in chapters five through seven and ten through twelve in The Monkey King. His good merit can only be achieved by ensuring that the nun/monk safely reaches the palace of the Buddha in the land of India. Thus, Monkey must use whatever means necessary to continue the journey. While this does fit into the Buddhist doctrine of expedient means, which states that a monk can use whatever means necessary to bring people into the Buddhist fold and to help them gain enlightenment, it conflicts with many other versions of the story in which the Tang monk derives his ability to go on the pilgrimage from his retention of his eternal yang or sperm. In many of the other accounts, the female demons seek to take the power latent within the sperm through coitus, while the male fiends seek to absorb the energy by eating the monk. By taking in the monk's power, which has been able to retain its original potency, the demons would achieve immortality instantaneously, represented in this episode by the production of the wine of immortality. Thus, Terada recast the role of sexual intercourse within the narrative from the typical focus on discipline over one's sexual desire to salvation through the enactment of those same desires.

Alternative content

If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. Once installed, Flash will allow you to play the ImageTexT Comics Viewer here in your browser.

In chapter eight, Terada depicts the other mode of consuming the power of Sanzo. Chapter eight opens with Monkey locked in a pillory, with nails driven through his eyes and arms. On the next page, the Ox King demon breathes fire onto Monkey, setting him ablaze. After Monkey is sufficiently charred, the Minotaur turns his gaze on the nun, saying "I THINK I'LL HAVE NUN RAW BEFORE I HAVE HER COOKED! HA HA HA!" In the frames immediately below the demonic threat, Terada illustrates a scene very similar to that in chapter four. In the first frame in that row, the Ox King begins to rape Sanzo while he squeezes the breast of the nun. She attempts to speak from under the gag while Pig looks on. In the next frame, there is a close-up image analogous to Monkey's outstretched tongue, but this time the demon's tongue is making contact with Sanzo's breast. In order to more fully engage his sexual appetite, the fiend removes Sanzo's gag to give her a kiss. With her tongue freed, she begins to place her tongue into the Ox King's mouth while whispering "Namu … " in Japanese characters, which are the first two syllables of the incantation of Amida Buddha (Namu Amida Butsu), the bodhisattva of infinite light and the primary object of devotion and aid within the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist tradition (Figure 5). In the next row of frames, we see her tongue pushing through the back of the demon's head while a supplicant miniature being (presumably either Amida Buddha, whom she is incanting, or perhaps the bodhisattva Gaun-yin, who helps the pilgrims of the narrative along their journey) protrudes from the spine of the demon.

This scene, like the one from chapter four discussed above, shows the soteriological function of sexual activity for the pilgrims. However, we again see that the nun begins in a passive and vulnerable position. The nun, who, like the Tang monk in most other versions, is weak and relies solely on the protection of the disciples, is seized by the demon. This assault provides the nun an opportunity to act. However, her action is not sexualized: it is portrayed as a violent religious act. While she engages the demon, the reader is not privy to the same sexual exclamations Sanzo made in chapter four, but to the chants of a nun. As previously stated, presumably, Sanzo recites the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist mantra Namu Amida Butsu. This mantra is recited in the desire for aid from the bodhisattva Amida (Sanskrit: Amitâbha), the bodhisattva of infinite light, who appears to come to Sanzo's aid as a miniature being thrusting through the skin of the demon. Here, Terada seems to employ the supplicant nature of the mantra, which literally translates to "I bow to the Buddha Amida." At the conclusion of the chapter, Terada refers to Sanzo's incantation as the "Lover's Curse," which connects the nun and the bodhisattva romantically instead of ritually. This ritual confession of submission reflects Sanzo's vulnerable position as the dominated slave-girl/gimp and the author's view of soteriology through amorous endeavors.

However, Sanzo, though the incantor of the Buddha, is not the agent of salvation, but the tool through which it is achieved. In this chapter, Sanzo is not saved entirely of her own volition: it is only after she gives in to the act (returns the kiss) and submits to Amida Buddha that she is freed from the demonic dominator. As the chapter continues, we see that she has not freed herself from danger, and that she remains bound and blindfolded within the perilous abode of other evil forces.

Immediately after the death of the Ox King, his wife charges Sanzo, seeking retribution against the nun for killing her husband. At first, unlike many of the other females portrayed in The Monkey King, the wife of the Ox King is fully clothed in loose flowing robes that do not reveal her body. Terada may treat her differently because, unlike all of the other women in the comic, the Ox King's wife is not a demon, monster, or religious character but a human. However, just before the fearsome woman can behead the bound nun, Monkey leaps from the fire and pulls the villain into it with him. As the woman immolates, she is illustrated by Terada with her robes burnt off and her breast exposed to the reader as she is consumed physically by the fire and sexually by Monkey, who pulls her to him and exclaims, "GRIND THOSE HIPS FOR ME, MADAM. IT'S SO HOT!" Therefore, Monkey once again saves the nun Sanzo through a (non-consensual) transgressive sexual act.


In Terada's narrative, the female characters are nothing if not passive sexual objects within the action of the manga. Whereas in the one hundred-chapter version of the novel and many other tellings, the monk is assailed more often than not by female demons who desire to have intercourse with him, Terada portrays the females as objects that are to be dealt with as Monkey decides. They are bound, gagged, and killed at will. While both versions have certain masculinist agendas (the traditional narrative highlighting the female stereotype as a ravenous sexual being and the Terada version taking away female agency), the graphic novel keeps with certain elements of its seinen genre by hypersexualizing its women, all of whom are depicted as large-breasted and nude, and who lack the agency to act or often even to return the gaze of the on-looking reader who has full access to her body. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the episode in chapter eight, if the female character does act sexually, the act is both desexualized and presented as submission. When Sanzo returns the kiss of the demon, it is not a sexual choice but an attack with her only weapon—her body—through the submission to Amida Buddha.

Terada's The Monkey King Volume 1 was created within the bounds of its literary genre and that context informs the production of salvation that is integral to the narrative's function. The narrative of immediate, future, and infinite salvation is interconnected with the sexual activities of the pilgrims. Prior to becoming a pilgrim through conversion, Monkey does not engage any females in a sexual way: instead, he immediately kills the Heavenly nymphs and the Heavenly lady, even though she only attempted to seduce him. However, once he is on the path to the palace of the Buddha, all of his interaction with women is sexually charged. Thus, Terada's narrative creates a codependence between the transgressive sexuality displayed within the manga and the pilgrims' salvation and redemption. It is only through breaking the boundaries of normative conduct that the villains can be conquered and the path to liberation secured.


[1] My title is a play on the Japanese cultural movement of the 1920s and 30s called "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense" (ero guro nansensu).

[2] Goku is the Japanese for Sun Wu-k'ung, Monkey's religious name given to him when he converts to Buddhism.

[3] This is Monkey's name prior to his conversion.

[4] On page 56, one of the nymphs in particular seems to be leaning toward Monkey's genitals with her mouth open and tongue extended.

Works Cited

Liu, Ts'un-yan. "Prototypes of 'Monkey (Hsi Yu Chi),'" T'oung Pao, Second Series 51.1 (1964): 55-71. Print.

Miyake, Lynne K. "Graphically Speaking: Manga Versions of the Tale of Genji." Monumenta Nipponica 63.2: 359-392. Print.

Reider, Noriko T. "Onmyōji: Sex. Pathos, and Grotesquery in Yumemakura Baku's Oni." Asian Folklore Studies 66.1/2 (2007): 107-124. Print.

Terada, Katsuya. Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King, Volume 1. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2005. Print.

Yu, Anthony C., Ed. and Trans. Journey to the West. Volumes 1-4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Yu, Anthony C. "Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in The 'Hsi-Yu Chi,'" The Journal of Asian Studies, 34.2 (Feb 1975): 295-311. Print.

 © 2015 Caleb Simmons (all rights reserved). This essay is the intellectual property of the author and cannot be printed or distributed without the author's express written permission other than excerpts for purposes consistent with Fair Use. The layout and design of this article is licensed under a Creative Commons License to ImageTexT; note that this applies only to the design of this page and not to the content itself.

All content is (c) ImageTexT 2004 - 2018 unless otherwise noted. All authors and artists retain copyright unless otherwise noted.
All images are used with permission or are permissible under fair use. Please see our legal notice.

ImageTexT is published by the Department of English at the University of Florida.