Saiyuki is the third feature length animated film from Toei studios, directed by Taiji Yabushita, Daisaku Shirakawa, and Osamu Tezuka. Not only historically important as an example of Japanese animation, Saiyuki also inspired Osamu Tezuka -- then a highly respected Manga-ka whose manga adaptation of Wu Cheng’En’s Journey to the West was the source of this particular animated film -- to try his hand at studio animation. This, as many a basement dweller will tell you, led to “Kimba the White Lion” and “Astro Boy,” which in turn became the model for televised animation, which in turn became the basis for the now ubiquitous Japanese animation style known as anime. The point: Saiyuki is an important movie.
Alakazam the Great is a different story.
Oh, yes, it is important in the sense that it is pre-“Speed Racer” and “Astro Boy” Japanese animation localized for the American market. However, it is not in any way a sterling example of the localization process. In a sense, it commits the sin anime fans and even video game fans have railed against for years: it westernizes the material with little regard for the original writer’s intent or for how bizarre it might seem to those previously familiar with the content. On the other hand, Osamu Tezuka didn’t adapt Journey to the West with much in the way of sensitivity or reverence, and the film version of his manga reflects that. Alakazam the Great represents yet another step further away, a customization of a copy of a customization of the original.
While the images tell the story of Sun Wukong (or Son Goku, as the Japanese would have it) ascending to the throne of Happy Land, battling with the Jade Emperor, losing to Buddha etc, (it covers the same portion of the story as Chan Jun-Leung’s New Pilgrims to the West) the dialog tells a fairly similar story about a monkey named Alakazam. Buddha is now known as Amo, the Bodhisatva Guan Yin as Amas, and Tripitaka as Amat -- the son of Amo and Amas. The daoist from whom Monkey learns martial arts and magic now goes by Merlin, and nobody makes mention of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Mohism, or Dualism.
Not all of the modifications to the plot happened in the dubbing process. Osamu Tezuka invented a significant other for Wukong, not localization director Lee Kresel. She’s an annoying character, and I’m unsure what purpose she’s meant to serve. The appearance of Hercules is not a contrivance of the dubbing team either. It’s a part of the original version.
Forgiving the people hired by American International Pictures to westernize Saiyuki for doing just that, one is left with a flawed animated film with a cast of capable vocal talent. The flaws in the English dubbing include songs performed by Frankie Avalon and Dodie Stevens. Lacking in energy, the songs feel out of place and kill the otherwise manic pace. One also assumes that footage was excised when it appears, quite randomly, that Alakazam’s lady-friend DeeDee has taken ill. The flaws in the original picture include the problems endemic to all adaptations of The Journey to the West. So much ground must be covered for a ninety minute movie, that pacing almost always becomes an issue. Television usually alleviates that problem (but causes plenty of others) and there are an absurd number of serials based on The Journey to the West. Also, Osamu Tezuka’s fondness for anachronism might not put off everybody, but the appearance of televisions, phones and police sirens (and Hercules) is probably jarring, if not irritating for those less than familiar with his idiosyncrasies.
Really, though, credit is due. The animation is ambitious. It’s fluid, and doesn’t look like generic anime, because there wasn’t such a thing at the time. Looking at Toei’s first film, released in the US as Panda and the Magic Serpent, the leap in technical mastery is striking, particularly the scene where Alakazam plays matador with the Bull King. Also worth mentioning is that AIP didn’t just slap together the reworked script or dub. Hiring real talent like Sterling Halloway (best known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh) and comedian Jonathan Winters -- who actually does Pigsy quite well even in spite of renaming him Sir Quigley Broken Bottom -- ensures that the dubbing is high above AIP’s usual standards seen in Italian muscleman and Japanese kaiju flicks. Speaking of which, Peter Fernandez, the voice of Alakazam when he isn’t singing, directed the dubbing for a couple of those. He also served as English voice director on the “Ultraman” television series, and Ho Meng-Hua’s rip-off of said series, Super Infra-man.
Alakazam the Great can be appreciated as a product of its time, a time well before “DragonBall Z” and “Sailor Moon,” before Ghost in the Shell and “Evangelion.” Anime is now ubiquitous and annoying. People actually write translations of those awful “visual novels” where a girl with giant saucer eyes has space cancer and depends entirely on the hero, who is clearly an avatar for you, until she eventually dies -- and people actually play them to boot. Fansubs can be found with Google, and legitimate, licensed products in Best Buy in every town in America. Movies like Alakazam the Great, Taro the Dragon Boy, and Magic Boy are the start of all that. They were the first wave of international Japanese animation, and the first exposure of what would be known as anime in the west. Fortunately, none of them feel like it.
I’d suggest viewing Alakazam the Great as a piece of sixties kitsch, not as an anime landmark.