Uluwatu, Bali: I was instantly captivated by Uluwatu’s rendition of Hanuman. The stylization of a monkey’s fierce snarl, the silhouette coated in white fur, the triangular collar-armor, the wrist & ankle bands and the hip armor draping over an iconic, checkered cloth. The design is imbued with a sense of natural regality and power.
The feeling I get whenever I see Hanuman’s snarling snout and the flesh-to-armor visual ratio reminds me of the very first time I saw Terada’s Monkey King. The funny thing is that I’ve seen Bali’s Hanuman ever since I was a kid but Terada’s Monkey really surpasses all else related depictions.
Most Hindu depictions bring Hanuman’s physical form a little closer to human. South East Asian adaptations endow Hanuman with more of a monkey’s physical attribute; Hanuman is a white monkey in the Balinese and Thai depictions.
Uluwatu’s Hanuman is a stunning sight to behold. The proportions are impeccable, from his face to his stance. The face is made of a monkey’s snarling jaw and a strikingly calm, intense brow. The checkered cloth is Bali’s symbol of the natural balance between light and dark. The headgear denotes of rank and sentience that matches the rest of the godly cast, and the floral-like decorations hanging on both sides of his temples frame the focal point with tiny, focused dashes of colors. There is so much going on in the design, yet everything is balanced just right. This balanced look is elusive to the hands of most artists; too much of one thing would dominate the rest of the look. It’s all the more impressive that this is an actual working costume. Someone has uploaded a nice recording of the entire performance, go to minute 11:08 for Hanuman’s appearance.
It isn’t only in the details of the costume that the character is complete. The movements and postures of the performer make up the other half of the finishing touches. Hunching the shoulder blades up into the white mane, gives the entire silhouette a distinctive simian flavor. The momentum of the body also adds to the nature of the character.
The other great ape we’re discussing is Katsuya Terada’s take on a classic Chinese character from “Journey To The West”. Katsuya Terada, one of the most influential visual artists ever, created the most influential modern take of the Monkey King. In the original tale, Monkey King / Sun Wukong accompanies his master on a dangerous journey towards India, past the famous Silk Road. Katsuya Terada’s version seems to assimilate an Indian-Hindu flavor to Sun Wukong’s costume of choice.
The visual areas that are used to convey a sense of power are also similar. Sun Wukong is a supernaturally unstoppable force of nature that takes form in a monkey; close to human, close to nature. The choice to strip him of a human’s shirt feels right; it speaks of raw power. It suits the character’s constant rebellion against conventions in the name of personal pursuits. It even enhances the notion that he’s one of the most formidable beings in the universe.
The choices made for both, in defining the characters, instantly communicate 3 things: Raw power, Sentience and Worldliness.
It’s entirely possible that both Katsuya Terada and generations of Balinese artist have, independently, come upon the same conclusion by excellent, artistic instinct alone. Terada might be one of the few with the design sense as refined as thousands of years of collective experience of a religion’s artisans. These, are refined character designs.
Terada’s depiction isn’t a primitive, gritty remake, it’s done with taste, sophistication and great refinement… and most importantly, A GREAT, FUN DESIGN. The musculature is unique and distinct, the proportions are inventive, the hands and feet have strong simian hints and the costume choices are fresh in an intrinsic way, not ironic (very, very important). It’s the kind of design that makes you think, “That makes sense!” and it’s so intrinsically good that you wonder why no one has ever done it this way before. Here’s a cool touch, look again at the image above. His belt buckle in volume 2 is a taotie pattern, if anyone could wear a taotie face right above his crotch, it sure is the monkey king. That fun, cool enhancement to the character design takes a nice understanding of the culture behind the character.
Prior to Terada’s Sun Wukong, I have never seen any other depiction executed this way; Other than Bali’s I haven’t seen any depiction of Hanuman that is this iconic. From tip of the tail, the stances, facial expressions and level of controlled detail, both are pitch-perfect. Great, intuitive and meaningful designs.
Both Hanuman and Sun Wukong share similar elements in their origin stories. Both repeatedly enraged all-star casts of deities and acquired invulnerability, punished to lose a portion of their life, to later be rescued and repay the debt by being venerable symbols of courage and loyalty. While Hanuman was gifted these gifts by deities, Wukong acquired them through luck, mischief and tenacity. Both are described to be able to shape shift as they please, each freed himself from Yama’s / Yan’s (Lord of Death) touch and are impervious to all elements (each story notes that they are protected from fire). Both of their big bruisings with the big bosses started in relation to fruits. Hanuman mistook the sun for a mango and defeated a deity, stopping a planned eclipse, angering another in the process. Wukong trashed the heavens and consumed peaches of immortality among other items reserved for gods.
Sun Wukong and Hanuman are both very complex characters. They stand for values that are attributed to humans and simultaneously, how unpredictable nature is. At some points of each of their story, both acted as watchful, powerful guardians to protect the more vulnerable who have wandered off into demonic grasps. They’re very different stories with such enriching similarities.
The real joy is in watching two different narratives and artisans make intelligent, exciting, meaningful designs. Whether Terada drew inspiration from Bali or if this is a case of great, timeless designs coinciding with each other, it was deeply satisfying to be able to experience both.
A world where there’s a bridge between traditional, indigenous dance and a radical Japanese comic retelling of a Chinese classic, is a world well worth travelling in.
“Saiyuki” / “Monkey King” covers by Katsuya Terada.
The excellent photographs of Uluwatu’s Hanuman in this post were kindly provided by Macin Juwono.