Masaaki Sakai; Interview by William Chipperfield for Fr0nt Magazine (Full Version)

Interview Copyright of William Chipperfield, All Rights Reserved 2000
[An edited version of this interview appeared in the September 2000 issue of Front magazine]

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Masaaki Sakai; Interview by William Chipperfield for Fr0nt Magazine (Full Version)
Date: Friday 16th June 2000 9.30pm
Location: Tokyo, Japan

OK, so I get dropped by a taxi driver who knows less English than Bernard Manning knows German. My own mastery of the lingo is restricted to how to order noodles the way I like them, and pass comments on the chest sizes of the local ladies. So not much use with Taxi San, unless of course he takes me back for a home cooked meal and lets me sleep with his wife.
Anyway, it's late and I'm standing in a street which I'm assuming is where Monkey lives. The cabbie loses his rag, grabs his fistful of yen and does the off, leaving me and the photographer none the wiser. I then realise that the address is written in English, but the house numbers are in Japanese. To cap it all, the guy I've been sent to interview is a national celebrity, so his house is likely to be in the most secluded spot of all.
I rack my brain, What kind of house would Monkey live in? A treehouse!
I resign myself to the old door knocking/lost tourist routine and hope that I chance upon a friendly local with good language skills and a mission to please... and not a sado-masochistic ninja with a grudge against jehovahs witnesses.
Just then I notice a large flash looking house, brightly illuminated and adorned, so you couldn't possibly miss it. "Who would live in a place like that? Probably the local dealer."
I read out the large gold letters that are fixed to the wall "M.Sakai". I couldn't believe my luck.
I turned to the snapper, "That", I said "is Monkeys place".

We were greeted at the door by a sharp suited guy who looked like he'd just stepped from a John Woo flick. There were plenty of similarly dressed associates milling around, all seeming very serious. I felt like any minute they were going to ask to see the briefcase full of money. There was an expectant atmosphere. Maybe he has turned over to flogging the green stuff - the characters on that show always acted a bit stoned.
As I took my seat, down the long hallway stepped Mr Big. Mr Monkey.

Having said that, the first thing that you notice is his size.
M       Did you think I was bigger in real life? - I look taller on TV
W       Yes - did you have a midget cameraman?
M       Haha!
OK, we're off to a good start.

M       In Japan they never show old TV programmes, so I never expected it to still be shown in the UK of all places. I guessed that something was up when fans from England started showing up at my concerts. I couldn't believe they'd come all this way. I suppose curiousity got the better of them.
W       Well, you're still big in the UK but no-one has ever actually interviewed you. That's why I'm here. Also, Monkey is a cult programme, which usually means a few die-hard anoraks who'll circumnavigate the globe for an autograph.
W       Have you seen any of the websites dedicated to you on the internet?
M       Yeeeeees A while ago in japan there was a big article in a newspaper saying that Monkey was big in England. After reading the article i looked at the internet and was surprised by the number of sites. Especially because of the huge distance between England and Japan. The internet brings it all together. It becomes a small world. In japan this programme is hardly known by young people because its so old. And now that in England its been resurrected, I'm very surprised and happy. In japan they keep on making new programmes, but in england if a programme is good like Fawlty Towers, they keep on repeating it.
W       Are you worried you might get a stalker
M       No, can you get me one!

W       So how did you land the part of Monkey?
M       It was the 25th anniversary of the main broadcaster in Japan. The story of Monkey was based on an ancient Chinese legend that has always been around in one form or another. Three years earlier, I was in a stage play called Monkey, plus I was in a band which had a hit called 'Monkey Dance'. I suppose they thought I was perfect for the part.
W       What was your band called?
M       The Spiders. We were big in the sixties. Well, a little bit - only Tokyo area (haha) I invented the 'Monkey Dance' - it was a craze.
He demonstrates several poses of the dance which send the room into fits of laughter. He's still got it.

W       There seems to be a pattern emerging. Why monkeys?
M       Some humans have faces that look like an animal - I am small. I am a monkey!
W       So you were a Monkey, Pigsy was a pig, what animal was Sandy supposed to be?.
M       In the Japanese version he was a frog.
W       So if a girl kissed him, would he turn into a prince?
M       People would be afraid to kiss him as legend has that he pulls people into the river and drowns them. They wouldn't kiss him
W       ... and he was quite ugly as well.

W       You've been in the business now for 38 years - what are you doing at the moment?
M       Mostly television - I do a cooking show, and some health information programmes. I've also formed a band with three of the original Spiders called 'Sans Filtre'. We have a live performance once every three months and play all over Japan. The name's french. It means a cigarette without a filter tip.
W       Why did you call it that?
M       The older member is 62 years old and loves to smoke. Sometimes, because he's old he gets confused (wink) and lights the filter side of the cigarette, so he changed his brand to ones that don't have filters. 'Now both sides are ok, hah!'
W       I'm guessing that this isn't a smokers tip he picked up from his health information job. Aha, so he can smoke either side? Ronnie Wood is much the same... Do you do requests? Any Elvis?
M       Elvis? No, not my generation.
W       But you had the sideburns?
M       Big laugh - The sideburns haha!!! Yeah I had them, but not real ones.
W       Not real? They lied to us!

W       For the part of Monkey, did you have any training in martial arts?
M       Some training in stick fighting - I had to learn how to use it properly, but I'd used one on the stage so i could use it already for TV. The fighting scenes were fun, but difficult. I had to wake up early every morning and I had no time to warm up. Many times the stick flew from my hands and hit the other actors. Nobody cared about my body - I had to take some risks. Luckily everyone in the cast had a good sense of humour, so I usually got away with it.
W       Was there much improvisation?
M       Yeeees. We let out the feeling of the time and changed the script as we went along. All this combined to make it funnier or better.

W       As a nipper, I often wondered which one of you Tripitaka had the hots for? Who had the winning ticket?
M       Not me. Monkey was the big brother of the three, whenever something bad happened, she always punished Monkey. Off screen, her best relationship was with Sandy. Nobody knows that. They were very close (monkey wink) I'm jealous (he says laughing). Still, it was a long time ago.
I drop the subject - Masako Natsume who played the character of Tripitaka died of Leukaemia 3 years after completing the last episode.

W       Do you keep in touch with the others? Pigsy, for instance?
M       Yes, he's a very big star now. I would like to see Sandy but he's disappeared - a financial scandal.
W       Word has it that he got stung by some bad business deals, went bankrupt, and lost his daytime TV show job to boot.

W       Pigsy's character was girl crazy to put it mildly. Was he a real womaniser off screen?
M       No. In real life he's a very serious person. He's a good man - he wouldn't chase after girls
W       (I am beginning to realise that a lot of things are the opposite over here....) I'm told that back in the day there was even a monkey computer game. For the ZX Spectrum or something. Would you consider doing another?
M       I'd be more than happy - its all business eh! My daughter has a playstation 2. I don't play it. In my life race cars and work. TV is my job and I don't want to spend my free time watching it too. I have many other dreams. I would like to make an album for the fans with my band 'Sans Filtre'. I haven't finalised the tracks yet but its getting there. I would like to tour outside Japan, maybe in the UK.

W       I read that a few years ago they made a new series with new actors and special fx but it got bad ratings and was axed.
M       Its true. But I went to a TV station recently and met a person who said they would like to produce a new version of Monkey. They guy who'll be playing him is one of the most famous actors in Japan. He could use his influence to make the programme. I'd be very happy if they do a remake as it would introduce the story to the younger generation. When youngsters view the programme, they are also viewing the Asian culture which hopefully changes their perception of our culture for the better. If that happens, I am very happy. When I was small I saw about the story myself - as a movie and in Manga.
W       Have you watched the English dubbed version of Monkey. What do you think of the actor who plays your voice?
M       Niiiice. I heard from a friend in England that the dubbed voice was very funny. I'm sure that it contributed to its popularity.

W       In the first episode of Monkey you had to go to the toilet on buddhas fingers - was that a hard part to play?
M       Haha - it was a symbol - a part of buddhas teaching to do that. There was no difficulty in acting that out.
W       A piece of... piss?
M       It's a very famous scene in the series.

W       A lot of people who have starred in tv or films that involve fighting and portray characters who are a bit tasty, they often find that they get strangers trying to start fights with them in public. Does this happen to you?
M       No never. It's different in Japan. There's not so much violence.
Over here, the people look at characters on television in a different way to people in Europe or America. They accept that it is just a person acting as someone else. They don't see them as icons or heroes. They're more likely to respect them. Anyway, I have a lot of bodyguards!
W       But if the situation arose - would you be tempted to use some 'Monkey Magic'?
M       Hahaha! I'd try and avoid going to places where this situation might arise. Unless i wore the costume, I don't think people would recognise me.
W       (The question still remains. Can he still pull off the old Monkey moves?) Do you still have your old costume? The headband - the famous Monkey stick.
M       No nothing. But how about this eh! (With that he raid's the hall cupboard and pulls out a 5ft broom handle) Hahaha-hah hah-heeeeyaaaaaaa!

Soccer fans - when in Tokyo in 2002, watch who you call shorty!

Interview by William Chipperfield, All Rights Reserved.

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