Vino G. Bastian, actor and son of 'Wiro Sableng' author Bastian Tito, as the titular warrior hero in the upcoming movie adaptation from Lifelike Pictures and 20th Century Fox. (Photo courtesy of Lifelike Pictures)

Wiro Sableng Origins: From Dime Novels to the Big Screen


AUGUST 24, 2018

Jakarta. Indonesians who grew up in the 1990s might remember seeing "Wiro Sableng," or "Crazy Wiro," on television, with Herning "Ken Ken" Sukendro playing the axe-wielding mad warrior. Now Wiro's story has been adapted for the big screen by Lifelike Pictures and 20th Century Fox, and is about to hit Indonesian cinemas on Thursday (30/08). Wiro Sableng is such a legend, but what do we know of the character's origins?

The Wiro Sableng legend started in "cersil," an acronym for "cerita silat" ("martial arts stories"), action-packed dime novels usually centered on the adventures of a local warrior. The mad warrior character was first created in the late 1960s by Bastian Tito, the father of Vino G. Bastian, the actor who will play Wiro Sableng in the screen adaptation.

In Bastian's novels, Wiro was born Wira Saksana, the son of Raden Ranaweleng and Suci. His parents were soon killed by Mahesa Birawa, who later became Wiro's arch enemy. Little Wira was rescued and then trained by Sinto Gendeng ("Mad Sinto"), Mahesa's teacher before he turned to the dark side.

It was Sinto who gave Wira his nickname of "Wiro Sableng" – "sableng" and "gendeng" both mean "crazy," "mad," or "insane" in Javanese – at their bootcamp on West Java's Mount Gede. Sinto also passed down to Wiro his powerful double-bladed axe, the Kapak Naga Geni 212. The handle of the axe is actually a seruling (traditional Sundanese flute) that when blown will emit a piercing sound that will make enemies go deaf. A dragon’s head is carved on the bottom of the axe's handle. Sharp, poisonous needles can shoot out of the dragon's mouth.

Vino said the first Wiro Sableng novel was published in 1967 with the title "Empat Berewok Dari Goa Sanggreng" ("Four Bearded Warriors From Sanggreng Cave"). The novel narrated the genesis of all subsequent Wiro Sableng stories.

"From what I know, my father created the Wiro Sableng character a few years before that, but he would only appear as a minor character in random warrior adventure stories. The 1967 novel told the story of Wiro's origins – why and how he became a warrior. If I'm not mistaken, that year my father finally met a publishing company that offered him to publish all the Wiro stories chronologically and he jumped at the chance," Vino told the Jakarta Globe last week.


From 1967 until Bastian’s death in 2006, the publishing company Lokajaya published a total of 185 Wiro Sableng titles, though Vino said there are still some Wiro stories that have remained unpublished. Besides Wiro Sableng, the author, who was born on Aug. 23, 1945, also wrote other cersil, such as "Kupu-kupu Giok Ngarai Sianok" ("The Jade Butterflies of Sianok Valley"), a story that was set in Bastian's birthplace in Padang, West Sumatra.

"My father used to churn out the Wiro Sableng novels, up to a few a month. But as he got older – and since he also held down an office job – his pace slowed. A single novel in the end would take him a few months to write. There was a lot of competition in cersil as well, he had to find new, even more brazen plots for the Wiro stories. But my father always prioritized quality over quantity. That’s why fans still love his stories," Vino said.  

The Real Meaning of 212

Wiro's warrior uniform is a white Karate-style robe with a low neckline that reveals the number "212" tattooed on his chest, a number that has been a shorthand for the character since the first Wiro Sableng novel.

Recently, though, the number has been associated with a huge street protest at Jakarta's National Momument on Dec. 2 ("2/12"), 2016, calling for the resignation of then Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy against Islam.

According to Vino, his father's choice of the 212 moniker was influenced by another famous three-numbered moniker, 007, the code number for Ian Fleming’s British Secret Service Agent, James Bond.

"My father idolized James Bond, he loved that number, 007. He happened to be one of the Indonesian translators for the Bond novels. His dream was to create a warrior with a number for a moniker, but with a strong philosophy behind it," Vino said.

According to Vino, he learned from his father that the first "2" in 212 refers to the belief that God creates things in pairs. It's also a reference to the belief that in each person there is the yin and the yang, the good and the bad. Number "1" refers to the oneness of God. The last number "2" rounds all the numbers up – 2+1+2 = 5. The number five refers to the Five Pillars of Islam – Vino said his father was quite the devout Muslim – and the five tenets of Pancasila, the official Indonesian state ideology, because Bastian wanted Wiro Sableng to be the quintessential Indonesian hero.

Deadly Moves

Wiro and other warriors in the Wiro Sableng stories are also famous for their deadly moves – most of them inspired by pencak silat, Indonesia’s kung fu-like traditional martial arts. One of Wiro's most famous moves is his "Pukulan Sinar Matahari" ("Sun Ray Punch"), a punch that emits a blinding hot energy blast.

"My father learned all about pencak silat, but not as an athlete, only for research," Vino said.

Vino and Sheila Timothy – the film's producer and owner of Lifelike Pictures – said the Wiro Sableng novels are essentially fantasy fiction. The stories are mostly set in Java but Wiro also goes off to other parts of Indonesia, such as Sumatra and Bali, or even overseas to Japan and China.

From his real name, Wira, readers may guess that Wiro could be a Sundanese, or that Sinto Gendeng might hail from Central Java or East Java, but the characters' geographical origins are always kept obscure. Since all of them speak Indonesian, we can only surmise that the Wiro Sableng universe is a fantastic, hybrid version of Indonesia.

Nevertheless, Vino said Bastian did a lot of hands-on research of local cultures.

"My father was a journalist. He always did his research before writing a book. He would go somewhere, and observe the locals like an ethnographer. Sometimes he took the family along on these research trips. We thought we were just on a holiday, but he would actually be doing research for a new character, or a new story. He would take pictures and videos, sketch some costume designs and then write them up once we got home," Vino, who was born in 1982, said.

The Wiro Sableng novels are all out of print but are still available at many secondhand and online bookshops. Some fans have also posted entire novels on their blogs, and created social media accounts under the name Wiropedia.

The first movie adaptation of Wiro Sableng, "Empat Berewok Dari Goa Sanggreng," was released in 1988 starring Tony Hidayat as Wiro. He did six more Wiro Sableng movies in the same series. Then there was the 1994-2002 television series, starring Ken Ken for 59 episodes, who was then replaced by Abhie Cancer until the final episode 91.

The upcoming blockbuster adaptation, "Wiro Sableng Pendekar Kapak Maut Naga Geni 212" ("212 Warrior: The Adventures of Wiro Sableng"), was written by Sheila Timothy, writer and cersil expert Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Tumpal Tampubolon, and directed by Angga Dwimas Sasongko ("Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku," "Filosofi Kopi").

The plot will be based on the first four Wiro books, but include characters from the other novels. Besides Vino, it will also star Ruth Marini as Sinto Gendeng, Sherina as Anggini, Marsha Timothy as Bidadari Angin Timur, Yayan Ruhian as Mahesa Birawa and Faris Alfarazi as Bujang Gila Tapak Sakti.

Sherina as Anggini, Aghniny Haque as Rara Murni, Yusuf Mahardika as Pangeran, Vino G. Bastian as Wiro Sableng and Fariz Alfarazi as Bujang Gila Tapak Sakti. (Photo courtesy of Lifelike Pictures)

Sheila Timothy told reporters on Tuesday (21/08) the new film will feature around 20 out of the hundreds of characters in the original Wiro Sableng books. It will be the first installment of a trilogy, and fans can expect more creations out of the franchise.

Most recently, the mobile game Arena of Valor (AOV) has featured Wiro as one of the heroes. Sheila said comic books are in the making.

"The film trilogy will be just part of a big plot, a universe," Sheila said.