Mo Dao Zu Shi, alternatively known in English as Grandmaster of the Demonic Path, aired its first season in late 2018 to a widespread success in China and amongst international fan communities. Based on a novel of the same name, this series tells the story of the rise, death, and then resurrection of a man who wields unorthodox methods of controlling the undead. It is also, however, a love story between our main character and a man from his past whose devotion to him didn’t falter even in the decade after his death. With the trailer for Mo Dao Zu Shi’s Season 2 recently unveiled, this seemed to be an opportune time to share my thoughts on the first season. Not because anyone asked, but because I love gushing about things I adore as much as I love ranting about things I hate. And I can safely say that this series is nothing but the former.
Chinese Title: 魔道祖师
Genre: Historical, Adventure, Fantasy
Studio: Tencent Pictures
Release Date: July 9, 2018
Number of Episodes: 15 episodes
Episode Length: 24 minutes
Recommended For: Those seeking a slow burn romance in the backdrop of an ancient world plagued by zombies
NOT Recommended For: Anyone uncomfortable with gore and destruction or looking for a breezy, painless romance
Zhang Jie as Wei Wuxian
Bian Jiang as Lan Wangji
Guo Haoran as Jiang Cheng
In the fantasy world of XianXia, humans seek to gain immortality – the state of Xian – through an exploration of the mystical arts of cultivation. The notorious Wei Wuxian made a name for himself as a cultivator with unconventional and often forbidden practices with his use of necromancy to control the undead and wield them for his own purposes. Renowned as the founder of the Demonic Path, Mo Dao, he is eventually betrayed and killed as the clans of XianXia began to fear his growing power.
Thirteen years later, Wei Wuxian’s spirit is forcefully incarnated into the body of a man named Mo Xuanyu of the Langling Jin clan in a sacrificial ritual that voluntarily removed Mo Xuanyu’s consciousness from his own body. Wei Wuxian quickly becomes embroiled in an investigation of a series of attacks by the feral undead. With a new and unrecognizable face, he attempts to hide his return from the familiar faces he reunites with along his journey. But the stoic Lan Wangji of the Lan Gusu clan may suspect more than he lets on, and Wei Wuxian may have to face the truth of his resurrection in a world changed by his thirteen-year absence, and his true feelings for Lan Wangji.
I think it’s important to note that the story of Mo Dao Zu Shi originated in novel format. It has since been adapted into both a manhua and the donghua I am now sitting down to review. And while I’m coming into this review from the perspective of someone who has only watched the animated version, my interest is piqued enough to want to at least read the manhua before the second season of the donghua is slated to air. A major selling point of the series, which I will elaborate on later, is the animation. But what I’ve seen of the manhua is equally as lovely and deserves a mention. With that being said, let’s continue with an evaluation of the donghua itself.
I’d be lying if I said this story didn’t leave me emotional and distraught in all the best ways. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that Mo Dao Zu Shi had a bit of a rocky start to get there. We as the audience are immediately placed into this world of XianXia with an info-dump and a brief history that is shared by a narrator. It’s a standard enough introduction for a fantasy epic, even if this mystical Chinese world of the undead and the cultivators that battle them are not quite as familiar. What is less conventional is the immediate reveal that our main character, Wei Wuxian, has died thirteen years prior to the story’s beginning. Thus, when we are subsequently introduced to him it is immediately after he is resurrected in the body of Mo Xuanyu and thrown back into a world as unfamiliar to him as it is to us. And thus begins my minor gripes with this season’s opening.
In the first few episodes, Wei Wuxian is reunited with a number of different important figures from his past, though none except Lan Wangji recognize him. By all accounts, these scenes should have been highly emotional. The only problem is… we as the audience have no context for any of their importance to Wei Wuxian. I’m comfortable enough with stories involving large casts of characters, but it was frustrating to get a sense that Wei Wuxian had a deep connection to these people without feeling any of it because the audience hasn’t seen any of that interaction yet. However, that is consequently what makes the following episodes that illustrate the events of thirteen years prior when the clans lived in (relative) harmony so compelling.
What this story lacks in the initial setup of the first episodes it makes up for, and then some, in its stellar second half. Little time beyond the first few episodes is spent in the present timeline. Instead, we jump back thirteen years to get the history of these characters in a place and time much more peaceful than the world Wei Wuxian departed in death. It adds a wonderfully dark element to the story, even in the midst of the playful going-ons of the group of friends, given that we are always conscious that Wei Wuxian will die. That fate hangs over him like a raincloud as he slowly begins on the path of pursuing “demonic” cultivation – only to reach a verifiable thunderhead by the final episode. This show is exponentially more fun to watch as it proceeds along.
My favorite kind of stories are ones set in a fantasy world with a romantic subplot running tangent to a much larger and more immediate problem. Mo Dao Zu Shi fits this description perfectly, even if it seems to be mostly marketed as a love story between two men. In reality, the actual romance between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji actually plays a very minimal role in the events of this first season. There is a very tacit way in which their relationship evolves, but with most of the season being flashbacks, we never actually get to see them take that step further. So if you appreciate a good slow-burn, enemies-to-friends-to-lovers romance this may be the donghua for you.
Mo Dao Zu Shi takes the time to flesh out an extensive backstory for its characters after the brief introduction in the current timeline that comprised the first two episodes. And it does so in a way that actually made me incredibly attached to these people after the fact. And by attached, I mean crying my eyes out when their lifeless bodies were shown on screen in a scene that was poignant, gruesome, and more beautiful than it had any right to be. The tonal shift is sudden enough to be emotionally jarring, but not abrupt in a way that makes it feel like it’s coming out of left field. And I think that’s why it left such a huge impact on me. Despite the fair amount of action comprising much of the plot of this donghua, I see it as being a more character-driven story, and I love that. So with that vein of thought, I’ll move into my next point.
Our main character Wei Wuxian is a good boi™. In fact, he was almost too good for my liking during the majority of this first season. I like my characters a little more morally gray, or perhaps just realistically flawed, and Wei Wuxian just wasn’t that for these early episodes. He is a phenomenally talented and innovative cultivator, and yet remains humble about his own gifts and defers to his adopted brother Jiang Cheng in most instances. He’s also a mostly harmless trickster, and the least benign thing he does before his submersion into the world of necromantic cultivation is punching his sister’s betrothed for insulting her. I usually really like mischievous, cheerful characters with a secret dark side. So it is a bit of a shame we didn’t really get to see his dubious morality and fixation on revenge until the last few episodes of the season. Nonetheless, that makes me all the more excited for his development in Season 2.
Wei Wuxian’s love interest who is not yet a love interest, Lan Wangji, took a surprisingly minimal role in this first season, despite the story being at its crux about the development of their relationship. Lan Wangji is the stoic, regal second son of the head of the Gusu Lan sect. He’s a stickler for rules and the complete opposite of the mischievous Wei Wuxian. Both men feel a bit familiar as far as character archetypes go – the quirky, cheerful one juxtaposed against his somber, serious counterpart. But this type of dynamic is popular for a reason, and it was fun to watch their banter play out and develop into a begrudging (on the part of Wangji) but genuine affection. It’s a bond I see having the potential to be fascinating to watch reforge in the present timeline in the next season as Wei Wuxian returns in his new body. So in regards to our main couple, I think we a have a solid pairing in Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. What really furthers my love for this series, however, is how beautifully complex all of the various side characters are.
Let’s take, for instance, Jiang Cheng. I love (read: love) Jiang Cheng. As the true heir to the Jiang clan that is always overshadowed by his adoptive brother Wei Wuxian who he loves as much as he resents, Cheng is a fantastically flawed and realistic character. He begins the story as an admittedly nondescript character next to Wei Wuxian’s exuberant personality. And yet, as the story of their past unfolds, the hardship and loss that Jiang Cheng is forced to face twists his character into a desperate and bitter individual. Not a bad one, I would say, but he is a man forcibly changed by pain and the desire for revenge. And it shows. I am so eager to see how he has developed in the thirteen years since Wei Wuxian’s death and can safely say that even without this knowledge Jiang Cheng has cemented himself as my favorite character.
I think Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian’s relationship is especially interesting next to our other most significant set of brothers in the series: Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji. Lan Xichen is this very refined, compassionate older brother who seems to fit his role as future clan leader like he was born into it. Which, admittedly, he was. By comparison Lan Wangji is cold and almost no-nonsense in his outlook on the world, and yet is easily flustered by Wei Wuxian’s antics. While the two brothers seem a much more similar pair than Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, I like that their dynamic was not a copy-paste replica of these other set of brothers and has a lot of potential to be explored.
Despite a fairly minimal cast of female characters, Mo Dao Zu Shi manages to present a suitably interesting collection of them. I most enjoy female characters whose strength does not come from the prescription of traditionally masculine traits like unrealistic feats of physical strength, but instead intelligence or even just simple compassion. And while we have a few fainting damsels in this story, the female leads with the most importance are varied enough in their personalities to feel like powerful, or at least autonomous, women in a world that doesn’t want to recognize them as such. It’s an aspect of Mo Dao Zu Shi I didn’t expect going into this donghua, and I’m glad to be surprised by it.
I will unabashedly admit that I love Madame Jiang, even despite the cruelty she exhibits towards Wei Wuxian. She is a bit petty in her bias towards her son Jiang Cheng, but she is also selfless in the face of her clan’s brutal destruction. She was vicious, relentless really, in her fierce defense of her people and I have to respect that devotion. I love that she was not some noble hero ready to lay down her life for a cause – she was angry, and heartbroken, and absolutely brutal. Her sacrifice, and especially her uneasy relationship with her husband who she loved and yet died unaware loved her so deeply back, was the most emotional scene in the entire season for me. I guess I just have a certain fondness for electric-whip yielding, purple-robed Jiang family members.
I think my biggest gripe with any of the characters actually comes down to our villains, given that they are almost cartoonishly evil. There’s not a whole lot of nuance to Wen Chao’s driving desire to destroy the clans that won’t bend to his will besides a strong sense of entitlement and a childish grudge stemming Wei Wuxian’s mockery. Don’t get me wrong – I find him to be incredibly annoying and won’t deny how satisfying the fate he and his consort faced was. But I like my villains a little more complex. Or I at least want their motivations to be. I think this is something the second season can definitely remedy given that Wen Chao is now out of the picture and I imagine a much bigger baddie, such as Wen Chao’s father, can take a more central role as an antagonist.
Okay. Okay, okay. Trying to explain how much I was utterly enamored with the animation of Mo Dao Zu Shi is daunting out of the simple fact of me not knowing just where to start. It’s just that damn good. This show combines hand-drawn animations with CGI to present a seamless visual illustration of a story that is sometimes overshadowed by just how pretty it looks. And gruesome too. There’s a certain detachment that is unavoidably felt seeing gore presented in an illustrated form rather than the hyper-realistic representation in live action film given the comic nature of the animation. But Mo Dao Zu Shi manages to evoke a certain amount of dread and disgust with its animation as it showcases the violent clash of clan against clan, and zombie against man. And I truly mean that with only compliments in mind.
But don’t let me convince you this show is gruesome, because I can guarantee at the close of each episode what you will be remembering is not the violence or the mayhem or the rotting undead. You’ll be enraptured, instead, with just how gorgeous the softer moments of the series were. You’ll be awestruck at the lightning-fast animation of the fight sequences and stunned at breathtaking backdrops of an ancient, mythical China. What is so fascinating to me is Mo Dao Zu Shi’s ability to combine chaos and careful illustration in a manner of visual storytelling that is utterly captivating. If you don’t want to watch this show for the plot, the animation alone is enough of a selling point in my mind to enjoy each and every episode.
I think the best word I can use to describe the soundtrack of Mo Dao Zu Shi is “atmospheric.” It’s sometimes eerie, oftentimes dramatic, and yet always uplifting when it needs to be. The music in the donghua is largely instrumental, with only the opening and closing theme songs of each episode including actual lyrics. While these songs are not quite as lovely as the ambiance of the instrumental songs, they do the job of establishing this whimsical fantasy world and a backdrop for a story that is both a romance and an adventure. The opening theme in particular combines some of that ethereal, recognizably Chinese instrumentation with vocals to set an immediately epic, if not melancholy, tone to each episode.
The opening theme is adapted quite cleverly for other scenes throughout the show as well. There’s this wonderful moment when Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are fighting the Tortoise of Carnage together and a more upbeat, almost rock-ish version of the opening theme plays. It’s the first time we’ve really seen them fight together as a team,and they do it in beautiful tandem. Adapting their much more subdued, nostalgic theme into a song suited for a battle sequence was an incredibly effective way to foreshadow their future partnership.
But more than just the soundtrack of this donghua being utterly beautiful is the sound design of the series as a whole. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji both use instruments in their cultivation practices – Wei Wuxian’s weapon of choice being a flute and Lan Wangji’s a guqin, a seven-stringed Chinese instrument. The use of these musical instruments makes such a delicate accompaniment to the contrarily violent battles and death that surround them during these circumstances. And the effect is nothing less than chilling. I swear I could almost physically feel the thrumming of Lan Wangji’s guqin when he would strum it as he stood silhouetted against a night sky, hair and robes billowing in the moonlight. If that isn’t breathtaking, I don’t know what is.
For the most part, I found the voice acting in Mo Dao Zu Shi to be spot on really, and surprisingly varied for the huge cast of characters present in just this first season. I did admittedly find Wei Wuxian’s voice actor Zhang Jie’s performance to be somewhat annoying, but I don’t know if I can really attribute that to the voice actor or just the overly chipper character he had to portray. I’m nearly certain the latter is the case. Because I didn’t find him to be nearly as grating after Wei Wuxian falls into his dark, zombie-wielding, bent-on-revenge persona by the end of the season. Maybe that’s because the happy-go-lucky persona being pushed so heavily at the beginning of the series came across as slightly forced, as deep down his character is more complex than this almost offensively cheerful tone he initially presented.
I think the most remarkable thing about the voice acting overall is just how wide the range of actors and actresses whose voices were utilized was. Despite such a vast cast of characters introduced over the course of the first season, each character had an impressively distinctive voice – one well-suited to their character type. For example, Wen Chao’s was appropriately whiny while the regal leader of the Jiang clan had a tone as deep and authoritative as his role might imply. Overall, the voice acting was just the last bit of finesse on an already great production that brought it all together.
Watch this, if not for the love story set against the backdrop of an ancient China plagued by zombies, then at least for the living art that is the animation. Mo Dao Zu Shi is an absolutely beautiful take on an adventure-romance. And I will eagerly await its upcoming second season.