Mo Dao Zu Shi Season 1 Review

Title: Mo Dao Zu Shi / The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation
Length: 2 x 36 minute episodes & 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Drama, action, fantasy
Year of release: 2018

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Bad things happen to good people. It’s a sad fact of life, and something that fiction often tries to replicate – most commonly in tragedies and revenge stories. Revenge stories are typically limited by their thematic depth, asking little more than Is This Right? as their characters morph into the thing that they hate. Calling this donghua (Chinese anime), Mo Dao Zu Shi, a revenge story wouldn’t be wrong, but it would be something of an over-simplification. Mo Dao Zu Shi is an adventure of acute progression until there is no place left for good people to exist, and that adventure is so well-crafted that you might just miss the hairline cracks until the finale.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mo Dao Zu Shi is that it is framed as a flashback. While that is not a rarity, the show gives over an hour in the future – at the beginning – to let all the crushed relationships and messy politics stew, before showing how they got there. The journey is more important than the destination, Mo Dao Zu Shi suggests, as it encourages you to savour the character interactions and not get too caught up in the plot-details – and they are o so strong.

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The descent of Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng is not linear. There’s a dramatic push-and-pull as they battle monsters and egos, but what is so saddening is that at each point, they take the lifelines and try their best to return to their optimistic outlooks. Because the scars and tightening of the relationships are so subtly punctuated, Mo Dao Zu Shi manages to keep the consequence while returning these two breaking characters to the best of their prior abilities. This mirrors Lan Zhan’s journey, as he too encounters the moralistic internal battle – what do good people do in bad situations? His prior passivity is (somewhat like a tsundere) gradually sanded down by his inability to hate Wei’s attitude, and he begins to do things that surprise himself as he gets caught up in Wei’s mischief and the gigantic battles of the latter series. The journey that these three characters walk from beginning to end of this series is so monumental that the finale, whereby Wei and Jiang are almost completely unrecognisable from their opening forms, is made heartbreaking as their final lifeline from Lan Zhan’s most impassioned wisdom is declined, because they are, now, too far gone.

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Following this journey, all the way down, is a grand tonal palette that is masterfully played with. Wei, Zhan and Cheng begin the series studying in the Cloud Recesses as the latter two try and keep Wei out of trouble – but there’s a subtle grasp for the tense political situation, as well as a sharp introduction to world-building that gives even the comical, rascal-like shenanigans the ability to suddenly pang. The word-play humour, likewise, can introduce some goofy back-and-forth, but it can also present some biting retorts. Even at Wei Wuxian’s apex, the musical score can unexpectedly present quiet string augmentations to reiterate that he can still be saved. The fights and battles, too, can feel like journeys themselves, as each side can partake in moments of exciting power and heroism or, most impressively, horrifying violence.

magical backgrounds.jpgBecause, indeed, Mo Dao Zu Shi is not just a phenomenally well written piece, but is also a phenomenally directed piece of work. The stage of its world is epic, its actors fantastically defined and their battles can stir both the heart and the stomach – and it is so well orchestrated. While the animation can perhaps be a little stinted (though, as time went on, I began to feel this was a stylistic decision rather than an erroneous production), and the occasional CGI models veer towards low-detail, there is just such strong shot composition, even during the many 3D, dynamic camera sequences, to ensure it always looks gorgeous and meaningful. So many locales are explored, too, from the different cities to mountains to woods to caves, and the background art is what sells it; while there may be a stiffness to the extra’s movements, there is such a dedication to ensure the world feels populated and rich with content.

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Mo Dao Zu Shi is going to return, says the finale. Indeed it has to, for there is still so much story left to tell and so many more characters left to truly meet. Mo Dao Zu Shi is a grand story that paints in grand strokes, where the charm is in its minute touches – and, despite how much ground has been covered, and how much heartbreak it’s already given… it’s only just begun. As the series morphs back into the present to tie-up the finale, it hints at things to come, suggesting that prior plot-points are suddenly going to become important and that certain characters will rise to prominence. There’s a lot of confidence to this opera, but with this first of three seasons, it’s going to continue to be an unforgettable story.

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