Mo Dao Zu Shi – which you may find translated as Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (manhua/manga), The Founder of Diabolism (animated/donghua series), or The Untamed (live-action) – is a Chinese fantasy based off a novel of the same name and is set in a historically alternate world, Xianxia, that resembles China. Sort of in the way Lord of the Rings is set in a historically alternate Middle Earth that resembles Europe.
I’ve become a wee bit obsessed with this entity since discovering its existence around 3 weeks ago. In that time I’ve read a translation of the book, watched all 23 episodes (S1 and S2) of the animation twice, started the manga based on the novel, and finished the 50 episode live-action show. And it all started because of some fan art. Before I get into that however…
What’s it about? (Bear with me it’s complicated and I’m probably going to get something wrong and not do the story justice but here goes)
In Xianxia, those who practice mystical arts are known as cultivators. There are different sects who each have a distinct form of cultivation and are distinguished by their colors and symbols. The most notable for this story are: the Jiang Sect of Yunmeng (purple/lotus), the Lan Sect of Gusu (white/clouds), the Jin Sect of Lanling (yellow/white peony), and the Wen Sect of Qishan (red and white/sun). For the most part, the sects get along, but sixteen years ago the leader of the Wen sect decided that he wanted to be the only ruler and began a campaign to systematically destroy the other sects and take over their lands and people. After a few of the prominent sects are attacked and nearly wiped out – like the Jiang and Lan sects – the remaining sects decided to put an end to the tyranny and they rose up against the Wen sect in what is known as the Sunshot Campaign. It wasn’t easy, but they are ultimately successful, and the Wen sect reign comes to an end.
Wei Wuxian (or Wei Ying) was an orphan raised as part of the Jiang Sect of Yunmeng. A bit mischievous and irreverent in nature, but ultimately good-hearted, Wei Ying often found himself in trouble for his pranks and insubordinate ways. He was also recognized as one of the top four cultivators of his generation. After the Wen sect nearly decimates the Jiang sect, Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng – his sworn brother and son of the Jiang Sect leader – escape but Wei Ying is ultimately captured and taken to the Yiling province where he is thrown into the Burial Mounds, a vast wasteland of dead bodies that are said to kill anyone who enters. Three months pass, and Wei Ying appears again as the other sects are preparing to take down the Wen Sect. His time in the Burial Mounds has led him to become the master cultivator of the dark arts and be known as the Yiling Patriarch. Even though he is a major reason the Wen Sect is defeated his inability to control the wrathful and vengeful spirits of his magic ultimately leads to his demise at the hands of his former allies.
Around thirteen years later, Wei Ying returns to the world of the living after Mo Xuanyu of the Jin Sect of Yanling summons him in a ritual sacrifice. Now inhabiting the body of Mo Xuanyu, Wei Ying must discover why he was summoned while trying not to reveal himself to his former colleagues. That is not an easy feat and soon, Lan Zhan (or Lan Wangji) of the Lan Sect of Gusu, figures out who he really is. In the past, Lan Wangji was always butting heads with Wei Ying and appeared to be one of his biggest detractors, but now Wei Ying is discovering that in truth Lan Wangji may be the only person who has always been on his side.
When a series of events involving evil spirits and demonic possessions start plaguing the land, Wei Ying and Lan Wangji join forces to discover the source and its intentions. Along the way, they begin to unravel some of the mysteries around Wei Ying’s past and discover that his downfall and current incarnation might be part of a larger conspiracy.
Ok, that doesn’t even scratch the surface there are so many layers to this story I’d essentially have to rewrite the novel it’s based on myself to describe it. But it’s fantasy so what do you expect?
****WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD****
So about that fanart:
Well, while on the hunt for the images and gifs I use in these posts I may come across fan art of some of my favorite anime and that may have caused me to detour to sites where I can see and save that fanart, and that may have led me to a specific artist’s Instagram/Twitter (*cough* Gearous *cough*) where I may have seen some of their fanart for Mo Dao Zu Shi. And said fanart may have been so pretty that I went hunting for the original source which led me to find the animation et al.
Worth the trip down the fandom rabbit hole:
There are so many reasons I love this story it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, I found the world-building really fascinating. The way cultivation works, the different philosophies of each sect, the symbolism behind their colors and emblems, the politics, the mysteries, and the horror elements make it extremely compelling to me. It’s one of those stories where I find all of the characters fascinating and feel that they are all woven into the tale really well. In terms of the cultivation, I like how each character has their own style of using it – some with music, some with magical objects, some with talismans, etc. – since it adds to the aspects of their character.
Secondly, all the visual mediums are just beautiful. The art and music for the opening and closing credits of the animation/live-action, the clothing, the scenery, the people, everything is just lovely. The use of color is important in the way it distinguishes the sects and tells you a lot about the characters. For instance, Lan Wangji is nearly always in white, which in some cultures is a color of mourning so the fact he always looks like someone died is kind of perfect (sorry Lan Wangji, I love you but it’s the truth). Now that I’ve watched all the animations and live-action versions, I kind of just want to go back and re-watch on mute so I can just stare at the loveliness.
Third, I really enjoy the story. It has everything, action, mystery, horror, romance, comedy, heartbreak, the list goes on and on. There are a lot of layers to this tale, and in some ways, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in sections and then joining those sections to make the whole. That’s how well everything interconnects for me. A simple action in one scene, a quick exchange of dialogue, a particular use of cultivation, all could have some bearing on actions that happen later in the story or may tie back to something that happened earlier that we haven’t learned yet since it weaves in and out of time periods.
Finally, the characters. There are a lot of characters in this, and whether they are primary or secondary, they all have well-constructed personalities and most have fully realized backstories. It makes for those great tales where no one is really all good or all bad, but shades of both. Even the characters I don’t like, I…well…like. Their personalities are so well defined I felt I could almost tell you how they would react to a situation before they reacted to it, and while that may sound like they superficial, for me they came across with a lot of depth. It also means my feelz get punched a lot, but I like the pain.
Jiang Sect of Yunmeng
Lan Sect of Gusu
Wen Sect of Qishan
Jin Sect of Lanling
But the main thing this story is built upon is…
The saga of Wei Ying and Lan Wangji:
I’m not really that well-read on Chinese religions/philosophies but I am 100% confident that the core personalities of Wei Ying and Lan Wangji represent the ideals of yin and yang. Wei Ying (yin) is spontaneous and rambunctious, Lan Wangji (yang) is reserved and stoic. Wei Ying wears blacks and greys and follows a dark cultivation path, Lan Wangji wears whites and blues and follows a lighter cultivation path. Wei Ying’s outgoing arrogance is complemented by Lan Wanji’s understated humility. You get the picture.
Wei Ying’s story arc is really interesting. His character transformation is very stark in the anime. You spend so much time at first watching him laugh, and just enjoying life to the fullest:
That when all of the tragedies befall him and he ultimately turns to the dark arts, he’s almost a completely different person. He becomes a lot more like Lan Wangji in some ways – more reserved in nature – but his chaotic personality takes a more dangerous path than playing pranks since he can raise the dead with just a few notes on his flute.
His inability to really reign in this side of his nature is what leads to so much tragedy and heartbreak for those around him, and often it’s not on purpose, it is literally because he loses control. Seeing the other characters realize that the Wei Ying they knew before is gone, is heartbreaking. It’s not until he returns in Mo Xuanyu’s body that you start to see more of the old Wei Ying again.
Lan Wangji’s story arc is not as drastic as Wei Ying’s but he does change. When they first meet he is far more rigid in his ways and for all of the calm facades he tries to portray, he can get easily angered when his orderly life is upheaved, which is why it seems for a lot of their early acquaintance he can’t stand Wei Ying.
However, once they are both injured in a fight with a monster and forced to spend days together waiting for someone to rescue them, there is a definite shift in the way he starts to interact with Wei Ying on the occasions when they meet and once Wei Ying starts to walk down his dark path, Lan Wangji goes out of his way to try and learn techniques that he believes can help Wei Ying learn to control the chaos inside him. Alas, he never really gets the chance to try.
When Wei Ying returns he keeps noting how much Lan Wangji has changed and mellowed over the years. While he’s still reserved and barely speaks, he seems more tolerant of things he’d find irritating in the past, especially when it comes to Wei Ying’s teasing and mischievousness. Because of this tempering of his nature, they get along a lot better and finally become the dynamic duo they were meant to be. Once they start off to solve the mysteries of the demonic possessions that are taking place we really get to settle in and watch how these two powerhouses of intellect and cultivation techniques become an almost unstoppable force. It’s a really satisfying change in their dynamic after all the previous turmoil.
Also, Lan Wangji plays a mean guqin and I haven’t been this impressed with a stringed instrument taking out evil spirits since Johnny battled the devil with his fiddle.
Ok, so you watched the live-action and may have noticed something…
Alright, let’s just get this out of the way. The novel that started this whole thing is a BL (boy love) novel, so yes in the original source material Wei Ying and Lan Wangji do end up in an intimate/romantic relationship, but censorship laws being what they are in the novel’s/shows’ native homeland that is not going to make it onto the screen. However, what both screen versions do really well is to maintain the essence of the relationship, in that they are soulmates, but they don’t become lovers – at least in the live-action, and I doubt very much the animation will go that route. The manga hasn’t gotten that far yet – at least in the pages, I’ve been able to read – so it remains to be seen if it stays true to the original in this aspect or not. But I swear in the live-action they take the relationship as far to that line as they can without crossing it. Mostly through the way Lan Wangji stares at Wei Ying, and vice versa. For example:
I mean…c’mon. And the actors who play Wei Ying and Lan Zhan in the live-action sing the closing credits theme song which is a duet – ugh my heart can’t take it!
The time-jumping can be a little jarring and confusing, especially because Wei Ying’s appearance doesn’t really change that much between the two time periods. I’m sure that’s because the audience knows what’s really going on, but it can make you have to pause a moment to figure out if you’re watching the present or the past. And I keep wondering what the other characters see in the “present” when they are looking at Wei Ying in Mo’s body. Or maybe I just don’t pick-up on the subtle differences. The animation does hint that he doesn’t look the same to the other characters and it’s his actions that give him away, but that’s subtle. In the live-action, they don’t even bother pretending he looks different so he goes around wearing a mask after he comes back. I’m not saying they need him to look like Mo, but when he passes a reflective surface he can look different, right?
Like I said before, I find the animation to be quite gorgeous but there are times where it looks rushed and not very clean. Doesn’t really take away from the whole experience, but it’s so much more noticeable because of how good everything usually looks. There’s a scene where Wei Ying and Lan Zhan are fighting a monster and the CGI is baaaaad. Like, how did that happen bad. How did no one catch it bad.
Also, in the live version, some of the action sequences are really cheesy, but that’s more just worth a chuckle versus really ruining anything.
Apparently, I’ve reached the stage of this pandemic where I become fixated on things and while it looks like my Yuri on Ice fixation of the past four months may be waning, that’s only because I’ve started to fixate on this story. Yay pandemic brain! Heck, who am I kidding the pandemic has nothing to do with it, I’m just an obsessive person and when something grabs me I will grab it back and squeeze every last drop out of it.
Overall, I just find it to be a damn good story with interesting characters and set in a world that has complexities but doesn’t make them so over the top that I need a manual to try and understand it all. I’d love to mention more characters, details of their homelands and how they fit in but I’m afraid that if I do that I’m going to give away some major spoilers since everything is so intricately tied together.
So far it seems the animated series has a lot of positive feedback and it was announced for a season 3 in 2020, but due to pandemic fairly certain that has been pushed to next year but when is anyone’s guess. And apparently there is a spin-off animation of the characters as chibis (which is an art style I personally find disturbing and do not like) and I’m debating on if I’ll give it a try. Who am I kidding? I’m in this submarine, so might as well dive as deep as it will take me.
If you like historical fantasies that immerse you in different cultures and weaves intricate storytelling with action, horror, and mystery then I say give this a try. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think people who like these types of stories will really find it enjoyable.
If you’ve seen the series, or watch it at a later date, let me know what you think. Have you stumbled upon any fun shows because of fanart? Comment below or hit me up on Twitter.
This post is brought to you by the letter “L”
Wei cultivating the dark:
Lan Wangji’s mad archery skillz:
Playing Beautiful (Let’s Kick Demon Butt) Music Together:
Protecting his boi:
Aw, their first fight:
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