Thursday, February 18, 2021

REVIEW: Heaven Official's Blessing, Season 1 (donghua TV series)

Heaven Official's Blessing is a Chinese animated (donghua) fantasy series. It's based on a novel of the same name.


Xie Lian was the Crown Prince of the Xian Le kingdom about 800 years ago. He ascended to heaven at a young age, only to get kicked out, ascend another time, get kicked out again, and then ascend a third time about the time this series starts. He's now pretty much a joke among the other heaven officials (deities?), and no one in the mortal realm even builds temples for him anymore.

Since his third ascension causes a bunch of damage in heaven, Xie Lian is instructed to go to the mortal realm to investigate rumors of a supposed ghost groom who's been stealing away a bunch of brides. Because he has no mana anymore, he's given two assistants (who'd really rather be elsewhere and don't even like each other very much). During the course of his investigation, he crosses paths with Hua Cheng, a Devastation level demon (ghost? can't recall) who makes all of heaven shiver in fear...and yet for some reason Hua Cheng seems surprisingly gentle towards Xie Lian.

In later episodes, Xie Lian attempts to gain followers by building a temple for himself and travels to a desert city to investigate disappearances of merchant caravans.

I've read up to maybe chapter 70 of the novel on which this series is based, and so far it seems to be a pretty faithful adaptation, just missing some of the details that might make a few of the cultural aspects and flashback scenes make more sense. I'd previously attempted to get into several versions (novel, animation, live action TV series) of the author's other work, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi), but the pacing and overall darkness always eventually lost me. So far, Heaven Official's Blessing has been working better for me, not necessarily because the plot is better, but because the romance aspects, which I've been very much enjoying, are more front and center. Which made me wonder how the TV series would handle things, what with Chinese censorship and the central romance involving two men.

So far, though, the TV series is doing such a fabulous job I'm surprised it got past the censors. I suppose there's still plausible deniability - Xie Lian only has one bed, so of course he and San Lang had to share it. And San Lang wasn't flirting when Xie Lian helped him with his hair, he was just being a cheeky youth. Oh, and Xie Lian was pretending to be a bride, so a little tender hand holding with a handsome ghost groom just helped his disguise be more believable. Uh huh.

Then the special episode came out, with its series of flashbacks that were basically a gift to fans of the central romance. Bless everyone involved in that episode - it was so good. This series has had zero physical interaction beyond occasional hand-holding, but the central relationship screams "slow-burn romance" - Xie Lian was oblivious but affected, while his love interest was clearly happy to be around him and kept throwing longing glances his way. Episode 12 put the spotlight on that through a combination of reworked visuals and even a tiny bit of dialogue.

The real test for this series is going to be how the romance is allowed to develop. The slow-burn is wonderful, but if censorship never allows it to go anywhere, I'm not sure that the surrounding stories are strong enough to make up for it. I liked the ghost groom investigation well enough, despite the emotional aspects falling a bit flat, but the Banyue storyline was confusing. But who knows, the place I'm at in the novel isn't too far past where season 1 of the TV series ended, so there may be some really great events coming up. I'm looking forward to the flashback period set during the time when Xie Lian was still Crown Prince, and the gambling part will be amazing, if only for the interactions between Xie Lian and Hua Cheng.

I've spent years considering signing up for Funimation's streaming service. This show is what made me finally break down and do it, and so far I don't regret it. It was definitely worth binging, and Funimation's plans to give it an English dub make me think they may also have plans to give it a physical release. I hope so, because I'd love to own this series on DVD or Blu-Ray so I could rewatch my favorite parts anytime I wanted. Although hopefully by that time they'll have the subtitles cleaned up. I really hope the current quality is due to the speed required for simulcasting - they read like fan translations and/or like the translator wasn't a native speaker of English. There were multiple times when even I could tell that other word or phrase choices might have been more appropriate. Well, at the very least the planned English dub should have a smoother translation - I'm looking forward to it.

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