Suzannah and Jon discuss the multiple award winning Nezha (pronounced Niyah), a chinese film from 1979.
Today, we’re talking about a movie with a few different names. It’s a Chinese movie, and unlike Blossom, I haven’t been brushing up on my conversational chinese, so please forgive me if I’m mangling anything with the translations. We’re going to call it Nezha (pronounced NIyah), but the full title of the movie is Nezha nao hai which roughly translates to Nezha Conquers the Dragon King. Just for clarification, we are talking about a seventy minute movie made in 1979, not the 52 episode series from CCTV, nor Havoc in Heaven, a 1964 movie from a the same studio telling the story of Nezha’s battle with a Monkey King.)
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King was difficult to track down, and might be hard for you guys to find. It is absolutely worth it though – I would call it an ESSENTIAL addition to any modern animator or animation fan’s library. Before we go any further, here’s a few of the options available if you want to add it to your collection, which we highly recommend.
You can find the Chinese version of the movie with English subtitles as a region-free 25th anniversary DVD here on the Purple Culture website and here on Moviesville. The movie studio also put out a book featuring artwork from the movie which you can find here on Amazon. You can also find a book of the story that is phenomenally illustrated in watercolor here on Chinese Parent.
One of the reasons that it is hard to find here in the western hemisphere, is because it never made it here in the first place, and it’s had a few different names. We’re going to break this down into a few parts. The talent that produced the movie, the context of the plot, and finally – the last is always the best – the beautiful, beautiful animation. The studio that produced it is really interesting on it’s own, so I’m going to do a minicast on it.
The studio & the creative team.
Nezha was a 1979 movie released by a company whose name translates to Shanghai Animation Film Studio that clocks in at about an hour. It was released in China with the title Nezha nao hai and screened in the Cannes Film Festival of 1980, (although not submitted into the competition) under the name of Le Prince Nezha Triomphe du Roi Dragon. The international/English title was Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King, and there was a dubbed version from the BBC called Little Nezha Fights Great Dragon Kings that featured a slightly edited down version, and different music. I grew up with this version of the movie, but as an adult have to say that subtitled original is arguably better. I’d recommend both, but if you can only take one, I’d say go with the original for the sake of the missed footage, and soundtrack that makes sense. (The dubbed version has been debated in fan circles for the assumed accents and the westernized soundtrack.) It won a Huabiao Award for Outstanding Animation from 1979, which is the highest governmental award that a Chinese film can earn, and a Hundred Flowers Award for best animated film from the China Film Association in 1980, which I understand is somewhat equivalent to a Golden Globe on the other side of the globe. It was also the first Chinese animated film made in panoramic screen.
Nezha was directed by three people: Yan Ding Xian, Wang Shu-Shen and A Da (Xu Jing Da). Yan Ding Xian had been working for the studio (when it existed – more on that in the minicast) from 1960, when he won an award on his directorial debut, a short film called “The Small Tadpole Looks for his Mother.” I couldn’t really find any information about that film on it’s own, but based on the name alone, I would guess that it has similar themes to Nezha. He co-directed the first color animation in China. His hovie credits up to 1987 have him still working with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, but continuing to work of projects that were being distributed in other countries. Wang Shu-Shen and A Da (Xu Jing Da) were very difficult to find information on – I found nothing on the first, and only a brief mention of the second with a reference to the raw emotional effect of Nezha in a 1986 issue of a croatian magazine called Sineast. If anyone knows anything about them, let me know, or if there are any librarians with mad research skills out that that would like to help me learn how to improve my research skills, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The story Nezha is based on.
The story of Nezha is the story of Taoist deity. He is supposed to have lived during the Shang Dynasty, which is 1600-1000 BC, so that’s the era that
this movie is placed in. The premiere source of the story is the Fengshen Bang (also known as Fengshen Yanyi.) The title of the book translates as The Investiture of the Gods or The Creation of the Gods and was first published in China in the 16th century. His parents, Li Jing and Lady Yin (rulers of the area) are childless until Lady Yin become pregnant late in life – and stays pregnant for over three years. When she does give birth, it is to a fleshy ball (it looks more like a seed or a pearl in the movie.) Li Jing strikes the ball with his sword, afraid that it is a demon. The seed opens into a lotus, and Nizha breaks out of the ball, a fully formed, tiny boy who can walk and talk. He clothes himself in a lotus petal from the flower he came from.
Deity Taiyi Zhenren (who seems in the movie to be both immortal and human at the same time) takes him on as a student. In the myth, Nezha jumps out of the seed with the ribbon of chaos and the ring of the cosmos in his hands. In the movie it seems as though Taiyi gives these items to him – or at least explains what they are, calling them the silk of steel and the ring which nearly fits the universe. The ribbon looks like a long, transparent scarf, and the ring is about the size of a dinner plate in comparison to Nezha. They are animated to look like he’s almost dancing with them.
I’m going to go over the rest of the story first before breaking down the difference between it and the movie version. In the original story, Nezha washes the ribbon of chaos in a river when he is seven, which causes an underwater earthquake. The son of the Dragon Emperor comes to the surface to fight Nezha, and is instead killed by him. Not pleased, the Dragon Emperor (Ao Guang) rallies his armies, and surrounds Li Jing’s palace, demanding a son’s life for a son’s life. Horrified that his son is a killer, Li Jing is about to turn Nezha over, when Nezha, furious at his father kills himself to save him the trouble. Sounds a bit emo. In different versions of the story, Nezha either disembowels himself so that his flesh and bones can stay with his parents, with his organs are to be given to Ao Guang, or simply slits his own throat. Moved by the disemboweling gesture of family loyalty in the first version, or satisfied that his son’s murderer is dead in the second, Ao Guang retreats. Either Nezha’s soul flies to Taiyi, or Taiyi plucks it out of the twisting nether, but Taiyi resurects Nezha into a body he creates from lotus roots. He then gifts him with two additional weapons – wind fire wheels and a fire-tipped spear. The fire wheels he travels on (think roller skates) and the spear is a new weapon to go with the ring and the ribbon. And that’s where the movie splits from the book version. In the story, Nezha and his father continue to clash after his death in a manner that ultimately leads to war, but in the movie you never see his parents again, so that’s not really relevant to the purpose of this discussion.
The plot of the movie.
The movie stays faithful to the original story until Nezha is a very wild six year old with a pet deer that he rides anywhere he wants to go. The area at this time is terrorized by four dragon kings (not one emperor), who rule rivers and the oceans, and control the weather. The Dragon Kings have two forms each – a human with a dragon’s head, and a dragon form. In the movie, you see the villagers making sacrifices to them by dropping food into the rivers which is taken to the dragons kingdoms at the bottom of the seas. The Dragon Emperor role is taken by the blue-colored Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, who controls rain, and is currently withholding it until he can have a child to eat. They are more tender than chicken apparently.
On a outing where he lets a local boy and girl ride his deer in the ocean, where the girl is promptly kidnapped and eaten by Blue Dragon’s son. Using his cosmic ring, Nezha defeats the Dragon’s Guardian, turning him into frog. The frog runs back to the Blue Dragon’s palace, and tattles. Nezha, grossed out by the frog slime, is washing his ring and silk in the ocean, causing an earthquake in the dragon king’s palace. Off goes the Blue Dragon’s third son (a lilac and red dragon), on a seahorse mount with a lot of soldiers to kill Nezha for being such a big jerk. Turns out that this guy personally ate Nezha’s friend. Nezha gives him a few warnings to back off, then kills him, pulls out his backbone, and throws his body back to his troops, who take it back to his dad. Blue Dragon king threatens death to the world if he can’t destroy Nezha.
Blue Dragon visits Li Jing (interrupting a beautiful sequence of the lord playing an instrument that I don’t recognize), and tells him that he wants blood. Nezha is summoned, bringing his new toy – the dragon spine. Nezha is presented at this point as a little kid that doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions – the way kids don’t really know why some things are wrong when they are to their perspective righteous. His father tries to explain that Dragons are sacred and what he did was huge problem, and Nezha’s response is “Um … YOU ATE SOMEONE!” The Blue Dragon dissapears, threateneing to tell the King of Heaven what happened, and Li Jing is mortified with the shame of it all. Unsure of what to do, since his father gives him no support, Nezha then goes to Taiyi for advice.
Taiyi has an almost motherly forgiveness of Nezha, but warns him that the Blue Dragon is going to bring war down upon his whole country for what he’s done. Nezha responds that since he did wrong, not his father or anyone else, that this isn’t fair. Taiyi sets up a prank of Nezha intercepting the Blue Dragon at the gates of heaven, briefly pretending to be the ruler of heaven (the balls on this guy), beating the Dragon up, and making him promise to cancel the drought and never eat children again.
Nezha tells his father what he’s done, and his father, correctly thinking that everyone is doomed, takes away his ring and silk, has him tied to a pillar, and disowns him. Blue dragon King summons the dragon kings of the Northern, Western, and Southern Oceans to attack Li Jing’s kingdom. The other three dragons are White (with the power of snow and ice) Black (with the power of hurricanes and tornados), and Red (the power of fire). They give Li Jing and ultimatum, your son’s blood, or everyone dies. Li Jing resists, but gives in … but can’t bring himself to kill his own son. Looking around and seeing the devastation, Nezha snatches up his father’s dropped blade and slits his own throat. Don’t worry, his back is to the camera.
Nezha and Li Jing’s relationship is played out very well here. When the dragons show up, Li Jing begs for negotiation. Nezha is freed from imprisonment by a servant who want him to hide, but instead he begs his father for the return of his ring and silk, with which he can defeat the dragons. His father ignores him, but his pet deer runs to fetch them, and there is forlorn sequence of him arriving a few minutes too late to deliver them to his master. Nezha is not dead yet, and sees her, but can’t reach the ring and the silk. I remember being just fascinated with the sequence as a child, but as an adult, I can only say that it is a triumph of emotional impact in animation.
We cut to the Blue Dragon’s palace, where he’s throwing a big party for all of the dragons to celebrate the freedom to do whatever they want as the only person powerful enough to stop them is now dead. The party scene is great – there’s an octopus, frog, crab and shark band, gladiator snails, lady shellfish performing some sort of traditional looking dance, and a giant turtle juggler. It’s a nice humorous break after the death scene.
We cut to Taiyi’s cave in the mountains and some lovely strobe effects. He grows a lotus bloom, out of which Nezha materializes, now clad in lotus petals and lotus leaves. Shocked to find himself alive, he hugs his master, sobbing. Nezha’s first thought is to stop the four dragons, so he is gifted with his wheels and spear. He a we have a lovely sequence of Nezha getting to know the new tools. You never see his ring and silk being returned to him in the BBC version, but you do see him from here on in wearing a silk that looks very similar to the one from his first childhood.
Here’s an interesting thing. Obviously, the original story of Nezha focuses strongly on the conflict between father and son. In the BBC translation, Li Jing calls Nezha a changeling, and when he talks about Nezha not being his son, he means is for real, not just in a disowning sense. In the original story, there’s lines about Lady Yi conceiving after being touched (in a non-sexual way) by some sort of monk or sage, and Taiyi makes it clear at Nezha’s birth that he is not a regular human. As an aside I think it’s interesting that this religious story focuses on the fallout between father and son when the father finds a godly cuckoo in his nest, especially when that sort of thing is completely side stepped in other religious texts.
Either way, the reason I’m bringing it up is because there’s a very quick scene here that has Nezha breaking a plaque with his spear before heading into the ocean to confront the dragons. I couldn’t really figure out if it was a plaque on a shrine for offerings to the dragons, or if it was the name plaque on Li Jing’s palace, but I like the idea of it being the latter. That way, Nezha sneaks one quick jab in at the father who never stood up for him, and sacrificed family for politics.
The Blue Dragon determines that Nezha is human enough to die even though he has the appearance of a god. We have some beautiful fight sequences and Nezha fights various sea cratures, somehow sets fires to others, and then uses his ring and silk to shatter the palace (clearly he did pick them up somewhere. The final boss fight has him against the four dragons, so he pauses a moment to go super-saian, growing two extra heads and and two extra pair of arms for the occasion – bringing him closer to the way he’s sometimes depicted in sculpture and art throughout through out history.
So, boss fight. The Dragons shift in and out of their two forms a lot here, and Nezha gets hit with their various powers. He summons a red bird that looks like a phoenix swallow the Red Dragon’s fire, who is later able to melt him when he’s frozen by the White and Black Dragons. He defeats the Red, Black and White dragons first, then goes after the Blue Dragon, pinning him to the ground with his firey spear, after which the Dragon turns to stone. The story ends with the narrator sayin “The children swam and the ships sailed. The seas belong to everyone. Even dragons must serve life and not feed upon it.” We get a cut to the children from his village, the servant from Li Jing’s house who freed him prior to his suicide, and his pet deer, all awaiting his return to the mainland. There’s a happy reunion, and Nezha jumps back onto his deer and goes for a majestic run over the end credits.
We finally get to the best part – the animation! Let’s kick this off with a google chrome assisted translation of a passage from that 1986 article I found in Sineast Magazine. (The words that didn’t translate have been removed from the quote.) “Not only perfection of performance and traditional way of painting, but also carry a wonderful tenderness and warmth, the emotion that leaves no one indifferent.” It’s a great quote to apply to Nezha, because even thought he background art is beautiful, even though the storyboarding and plot are so delicately handled, and the animation is so incredibly fluid, the most incredible part of the movie is the emotional impact that it carries. Both as a child and as an adult, I can’t be unmoved by watching it. As a child, I remember specifically being able to relate to Nezha’s character and his perspective when contrasted with his father’s, and his idealistic desire to do what is right. As an adult, I understand his Li Jing’s frustration with his Nezha’s wildness and how important is to do what it takes to look out for everyone who you are responsible for – not just your children, but in this case your servants and subjects as well. When Nezha kills himself and his deer weeps, you cry too. When Nezha throws himself into Taiyi’s arms, weeping, you really feel the sense of security and safety that a child feel int he arms of a trusted parent. The emotional impact is amazing.
The visuals are stunning too. I would absolutely buy a book of the art that went into making this movie. As a child I watched it over, and over, just mesmerized by the colors and patterns. They’re hypnotic and refreshing, but not hypnotic to the point of trippiness the way The Thief and the Cobbler is. The patterns of the lotus are all the way through the story – specifically in major growth scenes for Nezha. Poses straight out of buddhist and taoist art are worked through the storyboarding. So the design is great, but the animation is really the crown jewel of this movie.
- Nezha animation: he’s animated to seem almost like a circus performer before his rebirth, especially when playing with his silk and ring. It definately had reminiscences to both circus performers and that gymnastics performance section of the Olympics when the gymnast works with objects. After his transformation, his motions become more aggressive, as he works through what looks suspisciously like a tai chi sequence with the spear, but it’s lightened up with his rollerskating approach to the rings. Gestures of other characters are often also extremely fluid, and each character walks with very distinct mannerisms and gestures.
- Hands: the hands in this piece get a special section because they are so darn beautifully done.
- Dragon animation: they move a like a cross between snakes and creeping cats. Nothing could have been a better pick for evil dragons.
- Crane animation: Taiyi’s pet crane has several beautiful sequences. When Jon saw one, he said it was the smoothest animation he had ever seen!
- There’s also the deer. Dainty is the only word that really works in context of the deer.
- Oceans. Most of you listening & reading probably know what Hokkusai’s ‘Great Wave’ print is, even if you only know it by name. Here’s a BBC podcast that will fill you in on the significance of that piece of artwork. All of the oceans look like, and move, like this print looks like it should.
Six degrees of Brad Bird:
Nezha director Yan Ding Xian directed a 1989 animated adaptation of Peter Spier’s book Noah’s Ark, which was narrated by James Earl Jones, who was once the voice of the narrator on the 1990 Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episode where he read the Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven – an episode on which Brad Bird was an Executive Consultant!
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