“What if Chinese gods were modernized?” Beijing-based CGI Lightchaser Animation’s New Gods oeuvre operates on this premise, and animator/director Zhao Ji imagines the Chinese gods of centuries-old stories as real people confronting their frailties in a new age. Its first installment, the 2021 New Gods: Nezha Reborn (on Netflix), reimagines the juvenile warrior deity Nezha reincarnated as a motor-riding mortal in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The most recent New Gods: Yang Jian retells the story of its eponymous deity, a Chinese god of truth, by positioning him as a neo-noir investigator carrying baggage from his past.
Lightchaser’s Chinese audience has likely been exposed to mythical retellings, on television or the screen, to grasp the modernized twists of well-tread narratives in their country. When distributed to the US by GKIDS (a champion of animation known to distribute Studio Ghibli or Cartoon Saloon features), Lightchaser can impress western critics, even negative ones, with its choreographic magic and visual eclecticism.
Yang Jian opens with Yang Jian playing the harmonica, which will serve as the magical weapon for the 2022 film’s exhilarating climatic showdown. The image of an ancient god playing a Western-associated instrument (blues, jazz, Chinese strings by composer Guo Haowei) on a steampunk aircraft sets the tone for an adventure across the Godly Realms, neon-lit Chinese architecture, and supernatural mountains.
Yang Jian’s (Wang Kai) plain appearance belies his power and a closed third eye hidden beneath his headband. Thirteen years ago, he imprisoned his sister underneath a mountain for marrying a mortal (or so the story goes). Reduced from his powerful form, he lives as a meager bounty hunter. He crosses paths with his bereaved nephew, Chenxiang (Li Lanling), who is out to split the mountain to retrieve his mother. (The English dub cast stars Andrew Louis, Christine Lin, Parry Shen, Luke Naphat Sath, James Sie.)
I grew up well exposed to Disney and Dreamwork animation and enjoyed the occasional outliers made by neither. Lightchaser Animation offered a certain wuxia and folkloric euphoria not witnessed in western mainstream animation. When I attended a virtual roundtable with New Gods director Zhao, I commented, “You must be a fan of Mad Max,” to draw an influential link with the punk and dystopic aesthetic of Nezha Reborn. (Note to Netflix streamers, do not confuse Nezha Reborn with the other 2019 Chinese Ne Zha animated film where the Nezha folktale is spun differently.)
Zhao gives me a (good-natured) retort: “Punk does not belong to any culture. Chinese can have our own punk because punk is a spirit, not only a visual style. Just because you haven’t seen a lot of Chinese punk movies doesn’t mean Chinese culture cannot be punk.” While Zhao fuses his childhood knowledge of Chinese gods with Hollywood and anime influences, he suggested (to me, the western viewer) that Yang Jian (screenplay by Mu Chuan) should be valued for its originality in spirit.
Animation in China is an ongoing staggering epic. Although China holds a rich history of old animation with its cultural signatures, its progress and proliferation have been disrupted and stagnated through the decades. Zhao has stated before that Chinese animation has some catching up to do with their Japanese and American counterparts. “Our [Lightchaser’s] technology was about 20 years behind those countries,” he says.
It is notable that Yang Jian is earning comparisons to the classic Cowboy Bebop anime. In the west, donghua (Chinese animation) gets conflated with the Japanese-based anime. Plenty of donghua are anime-influenced and might overlap with the “anime” term due to collaborations with Japanese studios. In fact, Netflix categorizes Nezha Reborn as “Action Anime" and "Fantasy Anime.” Which I find to be a little wack, and the western marketing habit of monolithing Asian animation as “anime” warrants its own discussion.
Zhao echoes a mantra in the animation industry: Animation as a medium. More accurately, he says, “Animation can tell any kind of story. If we want, we can do a horror story. It's cool because animation is more like a medium, not only a genre.” He finds it limiting to narrow animation as a “family or kids’” film.
Noting an unintentional clash with western media, a journalist asked Zhao if there were copyright concerns with DC Comics. The comic company might plausibly target the New Gods English name since it coincides with a DC comic series created by Jack Kirby. Laughing, Zhao notes that it might be good to keep that in mind, though there are no lawsuits as of now.
Not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC movies, Yang Jian has a few end-credit goodies nodding toward the interconnected universe it shares with Nezha Reborn. It also has a teaser for Chang’an Thirty Thousand Miles, slated for a summer 2023 release.
Published on February 1, 2023