Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority.
As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble.
Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations.
Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression.
Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.