The Beginner's Guide to The King's Avatarby Rebecca Silverman,
It seems fair to say that every country has its own basic style or flavor of animation. When we think of Asian animated works, most of us go immediately to anime, the Japanese variant, and it certainly is among the most prevalent and accessible serialized animation out there. But this season, Spring 2017, has brought a surprise in the form of a Chinese animated TV series - The King's Avatar. Like many of its anime counterparts, the series is based on a series of web-turned-print novels and is set in a gaming world, although not in the isekai sense. Protagonist Ye Xiu is a professional gamer when the series starts, and while almost all of the action takes place in the online game Glory, it's not a VR game, giving the series a grounding in the real world that anime has largely done away with. With a second season slated for 2018, rumors of a live action film, and a growing fanbase – as well as the availability of legal English translations of both the novels and streaming episodes – it's worth giving this show a second look.
While The King's Avatar may be the first animated Chinese production for some viewers, it's hardly the first. It is, however, one of the few to make waves outside of China. In 2004, China decided to focus on communicating traditional Chinese values in their animation in an attempt to woo viewers away from anime, and not a lot of it has been released outside of the country. In his 2013 study Nationalism and Preferences for Domestic and Foreign Animation Programmes in China, Kenichi Ishii notes that this has largely been successful only with children's shows; older viewers prefer the variety offered by anime. A survey of YouTube reveals that a decent amount of what's available for foreigners to watch is very much focused on Chinese culture and history, such as this wordless film retelling the Chinese folktale of the Spring of Butterflies, posted by the Yunan Visitor Center. Clips of a more recent cartoon musical of the story can also be found scattered around under the title “Chinese Romeo and Juliet,” and it does appear to be aimed at a younger audience than The King's Avatar. The cultural significance of the tale, which is extant throughout China, and the fact that the linked video was posted by a tourism bureau, says a lot about why the piece was released to YouTube in the first place.
So how does this work with the popularity of The King's Avatar? There's a chance that there's a political component to its release in keeping with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in an intellectual sense, but the fact is that the story has a lot of components that are appealing to anime fans while also touching on some issues of online gaming that have been the subject of academic studies all over the world since at least 2006. While parts of the story are firmly linked to Chinese MMORPG culture, others are more universal, making this a show that not only fulfills the stated goals for Chinese animation, but also could spark international interest in a new source for animated TV series.
But all of this is somewhat incidental to the question of whether or not the show, and its underlying story, are actually any good. As was said above, The King's Avatar began its life as a web novel, which, if you're not familiar with the term, is a work of serialized fiction published online by amateur authors. It's been collected into nine paperbacks thus far, and an English translation of decent quality is available at Qidian International's website, for free as of this writing. (Qidian International is also responsible for the show's subtitles.) While not perfect, the translation does a good job of getting across the vibe of the story, which is largely free of the tropes we're used to seeing in Japanese light novels. (This doesn't mean that it isn't chock full of Chinese tropes, but that's beyond the scope of this article!) The hero of the story is Ye Xiu, although most people know him as Ye Qiu. (It's explained in the novels that Ye Xiu is his real name, but he ran off with his twin brother's passport.) He's a twenty-five-year-old professional gamer, having risen to fame as a member of the team Excellent Era in the game Glory. For reasons that aren't entirely clear in the show (his performance is definitely a part of it), he's forced not only to retire, but also to hand over his avatar, the supremely powerful One Autumn Leaf, so that a new player can take over his place. Jobless, Ye Xiu winds up at a web café and gets a job as a night manager. Since he has constant access to the game (if not his cigarettes), Ye Xiu logs on to Glory's newly opened tenth server and creates a new avatar, Lord Grim. Assembling a new team, he begins a new climb to the top of the game, which does not sit well with his former teammates…or some of the other pros.
The story is mostly told in-game, with Ye Xiu's Lord Grim showing off his awesomeness with nonchalance and quickly becoming the most talked about new player on the server. His new team is made up of veteran players with new avatars, like his childhood friend Su Mucheng (as Cleansing Mist), and total newbies, like the outspoken Bao Rongxing (who plays Steamed Bun Invasion). When the characters are playing we see them as if they were in the game, à la SAO, but Glory is actually a plain old MMORPG, and there are frequent shots of the characters typing and using their mice. As the season progresses, we see Ye Xiu getting more and more invested in the new game he's playing, which corresponds with the building ire of the pros, specifically Sun Xiang, who “inherited” One Autumn Leaf and Ye Xiu's position.
Because this is so firmly based in gaming, and Chinese gaming culture, parts of the story can be difficult to understand. Personally, the difference in gaming terms was the biggest barrier to entry for me, specifically the fact that the characters us PK the way that American gamers use PvP – to signify a one-on-one battle between players as opposed to indiscriminate player killing. Also worth being aware of is the difference in virtual property in Chinese gaming culture, as described by Matthew Ming-Tak Chew in his 2011 paper Virtual Property in China: The Emergence of Gamer Rights Awareness. Chew says that there's a much more hostile virtual property environment in China that in Europe or North America, with more frequent thefts of personally crafted items and few to no repercussions. Even though Ye Xiu signed a paper giving Excellent Era the rights to his One Autumn Leaf avatar, it's still a character he created and built to his own specifications, something he “owned” in a virtual sense. By forcing him to give the character up, Excellent Era is taking away his in-game identity, and no one can do a thing about it. (There have been studies about the psychological effect of having your virtual self stolen; let's just say the effects are not good.) Chew's paper implies that this isn't entirely unusual, although it more typically happens with weapons, giving the story a firm point to launch from, grounded in a specific cultural reality. The idea of internet cafés is also likely to be a point of interest or slight confusion for viewers, as one of Ye Xiu's duties as a manager is to go buy customers food if they ask him to – I'm hard-put to think of any internet establishments that would allow you to eat while using their computers, much less make a McDonald's run for you.
McDonald's is a surprisingly huge part of the series, contrasting humorously with characters drinking from conspicuously unlabeled cans. Their name is prominently listed as a sponsor of the show, which dovetails nicely into a detail from the first novel that is omitted from the TV series – part of what professional gamers do is sponsorships, and Ye Xiu has consistently refused to put his face on anything. Doubtless this fed into Excellent Era's annoyance with him, but watching the show you can't blame him – Su Mucheng has to go out in disguise lest she be mobbed by fans, whereas Ye Xiu can just swan into a net café and get a job without anyone the wiser.
The animation and storytelling here are definitely a cut above recent co-productions with Japan, such as Spirit Pact or Bloodivores. While The King's Avatar doesn't truly take off until about episode five, the pacing is still well-considered, and later episodes, such as eleven, when Ye Xiu is trying to balance work with a major in-game event, do a very nice job with tension. The animation itself can be smooth and fluid when it needs to be, and there are some beautiful shots of Lord Grim sliding or Steamed Bun Invasion hopping around that give a good sense of speed and dexterity. CG isn't terrific, but it also isn't horrific. The biggest issue may be one that once again goes back to Chinese gaming versus Western: when Ye Xiu or one of the other characters is shown tapping away at their keys to control their avatars, it looks as if too many keys are being used, even when considering macros. Typically an RPG uses the W-A-D-S keys to move an avatar; Ye Xiu's fingers are all over the left side of the keyboard. (As a note, keyboards are shown to have English letters on the keys.) The background music gets a little too tinky at times, but the theme songs are catchy, albeit a bit slow for the story they bookend.
The art looks largely like any anime production at first glance, which is what makes the differences worth noting. Much more time is spent in close-ups of male bodies, covered or in open shirts, and while the female avatars are uniformly buxom, there's nary a jiggle to be seen. All of the real women are conservatively dressed, even Chen Guo, the owner of the Internet café, who in a Japanese production would likely be played as the oversexed, big-breasted female who hangs all over Ye Xiu – her obsession with Ye Qiu (whom she steadfastly refuses to believe Ye Xiu is) is treated as a part of her life rather than the center of her character, and while she is hands-down the most irritating person in the franchise, she's also much more modestly portrayed than her similar sisters in anime. Also worth noting is that Ye Xiu is firmly focused on the game – and so are the women he games with. Although it is apparently that Su Mucheng is someone he feels extremely close to (and that the feeling is mutual), neither of them feels the need to harp on that fact, and the show allows us to put our own interpretation on their relationship. Chen Guo and Tang Rou, the other female cast members, just treat Ye Xiu as a person, not a potential romantic interest, and there's no romantic jealousy to be found.
Ye Xiu certainly gets the most time of any of the characters, although that doesn't always feel like character development. We do see him slowly begin to enjoy playing again – when he first logs on to Glory's new server, it feels like he's doing initially to shut Chen Guo up and then to avenge himself, but by episode five he seems to have remembered that he genuinely enjoys playing. His preternatural skills aren't all that surprising when you contexualize them, either: he's been a pro player for ten years, so he's not so much gifted as well-versed. He does come off as a bit cold, but again, we can see him warming up, and by the end he appears to have actually made friends with a few of his fellow players, even those who were Excellent Era's enemies when he was One Autumn Leaf. Bao Rongxing is the closest we really come to a recognizable anime trope, with his outgoing banter and leap-before-you-look manner. All of the characters are at least in their very late teens, which we rarely see.
As always, there is a temptation to tout this series simply because it features adult protagonists in a more serious, real-world setting. That can be part of the appeal, and the implications of Sun Xiang not being as proficient with Ye Xiu's old avatar plays into some interesting findings about self-designed avatars and the whole virtual theft issue, but the ultimate question has to be whether The King's Avatar is worthwhile on its own merits. I have to say that I enjoyed it, and definitely moreso after I spent a day reading the first hundred-odd chapters of the novels. Having the more detailed information in the books makes the TV series better, if only because you understand the background details more, but as I said, around episode five the show does begin to expand upon its world better. The King's Avatar isn't the most amazing series ever, but it is just different enough to catch you, and its focus on a different aspect of gaming – the specifically competitive angle – is interesting. (More specifically, if you've enjoyed J-Novel Club's release of Paying to Win in a VRMMO, you'll probably like The King's Avatar.)
Despite what we sometimes like to think, no one country has a monopoly on good animated storytelling. If you enjoy Sailor Moon, you'll probably like the French series loliRock, and if you like gaming series where the technology isn't VR and the wronged prove themselves better than their would-be oppressors, it's worth checking out The King's Avatar. Tencent has made the entire series available in English, legally, on YouTube. It isn't perfect, but it's a new direction for Chinese animation, breaking some of the boundaries China has imposed on its creative work. For that alone it's almost worth watching this; the fact that it's actually enjoyable is the icing on the cake.
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