This Week in Anime
Why You Should Try Heaven's Official Blessing

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Monique Thomas,

Heaven's Official Blessing marks a first for U.S. anime streaming: it's Funimation's first streaming Chinese animated series. Produced by Haoliners and Chinese streaming giant bilibili, the series is just one of the latest offering as China pivots to domestic animation. Jean-Karlo and Nicky check out the show and how it handles the source material's subtext.

This series is streaming on Funimation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet


Jean-Karlo
You know, Nicky, it's the month after Halloween October, but it's been all rainy up where I live. Leaves are falling everywhere, and it's cold, but I still feel like wearing a few hoodies and walking in the woods. Good times. Just you, puddles of blood, corpses hanging from the trees, a handsome stranger talking to you about how pretty the moon is...

We even found this skull. The hell if I know where it came from. This truly is the high life.
Nicky
I think I'd prefer to take a nap in some warm hay as the leaves fall all around me.
As luck would have it, we had two works of Chinese animation on our docket. This week, I'm joyous to say Nicky and myself are covering Heaven Official's Blessing, an adaptation of a Chinese web novel that I'm told is fiercely beloved by a loyal cadre of fans. It comes to us from bilibili and Haoliners. A notice to the HOB fans: I went into this series blind, but I promise you I'll treat your precious boys well. I can see why people love this so much.
Also known as Tiān Guān Cì Fú, Heaven Official's Blessing is a donghua (animation) adaption of the darling Mo Xiang Tong Xiu's third series. Her other two works already have numerous official adaptations including the Netflix live-action series, The Untamed, but this is the first time we're getting one of them licensed, subbed, and soon-to-be dubbed, by Funimation. All things considered, this is a pretty big deal that we're getting more diverse works legitimized by official licensors even if it's not the only Chinese produced animation available to us.
There are a lot of cynical reasons you could bring up for why Funimation took a chance on this donghua, but nuts to that. This is some good-good slow-burning fantasy just oozing with subtext. And it's just raw, unfiltered eye-candy too. Leaving this off the table would have been such a loss.
Haoliners has done a lot of anime co-pros in recent years and I find them to be variable for every Flavors of Youth there's a Spiritpact or a Hitori no Shita - the outcast. But man, is this stuff absolutely Top-Notch. Not a bad frame in-sight, on top of pleasing character designs, wonderful music, and well-directed action, this might be one of the best produced shows I've seen all year. It's almost hard to capture how pretty this show is with just screencaps. Not to mention a gorgeously painted ballad of an opening!!
The story goes that a Prince has ascended to Heaven--for the third time. Apparently, this isn't very auspicious at all; he has a habit of sending himself back to the mortal world for funsies, which makes him a bit of a failure in the eyes of his fellow deities. Also, his appearance in Heaven legit causes property damage to the tune of 8.8 million credits.
This dude got granted godhood and then fired twice!! He has the audacity to come back after 800 years later! To which every godly resident in the area can only respond by saying.
In order to pay off his debt (and as punishment for both his shenanigans and for being broke), the other deities send the Prince back to Earth to resolve the mystery of a ghost terrorizing a small village and kidnapping brides that pass through the area. What follows is a lot of intrigue and heartbreak. He's got no mana, but the other gods were nice(?) enough to give him two helpers, Nan Fung and Fu Yao. But they're from two deities that don't get along, so it's all the Prince can do to keep them from having angry makeout sessions fighting.
Just like Xie Lian dropping into the realm of the gods, the audience is immediately pulled into this immaculate setting of fantastical and spiritual ways. It may seem a little hostile and intimidating at first to be introduced to such a detailed world but the character interactions are so natural that it really wasn't difficult at all to be pulled into the story. Xie Lian is an extreme himbo. Pretty, good-hearted, and highly skilled but also a great big air-head. I also really enjoyed the cool-headed and sharp interactions with him and the trusty Ling Wen, who serves as his handler for these tasks. Thanks to the characters, the story-bits are never dry.
I wanna take a moment to say that I would take a bullet for Ling Wen. I stan my divine beleaguered executive assistant wife. I will make her coffee, have dinner ready for her, and listen to every word of the headaches the Prince put her through.
We all relate to Ling Wen.
Joyous domestic life aside, I was definitely feeling overwhelmed when I started watching. The titles and vocations of all the characters made me feel like I was in over my head. But I was won over by everyone, and not just because the entire cast is unearthly pretty; HOB has really good character interactions. From Ling Wen's breathless interactions with her Prince, to the banter between Nan Fung and Fu Yao, to the subtle sass the other deities toss at each other, it's fun to sit back and watch these people politely dish out verbal lashings.
Getting Scrutinized in front of a whole board meeting isn't exactly my idea of a good time but it's great and humanizing to see just how petty everyone is about it. Turns out heaven and earth politics aren't really so different? Especially when most of the gods are former political figures themselves.

This further extends to His Highness's traveling companions, who doubtlessly squabble the whole time over details like the Duke's temple accidentally being misspelled to Dick Temple or the fact that one general had dedicated himself to literally cleaning up after His Lord.

This extends to the Prince himself! For such a flaky deity, he was apparently quite the person in life! He slayed demons, saved a falling child, was wise and beloved, and as it happens cared so much for his kingdom that he willingly turned down his first Ascension when his old kingdom was burned to the ground.
All of that is enough on it's own to make a good show but we should also explore in detail our first mystery of vanishing brides.
See, here's the thing with Heaven Official's Blessing that I appreciate: it's a slow-burn. And while early on it almost turned me off, the characters kept me in. Most other shows would have blown through the opening mystery in just one episode (it's ultimately the kind of thing Kamen Rider would solve in half an hour). But HOB stretches it out to four, really letting us simmer in those juices.
So when Umbrella Man here comes along and leads our cross-dressing Prince through a forest of dead bodies and pools of blood in the first episode, we won't see pay-off for that until the fourth. All you have to go off of is this most audacious of hand-holding.
It's the little red string on the ring finger that really ties it for me. Implying that this is indeed a Fated Encounter. That's it, they're already married. Called it.
We've danced around this a lot, but Heaven Official's Blessing is based off of a Danmei (which I'm told means "indulgence in beauty"). And yes, China has a lot of laws concerning gay content in media, but HOB takes it in its stride and finds a lot of workarounds. The result is a slow-burn. I haven't consumed anything like this before, but what an introduction. Sure, it's fun to enjoy the scandalousness of open and raw Content™️ where our beloved characters rearrange their insides like they're on HGTV, but the Real Ones know that the heart and soul of this stuff is the subtext. It's the stolen glances, the lingering hand-holdings, the bittersweet memories, the otherwise-innocuous tokens of affection whose meaning betray their significance. As a neophyte, lemme just say, I am here for this. The rearrangements are what AO3 is for, anyway.
Well, part of that is also just an attempt to get around a cruel world that hates both fictional homosexuality and the expression of real-life women. One novelist in China got sentenced 10 years in prison for her stories because they were considered too pornographic. It's a pretty rough spot to be in but I think love will to find a way even if you can't always be as explicit as you want.

Though I'm unfamiliar with most of the source materials, I'm aware that most adaptations of danmei are much more white-washed for consumption and leaves even more room for what we like to call "Plausible Deniability", and what I like about HOB so far is that there really isn't any "Heterosexual Explanation" for any of it.
Ah, the old "there's only one bed" episode. A classic.
But yeah, So-called Umbrella Man actually turns out to be Hua Cheng, one of the four feared ghost/demon kings. Trademarked by the presence of ethereal butterflies. His gentle appearance that belies his fearful reputation and the implication of a history with Xie Lian create an even greater mystery to unfold.

I am eating up this "fated reunion" stuff here. Like, the age difference bugs me, but homeboy falls in love so hard he goes on a quest and not only defeats 33 deities in both martial arts and literature, but goes on to fully depower them and steal their followers. But all he has for our Prince is smiles and a walk through a bloody forest.
I feel like age difference stuff becomes kinda negligible after a few centuries at least where both are ostensibly un-aging "young" adults. Being a god will do that to you.
It takes us a while to get to this juicy Content™️, though, because there's the mystery of the ghost groom to resolve first. And it turns out it's actually a ghost... bride. One of the deities in life had a fling with a general from a rival nation, but didn't want to commit to a relationship with her. So her resentment turned her into a spirit of wrath and she spirited away all of the passing by brides that dared to smile in her presence. This was heart wrenching for me; poor Xuan Ji is played off as a crazy ex that should have just "let a guy go", and now has to have a mountain dropped on her.

I wonder if the intent is to show that the deities aren't quite the bastions of morality they claim they are? Because Xuan Ji really comes off as the unfortunate victim of falling in love with a guy who played with her heart. In that light, yeah, maybe the Prince isn't on the wrong track for having given up his own divinity three times.
Ultimately, I think they're still political figures and even if they're gods now they're still formerly human and therefore totally fallible!
I'm not saying I'd let Xuan Ji crush my skull like she did some other poor schlub, I'm just saying I hate what happened to her and I'd buy her a Happy Meal if I could because she deserved way better.
This makes this corpse bride's tale of getting stood-up at the isle more heartbreaking though. She got caught in a political game and lost everything. She lost her love, her country, and her life. Dude doesn't even show up to take her to jail and instead sends his descendent.

I have a feeling this also sets a tone how great love can also comes with greater betrayals, something our protagonist may have to learn given his swift fall into the arms of a not-so well-to-do fellow.
See, I wonder if the overall idea for this series is to contrast the Prince and Hua Cheng's dalliances with the failings of the deities that are otherwise out for Hua Cheng's blood? Because that'd make for interesting television. I deeply feel for characters like Xuan Ji (innocently wounded by the greed of others, turning to revenge and being called monsters for voicing their hurt), but hey, that heartbreak is part of storytelling. So while we see the upper-crust types cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and talk about "What's to be done with this Prince?", we see the Prince being led through all their dirty laundry by Hua Cheng. The Heaven Official's Blessing fans probably know the answer to this.
Well whether there is a great comeuppance in store is yet to be seen but I do get the feeling that there are some larger political strings being pulled, like the fact that all of Xian Le's debt vanishes overnight after solving one mystery despite being told earlier that it wouldn't be enough.

And although we see some of the other officials, not much is really said of the proclaimed Emperor of the realm, who seems to favor Xian Le.
Also, Xian Le is looking to start his own temple, which opens the door to weird managerial shenanigans I suppose. Is it a coffee shop AU if the story outright includes it from the get-go?
TBH, I would play a temple management sim game, esp if it includes nabbing a cute boyfriend who paints wonderful pictures of me.
Ooh, now that you mention it, an Actraiser game with Otome game elements sounds lovely...
At any rate, I'm definitely hooked by Heaven Official's Blessing. The visuals are sumptuous and honestly, they could carry this series on their lonesome. But the fun characters, gripping story lines, and emotional subtext is what kept me hooked. (Also, Ling Wen and Xuan Ji.) I never would have given this series a second look, but I'm so glad I did. I definitely hope that the HOB fandom is happy with this, because at least outside-looking-in it looks to be the kind of adaptation fans wish a series could get on a regular basis.
I've mentioned before that I tend to grade stories by foremost, their human element, and Heaven's Official Blessing is no exception, displaying human beauty and ugliness in a god-like fashion. While some may beware it's foreign qualities, I assure you there's nothing to fear about this supernatural mystery, as it's a well-crafted and well-told story on the standing of most other animated series.

I would even look forward to watching this again when it's dubbed! (Something I don't say very often.)
From your lips to God's ears, eh? Eh?
Well, let's just hope that I don't end up lookin' like this in 2021.

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