Mar 26, 2022
The Soul of Soldier Master has the potential to be one of the donghua greats, but hasn't really picked up traction, perhaps due to the confusing first couple of episodes that don't seem to match up to its synopsis. That's because the synopsis, which is characteristically introduced by a narrator at the beginning of the first episode, gets way ahead of the first season. Rather, the pacing of Soldier Master is sort of like another donghua Island of Siliang, slow and methodological, introducing all of the characters while peeling back layers of the plot like an onion, until the whole situation is simmering and ready
to explode. Like Island of Siliang, this show ends with a massive cliffhanger at the end of season 1, with a teaser for the next season.
The plot of the season could be more accurately described as follows. Linhai is a town where the soldier masters ("bing zhu"), cultured humanoid animals, live peacefully side by side with humans. It's in a distant corner of the continent, not very highly regarded by the powerful cultivation families. One master of a demon sect hatches a plan using a technique several hundred years in the making, researched over generations of his own tribe to steal civilians' soul powers en masse. Since soul powers between the differing demon sects would conflict, he decides to use the technique on the soldier masters in Linhai, since it would be far enough off the map to avoid attracting attention from any powerful clans.
The protagonist Li Shi (nickname Shi Tou -- "tou" means head, and the entire phrase "shi tou" means rock or stone, which could be an endearing or mild term for calling someone slightly dumb) must catch a legendary Seven-Colored Fish in order to receive a ticket to enter a martial arts competition through the backdoor. Meanwhile, mercenaries accompany a humanoid shark felon to Linhai, supposedly to turn him in, but the shark breaks loose. A woman steals medicine from a Taoist to cure a mysterious man in the woods. And a humanoid armadillo could be seen pacing the countryside. Of course, all of these plot threads are related.
Perhaps like Island of Siliang, all of the main characters are oblivious to what's about to happen, and the main conflict is set up to be bigger than it seems that any one of them could handle. Li Shi, who has always disliked the wealthy, is teasing his competition and getting into petty squabbles with various characters, much to the embarrassment of the judges, but providing comedic relief. Thus, the show depicts an ominous juxtaposition between a devilish plan of which its genocidal results could be seen in a dream in the first episode, and the protagonists still having their fun. It's just building tension using this contrast. Episode by episode, the plan is revealed a bit more, and some of the side characters figure out what's going on, but most of the town is still in the lighthearted mood provided by the entertainment of the competition. The town mayor, not wanting to lose face with the judges, brushes all the problems under the rug.
The execution can be slow, and it could be a bit annoying how unaware the main characters are of the mess they're in -- but it's interesting. I want to see what comes next. When a major plot point does develop, it feels like everything that went into it was not wasted, and all the carefree scenes somehow played a role. When fights occur, they are well directed, and still reveal a little bit of the mystery. Despite many scenes seemingly unrelated to the main plot, it all somehow gets there, but with more world building and character development. The interaction between the characters and the townsfolk of Linhai, as well as the occasional outsider, builds a fuller picture of the whole dynamic. It gives personality to the town and lets us know what's at stake.
Season 1 seems like it's just the prologue, so we won't really know how the meat of the conflict would develop until later seasons. But given how purposeful it's been developed and directed so far, I have high hopes. I might not live out its potential, but potential it has.
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