I bet that after watching the one two punch of When the Yogurt Took Over and Beyond the Aquila Rift, you’d be wondering if, if not how, LDR could possibly top itself. The answer for this is rather simple; watch episode eight, Good Hunting. Ever since I first watched LDR, Good Hunting was in my top three episodes, and one of the select few I’d rewatch. Like Beyond the Aquila Rift, this is an episode that tends to pop up in conversation when talking about LDR, and like Sonnie’s Edge this is one that fans say deserves to be expanded into a whole series. If you watch it, it’s easy to see why. This episode is rich in lore, nuanced in theme, and beautiful to look at. It really is magical, and I’ll tell you why.
The story, based on the short story by Ken Liu, tells the intertwined tale of the human Liang and the huli jing Yan (a nine tailed fox spirit that can shape shift into an unearthly beautiful woman) across the years in an alternate 19th century as they deal with colonization of China by the British Empire. Their stories start in their childhood, when magic still exists; thus the episode starts off as a wuxia action story. We open on Liang and his father, a local spirit hunter, waiting for the arrival of a huli jing (named Tsiao-Jung) they have been hired to kill. Sure enough, the huli jing arrives, summoned by the cries of the man she had previously entranced. The father engages Tsiao-Jung, and soon a fight scene and a rooftop chase ensues, ending with Tsiao-Jung losing a hand. They chase her back to her lair, where Liang encounters Yan, Tsiao-Jung’s daughter. He then watches as his father decapitates Tsiao-Jung, and hides the existence of Yan from his father, sparing her life. Years pass, his father has died a peaceful death, and a railroad has been built in the village, signalling the start of the colonial modernization of China by the British Empire. Liang visits Yan, with whom he has formed a close friendship over the years, and tells her he’ll soon be moving to the city. Once in the city (I want to say Hong Kong?), Liang learns he has a real knack for machinery, maintaining the trains for his British masters. One night, he gets off a boat and see some British noblemen harassing Yan, and he rescues her from a near assault. They wander the city together and tell each other what they’ve been doing the last few years: Yan, now perpetually trapped in her human form due to the disappearance of magic (which she says is tied to the growing presence of British technology), has been forced to resort to bewitching men for money to survive; Liang bitterly tells her he too serves their British masters by keeping their trains running. Years pass again, and the episode has now gone full steampunk. Liang, building upon his skills with machinery, has spent the intervening years becoming a master at creating life-like automata in a city filled to the brim with steam powered mechanical wonders. One night, he is awakened by an intruder; a changed Yan looking for his help. She reveals to him that she has become a full automaton, and recounts the horrific tale of her transformation: she was drugged by the British Governor (a long time chaste client), and forcibly and painfully turned into a robotic sex slave until one night she finally snaps and kills him. The story complete, Yan asks Liang if he can help her fight the men who did this to her by improving her mechanical body. He accepts her, and creates for her a body that can allow her to transform back into her true form. Once complete, he wishes her luck as she leaps into the night to resume her hunting.
Like I said in my intro, this short had me entranced from the very beginning like Tsiao-Jung had that man entranced. Everything about it was just perfect. The animation, provided by Red Dog Culture House, was easily the best animation I had seen yet. It’s primarily 2D animation that feels like a mixture of animation seen in The Legend of Korra, Anastasia, and Treasure Planet. When in the wuxia part of the story, it drew out a magical feeling from the countryside and allowed for some truly breathtaking fight animation. When in the steampunk part of the story, it made us believe that magic can truly be found in machinery and the urban jungle (a nuance that is often missed in my mind with stories like these) while also highlighting the blights modernization could cause to the environment and to the individual. The character work was also fantastic. The story hinged on the intertwined lives of Liang and Yan. It delivered quite well, giving us a portrait of two individuals bound early in life by fate and destined to reappear in defining moments in each others lives. I especially liked how each character had their own narratives that seemed thematically inverse of each other; Yan, a magical being who loses her magical abilities as modernization creeps in; Liang, a man who grows with modernization, creating his own magic from machinery. Yet despite these differences, they share the bond of their shared experience of the night they met, and reinforced by the common experiences of being repressed citizens by a foreign people who view them as sub-human. Their bond was so great in fact, I was often left wondering if Liang was entranced by Yan when they first met as young teenagers (it could explain why she follows him, since the huli jing is bound to those she has entranced, willingly or not), but I also wonder if somehow Yan was entranced by Liang in turn (the other potential explanation why she follows him across China). To me, both options seem possible, and who knows, maybe both are correct. Last thing I should mention from my initial watch was the genre choices themselves. Compared to the sheer number of stories based on Western mythology (though not all that surprising seeing as America is defined as the West), it’s not often we get stories based on Eastern mythology (despite Asia containing two thirds of the world’s population, and the growing influence on American culture), and the fusion with steampunk is inspired. Liu showed us a genre I never even knew existed, and did it so well it feels like it was always there. If there was any kind of complaint I had when I first watched Good Hunting was that I felt the sexuality could turn people sensitive to that kind of subject matter off, keeping them from watching a piece of art.
During my most recent rewatch, I once again didn’t really have any change of opinions, but instead gained a deeper understanding of what made the episode great. One thing I came to realize is that this story is an allegorical tale about, if I put it rather bluntly, the cultural rape of China by the British Empire during the age of European Colonialism. You see this in the episode at both the macroscopic and the microscopic. At the microscopic, we see this by the negative effects British forced modernization has on the environment. For example, the episode is book ended by two shots of the sky with the moon; the shot at the beginning when modernization has yet to take hold features a beautiful, clear sky; the shot at the end features the same sky and the same moon, but the sky is now choked by the acrid fumes from the British factories. At the microscopic level, we have the unwilling robotization of Yan by the British Governor. There’s no way to view her transformation as anything more than a true to life sexual assault, the symbolic, irreversible change to an automaton body representing how I imagine a victim of sexual assault would feel like afterwards, only given more defined shape by the nature of the story. On an even deeper level, it also mirrors the macroscopic: Yan, a beautiful being defined by an ancient Eastern magic who represents the culture of China; the Governor, a fat and piggish man who pretends to be kind and sophisticated until he forcibly takes what he wants without any sort of regard, represents the British Empire. It all serves to give a heartbreaking view of what that time in Chinese history must have been like, the only difference between the episode and real life in my mind is the episode uses magic and automata to tell the story instead of opium and territory disputes like in real life.
The second thing I came to realize was that despite all this, positive growth is still possible. When Yan came to Liang asking for help, she knew her trauma was permanent and that there was no going back to the way things were. The difference is, is that she came to accept what happened to her, but refused to let it define her, like many victims of sexual assault. This is shown by Yan asking Liang to improve her mechanical form instead of asking to change her back. Through this, she was able to attain a level of being that she has for a long time been unable to access; namely, the ability to transform back into her true form of a nine tailed fox. It goes to show that despite the trauma of becoming a victim of sexual assault, she still true to what she always was and what she always will be, a beautiful huli jing. It’s a welcome nuance that puts Good Hunting ahead of the pack compared to other episodes that barely address these themes, if at all.
If I had to put all this together into a single phrase to describe Good Hunting, I’d say it’s truly a piece of art. It tells a rich and complicated story with compelling and complicated themes, and does so with understanding and grace with animation that is as rich and deep as the story it tells. I’m not one of those people who say that these episodes, Good Hunting included, should be expanded. Good Hunting is a near perfect tale that doesn’t need any more, or any less. That said, I would be so down for Lui to have more of his stories adapted in season two of LDR because this is the kind of story I want to be told through the format of LDR; something original that both challenges and enriches anyone who experiences it.
Final Rating: A