The Deer of Nine Colors

An absolutely brilliant 1981 animation from Shanghai Animation Film Studio, The Deer of Nine Colors is a 24-minute interpretation of ancient frescas from the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in Western China. Although I can’t read Chinese, I’m fairly certain it was scored by Wu Ying-Ju, who also scored the classic Havoc in Heaven starring everyone’s favorite Chinese folklore character, the Monkey King.

Wu Ying-Ju is known for effortlessly blending Western orchestral composition with traditional instruments from Beijing opera, and this score is no exception. The music during the obligatory dream parade interlude features a plucked pipa weaving through Western bowed strings, one of the most pleasant instrumental combinations in existence. My favorite moment, however, is about midway through and features a solo from Madam Li Sujun, singing in the wonderfully resonant Kabuki style.

The story is adapted from an old Buddhist Jakata parable which has since been used by Miyazaki, Toriyama, and countless others for inspiration or direct adaptation. On the surface the tale is about returning to our true nature of harmony by rejecting greed and wickedness, but beneath that it is a warning from the Dunhuang monks about the dangers of obsessing over the treasures of the Silk Road, along which their temple was situated.

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