Thunderbolt Fantasy: Panels and Interviews

by Gabriella Ekens,

This year, Sakuracon brought over the folks behind Thunderbolt Fantasy, 2016's fantasy adventure series about chivalry, puppets, and swords. This show was the wider world's introduction to PiLi, the superstar Taiwanese film studio known for combining the island's traditional glove puppetry (bu dai xi) with modern film techniques. As an attempt to make inroads abroad, Thunderbolt Fantasy was made in cooperation with the folks at Nitroplus, most notably anime screenwriting legend Gen Urobuchi (Fate/Zero, Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass). This writeup covers two panels: Saturday's THUNDERBOLT FANTASY PANEL WITH UROBUCHI GEN (US EXCLUSIVE) and Sunday's PILI BUDAIXI – THE GLOVE PUPPETRY ANIMATION DEMONSTRATION.

Guests from PiLi included studio head Liang-Hsun Huang as well as senior puppeteers Chen-Ching Ting and Yi-Tsun Hsaio. Japanese guests included Good Smile Company president Aki Takanori, Nitroplus president Digitarou, producer Koh Kitaoka, and Gen Urobuchi.

Saturday's panel began with a screening of Thunderbolt Fantasy's first episode. After that, Mr. Huang went on to explain a few things about bu dai xi, Taiwan's native style of puppetry. The puppet's head and hands are made out of wood, while the “body” is cloth. It's glove puppetry, so there's actually no body under there – the puppeteer's arms are what keeps it upright. The puppets are 100cm tall, and the flowing robes are necessary to conceal the puppeteer's hands.

Urobuchi then told the story of his exposure to bu dai xi. He was in Taiwan for other business and encountered an exhibition of PiLi props and artwork. He immediately fell in love, resolved to bring the form over to Japan, and contacted PiLi in order to begin doing so.

Urobuchi proceeded to elaborate on his scripting process for the show – compared to anime, he actually found it liberating, because there were fewer restrictions in terms of dialogue length. At the same time, there were a few added challenges. One was the bu dai xi convention of having all the puppets voiced by a single actor. This was solved by having two versions of the show – one with traditional bu dai xi voice work and another with Japanese voice actors. The other challenge was navigating the language barrier in scripting. Urobuchi scripted the show in Japanese, and those scripts were then translated into Chinese for the performance and recording. This means that the show took more time to make, and he felt somewhat distanced from its ultimate creation. There were difficult parts, but when he saw the final product, he was very moved and happy to have been a part of it.

The character designs were provided by Nitroplus with input from Good Smile Company. (Specific designers were Mimori Shinov, Minamoto no Satoru, NiØ, and Chūō Higashiguchi.) PiLi then adapted these designs into puppets, through a combination of Taiwanese and Japanese character styles. The biggest deviations from PiLi's usual style were the large and varied eye shapes, most notable on the character Dān Fěi.

They then discussed future plans for the series. Urobuchi intends for Thunderbolt Fantasy to continue on for “quite a while” and currently has a sequel series planned, as well as several “side stories.” One will concern Shā Wú Shēng, the Screaming Phoenix Killer, and the other Shāng Bù Huàn, the show's protagonist. They then revealed some character designs for the show's second season. They also played a video showing how these designs are made into puppets.

Sunday's panel featured the folks from PiLi and focused on the art of bu dai xi. They recapped most of the information from Saturday's panel, but included more live demonstrations by the puppeteers as well as puppets from the mainline PiLi series. Puppeteers Chen-Ching Ting and Yi-Tsun Hsaio performed a live battle and instructed two audience members on how to handle the puppets.

There was also an informative Q&A session. Interesting information included:

  • Thunderbolt Fantasy cost “about as much” to produce as a normal anime.

  • They don't recommend trying to get into PiLi shows besides Thunderbolt Fantasy, because they're too long and require very specific translation, but they've recently produced an accessible film called The Arti: The Adventure Begins.

  • The most difficult puppets to operate are the ones with thinner costumes, since that makes it more difficult to hide the puppeteer's hands.

  • They usually make three puppets of each character – one for fight scenes, another for scenes where the character is seated, and another extra.

  • Mr. Ting and Mr. Hsaio decided to pursue puppetry because they were fans themselves.

  • Many specific character motions aren't indicated in the script, but rather improvised by the puppeteers.

  • There are no rehearsals before recording, and they use as many takes as necessary to complete a scene.


Mr. Huang, you come from a family of puppeteers, correct? Can you tell us a little about your family's history alongside PiLi?

Liang-Hsun Huang: Bu Dai Xi came from mainland China, the 13th province of Fujian, and has been in Taiwan for about four centuries. There were several puppeteers back then, but the Huang family was one of the most prominent ones. I'm the 5th generation, but the company was founded by my father about 30 years ago, and that's when they started to do movie and TV production. So right now, I'm mostly in charge of how to make the public shows into visual media like TV and movies.

What brought you into puppetry and what was the training process like?

Chen-Ching Ting: I fell in love with Bu Dai Xi when I was a little boy. As soon as I watched it, I loved it. So then I started learning how to become a puppeteer and it's been more than 40 years now.

What's the training process like? How do you start it?

Ting: It's more like an apprenticeship. I learned from my grandfather. In the earlier days, the training was very strict and you had to start from the basics, as with any apprenticeship, including sweeping the floor. So you comb the puppet's hair, things like that. You have to learn starting from that.

Mr. Urobuchi's work is known for being quite dark and heady. In contrast, how did it feel to work on a fun and relatively straightforward adventure story? Does this represent a shift in your work from now on?

Gen Urobuchi: Actually until now, I've had pitches or proposals from other producers, so the concept was originally decided by them, and there were many such works. But this time, I had the opportunity to propose this work and plan it all myself. So I was like a kid again, it was like being a kid in a candy store, and it was actually really fun. Yes, I would like to make this a trend and continue to make this kind of work in the future.

Will you be writing the second season?

Urobuchi: Yes, we're working on it right now.

I'm also interested in the character of Rin Setsu A. He gets center stage in promotional materials even though he possesses a sneaky personality and devious motivations more typical of a villain or the rival character. Why make this character the face of the show?

Urobuchi: There's a superhero character that's really a perfect superhero in every way for a series Pili is producing called Su Huan-Jen. In order to distinguish Thunderbolt Fantasy from that work, I really wanted to have a top character with a different personality. That's why we took the character of Rin Setsu A in that direction, and I think it puts the series in a unique place.

Are there any works that were particularly influential or formative for you as a writer?

Urobuchi: There's so many of them that when I try to think of them now, they're just countless, the number of works that have influenced me are uncountable. But there is a Chinese-style Buddhist novel, a writer in Taiwan known as Koryu[sic], and I loved these novels by Koryu. I was influenced by them and I imagined what this world would be like based on those novels too.

Speaking more about the production side, you mentioned at the panel that there would be Thunderbolt Fantasy side stories on video. What forms will these take? Will they be films, will they air on television? Can you elaborate a little more on that?

Urobuchi: Initially, those side stories are being published as a novel by Nitro Plus. So they will look at that original novel, and we really hope that Pili will take that and turn it into some amazing visuals. It's a relatively short work, so it might be broadcast on TV, but we do hope that we have the chance to show it at a public event, perhaps at a movie theater.

Will the novel be written by Mr. Urobuchi?

Urobuchi: The novel is being written by an acquaintance, but I'm doing the script version of that. It's actually two novels, only one of those novels is currently planned to be turned into visuals. So I'm writing the script for that.

Are there any plans to give Thunderbolt Fantasy a physical release in North America? I would certainly love to see one.

Huang: Not at this time. But we'll do our best, and if you want us to release a physical version, we would love to bring it to North America.

How about making other Pili shows available in North America? Streaming, for example.

Huang: Actually back in 2006, there was one Pili show that somehow got over on Cartoon Network. However, the American side decided to rewrite the script and did a lot of editing in order to make it more accessible for American viewers. We understand that because Pili—this kind of puppet show—really incorporates a lot of traditional Chinese culture, including the value judgments in the martial arts genre such as the need to be loyal, filial, or pious. These traditional Chinese value judgments might not translate very into Western ideas or value judgments. And then another thing is, the script used a lot of classical Chinese. Therefore, it was really difficult to get the message across. The beauty and the meaning of it are both lost in translation. So of course we would like to bring more shows we have already made to the world, however, we need to search for the best translator to do this job. Without that, it's very difficult.

Let's end on a quick, fun question. What's everyone's favorite Thunderbolt Fantasy character?

Urobuchi: I love all of the characters, I really do, but I rarely have the opportunity to write these straight heroic characters like Sho Fu Kan. I think that character's existence is very important.

Huang: Like everyone, my favorite character is also Sho Fu Kan because in wuxia or Pili shows, these kinds of characters are naturally the most attractive. So I naturally fell in love with him. However, in terms of just character design—not talking about the personality, just the looks and style-wise—then my favorite is Setsu Mu Sho because he turned out to be really similar to the original design in the original script. He looked the most anime-like and also…he is sort of demonic? Demonic charisma?

Ah, so he's like a bad boy?

Huang: He has the kind of seductive eyes, the eyes that smile upwards.

DIGITAROU: I like Setsu Mu Sho, the Eradicator of Life, because his puppet form is very similar to the original Japanese look.

Aki Takanori: I like Sho Fu Kan. All the guys probably like him. Everyone wants to be him, so we just kinda put everything cool into his character. I would also like to be Rin Setsu A, but I'm not sure if it's possible to be someone so clever, so smart.

Urobuchi: Yeah, it would be really hard to work with a producer like Rin Setsu A. (laughs)

Takanori: Most guys around the world love Sho Fu Kan. I think they also love Tan Hi. Just someone who's so cute and attractive like Tan Hi, she's really amazing too.

Koh Kitaoka: I like Ken San Un. He tells a lot of jokes and he's a very humorous character. If I was Ken San Un, I would like to try really hard to win over Tan Hi.

Thank you very much.

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