The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Thunderbolt Fantasy (puppet TV) ?
What is this?
In an Eastern-styled fantasy setting, a brother and sister team of sacred guardians is beset by the Xuan Gui Zong, minions of Miè Tian Hai, who seeks the Tian Xing Jiàn sword that they possess. Hai's appearance leads to the defeat of the brother, but his sister, Dan Fei, jumps off a cliff to temporary safety. Later, a wandering swordsman comes across a ruined temple, where a statue of Buddha is protected by an umbrella against the rain. When he takes the umbrella for himself, a man resting under a tree nearby informs him that he must be compassionate to the next traveler he meets as a trade-off for taking the umbrella. That next traveler is Dan Fei, still being pursued by the Xuan Gui Zong minions. Both his promise and the enemy's sorcery leaves the wanderer unable to avoid getting involved. Thunderbolt Fantasy is an original production made with puppetry and stop-motion animation. You can find it streaming on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 4:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I can't imagine there is anyone in this world who loves his job more than Gen Urobuchi. As the prescreening interview for Thunderbolt Fantasy reveals, two years ago, Urobuchi was shocked for the first time by the energy of Taiwanese puppet theater - and so, of course, he absolutely had to make a puppet show himself. That seems to have been the trend for Urobuchi of late - after starting out writing visual novels and then handling some of the most highly regarded anime of the past few years, he's more recently been branching out, handling a mix of anime films and an entire season of Kamen Rider. And now Urobuchi thinks puppets are awesome, and so he gets to make a puppet drama.
Having watched this first episode, I have to agree with Urobuchi's assessment. Basically every element of this production breathes enthusiasm, from its intricately costumed puppets and frantic musical score to the fact that every element of Thunderbolt Fantasy's world is apparently highly explosive. Trees explode, swords explode, rocks explode, people explode. If you are not exploding, you are not welcome here.
The actual plot of the show so far is fairly routine - a high-ranked guardian of magical secrets is being chased by skull-faced bad guys, and so grumpy traveler Shang Bu Huan steps in to help. But every element of this production is just so excited about what it's doing that it's hard not to get swept away. In many ways, Thunderbolt Fantasy feels like the first arc of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. There's an absolutely coherent style to everything going on (intricate costumes and attack names, fights that look more like dancing, dramatic declarations of killing intent) that would naturally fall into camp by our traditional dramatic metrics, but that absolutely works because the whole production is so dedicated to its tone. And yet, it still does parse as camp - lines like “it doesn't matter to me if you're alive or dead… but I'm sure the difference is much greater to you!” are over-the-top treasures, and this episode concludes with an enemy thug accepting his loss, chanting the name of his opponent, and then cutting off his own head, which then flies into the air and is carried away by a skeletal dragon. That sequence of events is roughly par for the course for Thunderbolt Fantasy.
It really helps that Thunderbolt Fantasy's visual aesthetic so perfectly matches its tone. As someone unfamiliar with puppet theater, there's an inherent charm in seeing these nearly expressionless puppets gesticulate to match their dramatic speeches. But while that and elements like the awkward CG dragons make for some slight unintentional humor, the beautiful set designs and hyperactive direction consistently sell the drama on its own terms. It seems like this show's director is having just as much fun as Urobuchi; cameras spin and zoom and break for constant closeups on dueling puppets, and flourishes like a focus on Shang Bu Huan's spinning fan as he disposes of bad guys add a kind of visual poetry to the show's meticulously choreographed exchanges.
So far, I'm having an absolute blast with Thunderbolt Fantasy. It's so straightforward and enthusiastic in its aspirations that it's hard not to like, and it consistently hits that combined note of camp theater and genuinely exciting drama that made early JoJo so singular. Urobuchi is one of my favorite anime writers, and it's great seeing his strong dramatic fundamentals and sarcastic flourishes applied to something that comes across as so deeply earnest. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a wonderful time.
Warning! Do not watch Thunderbolt Fantasy!
...without watching the making-of special first, because it offers some really fantastic insight into just why and how the hell this crazy puppet show was created. (Fun tidbits: Gen Urobuchi was inspired to try and get it made while on vacation in Taiwan! The puppet production company PILI not only creates all the shows, they're even in charge of their own broadcasting! The Japanese voice actors are technically "dubbing" the show from a Taiwanese (Hokkien) performance of Gen's Japanese script translated back and forth across three languages, which is also why the mouths don't move precisely!) It's a fascinating little special, and even the Nitroplus gang comments that they constantly felt like they shouldn't be allowed on set to see such a wild "circus" for free.
After that, of course you should watch Thunderbolt Fantasy, because it's an exhilarating one-of-a-kind coproduction that celebrates talents from across multiple nations and cultures to bring you something you've really never seen before. The razor-sharp shot composition and editing, with clever combinations of practical and digital effects packed into every frame, make this the most exciting "puppet show" ever, and the story is such a straightforward adventure that you can direct most of your brain power to enjoying the craftsmanship of these Taiwanese puppeteers mashed up with Japanese anime narrative style. (It even has a standard "anime opening" by T.M. Revolution, but with live-action puppets instead of drawings!)
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm about as big of an Urobuchi superfan as you can get, but far beyond the quality and style of his writing, I now admire him for having the cojones to say "I don't care how much of a weird risk it is, I want to bring the magic of this little-known Taiwanese art to a wider audience." As fans of a pretty weird medium to begin with, we should always be open to celebrating new ideas and creative experiments, and I'm just so happy that something like Thunderbolt Fantasy can be produced and streamed for audiences all over the world. Puppets or no puppets, this is basically "anime" using old techniques turned brand-new, reinventing what we think is possible in the medium. So open your heart to something a little bit different this season, and let the Thunderbolt Fantasy wash over you!
If you like ball-jointed dolls, you absolutely need to check out Thunderbolt Fantasy. As you've no doubt already heard, rather than traditional animation, this is essentially “performed” with 3D puppets that bear a striking resemblance to high-quality resin collectors' dolls. They're utterly gorgeous with detailed costumes, hair, and face-ups. On the other hand, if you're creeped out by dolls, I'd suggest staying far, far away from this show.
The story of Thunderbolt Fantasy is somewhat more rote than the style in which it is presented, although it reminds me much more strongly of a Korean period drama than anime. The tale is part fantasy/fairy tale, part historical action, and even though we meet the main female character first, she's quickly relegated to the background by the appearance of Shang Bu Han, the wandering swordsman. Shang Bu Han is out in the rain when he notices a stone Buddha statue sheltered by an umbrella left by a more religious person than he. He takes the umbrella but is stopped by a mysterious(ly beautiful) man smoking under a tree, who tells him that if he takes Buddha's umbrella, he'd better be prepared to show Buddha's mercy to the next person in trouble he meets. Now if there's anything most of us have learned from fairy tales, it's that if a mysterious, potentially magical person in the forest tells you to do something, you do it, or the next thing you know toads may be falling out of your mouth when you speak or something. The person Shang Bu Han happens to find is of course the beautiful girl, Dan Fei, from the beginning.
While I love the artistry and imagery of the episode, I admit to some concern about the story. Dan Fei is clearly an important person, guardian of a magical sword, but she spends most of the episode unconscious while the guys fight for her. The sword she's carrying is clearly meant for a woman (or so sayeth the man in the forest), but the opening theme shows her doing more standing and posing demurely than fighting. I don't need Dan Fei to be an amazing kickass heroine, but I will be disappointed if she turns out to simply be there to give Shang Bu Han a reason to be awesome. The fact that the female villain we see only has one line about the death of the leader of the group who was after Dan Fei isn't helping my fears.
In some ways, of course, the actual story doesn't seem to matter. The exquisiteness of the puppets and the scenery and the ways that they are used makes up for a lot of ills, and the bone boomerangs that turn into skeletal birds when thrown are wonderful. There are enough folkloric markers to make this interesting in that respect, and some of the choreography is striking, such as when the villain, after losing his fight against Shang Bu Han, manages to cut his own head off. Basically this is a show where you come for the visuals and just sort of let the story happen…and hope that maybe this style of show catches on.
Well, that was different. I'm struggling to find a more descriptive adjective to apply to Thunderbolt Fantasy, but “different” actually feels rather appropriate. It's an elaborately produced puppet series from one of the most well known names in the anime world, and yet it has the feeling of an old-school martial arts film. I'm not even sure I know what, if anything, I ought to be comparing it to, but it's nothing if not fascinating to watch.
A few things stand out immediately with this series. The first thing that caught my eye was the absurd level of detail on the puppets’ costumes. These things must have taken forever to make, and I doubt all those different layers and accessories make the puppets any easier to operate. The backgrounds, too, are wonderfully elaborate, and my head hurts just trying to imagine someone sitting down and making puppet-scale leaves to put on all the tree branches. Thunderbolt Fantasy is equally intriguing in motion, with the sort of sweeping camera movements I'd expect to see in a big-budget martial arts movie. I knew a few film students in college who would've happily gone through this episode frame by frame in search of all the neat little details and artistic touches.
Admittedly, the story here is nothing special. There are some bad guys who want to get their hands on a powerful thingamajig, and they're willing to kill a guy and chase down his sister in order to get it. A scruffy traveling swordsman saves the girl, not knowing that he's just gotten himself mixed up in a big supernatural conflict. It's fairly standard stuff, but the bad guys are amusingly over the top and the swordsman has a grumpy charisma of his own. It's compelling enough to justify watching the series, and that's all it really needs to be for now.
Make no mistake, Thunderbolt Fantasy is an odd thing. It feels like it's meant for a different audience from the average anime series, and the puppets aren't going to work for everyone. It is pretty cool in its own way, though, and it looks like good fun if you're in the right mood. I'd recommend giving it a look just for the sake of seeing something, well, different.
This series is going to get attention in anime circles because famous (notorious?) writer Gen Urobuchi is one of the masterminds behind it, but just forget that he is involved at all. The first episode of this new effort is a spectacle unlike anything else you'll see this season, one that I watched with my jaw on the floor whenever I wasn't giggling at the beautifully-executed absurdity of it all.
While I never did see more than samples of the old British TV show Thunderbirds, I grew up on the original broadcasts of The Muppet Show and the various stop motion-animated holiday specials made mostly in the 1960s. They look absolutely crude compared to this. This is puppetry done with a fast-moving camera, quick perspective shifts, and artful posing and movements, all of which is supported by stunning special effects, all of it drawing from classic Chinese “glove puppetry”. Even when characters are just talking they are in almost constant motion, in a wonderful imitation of the showy, superfluous movements common in cheap martial arts action shows. In fact, the whole project is very carefully and specifically designed to evoke the impression of one of those supernaturally-charged Chinese or Hong Kong-based actions flicks, even down to the Chinese naming conventions, clothing styles, and sense of super-powered martial arts maneuvers.
And did I mention yet that it all looks gorgeous? The puppets used are masterpieces of construction, the kinds of pieces you might expect to see in a museum somewhere, with their delicate features and sumptuous clothing. The fight scenes are anything but tame, too, with bloody gashes and dripping blood being frequent sites and characters even shown being exploded or hacked in half. (In fact, it's more graphic than you could probably imagine it looking.) In the most gloriously eye-popping scene, one guy even tosses his sword up so he can impale himself through the neck and then shift the blade so it cuts his head off so it can be carried away by some creepy birdlike construct, all so he can send a message to his master about who was opposing him. It's completely ridiculous, of course, but in a very, very cool way.
Oh, and there is a story, too, although it's pretty typical stuff for a super-powered martial arts show: some evil guy is trying to obtain a powerful sword by taking out its sacred guardians. The female one winds up being helped by a wandering swordsman and a traveler with an illusion-inducing smoking pipe, who more or less cons the swordsman into getting involved in protecting the female guardian from the evil's guy's thugs. Various fights ensue. But hey, the plot or characters don't need to be complicated when they're being used to set up visuals like these.
So yeah, it's a puppet show, and yeah, you may not take to it, but you owe it to yourself to at least check it out.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is Gen Urobuchi's totally badass new puppet show that you should drop everything and start watching right now. First, though, you should know what “Pili” is – it's a beloved Taiwanese puppet show that features elaborate cloth puppets, augmented with CG, slicing eachother up and yelling melodramatically in all the best wuxia ways. There's a film from the year 2000 called Legend of the Sacred Stone that remains the only encounter most Westerners have had with this kind of puppetry (if they've had any encounter with it at all), so it's important to point out that Thunderbolt Fantasy isn't inventing anything new here… it just feels an awful lot like it.
I spent most of this episode laughing and clapping and cheering and becoming bizarrely emotionally invested in this super straightforward wuxia fantasy – normally I don't even really go in for martial arts flicks like this, but the agile camera, clinical direction and sturdy, reliable storytelling from ol’ Gen shot this thing right up past the top spot on my list for this season. It opens with a great action sequence with some funny, shocking stuff happening and moves deftly into character introductions – by the end I knew I was in for the long haul, if only to see where Urobuchi decides to take all this. In the last few minutes, they reveal a Snake Mountain-style evil lair where the big bad guy and his henchmen (each with a unique outfit!) all plot and scheme, which really tickled me. Tonally, Thunderbolt Fantasy operates as a master class in camp, walking a fine line between silly and serious in a way only puppets can. Artistically, you're marveling at the production, wondering how they're pulling it off, while being simultaneously delighted by the little moments that reveal yes, these are actually just puppets. It's a beautiful contradiction that I couldn't look away from.
If I'm being honest, even if this show didn't have the amazing puppets – which really do look spectacular, it's hard to overstate how great a job they did making this show look and move beautifully – it'd probably still be near the top of my list for new anime this season if only because the storytelling is so straightforward and satisfying. I immediately identified with the reluctant hero and wanted to know what would become of the high-born girl and her magic sword – the show wasn't handing me a dozen unanswered questions or undeveloped characters or trying to intrigue me by refusing to tell me what the hell was going on, it's just an action-adventure story with a cool gimmick, awesome fight scenes and a likable hero. I was thirsting for something like that; what incredible luck that it came all wrapped up in this absolutely kick-ass puppet show. More!
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