Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Thunderbolt Fantasy (Episodes 1-13 Streaming)
From the mists of their mountain retreat, Dan Fei and her brother are chased by the nefarious Xuan Gui Zong clan, who seem intent on stealing their sacred sword. While Dan Fei's brother sacrifices himself, she charges onward, hoping to outrun her bloodthirsty pursuers. Meanwhile, a traveler known as Shang Bu Huan runs into the mysterious Lin Xue Ya, before both of them are caught up in Dan Fei's trials. After dispatching Dan Fei's pursuers, Shang finds himself the newest target of the Xuan Gui Zong. His only hope for safety is to join up with his new acquaintances and pursue the Xuan Gui Zong to their home in the Demon Spine Mountains.
When it was first announced that Gen Urobuchi would be directing a puppet drama, it was difficult to know what to expect. Having started his career in visual novels and then made his mark in anime through works like Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass, Urobuchi still seemed restless in his career trajectory. He contributed series composition to Gargantia and the first three episodes of Aldnoah.Zero, but his most recent major project had been writing the scripts for Kamen Rider Gaim. And now this, a collaboration with a Taiwanese puppet production company, something totally outside of his existing wheelhouse. Would Thunderbolt Fantasy just be an indulgent lark, or was this truly a meaningful turn for him?
With Thunderbolt Fantasy's first season concluded, it's now clear that Urobuchi's passion was extremely well-placed. Thunderbolt Fantasy is fundamentally an unusual show, but it's also an excellent one, and Urobuchi's storytelling is more focused here than it's been for any anime since Madoka Magica. Thunderbolt Fantasy marks a triumphant return for the esteemed writer, a terrific melding of form and content into a uniquely satisfying experience.
Thunderbolt Fantasy's story is a fairly straightforward fantasy narrative. When sinister thugs driven by the menacing Mie Tian Hai (also known as the Bones of Creation, the first of many wonderfully melodramatic titles) attempt to steal a sacred sword, shrine maiden Dan Fei escapes with only the sword's crossguard in her possession. Fleeing the Bones of Creation's agents, she runs into two men: Shang Bu Han, a grumpy but sympathetic wanderer, and Lin Xue Ya, a mysterious and clearly untrustworthy prankster. Both of these men ultimately agree to help Dan Fei recover her sword, gathering allies along the way to best the trials separating them from their quarry.
It's a classic fantasy fellowship story, with the twist that basically every member of this party has their own unexpected motives - their final party ends up containing not only a famed mercenary, but also an actual demon and a bloodthirsty assassin (who likely possesses the show's best title: the Screaming Phoenix Killer). Battles are fought, betrayals are weathered, and the team ultimately make their way to the Bones of Creation's home atop the Demon Spine Mountains.
Thunderbolt Fantasy's fundamental storytelling is incredibly sturdy. Every character has a distinctive and entertaining personality, the plot proceeds with constant momentum through regular exciting battles, and all the twists are grounded in the base fundamentals of the narrative. The assumptions of Thunderbolt Fantasy's characters are frequently challenged as always in Urobuchi stories, but the show succeeds first and foremost as a top-tier fantasy adventure. It's a legitimate edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, and the consistently witty one-liners of characters like Shang and Lin Xue Ya only sweeten the deal.
On top of that, Thunderbolt Fantasy is also remarkably entertaining for its melodramatic style. Many scenes in Thunderbolt Fantasy echo the tone of shows like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, where the show's dedication to its own silly mechanics and over-the-top dialogue create simultaneous comedy and actual investment. While Shang often undercuts the seriousness of everyone else with his fatigued commentary (“someone opens their mouth, and it's usually to yap about swords!”), Thunderbolt Fantasy consistently hits the sweet spot of being absolutely confident in its own ridiculousness (“just as you'd expect from the Screaming Phoenix Killer!”). You'll laugh, but you'll also cheer.
The show's puppet theater trappings play naturally into this tendency toward enthusiastic camp. Thunderbolt Fantasy's puppet bodies are beautifully painted and elegantly costumed, but the consistent zooms on faces that can't express much emotion elevates both the drama and comedy. The show's fights are exuberant and visually creative, but also somewhat absurd - CG demon birds fly haphazardly through the skies above, and rocks explode seemingly at random as swords clash nearby.
Yet in spite of the dramatic disconnect inherent to watching puppet theater, it still becomes easy to love these characters. The actors draw surprising nuance out of the puppets' body language, and the set designs are wonderfully ornate and distinctive. Even the effects are quite impressive - seeing puppets hurl themselves off cliffs is inherently funny, but the CG employed for their energy attacks is genuinely thrilling, and seeing Shang put his hand to his forehead as a regular aggrieved expression swiftly becomes an endearing character quirk. The plentiful swordfights are also a clear draw - Thunderbolt Fantasy employs wuxia-style combat to make fights come across as a kind of dance, mixing high-speed movements and CG embellishments to create consistently thrilling battles. Just like its storytelling, Thunderbolt Fantasy's visual execution is simultaneously silly and excellent.
The show's music is as exuberant as the rest of its production. Hiroyuki Sawano's scores have gotten extremely predictable over time, but in this case, his mix of frenetic orchestral pieces and melodramatic chanting perfectly matches the show's material. Sawano's work may lean into self-parody, but in a show that's so consistently in on the joke as Thunderbolt Fantasy, that's actually a benefit.
Overall, I can't recommend Thunderbolt Fantasy enough. I was initially disappointed to see that Urobuchi's return to anime wasn't technically going to be a return to anime, but Thunderbolt Fantasy's terrific storytelling and bombastic execution completely won me over. Thunderbolt Fantasy is both thrilling and funny throughout, full of iconic characters and never short of a new trick. Anime or not, it's one of the best shows in recent memory.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Matches very sturdy storytelling with uniquely beautiful visual execution; is simultaneously thrilling and funny throughout.
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