Thunderbolt Fantasy
Episodes 1-2

by Gabriella Ekens,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Thunderbolt Fantasy (puppet TV) ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Thunderbolt Fantasy (puppet TV) ?

Welcome to Puppets News Network, providing you with the latest news in the world of puppet TV, puppet comics, and puppet culture. While not technically classifiable as an anime, Thunderbolt Fantasy has debuted as one of the most lauded premieres in this anime season. Why is that? What's this weird doll show doing on the front page of Anime News Network and streaming in the anime section of Crunchyroll? Well, here's the story:

Once upon a time, Gen Urobuchi – the anime screenwriting superstar behind Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass – went to a convention on vacation in Taiwan. There, he saw the puppeteering troupe PILI perform. While PILI are superstars in their home country, they're largely unknown internationally. Urobuchi fell in love with the puppet artform and resolved to make it famous in his home country. His work had enough clout to get them a greater budget for a Japanese broadcast production, and PILI themselves were big enough fans to let him write a show for them. The rest is extremely nerdy history. I'm eternally charmed by how Urobuchi's desire for artistic experimentation intersects with his geeky tastes. He found this obscure medium of regional artisans and decided to expand its reach through what seems to be an extremely well-crafted Power Rangers storyline. In terms of narrative prowess and thematic exploration, Urobuchi is probably the best writer working in anime today, and he uses his power to pull this kind of crazy stuff. I love him.

So the result of his efforts, Thunderbolt Fantasy, is a slightly anime-fied entry in the wuxia genre. Not super well known outside of Asia, wuxia can be roughly characterized as the Chinese equivalent to European chivalric romance. In these stories, noble warriors called xia wander the countryside righting wrongs and generally being BAMFs. Since they were more individualistic than was typically allowed in China's Confucian culture, these heroes had a counterculture feel that made them popular with the masses. They're now a common subject in Chinese genre media, not unlike our Western “sword and sorcery” genres. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is considered one of the genre's main predecessors, which might give you a sense of what this stuff looks like. Long flowing robes, flower petals, magical dance duels in front of waterfalls – that sort of thing.

For this show, the story is that a long time ago, demons walked the Earth and made it tough for humans to live there. Humans asked the gods for help, and they made the Shén Huì Mó Xiè, magical superweapons to scare away the demons. (Note that I will have to try my best with the Chinese names. I am completely unfamiliar with the language, so forgive me any errors.) The War of Fading Dusk (Qióng Mù Zhī Zhàn) was fought, and the demons were sent back to hell. However, the magical superweapons were still around, and they could wreak serious damage if they fell into the wrong hands. The most dangerous one is the Tiān Xíng Jiàn, or Heaven's Retribution Sword. To keep it away from evildoers, it was split into three parts – the blade was sealed in a stone, while the handle and guard were split between two guardians. These items were passed down throughout the centuries, until they fell into the hands of two siblings, Dān Fěi and Dān Héng. One day, Miè Tiān Hái, a fanatic sword collector and leader of the evil Xuán Guǐ Zōng clan, raided their home for the sword. The brother dies, losing the sword's handle to Miè Tiān Hái, but Dān Fěi manages to escape. The Xuán Guǐ Zōng give chase, and it doesn't look like she can hold out for long. However, she runs into the wandering swordsman Shāng Bù Huàn, who saves her. Their destinies now intertwined, the two set off on a quest to halt Miè Tiān Hái's ambitions – whether Shāng Bù Huàn likes it or not. The pair are accompanied by Lǐn Xuě Yā, a mysterious wandering vape-lord who knows more than he admits about this whole plot. Their first order of business is to recruit a merry band, starting with Juǎn Cán Yún and Shòu Yún Xiāo (or Lancer and Archer if you're a Fate fan). The adventure thus begun, where will it lead them? And how many puppets will die in the making of this series?

On the surface, this is a pretty standard fantasy adventure romp. Fortunately, with Urobuchi at the helm, it's an instantly compelling and propulsively entertaining one. In two episodes, it feels like we already have all the story details we'll need going forward, and the characters' dynamics have been well established. The dialogue is fantastic – clever bickering and brash battle cries that tie directly into the characters' goals and actions. The “initially reluctant hero” thing is usually a drag, but Urobuchi makes it fun to watch Lǐn Xuě Yā trick Shāng Bù Huàn into action. It doesn't look like his reticence will last too long either, as the merry band is already coming together. If Thunderbolt Fantasy sticks to this straightforward early Final Fantasy narrative, I'll still be on board, but I also half-expect the Booch to stick some compelling themes in there. Maybe this will all turn out to be commentary on imperialism or something? Who knows!

And of course, there are the visuals. Puppetry and traditional animation are so staggeringly different that I don't feel I have the knowledge to evaluate this show's technique in-depth. I can only say that it's breathtaking, a unique and captivating visual experience. In the before-broadcast special (which is also on Crunchyroll and a must-watch for info on Thunderbolt Fantasy's fascinating production history), Urobuchi describes his first experience watching PILI's puppetry: “Finding out how they move like that made me realize there were still some secrets in the world. I realized there really was magic.” I agree wholeheartedly – there's something entrancing about how these puppets move, and it's difficult to put into words. Somehow you both forget and become hyperaware of the fact that you're watching small objects move around like people at the same time. Somehow, this contradiction pulls me into the story. At this point, I can't do much more than urge you to watch and become absorbed by the artistry of this medium.

I'm astounded by the detail put into these characters' designs and mannerisms. The best way I can describe them is “real life Yoshitaka Amano illustrations.” In terms of movement, they already have their own personal tics - Shāng Bù Huàn scratches his little puppet nose, while Miè Tiān Hái motions to readjust his little puppet bangs. At first, it was distracting that the dialogue doesn't match the lip flaps (a relic of translation more than anything – the version we're watching has been dubbed over in Japanese from a Taiwainese performance), but I quickly got over that. The translation history here is itself interesting – Urobuchi wrote the scripts in Japanese, they were translated into Taiwanese for the performers, and then the Taiwanese performance was re-dubbed into Japanese. Apparently, the Taiwanese version is what's getting released in Taiwan. I'd be interested in checking that out too, to see whether it alters the experience. Beyond that, some snippets of the Japanese dub are still in Taiwanese – you'll notice that some characters introduce themselves by reciting a brief poem. This is Niàn Bái, a type of character introduction common in Chinese opera. I'm sure that the show contains even more cultural idiosyncrasies that I'm not yet aware of. I'll keep my eye out for them and would appreciate any assistance from commenters.

Two episodes in, and Thunderbolt Fantasy stands out as a collaborative experiment by a number of master artists. Gen Urobuchi, our St. Paul preaching the gospel of puppets, has shown us the way to a camp action fest that combines stunning practical effects with modern film techniques into a whirlwind of operatic artistry. Anime has embraced salvation by giving us puppets decapitating themselves and launching their severed heads into a skeletal bird's waiting clutches. Oh Booch, I've missed you.

Grade: A

Thunderbolt Fantasy is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.

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