by Nick Creamer,

Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death

Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death
Sha Wu Sheng, the assassin known as the Screaming Phoenix Killer, bore a deadly enmity against the Enigmatic Gale, a master thief. But these two men were not always at odds—in fact, Wu Sheng was once employed by the Enigmatic Gale, and he even saw his employer as a potential savior. It took one ill-fated tournament to destroy the bond between them, whose circumstances will at last be revealed in this Thunderbolt Fantasy special! After that, the story turns to Shang Bu Huan, revealing where his path has led him in the aftermath of his journey to Demon Spine Mountain.

It was a great surprise to learn that Gen Urobuchi, star writer of hits like Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero, would be working on a collaborative series of Taiwanese puppet theater. It was an even greater surprise to me when that collaboration turned out to be one of his finest shows yet. Offering over-the-top wuxia action, consistently witty repartee, and a tightly structured fantasy narrative, Thunderbolt Fantasy was a treat in all respects, one of my favorite shows of 2016. I was thrilled to learn the show would be receiving a second season, with an interim film becoming available on Crunchyroll beforehand. So how does this new film fare?

Well, it's so-so. The good news is that all of the aesthetic qualities that made Thunderbolt Fantasy so engaging are still in force here. The show combines ornately designed puppets with a mixture of practical and digital effects to create dialogues and battles that are energetic and often thrilling. Though the jerky motions of the puppets can feel off-putting initially, the clear skill of their puppeteers lends their movements a believable sense of personality as you get used to it. On top of that, the inherent camp factor of melodramatic sword-crossing puppets is embraced, leading to conflicts that possess that rare and winning combination of self-aware silliness and total sincerity. Thunderbolt Fantasy's climactic scenes make me feel like a giddy kid in a way few shows can match.

Thunderbolt Fantasy's digital effects feel both honed and broadened since the fireworks of its first season. There's a greater emphasis on post-processing quirks that illustrate distinctive sword techniques and echo tricks of traditional animation; one sequence accompanies a fierce fighter's sword swipes with visual ripples that essentially cut the screen, while a later scene gives a character's glasses that mysterious full opacity sheen you often see in anime. This film also seems more content to embrace the comedy inherent to the jerky movements of its characters, like when one drunken character recounts a story about how he surfed on a sword to save a helpless damsel. And the show's sound design remains a star player, elevating fight scenes through impactful sound effects and matching dramatic climaxes with swelling insert songs by Hiroyuki Sawano. Sawano's music has suffered a compression of its tonal range over his years producing scores, but the one mood he can hit every time is the exact mood Thunderbolt Fantasy occupies all the time.

So in terms of its aesthetic execution, Thunderbolt Fantasy is still as compelling as ever, and the dialogue is still excellent as well. Early scenes focused on the Enigmatic Gale and Screaming Phoenix Killer create a charming contrast between Wu Sheng's maudlin, hyperbolic pronouncements and the Enigmatic Gale's deadpan rebuttals, creating a real sense of endearing chemistry between two unlikely characters. And the later segment focused on Shang Bu Huan offers plenty of reminders of his own appeal, as he gamely listens to a drunk who's borrowed his name retell heavily embellished versions of all his own adventures.

Unfortunately, while this film's execution is still excellent in all the ways that matter, its actual narrative material is not that compelling. With a new and presumably self-contained season coming this spring, this film doesn't have room to tell any stories that will actually impact the upcoming story. And so its runtime is split between adapting the origin of the Screaming Phoenix Killer's beef with the Enigmatic Gale, and a goofy vignette that reunites us with Shang Bu Huan in the lead-up to season two.

The film's first vignette is its most substantive, fleshing out the initial relationship between the Enigmatic Gale and Wu Sheng leading up to their first parting. This short story felt a little awkwardly disjointed, split between laborious Gale/Sheng conversations and a fairly rushed tournament arc. It's essentially answering the question “why did Wu Sheng hate the Enigmatic Gale so much,” but given the events of the first season and Wu Sheng's relative simplicity as a character, that never felt like a question I was desperate to have answered. In spite of initially being released in theaters, this short story is laced with prolonged scene cuts that feel clearly intended to act as commercial breaks, but ultimately just bolster the story's sense of awkward cutting and pacing. The fights are exciting and the Enigmatic Gale's ultimate plot is suitably fiendish, but the actual story feels both somewhat clumsy and completely superfluous.

The film's second vignette doesn't feel any more essential, but at least it's short, less awkwardly paced, and funny. Jumping ahead in the Thunderbolt timeline, this story reacquaints us with the begrudgingly heroic Shang Bu Huan in the wake of his great season one victory. Most of this segment is taken up by Shang listening to a drunken impersonator describe his own adventures back to him, a sequence that acts both as a quasi-refresher on the events of that season and a goofy takedown of the show's own absurdity and melodrama. Seeing a puffy-cheeked version of Shang do fist bumps with Shou Yun Xiao and flip-kick his way into the Bones of Creation wasn't precisely what I expected from this film, but I enjoyed it all the same. That unreliable flashback is ultimately topped off by one more spectacular fight starring the real Shang, which certainly ends this film on a high note.

Overall, it seems almost useless to grade this production as one cohesive movie. This is a pair of two short stories taking place in the Thunderbolt Fantasy universe, tied off at the end with some direct foreshadowing of the season two adventures to come. Neither of these stories match the dramatic punch or general energy of the show's first season, and they don't play off each other in any meaningful way, but this whole production feels mostly like a breezy fan indulgence intended to whet our appetites for season two. It's far from a great film, but it certainly did its job—I'm very ready to see these thunder boys make their triumphant return.

Production Info:
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+

+ Maintains the aesthetic and dialogue strengths of the first season, more thrilling fights and funny conversations
Both side stories lack in dramatic appeal, pacing feels off in the first story, doesn't come together as a cohesive film

Screenplay: Gen Urobuchi
Music: Hiroyuki Sawano
Original Concept: Gen Urobuchi
Character Design:
Shinov Mimori
Satoru Minamoto
Sound Director: Yoshikazu Iwanami

Full encyclopedia details about
Thunderbolt Fantasy (puppet TV)

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