Archive Post: Thunderbolt Fantasy (9/30/16)

Hello and after a long, long hiatus, welcome to a special Anime Chop Block

Today, I will be reviewing a show that actually gave me feelings of excitement and boredom, a show that both exceeded my expectations and went under them. I am talking about Thunderbolt Fantasy

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But wait, you might ask, those are puppets, not animated characters. Well, this show’s history is why I find it worthy of putting it on Anime Chop Block. The show was started in 2014 when Gen Urobuchi, the writer of Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero, came across a booth at a Tawainese convention headed by Pili. Now Pili specializes in Taiwanese Glove Puppetry and have been combining Puppets with CGI for years. Gen was inspired by the puppetry shown at the booth and contacted Pili to help make a show for both puppetry fans and anime fans. As such, Thunderbolt Fantasy’s first episode was released in Japan on July 8 of 2016.

The story takes place in an eastern fantasy setting and starts with two siblings being chased by the Xuan Gui Zong gang for two parts of a sword that they have in their procession. One of them dies but the other, Dan Fei, gets away and finds himself running into Shang Bu Huan, a travelling swordsman, and Lin Xue Ya, a man with mystery surrounding him. Dan Fei convinces Shang and Lin to accompany her to take the sword part that her brother had on her and gathers allies to help.

The story itself is a classic example of Wuxia, a genre of Chinese fiction involving marital arts, personal codes of conduct, and some mysticism relating to Qi, a form of energy supposedly found in all people. As such, it follows a setup that many RPG gamers will find familiar; get allies, fight to get the mcguffin and beat the boss. This unfortunately results in a middle section of the show where it feels dull and slow with the team gathering allies to reach the Xuan Gui Zong headquarters. The beginning portion of the show however impresses with a brisk pace and rapid introduction of a varied set of characters. From a demon necromancer needed to cross a field of zombies, to an assassin that loves to fight, to an old archer with an ambitious apprentice, the cast of the show helps carry the show through it’s slower section by creating entertaining banner between the cast. Characterization however is fairly one note; most of the characters are tropes. But each of the characters fulfills that trope well and some, like Dan Fei, do have some development relating to the events of the show.

The end of the show also is a delight, with a lot of twists that people may have seen coming and some elements of Urobuchi’s thematic writing starts to show. Urobuchi mainly reflects on people’s good and evil sides and the show has it’s characters be deceptive with some of them being outright villains even on the “hero’s” side. However, there are still people of strong moral convictions and heroism that manage to win in the end. However, the very ending of the show, while it fits the themes set by the show, may make people feel shafted due to how the final boss is beaten.

The technical are where the show truly shines. Even in the slow scenes, the puppets are posing and gesturing in a way that’s common for Chinese opera. This is made possible by the detail put into the puppets; the eyes, mouth, fingers, arms and legs are fully articulated. In addition, the puppets are fully clothed in multiple layers complete with jewelry and even have blood effects. These puppets are far more than the simple puppets from Sesame Street and this enables emotion to be communicated in the slow scenes and for the characters to be able to handle the wirework action that they are subjected to. That wirework enables the show to truly fit the Wuxia label by having the characters fly around, swing their weapons with skill and it’s all supplemented with the use of CG to help add effects like particles and magic to the fights. The combination of CG and wirework creates surreal fight that feels like a dance between combatants and that brick cutting of the camera that manages to let the hit resonate while shifting to convey speed helps.

Voice acting is a bit of a contradiction. The seiyuus are clearly overacting in some scenes but that’s not really an issue with this show as the gestures and plot of the show are so absurd so it balances out in the end. Junichi Suwabe as Shang Bu Huan is an intereting counterpoint though as he plays the reluctant and slightly lazy hero. He clearly accents his voice with a slow cadence that suggest weariness and exasperation with the situation.

On a music front, one interesting thing of note is the opening, Reimei, by T.M. Revolution. It’s an upbeat energetic piece that does set the mood for the show’s over the top narrative and action. As such, I can say that it works well. On a background front, they really don’t have that notable tracks, they have like two for action scenes and one for slower scenes. That said, the tempo of the pieces changes for the situation and allows for longer mileage of the pieces.

A side comment for those watching the Crunchyroll version is that the audio will use the Japanese version of the character names but the subtitles will use the Chinese version. It can be annoying to people from a start but you start to make an association between the names quickly.

The best way to describe Thunderbolt Fantasy is “Over the Top Wuxia”. While it does have some slow points in it’s narrative and the ending may make people irritated, the show ultimately manages to keep the viewer coming back week after week to see what insane thing they will come up with next and satisfies it with some impressive fights that manage to rival some of the big shots in animation.

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