Sometimes you dread for the current state of anime: high school settings, cute girls, fan-service jokes, idol madness… that you wish for once to see something different, and out of nowhere an oddball like this just pop up: a wuxia puppetry show influenced by Taiwanese glove puppetry written by Gen Urobuchi. The sheer fact that it was greenlit at all was mind-blowing enough, but the most absurd things was the audience it aimed: the anime medium. Because no matter how you look at it: this isn’t an anime at all. Well, not even an animation to begin with. I’m not going to detail about it as I already addressed it in my weekly post. The fact that this is a wuxia puppetry show already makes it a unique show among anime world and all the more reason to watch it. But on top of all that, the show’s writing and execution are really excellent and refreshing. If the show just relies on its gimmick of being a puppetry show, it will fall apart very quickly, but Thunderbolt Fantasy understands that their characters are the real stars of the show, so they spend a huge amount of them talking to each other, explore their philosophy of life and the campy dialogues are entertaining and humorous.
Set in a fictional Eastern Asia settings, the show tells a story of a merry band in the quest to retrieve a legendary sword that was stolen by Mie Tian Hai, a skilled swordsman with a history of black magic. Our MC Shang Bu Huan is a mysterious swordsman who came from another area, that’s why he doesn’t know much about this place and thus got tagged along to the quest by Gui Niao, a cool-head strategist and the bunch of misfits including the naive guardian girl, the One-Eyed archer, the young Spear-wielder, a demon necromancer and the bloodthirsty assassin. The group, each has their own unique appearance and personalities with different set of goals head up to the Seven Sins Tower, and there were double-crossing, triple-crossing, blood-splattering, heads rolling and even demons, undead, skeleton birds join in along the way. Indeed, half of these characters here are easily villains in other story and the fun here is to see their huge ego crashing with each other.
Because this is a puppetry show, there are many elements that you won’t find in other anime. The characters, for example, have very static faces. Especially when they are in close-up, it’s hard to tell apart what they are thinking because of the lack of expression in their faces, but this issue actually works in the show’s favor, for how else would one portrait a group that double-crossing is the norm? Second, the practical effects are truly what set it apart from other anime. There is little amount of action for a true-action show, but when the action kicks in, it’s a feast to the eyes. Bloods squirming all over, bodies blowing up, heads rolling that you can actually feel the weight of the blood dripping are refreshing to say the least. Lastly, I have to highlight the costume designs because they really go all in for the costumes to make the characters as distinctive and stand out as ever.
The characters themselves is easily the show’s best strength. Each character is elegantly designed and all of them have their own unique mannerism, assisted greatly by the use of puppetry, something that ordinary anime usually lack. My favorite characters in that vein is the demon lady Xing Hai, as whenever she talks, it feels like she’s singing and whenever she walks it feels just like she’s dancing. Like Mayoiga, those characters all have interesting traits and utterly over the top but here in this show they can actually get loose and carry the story. Like for example, the show spends half an episode for Sha Wu Sheng the Roaring Killer Phoenix challenging Mie Tian Hai (and then loose despite knowing it all), simply because these characteristics are unmistakably Sha Wu Sheng. In Thunderbolt Fantasy, those characters embrace their roles to the bitter end. As a main character, Shang Bu Huan is like our blank-state who unfamiliar to this world (like ourselves) and he’s being the most sensible person in this whole madness. I particular love his stunning reactions every time something absurd happens. Moreover, he bounces off other characters very well, creating a rather great chemistry between them and the dialogues maintain the campy sense that so entertaining to watch. There are pure gold moments throughout the series like when Shang Bu Huan talks to each member of the group to find their real motives, or simple quick remarks like “the temple smells offensive” or even “it’s already a sitting fight before the sword fight” because of course they’re too awesome to fight it normal way. Like a puppetry show, these characters are just there to perform their larger-than-life roles, but they perform it so well that I have a very good time following them.
But this show is not only about characters having fun, there is a theme for the show if you want to look deeper. The notion of the sword is both mentioned various times throughout the series and the show twists that notion around quite wonderfully. In this world, swords represent power of destruction. Mie Ting Hai seeks out the most famous sword because he believes his technique deserved the best. The demon Yao Tu Li was put to sleep for 200 years because of the sword. The characters kill off hundreds of people through their swords… As long as you are good at swords, you have the ultimate power in this world. But not for our two mains Shang Bu Huan and Gui Niao. In fact, the series showcases two extreme spectrums from Shang Bu Huan that go directly against with the above notion. The “sword’ that Shang Bu Huan always carries around is just a piece of wood painted silver, because he doesn’t want to cause more deadly troubles with the swords, but when in needed, he could pull out 36 legendary swords (that he said he was about to expose them, sly guy!) to send the monster to the black hole (quite literally!), Gui Niao also hates using swords as a mean of killing. The legendary sword that everyone seek in the end was destroyed meaninglessly.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is the most entertaining series you will encounter this year. Plain and simple. Urobuchi writing is excellent in this show, both leaving enough room for the group to act, and maintaining the plot that both is fast and unpredictable, but always makes sense and a lot of fun. It appears that we will have an entirely new cast on the second season, plus our mains Shang Bu Huan and Gui Niao and if that’s the case then I’m totally on board. After all, Shang Bu Huan’s only weakness is his trust towards people and Gui Niao happens to be the master of manipulation; so I’m eager to see how our MC get himself dragged into Gui Niao’s little scheme next time. Like this first season already demonstrated, the world is simply too small for the two of them.