I was fresh from covering as many movies as I could at the New York Asian Film Festival and was planning to take it easy, firing up Crunchyroll and what do I stumble upon but the start of the Summer Anime Season and Thunderbolt Fantasy.
This is not an anime per se, but a mystical wuxia swashbuckling action series shot with live action Taiwanese puppets. I usually find puppets kind of creepy, but in this case, my mind was blown.
I'd heard weeks ago that Gen Urobuchi would have a new series this summer and assumed it would be an anime. Urobuchi is arguably the most interesting screenwriter working in Japan right now, having written the Lovecraftian horror visual novel Song of Saya and the Philip K. Dickian Science Fiction cop anime Psycho-Pass, among many other interesting shows. I didn't realise till I watched it that Thunderbolt Fantasy would be a puppet show. Not just any puppet show, but one that reinvents puppet shows from the ground up.
The plot is a swashbuckling wuxia thriller that you might find in King Hu's A Touch of Zen and Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Swordsman 2. An evil cult of demonic swordsmen and mystics hunt a magic sword that a young maiden from a religious order has been protecting for generations. A cynical wandering swordsman gets reluctantly drawn into the fight to protect her and save the world because his moral code demands he follow a tenet of Buddhist morality and karma. It's fun, the characters are clearly defined and likable, the villains are hissably nasty, and shows Urobuchi's affection and affinity for the Chinese wuxia genre.
In the making-of documentary shown before the first episode, Urobuchi talks about visiting Taiwan and getting blown away by his discovery of Taiwanese puppetry, a storytelling tradition that's been around for over a hundred years. He met with Pili, the production company of the fourth generation puppetry family to talk about a project and Thunderbolt Fantasy was the result. Pilli have embraced new technologies and filming techniques to keep the art alive and this new show is like its coming out party to the world. The puppeteers train for at least fifteen years before they are allowed to perform in public. They hand-craft the puppets themselves, carving the heads out of wood, fashioning eyelids that can close and lips that move, over hollow bodies that their hands occupy to work the puppets, working their arms to make gestures, tilt and move the puppet's bodies to create personality and nuance. Urobuchi's company Nitroplus designed the characters with costumes that mix Japanese Kabuki-style fashion and Chinese medieval clothing, investing their faces with idealised bishonen beauty.
The plot of the series might be a fairly traditional wuxia plot, but it's that it's filmed as a puppet show that uses CGI effects and the directorial style of Tsui Hark that makes it feel unique, fresh and new. They filmed the puppets on large elaborate sets and as many practical effects as possible to imbue the action with a sense of real solidity and weight. Everything old is suddenly surprising again. My brain hasn't stopped melting from watching that first episode, and there are twelve more to come this season.
Thunderbolt Fantasy and its making-of documentary are now streaming on Crunchyroll.
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