Monday, October 31, 2016

TV Series Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

Given all the jokes that this show, a Taiwanese puppet drama written by Gen Urobuchi that feels like a wuxia-style DnD campaign, was "anime of the season" I have elected to drop this review into my anime review slot of the week instead of the tv series/movie one, although I will note that it is 100% non-animated. That's the short sell for the series by the way,  "the writer of Madoka Magica does a fantasy that feels like a Chinese-inspired Dungeons and Dragons campaign, except that it's all told through Taiwanese puppetry action with details on the same level as The Dark Crystal." 

One technical note, I watched a Crunchyroll which used the Japanese dub for the series but left all of the names in Chinese in the subtitles (which made me glad that everyone had distinct designs at least since the names rarely even sound similar). I am going to follow that and continue using the Chinese names, hopefully it'll still be clear who I'm referring to!

Thunderbolt Fantasy

In the country of Dōng Lí there is a necromancer who is not content with the power he already has and plans to steal one of the many legendary swords from a past war centuries ago, the Tiān Xíng JiànDān Fěi's family has helped guard the Tiān Xíng Jiàn for years and she and her brother flee to prevent the villainous Miè Tiān Hái from obtaining the last pieces of the sword, only for her brother to sacrafice himself in order for Dān Fěi to make an escape. Watching this fight are two travelers, the enigmatic Lǐn Xuě Yā and the road-weary Shāng Bù Huàn. Lǐn seems to take an immediate interest in Dān Fěi's plight but Shāng has to be cajoled to join the traveling party as a wild card, can this group of odd birds with disparate goals truly stand against such a powerful foe?

Last year there was an anime called Chaos Dragon and the only thing worth knowing about the series was that it was based off of the DnD campaigns of several well-known anime writers and directors (from everything I've read the show was dreadful). Gen Urobuchi was actually a participant in the games and I find it funny that the man is into pen and paper, swords and sorcery games considering how much the plot of Thunderbolt Fantasy feels like one. To be clear, Thunderbolt Fantasy is not an actual DnD game but that's the quickest way to describe the story's style. While there are character-related twists in the story the plot itself starts and remains relatively uncomplicated from the get go: Miè Tiān Hái wants to take the Tiān Xíng Jiàn and Dān Fěi and her traveling companions don't like this idea. Characters are acquired episode by episode, there are several trials to overcome, and then around the two-thirds mark the plot starts to diverge a little bit but not in a shocking, never-before-seen way, it just takes a different branching path than the viewer might expect it to.

Hopefully I have not made this show sound too serious because it is quite campy. Since I am completely unfamiliar with Taiwanese glove puppetry I'm not sure is everything I found funny was supposed to be that way, such as how the puppets are always fidgeting and moving around, but the over the top dramatics and several ironic twists of fate (also Shāng's complaints throughout) were certainly meant to be. It's a delicate distinction to make but I would not call this series cliched for all that it does heavily follow pre-established story conventions because when I think of cliches I think of something dull and this was anything but. The show also reminded me just how much I enjoy Urobuchi's writing, his work has been a bit sporadic and scattered as of late so I'm not sure I've seen anything written by him (all the way through) in the past year. And I do enjoy his almost gentle approach to writing naive characters, yes gentle since rarely those characters come out of his stories wiser and more well-rounded than they started but the more cynical characters go through more hardships and further disillusionment. I'm also always pleasantly surprised to remember that he's also not a sexist writer, there are maybe one or two comments in the entire show along the lines of "this female character can't do anything!" which the series will very quietly disprove. Anime as a whole definitely struggles with how to write female characters as people, not as something Other, so it's refreshing when a writer seems to just understand how simple it can be. 

The visuals for the show were also a real treat for me. Normally I would object to less-than-stellar CGI but in the context of "a campy store" having some over the top CGI lighting bolts was just fine! And the puppets themselves are spectacular, the facial expressions are fairly limited but the overall range of movements is really impressive and the outfits were detailed to the point of excess. Crunchyroll is also streaming a making-of segment online (and there are more out there if you want to look) and that was worth watching just to see the sheer size of the puppets, they're pretty big! This makes a lot of sense, as a sewer I know that making the puppets larger actually makes sewing some of the details easier but again, I'm so used to puppets being smaller that it's still a shock to see how big the sets are compared to the people working with them. 

If you're a general fan of fantasy then I really do feel like you should give this series a shot, if nothing else for the sheer novelty of seeing a competently done story in a totally different medium and it is a bunch of fun! I had intended to try and watch the show with friends at Otakon, sadly the hotel wifi just did not let that happen, but I still think this would be a good show for a group watch when everyone is in a fun mood. I don't intend to demean the show but, when I watched the show the impression I got is that you are supposed to laugh along with the show, that many of it's moments are supposed to be campy and funny (if they aren't then it's really hard to explain why a straight-man type character like Shang is arguably the main character). And you need to be in the right mood to watch this show, I'd hate for someone to go into this show thinking it was going to be all super serious and be turned off just for that!