Seldom do we find something truly unexpected and exciting in a new season. Certainly there are programs that are exciting because of their animation style, subject matter, or links to other works, but it is rare that a show comes along that can invoke a literal double-take. Thunderbolt Fantasy is one such work.
The premise is well-worn ground at this stage. A vaguely medieval fantasy land, the pursuit of a legendary weapon, ancient dark forces threatening to return, characters with ulterior motives, a quest to save the world… Yes, we have seen these things before, perhaps more times than can be counted. But the truly original and shocking element of Thunderbolt Fantasy is that this show is entirely done with puppets.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is a cross-production between Japan and Taiwan. Often retelling historical tales, legends, and folklore, glove puppetry is a long-running tradition in Taiwan. With writer Gen Urobuchi at the helm and the unique presentation of puppetry in lieu of animation or live actors, Thunderbolt Fantasy is a surprising production even with its standard fantasy milieu.
Practical Effects – The greatest strength of Thunderbolt Fantasy is the use of practical effects. The puppets themselves are absolute works of art, being hand-carved wooden dolls clothed in some outlandish costumes. Sets are spacious and feel fully stocked, no empty wastelands or barren battlefields to be seen. Interior and exterior locales both work equally well, and have an appropriate sense of scale. Even minor details are handled with great care, whether it is the spread of a large dinner table or the debris of an outdoor battle. The show looks superb, and the fact that all of the characters and items in the show are both real and crafted give the viewer a greater sense of appreciation for the effort involved.
Action – The action sequences in this series are a real delight. The practical effects give the movements of the characters a sense of weight and heft, making the conflicts feel more impactful. Computer generated effects are also in play, but are more for flashy special moves and particle effects than anything else, which amplifies the fantastic spectacle of these sequences. Though it would seem that since the characters are all puppets their fights would seem awkward or constrained due to the limited range of expression, this is not the case. In fact, the battles are some of the standout moments of the show. For all the fireballs and over the top spells, these moments often feel more authentic than some of the interpersonal character scenes.
Music – Hiroyuki Sawano does phenomenal work with the soundtrack. The music is unmistakably his – driving rhythms, blaring trumpets, mellow downbeats followed by pure bombast almost without transition. While the music feels a bit too familiar at points for fans of say, Gundam Unicorn, there are enough differencws here to help it stand on its own merits. Sawano’s work fits the work perfectly and enhances it, adding to the emotional impact and drama at the high points while providing momentum during the slower segments.
Names – There really cannot be a discussion about Thunderbolt Fantasy without bringing up the issue of names. To put it bluntly, it is impossible to remember anyone’s name in this work. The Romanized names in the subtitles are still in the original language, but voice actors use the Japanese versions instead. Given the cooked-in difficulty of pronouncing the translated names and the lack of any sort of audio support for reference, this means that western viewers are basically flying blind when it comes to what anyone or anything is called. In order to help your viewing, I provide my own made up names to assist in your viewing experience.
Thankfully, characters do begin to pick up more interesting titles as the show goes on such as The Enigmatic Gale, Screaming Phoenix Killer, etc. However, by the time this becomes the norm for the majority of the characters, far too much of the show has already gone by. It’s a real testament to the strength of the voice cast and the distinctive look of the puppets that the characters are so memorable, because their names are an active impediment to telling them apart.
Predictability – You could probably guess most of the story beats from the first introduction to the characters, perhaps even earlier. A wandering warrior with a mysterious past who appears to be uncouth and low-born? Hrm, I wonder if he might shock the uptight nobles he travels alongside with martial skill and hidden virtue. A legendary blade sought by an evil group of bandits? Hrm, I wonder if the blade is the key to some dark force that will lead to terrible power beyond the ken of man. Even though there are a few delightful surprises, most of the work is pretty by the numbers and telegraphed far in advance, and the surprises take up too little real estate to have much meaning beyond their initial shock value.
Pacing – The show is generally brisk, but slows down in odd places. The final episode in particular feels like everything gets wrapped up a bit too fast and tidily for the magnitude of the events that are happening. This is only made worse when considering that the show just finished a multi-episode castle sequence with a lot of back and forth that is more tedious than compelling. There are also times when the show moves so swiftly that it seems to rush right past potential character moments or world-building opportunities that are never fully realized. For example, Young Thirsty and Ay Girl Ay have an important connection, but most the screen time is spent exploring his idealism and how it relates to Hawkeye’s more practical view of the world/heroism. Ultimately this may be more a product of the 13-episode constraint, but it is still noticeable.
Thunderbolt Fantasy Fancy Puppet Theater gets a strong recommendation as a watch for just about any viewer. It is a classic tale that may have few major twists, but is a delight to watch on the strength of its incredible effects and attention to detail. This is one of the most unique looking shows of the season and demonstrates the power of using physical models as a means of telling a story over animation. The fact that it has been given the green light for another season is just icing on the cake, and hopefully future seasons will take more risks with the narrative while continuing to amaze with its visuals.