The latest great anime isn’t even animated. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a Japanese-Taiwanese co-production that is best described as a puppet show that combines Wuxia martial arts, fantasy anime, and tokusatsu. As someone who doesn’t watch that many martial arts films, isn’t terribly into Super Sentai or Kamen Rider, and was never a big fan of old action-oriented puppet shows like Thunderbirds, it surprises me that this series has actually become my favorite of the season.
I’ve been thinking of Thunderbolt Fantasy as a kind of 2.5D show. It has a lot of the flash and flair of anime, and one might even say the detail-oriented anime-inspired games such as BlazBlue, but of course it’s all intricate puppetry, miniature set design, with a smattering of CG special effects. What strikes me about the series is that the standards by which one judges the quality of a show like this doesn’t quite fit into the criteria of anime or live-action series. It’s not like there’s “animation quality” to consider, or the idea that the series might be cheaping out during dialogue scenes. Because they’re puppets, it’s not like typical notions of “good acting” necessarily apply either. It ends up falling somewhere along the lines of a tokusatsu show, or perhaps even pro wrestling, where subtleties are conveyed through exaggerated gestures.
As a result, I find that while the fight scenes are intense and entertaining, even entire episodes of characters standing around and talking to each other have much to be impressed by. When the characters are speaking, their mannerisms come out in the puppets’ actions. When they’re fairly stationary, then that invites the opportunity to really admire how amazingly the puppets are designed. The show just has a lot to visually chew on, and that’s on top of charismatic characters, a story that moves at a brisk yet comfortable pace, and interesting lore.
Another aspect of the series I’ve been considering is the idea that Japanese animation has sort of come full circle with Thunderbolt Fantasy. Some of the earliest attempts at Japanese animation were more akin to puppet shows. The late director Ishiguro Noboru (Yamato, Macross) was influenced by Czech puppet shows, while the also-late director Nagahama Tadao had his start in puppet theater as well. However, I’m saying this not just because Thunderbolt Fantasy utilizes puppets, but also because so much of its aesthetics comes from contemporary hyper-stylized anime akin to Madoka Magica or Fate/Zero. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as the co-production is by Nitro Plus, creators of those two series, as well as Good Smile Company, creators of Nendoroids and Figmas.
The last piece of the puzzle is PILI International Multimedia, the Taiwanese company that actually makes the show. I don’t know nearly enough about them yet, so I don’t want to just spout nonsense. That being said, the making-of episode on Crunchyroll is very insightful, and it makes me want to learn more.
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