Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers is unlike any other show I’ve seen thus far. The series is a collaboration that merges Taiwanese style entertainment with Japanese content. The show is an innovative spin for all anime fans alike which aired on Crunchyroll back in July 2016.
For those wondering why this series is so “special,” the “anime” (or Puppet TV, if you want to be more exact) uses Taiwanese glove puppets to portray the characters instead of traditional animation. It combines theater props and effects with digital animation (CGI) to introduce a new method of storytelling for the anime demographic.
So What Is Thunderbolt Fantasy About?
Thunderbolt Fantasy organizes its narrative through a series of subsequent arcs. The anime follows the journey of a wandering swordsman named Shang Bu Huan who carries around a set of thirty-six mystical swords. These mystical items are dangerous to humanity as they each contain an unholy power strong enough to destroy their world.
It’s especially hazardous when they’re used by the wrong people. And as we learn throughout season one of the series, power-hungry villains will always seek out these weapons for selfish purposes. This is why the protagonist keeps finding them on his journey. (Also, evil wizards keep making them.)
Every story arc focuses on at least one of the swords the protagonist carries, and each season introduces a new set of characters. In which case, they all find themselves involved in the protagonist’s quest to seal the blades. The main character is virtually on a never-ending quest to collect and seal every one of these items for the betterment of their world.
It Has Clever Storytelling
Thunderbolt Fantasy isn’t shy of using any unexpected plot twists and character deaths to its full advantage. These moments are often so brief and gruesome that the audience never sees them coming. As an anime writer, Urobuchi tends to manipulate his viewers into loving his characters shortly before he writes them off. It’s rather brilliant. There’s never a moment for anyone to grieve the loss of a character as the anticipation for what happens next continues to unfold without any pause.
There’s even levity for how bloody the show tends to be at times for the characters. As a nod to Urobuchi’s favorable method of gruesome storytelling, this series likes to give its characters brutal send-offs. Blood and explosions are prominent features in this series that go hand-in-hand. (They remind me of Micheal Bay explosions.)
The Puppets, The Setting, And The Props
This show branches off from traditional styles of character animation so the puppets take a while to get used to. Taiwan’s Pili International Multimedia studio is in charge of the puppets and filming. While these puppets are no doubt beautiful and well-crafted, there’s still an unnatural atmosphere in seeing them in action. It feels weird to watch them move around at first as we aren’t used to seeing them in this area of entertainment. The world is far too used to seeing two-dimensional characters in anime.
A character’s expression also relies on the position of the puppets eyelids and the exaggerated movements of their bodies. They are even aided by the effects of water and artificial blood to mimic signs of emotion and pain. Hand movements especially are essential for conveying expressions of anger and peace. It’s almost unsettling to watch. I’m sure mankind will always fear the things that try to imitate them.
And yet, this anime is beyond captivating to watch once you get over that creepy feeling. This show’s entire setting is a clever mixture of surrealism, with some of the items being real and others being man-made. It’s like watching a miniature world that’s been shrunk down for dolls.
The effects and props are also quite amazing. While the CGI adds color and excitement to the fight scenes, the use of real-life smoke and explosions are what really makes these moments stand out. It’s like watching a martial arts drama unfold with animated three-dimensional characters. Fight scenes in anime have never been as visually appealing as they are in this show.
Names Are Harder To Follow Here Than In Regular Anime
It takes a while to learn everyone’s name in this show. Viewers may have some difficulties remembering who the characters are at first. They’re labeled under their Chinese names in the official subtitles even when others are following the Japanese dubs. Or, at least, the Crunchyroll version does it this way. This gives everyone two identities of the same character to follow along with. And it also creates a large misdirection for those uncertain about who’s who as they start the series.
The opening sequence helps a bit with this problem as both editions of a character’s name appear alongside them. And as noted in the image above, viewers can use this sequence as an index. However, a person can only rewind back to the same introduction for so long.
For a while, I just gave everyone a ridiculous nickname because I gave up trying to recall who they were. The protagonist was the “wandering sword guy” for a good third of the first season. But eventually, I realized that it was better to identify everyone by their moniker. Titles such as the “Enigmatic Gale” are easier to remember than names like “Shā Wú Shēng,” and they also sound cooler.
What I Love Most About This Show
Thunderbolt Fantasy is full of clever characters. I love diabolical plotters in fiction. Silver-tongued characters are my favorite part of this series because they’re the best to read about in stories. The audience can never predict which side anyone’s on because they’re always trying to outsmart each other for their own benefit. And they do it so well that it’s almost impossible for anyone to hate them for it. (Yes, what they’re doing is cruel but it’s also kinda awesome.)
The main character is also pretty interesting. If you’ve seen One Punch Man and Rurouni Kenshin, Shang Bu Huan is like a fusion of those two protagonists combined. He’s a bit of an anomaly in their world as he doesn’t follow the traditional ways of a swordsman. Shang’s considered an oddball for his trade as he’s “kind,” which makes it easy for others to manipulate him. He uses an “edgeless blade” to potentially spare his enemies and he always tries to help those in need. He doesn’t fit the appearance of a skilled fighter so the series masks him as comic relief because of it.
This anime involves a bit of poetry and the tidbits are epic. A character’s set of morals and beliefs in this anime appear through their own poem. It’s what expresses their “defining moments” in battle. These moments are usually a conveyance of their own “philosophy” or “swordsmanship ways.” And interesting enough, their poems are in Chinese even when viewers are following the Japanese dubs. It does feel random to see these occur at times, but it caters to my love for historical dramas all the same.
Thunderbolt Fantasy takes place in a Wuxia setting. It’s a genre of fantasy martial arts and swordsmanship. There are a lot of historical Chinese elements found in this show’s economy and environment. The series is a real adventure for international viewers as it’s a huge blend of Eastern culture.
The series combines anime content with the effects of Taiwanese puppet theater. The puppets are designed to take on the appearance and behavior of anime characters instead of the usual Pili approach. Mandarin and Japanese dubs of the show were also recorded around the same time and with their own script. So there’s never any competition over which version came first.
The pacing of this anime does need some getting used to. Events tend to happen very quickly, and it’s easy to overlook some of the details if you fail to pay attention. This is rather disheartening when you find yourself missing out on all the clever storytelling techniques. Subtle details such as foreshadowing and motivation are often found in the analysis of a character’s action and speech. You may have to re-watch a few episodes just to train your eyes to match the speed of the show. Once you get that out of the way, it’s all smooth sailing from that point.
Should You Watch Thunderbolt Fantasy?
This series is quite good. In fact, it’s actually very well-done. But a lot of people refuse to watch it because of the puppet idea. The quality of this show looks poor to many others as it doesn’t follow the usual anime formatting. This is just plain snobbery at this point.
At first, I was like that too. It took me two years to consider this series. And by the time I finished the first season, I was deeply disappointed in myself for not watching it sooner. While this show isn’t guaranteed to suit everyone, those who love shounen anime and period dramas should go watch it. It’s a modern spin on everything we love about them. The narrative is direct and epic, and the characters are unique and unexpected. The entire show is just glorious.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is currently streaming on Crunchyroll. The second season started airing last month and new episodes are releasing every Monday morning at 5 AM (PST). So there’s more than enough time to start catching up now. The anime’s quality storytelling has improved over the last two years and the differences show. But, if this isn’t the right anime for you then you can still try some of our other Animanga recommendations over here.