Sunday, 13 January 2019

SERIES Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 2 - Sword Seekers

 Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 2 - Sword Seekers
Thunderbolt Fantasy is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

In 2016 Gen Urobuchi went one better than just dazzling anime fans with yet another animation work - this time he did it with puppets. Teaming up with Nitroplus, Good Smile Company and Taiwanese company Pili International Urobuchi brought Thunderbolt Fantasy into the world - bringing the intricate art of Taiwanese glove puppetry to a whole new audience worldwide. The popularity of the show led to a one-off special entitled The Sword of Life and Death the following year, and then at the tail end of 2018 it finally returned for a full second season. Taking the subtitle of Sword Seekers, these further 12 episodes continue the story of Shāng Bù Huàn and were released in both Taiwanese Min-Han (in Taiwan) and Japanese (for the rest of the world).


After aiding in the defeat of the Xuán Guǐ Zōng, Shāng Bù Huàn has travelled across the Wasteland of Spirits and arrived in the land of Dong Li. However his stay is immediately interrupted after an attack by the assassin Xiē Yīng Luò - who has come to take the Sorcerous Sword Index. Xiē Yīng Luò isn't the only one after both Shāng and the Index either, as he's caught the attention of the corrupt magistrate Xiào Kuáng Juàn.

With two of the world's most dangerous swords on the loose and powerful enemies out for his blood, Shāng must reunite with his old friend Làng Wū Yáo - a silent warrior accompanied by his sentient Pipa Líng Yá. And where Shāng Bù Huàn is, the Enigmatic Gale Lǐn Xuě Yā isn't too far behind causing trouble as well.


There are numerous reasons why the first season of Thunderbolt Fantasy worked as a series, but perhaps one of the least talked about ones is just how much it benefited from keeping things relatively simple. The story itself followed a fairly basic quest format that anyone who's had sort of fantasy role-play experience (be it first hand or otherwise) could get behind, with the depth actually coming from the characters themselves rather than the events surrounding them. Sword Seekers follows a similar mantra in that it has a clear story focus, but isn't quite as generic in its formatting. It's still a fairly basic "good vs evil" story that's very easy to digest, but does some interesting things with its characters to keep it from being overly predictable. Nihilist monk Dì Kōng/Lóu Zhèn Jiè is a particularly interesting case as despite being introduced into the story fairly early on, his inclusion doesn't make a whole lot of sense until later on. That said, Sword Seekers does have inklings of a far bigger story going on which it doesn't seem quite ready to talk about yet. Xiē Yīng Luò's employers remain something of a mystery despite regular appearances, which is a little frustrating as it takes away what feels like may be a key part of the overall story. Luckily the season is still able to quite comfortably stand on its own two feet, and future instalments promise to answer the questions Sword Seekers leaves unanswered.

One element Sword Seekers definitely does better over the first season however is the handling of its characters. While the differences in cast size aren't all that different, the fact that both Shāng and Lǐn Xuě Yā are established by this point means that focus and development can be a little more evenly spread this time around. Of course those two are just as enjoyable as ever, continuing their fantastic dynamic all the way to a brilliant end battle which plays on both the characters' strengths. With the exception of those two Sword Seekers deals with an entirely new cast, though a couple were briefly introduced during the season two sting at the end of The Sword of Life and Death. Shāng's new comrade in arms is Làng Wū Yáo, voiced by musician Takanori Nishikawa aka T.M. Revolution (who performs the opening and ending themes for both Thunderbolt Fantasy seasons). Though the character was originally conceived as a mascot for T.M. Revolution to promote the series he's been well integrated into the main story. The villain side of things has plenty more going on, with the introduction of three new antagonists across the season's run. Xiē Yīng Luò and Xiào Kuáng Juàn compliment each other nicely, with the former being evil in the more traditional fantasy sense while the latter is more the corrupt law official type you just love to hate. Xiào Kuáng Juàn also works brilliantly alongside Lǐn Xuě Yā, especially as the Enigmatic Gale's plans to manipulate the magistrate don't go quite according to his plans at first. Until this point Lǐn Xuě Yā has felt fairly untouchable, so to see him having to quickly rethink his strategies make for a nice change of pace on the character.


It says a lot about a show if it can make you care about puppets, but it says even more if it's able to make you care about swords as well. Sword Seekers reveals two all-powerful swords from the mythical Sacred Sword Index, both of which are crucial to the story but one is sentient (and voiced by the ever powerful Aoi Yuki). The Seven Blasphemous Deaths is a wonderfully twisted addition, but when combined with Dì Kōng/Lóu Zhèn Jiè becomes something really special. Hearing that the character is Urobuchi's own role-play game creation and something he's refined over numerous works only makes the end result feel all the over the top and spectacular, and you feel genuinely pleased for Urobuchi that he's been able to bring his fantasy to life in such a way. Much like everything else in the series the way they play his draw to the sword's hypnotic charm isn't complex, but in its straightforward simplicity it's able to build far more interesting ideologies out of it.

But while these story and character qualities can be found in many of Urobuchi's other works, what will continually set Thunderbolt Fantasy apart from the rest of the is simply that the others just don't have puppets beating each other up. The production qualities of the show just keep getting better and better, and between the intricate detailing of the puppets, the clothing they wear and the scenery itself the budget it has must be fairly sizeable (and if it's not, then the craftmasnship is even more of something to behold). But it isn't just the quality of the production that imbues Thunderbolt Fantasy with so much life, it's the incredible ways in that the show manages to do the same with puppets that in unskilled hands would seem so lifeless. In the absence of fully expressive faces hand gestures are everything, and few simple movements somehow manage to suggest so much. This is especially true of Shāng, whose constant exasperation of the events happening around him and everyone's obsession with swords never stop being amusing. The fight choreography is as tight as ever, complete with all the dynamic movements and blood-splattering that made the opening scenes of the first season just so hypnotic. And when fancy choreography isn't the answer, the fact Thunderbolt Fantasy isn't afraid to just throw its puppets against a wall does the trick rather nicely. You'd think at this point the show didn't really have anything more to offer, but then Sword Seekers comes along with a giant dragon - resulting in half sized puppets facing off against a human suit actor in a full-body dragon suit complete with fire breathing effects. Thunderbolt Fantasy can be as poignant with its characters as it wants to be, but the ultimate takeaway will always be that the show is utterly insane and never afraid to go the extra mile to prove it.


Thunderbolt Fantasy Season Two: Sword Seekers takes everything that you loved about the first series and does it all over again, combining this high-quality show featuring amazing characters that also just happens to be about puppets bashing each others with swords. You could read a hundred reviews that say just how good it is but the fact is it's so unlike anything else that's being viewed on a global scale right now (or at the very least, so unlike anything else you'll find on Crunchyroll) that you really do just have to experience it to understand why it's so special. Though Sword Seekers does act as something of a transitionary season building up to much bigger things, it provides just as many highs as if it were self-contained. With season 3 already confirmed, the puppets have very much taken over.

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