Tuesday 6 April 2021

First Impressions: Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3

Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3
Thunderbolt Fantasy is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

How have we gotten through the past two years without another full season of Thunderbolt Fantasy? The greatest Japanese-Taiwanese puppet show to ever grace Crunchyroll briefly returned in 2019 with the feature-length Bewitching Melody of the West, but other than that fans have had to eagerly await the next chapter in Shāng Bù Huàn's adventure. But the wait is finally over, as April delivered a double whammy in Thunderbolt Fantasy content. April Fool's day brought us a wonderful little crossover with Fate/Grand Order, and only a few days later Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3 began in full swing. Created by Gen Urobuchi and produced as a collaboration between Nitroplus, Goodsmile Company and Pili International, the series has brought nothing but joy so far and the previous tease for season three suggested this will be no exception.

The current partyLàng Wū Yáo

After defeating Lóu Zhèn Jiè at the end of season two, Shāng Bù Huàn has teamed up with Lǐn Xuě Yā, Juǎn Cán Yún and Làng Wū Yáo to retrieve the Seven Blasphemous Deaths from the abyss they saw Lóu Zhèn Jiè fall into. However upon arriving in the twisted labyrinth they quickly realise something isn't right - not only has the cave been transformed in a mysterious way, but Zhèn Jiè's body is missing.

Elsewhere necromancer Xíng Hài has struck an alliance with the Order of the Divine Swarm in order to bring down Shāng and retake the Sorcerous Sword Index. Xíng Hài has also transformed the abyss into the Void Junction - filling it with demonic power and the ability to traverse between great distances via portals. With Shāng's party having unwittingly wandered into her new domain, a showdown between the two groups is inevitable.

Order of the Divine SwarmXíng Hài

Whereas the first two seasons of Thunderbolt Fantasy told fairly self-contained stories, it’s immediately clear from this first episode that season three is about bringing those together. There were a number of plot threads intentionally left over from season two to be addressed here, and it’s going to be done bringing back a few familiar faces from season one along the way. So if you haven’t had the chance to check out Thunderbolt Fantasy yet (and if not, why not?), make sure you go back and do your homework before jumping on here. This time around we’re immediately seeing Shāng embrace his role as the protector of the Sorcerous Sword Index, and Lóu Zhèn Jiè  seemingly fall to his death is too much of a loose end to take a chance on. You can tell he’s serious simply by the fact he’s brought a party along with him this time - made of up his allies (and annoyances) from the previous seasons. Whereas the “Enigmatic Gale” Lǐn Xuě Yā and Làng Wū Yáo haven’t been away that long, it was great to see Juǎn Cán Yún back properly after all this time. Likewise can be said for Lǐn Xuě Yā briefly visiting the grave of his old nemesis Shā Wú Shēng at the beginning of the episode.

Those hoping season three would jump straight in with the action might find themselves a little disappointed with this opening, which is much more of a talkative one that sets out the new status quo for the series. This is by no means a bad thing though, as it’s a chance to get reacquainted with all these characters and see how they interact with each other in this new party formation. If anything it makes a change for Lǐn Xuě Yā to seem positively amicable with everyone! This part of the episode has a particularly obvious roleplay feel to it, as the party are essentially assessing their surroundings and debating whether or not Lóu Zhèn Jiè survived their last battle. There’s not a lot in the way of launching the plot forward, but it’s still early days and the second you see Shāng do that familiar movement where he pinches the bridge of his nose, you know you’re right at home and it as if the show never left.

Shāng Bù HuànYì Piāomiǎo

The villains are also set up in a similar manner. As fantastic as season two was it was disappointing to see the Divine Swarm downplayed despite constantly being teased as this super shadowy organisation, but then there was so much else going on there wasn’t a lot of time to dedicate to it really. Within Xíng Hài s lengthy dialogue about the mechanics of the Void Junction we get some insight into her alliance, as well as being introduced to new characters Wàn Jūn Pò and Yì Piāomiǎo. Already they’re questioning Xíng Hài s real motives in all of this, but at the same time they can’t question the decision of their master Míng Huáng, so there’s already a nice bit of power play in place. It’s a lengthy scene with a lot of information to take it, but it’s a good opportunity to really take in the scale of the sets this show has as well as the ornate beauty of the puppets themselves.

Of course you can’t have a Thunderbolt Fantasy episode that’s just exposition, so it absolutely ended with the kind of wild puppet choreography you can only find in this show. Shāng did his usual display of sword mastery that’s earned him the notorious title of “Sword Plundering Nemesis” and Làng made a noise with his transforming demon Pipa, but the focus felt squarely on the face-off between Juǎn and Xíng Hài. Xíng Hài reveals to him that she was one the behind the death of his “brother” Shòu Yún Xiāo, and although Juǎn doesn’t quite have the skill to match up to the whip-wielding necromancer we can still see just how far he’s come in the time he’s been away. Far enough to annoy the Enigmatic Gale at least, who hilariously wasn’t too pleased that Juan was grateful for his help in the fight. Speaking of which, as always it’s so much fun to see Lǐn “fighting” just by smoking his hallucinogenic pipe. While the fight isn’t necessarily the most spectacle Thunderbolt Fantasy has ever had nor does it quite match up to the opening battles of seasons one and two, it definitely lives up to the high standards and production values that just make the franchise as a whole so damn entertaining.

Lǐn Xuě Yā visits an old friendJuǎn vs Xíng

It doesn't feel like an exaggeration to say that (for Western viewers at least) Thunderbolt Fantasy is one of the most unique shows gracing Crunchyroll at the moment, and arguably is one of the best as well. With two near-perfect seasons already under its belt, there's little doubt that season three is going to provide another year of over the top puppet action and the kind of Eastern fantasy adventure that makes you wish Gen Urobuchi was your local DM. This is going to be something really special, and even within an anime season of extremely strong shows it's bound to stand out.

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