Tuesday 29 June 2021

Series REVIEW: Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3

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

If prior to 2016 you told me that famed anime writer Gen Urobuchi was going to team up with NitroplusGood Smile Company and Taiwanese puppet production Pili International Multimedia to produce one of the greatest series he's ever done, I probably would have been sceptical no matter how amazing that already sounds on paper. But that is exactly what Thunderbolt Fantasy is, and 26 episodes spanning two seasons (as well as two additional movies) fans have been treated to a storyline that somehow manages to get more and more wild each episode, unforgettable characters and more puppet violence than you could ever hope for. Two years after the release of prequel/side-story The Bewitching Melody of the West, it finally returned for its long overdue third season which was delayed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hero partyThe Seven Blasphemous Deaths

Following the events of the second season, Shāng Bù Huàn - along with Lǐn Xuě Yā, Juǎn Cán Yún and Làng Wū Yáo, travel underground to retrieve the Seven Blasphemous Deaths from the chasm Lóu Zhèn Jiè fell into. But instead they stumble onto the Void Junction - a realm created by the necromancer Xíng Hài containing mirrors that can transport their wielder across space and time. Wanting revenge on both Shāng and Lǐn, Xíng Hài has struck a deal with the Order of the Divine Swarm to reclaim the Sorcerous Sword Index.

Of course each side also has their own ambitions, and when Xíng Hài discovers the Seven Blasphemous Deaths she sets her own plan in motion for the Demon Realm to invade once more. As the party battle against the machinations of both the Demon Realm and the Order of the Divine Swarm, the threat of Zhào Jūn Lín looms once more.

Wā̀n Jūn Pò and Yì PiāomiǎoXíng Hài

While each previous instalment of Thunderbolt Fantasy has managed to tell fairly self-contained stories, each one has been careful to either leave looming plot threads to be picked up at a later date or provided ample amounts of lore or world building for the audience to start generating their own questions. Season three immediately stands out from the others as it strives to bring all these lingering curiosities together, end-capping some of these stories nicely but of course raising plenty more in the process. Some time has naturally passed between the events of season two and the beginning of this, but from a story perspective it feels like an almost immediate continuation. Elements and characters that were completely separated between the seasons are now brought together, and the result is something that really feels like a reward for fans who've stuck with the show over the years. So if you're a newcomer to the show, make sure to jump all the way back to season one and enjoy the ride from there. 

Given the intense level of craftsmanship that must go into producing a show like this, it's amazing how this season goes above and beyond when it comes to setting. This time to story isn't just spread across the varied landscapes that make up Thunderbolt Fantasy's curious world map - this time it's also multi-dimensional. The first episode of the series introduces us to the Void Junction - a vast dimension filled with ominous smoke, twisted terrain and the kind of mood lightning you'd expect from a demon's secret lair. The sets themselves display the usual level of intricate detailing that makes the show such an impressive production, but also a vast emptiness that gives them a more chilling presence. When the camera pans out and those (on average) two foot puppets are barely taking up the screen you really get a sense of the scale this show can work on. The Void Junction also works as the perfect hub for the rest of the story to work out of, the Scrying Mirrors acting as a very convenient means of jumping between settings. 

Shāng Bù HuànLǐn Xuě Yā

As usual though, it's the characters that really sell the story when it comes to Thunderbolt Fantasy. On top of regulars Shāng and Lǐn, season three brings together a "best of" of cast members from the previous seasons. Even though we might not see Juǎn and Làng exchange much in the way of dialogue, simply seeing them together in the same party feels like a big moment. After all these adventures Shāng is past the point of being able to hide his identity as the "Sword Plundering Nemesis", so there is a much stronger positioning of him as both a hero and a leader. He’s still the same tired old swordsman facepalming at his companions’ shenanigans we’ve grown to love, but there’s much more of an assertiveness and “take charge attitude” to the character. He’s still got plenty of secrets left to explore though, as we see with learn what happened to cause Mù Tiān Mìng’s blindness and Shāng to leave Xī Yōu. Shāng is a character rarely shown to make mistakes, so moments like these feel particularly momentous in both developing the rich history of Thunderbolt Fantasy and rounding its lead character.

In comparison, Lǐn Xuě Yā hasn't changed at all - and that's what makes him just so damn fantastic. Even in joining Shāng's crew for seemingly noble means the Enigmatic Gale is still just in it to manipulate everyone around him. His skill for strategy and planning ahead never fails to impress, with the man seemingly making plans within plans within plans to bring down whichever hapless soul he's chosen as his target(s). This season puts him in the kind of peril we've never really seen him before, but also shows the true extent of his cunning. Even if you think you've worked out what his game is, at best you've probably only worked out a fraction of it.

AzibělpherZhào Jūn Lín

Xíng Hài’s whereabouts since the first season has been a particularly notable plot point looming over the head of the series, and her return (in a lead antagonist role no less) was the perfect way to further explore the Demon Realm and how they were held back through the creation of the magical swords that make up the Sorcerous Sword Index. Her relationship with the Seven Blasphemous Deaths (or to use her true name, Zhào Jūn Lín) is another aspect of these episodes tying together previous parts of the show whilst creating new threads at the same time – particularly with the introduction of demon count Azibělpher. Demons have always had a strong presence in Thunderbolt Fantasy but previously their threat has never felt quite this grave, and even in its resolution season three feels very much like a prelude of bigger things to come.

On top of all that, some of the fan (and staff for that matter) characters get some really good material to work with in season three. The plot threads concerning the demon realm prove to be as much of a sequel to the events that transpired in The Bewitching Melody of the West as they were in the main series, with Làng almost certainly taking centre stage for whatever is coming next as the circumstances surrounding his birth are blown wide open. Meanwhile Urobuchi clearly wasn’t done with his precious Lóu Zhèn Jiè, reviving him for another round of what can only be described as sheer madness. Urobuchi truly delves in the insanity surrounding his love for his “Princess” – taking him on a journey that makes his previous descent into madness feel commonplace. Urobuchi really is in his element here, taking Lóu Zhèn Jiè on a journey that really goes beyond the internal logic of what we’ve seen from Thunderbolt Fantasy before. Other planetary dimensions, sci-fi wizards, robot arms – it’s an end cap for the character that’s as satisfying as it is surreal. 

Lóu Zhèn JièMù Tiān Mìng

While season three definitely wins points for its handling of returning characters, it does some great things with its handling of new characters as well. On top of the aforementioned Azibělpher there are also Wā̀n Jūn Pò and Yì Piāomiǎo – both members of the Order of the Divine Swarm. The Order has been a presence in Thunderbolt Fantasy for a while now but both it and its leader Huò Shì Míng Huáng have stayed largely in the shadows, though again this definitely looks to change given the revelations coming out of this season. Whereas Yì Piāomiǎo gives off more of a generic bad guy vibe, Wā̀n Jūn Pò is a really interesting character – one that deeply cares for his home country but feels the best way to protect it is to betray it. In a series of very obvious bad guys (there’s not exactly nuance in demons after all), it strikes a good balance to have someone who stands on an opposing side but believes what they’re doing is right. 
And of course it goes without saying that the show is still an absolute delight when it comes to both visuals and craftsmanship. A series about puppets wielding magical swords is the kind of thing that sells itself, but when this much effort and passion goes into the production it’s impossible not to admire the sheer skill at hand here. It could be argued that season three is a little lighter on the outrageous violence than previous entries, but it’s still a dazzling display of ornately built puppets and incredible fight choreography. These puppets can barely move or emote, but it's all done so brilliantly that it doesn't even matter. The introduction of the Nendoroid figures as enchanted communication devices is a sheer stroke of brilliance – adding a cheeky bit of meta-humour to the story whilst also proudly acknowledging Good Smile Company’s part in funding Thunderbolt Fantasy. Those Nendoroids already command a pretty high price on the aftermarket, and effectively turning them into prop replicas is only going to further that. Fingers crossed Good Smile have got some reissues planned, because of plenty of people are going to want them after this. 

Nendoroids everywhereHuò Shì Míng Huáng

Thunderbolt Fantasy is something that's becoming increasingly difficult to put into words, because it's more than just a show - it really is an experience. Somehow it consistently manages to pull off wilder and even more engaging stories with every season, never once stopping to linger on a point too long or outstay its welcome. Each episode goes by with the blink of an eye because you're just having too much damn fun with it. There really aren't many shows quite like Thunderbolt Fantasy, and even if you manage to find one that is it almost certainly won't be anywhere near as accessible. Season three might have closed the doors on a number of different things, but equally it blew them wide open on others. A fourth is pretty much a given at this point, so fingers crossed that it won't be too long of a wait this time around.

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