Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death Review

*Spoilers ahead

Oh Thunderbolt Fantasy, how I’ve missed your weird marriage of wuxia, Taiwanese puppet animation, and maximum ham-level anime flourishes. For the uninitiated, Thunderbolt Fantasy was a 12 episode TV series created and written by Gen Urobuchi, one of the premier auteurs in the world of anime. Urobuchi coordinated the collaboration between Nitroplus, Good Smile Company, and the Taiwanese hand puppet studio Pili International.

It stars a wandering vagabond Shang Bu Huan as he assembles a team consisting of a demon titled The Night’s Lament, an archer known as the Keen-Eyed Sharpshooter, a thief called the Enigmatic Gale, and an assassin known as the Screaming Phoenix Killer, who are all brought together to take down the evil Bones of Creation. Yes, it is every bit as good as it sounds.

Classifying the series’ latest output as a movie is a bit of a stretch, it’s really a two part special that consists of backstory for the Screaming Phoenix Killer, and a humorously presented recap episode that stars a bumbling imposter of Shang Bu Huan’s misdeeds.

The Screaming Phoenix Killer portion of the story contains all of the heightened melodrama, and gloriously choreographed action spectacle that makes the main story so fun to watch. The absurd tragedy of Sha Wu Shang is painted with all the subtly of a sledgehammer kareening through drywall. While the presentation of a bloody baby is a bit overkill, the sheer ridiculousness of the misfortune wrought during his birth paints Shang as a man trapped by fate. When the Enigmatic Gale offers Shang a way to break from his given path and adopt a new name, he jumps at the chance. Entering a tournament for the title of Sword Saint, Shang is given an excuse to showcase his consistently entertaining superhuman swordsmanship.

One of Thunderbolt Fantasy’s great strengths is its ability to blend the practical effects of its ornately designed puppets, with its magic imbuing graphical effects. This combination allows the combat to be lent the kinetic force of sword blows, while also fully indulging in the supernatural in a cohesive way. Although we are witnessing puppets being flung around, the punchy editing imbues battles with the sort of overblown drama that can only be emulated by the best martial arts movies. While the cuts are frequent, cause and effect is always demonstrated, and the editing enhances the ballet of swords rather than making it unclear.

The tournament conceit offers an excuse to witness Phoenix’s unstoppable swordsmanship and a rotating cast of enemies. Although Gale’s eventual betrayal feels inevitable given that this is a prequel, the unfolding of his plot still is entertaining. The climactic moment where Gale reveals his machinations is overblown, but amply justifies the buildup. Between the ensuing slaughter, and the moment when Phoenix realizes he has lost, we are given a worthy payoff and justification for his vendetta against Gale.

This said the overall presentation of the story feels a little bit stilted. The exposition filled opening scenes are followed by a non-stop barrage of fights, mostly lacking the ridiculous and witty banter that makes the main series a goofy delight.

The second part of the special is far less interesting, essentially functioning as a recap episode with a twist. While the Shang Bu Huan imposter’s presentation of the first season’s plot has a few chuckle-worthy moments, and does a good job of contrasting the duplicity and intrigue that defined the series’ true events, the soapy tear jerker moments at the end undercut this. The imposter’s telling of the story also feels drawn out, and at times is overblown in an annoying fashion.

For fans of the series, the expertly crafted fights are worth the price of admission. For everyone else, I would highly recommend checking out the mainline series if you have any passing interest in Wuxia, martial arts movies, or anime.

Rating: 3/5

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Image source: Crunchyroll

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