I jumped into puppet week research looking for a premium nightmare, and failed. Thunderbolt Fantasy flipped over my weak cynic blows, tossed a sword into the air, kicked me in the dick, inexplicably ended the episode there, and then caught the sword. All that was a karate illusion: in reality, I’d watched three seasons in two days. Creating an opening to kick me in the dick.
There’s a long list of jobs harder than mine. Bomb squad rookie. Ethics Committee chair. Better teacher. I have a new top entry: puppet fight choreographer. Pushing doll-fu beyond children mashing Barbie against MechaBarbie is madness. If you asked Donnie Yen to choreograph a marionette fistfight…he’d kill it. For six times the budget. Every puppet kick would create four PhDs of debt.
Thunderbolt Fantasy has three seasons and two movies, so someone’s getting ripped off. I’ve seen a week of Central Park puppet shows without one flash kick. Yet Thunderbolt Fantasy finales have more flips than Simone Biles slipping Fox reporters. A practical effects lead said “man-sized explosions don’t move me anymore. Could we try chimps?” The director talked them down to dolls, and the rest is history.
Seriously, this show isn’t overcoming puppets. They’re the feature. It’d be worse with people or drawings. I don’t know how to process that. It feels like I’m lying, or taking kickbacks. But it’s real, and I’m still broke.
I love things that shouldn’t exist, but that’s not always an insult. When I heard “Puppet Anime,” my mind jumped to dolls gyrating around a hot spring. We’re in a Weeaboo drought. This year in anime is like every year for the Bears. I didn’t know that name before, because I had decent anime. Imagine every charting song being Rich Men North of Richmond. It’s a dork-only preview of 2050’s food supply.
I left out a word: Wuxia Puppet Anime. If you miss reshoots of House of Flying Daggers coming out every three months, congrats on the column! You should relearn Photoshop macros. Midnight’s for dance clubs and fight clubs, not Googling how frames work again. At least label the speech bubble folder.
Wuxia’s one of my favorite shelves, right behind “angry elephant owners,” and “stuntman lawsuits.” Thunderbolt Fantasy is a targeted miracle, and I had no idea I was in the crosshairs. Even though I own tapes with titles like Legend of the Punching Stairwell and Hey, Remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?.
My saviors? Taiwanese puppeteers (Pili) working with Gen Urobuchi, the last anime writer not trying to kill me. Directly, at least. English viewers get subtitles of a Japanese dub of a show recorded in Chinese, so be ready for no names to line up. The Shaw Bros. would be proud.
This may be the first fantasy franchise built around a loose pun. Wire-fu. Puppets. String. I love it. It’s like Star Wars translating to Father’s Day. Or Spider-Man translating to Uncle’s Day. Or Magnolia translating to Father’s Day.
Enough broad strokes. My attention span needs timestamped examples, or I’ll start talking about food I can’t have mid-cut, like stew peas. Salted pork tails sound like death, because they are. But it’s a waterskiing-on-mushrooms kind of death. Every moment is amazing. Some people cut off the fat, because they’re into futility. With stew peas, that’s like jogging to work off infidelity. It doesn’t hurt, but the sin remains.
I’ll riff on Season Two. I can’t touch Season One without spoiling the whole thing. Urobuchi enjoys “I know that you know that I know” plots, so half his work has a Soze. Or two Sozes. Or a Soze with a Rosebud. He wrote a wonderful Minority Report knockoff, and I’ll never recap it.
In honor of the show’s experimental spirit, we’ll follow a character instead of an incident. Meet Xie, “Princess of Cruelty.” That’s the fourteenth most over-the-top title, and sixth closest to a FinDom alias. Right behind “Miè Tiān Hái, The Bones of Creation” and “Nuwa, Drummer of Testicles.”
Xie’s life sucks.
Remember dodgeball? What if the world were gym class, the rest of your team didn’t show up, and losers got beaten into comas? That’s Xie’s existence. She’s deeply invested in serving Satan, and using “deception and subterfuge” in a punch-based universe. The latter is a much, much worse idea. I don’t think the protagonist can spell subterfuge, unless it’s in morse code on someone’s face.
Her target’s Shang, a vagrant walking through the rain. For a few frames, this could be a puppet spaghetti western (dibs on that pitch). You don’t know what kind of period piece you’re in until someone gets in a duel or joins an abbey.
Shang tries an abbey, hoping to duck 13 episodes of violence.
Xie’s been busy. But stop me if you’ve heard this one: Shang’s an oaf.
An oafish wanderer.
An oafish lone wanderer.
He can’t cross the street without it raining. And doesn’t want any trouble. He’s the only one without a closet full of Nomura x Gucci gear. In a series about magic swords, he’s taped a knife to a stick.
That’s 0.75 Jackie Chans, making Shang apex predator. Every necromancer, mad prince, corrupt mayor, and subway speakerphone user should retire. But our girl has confidence. And bugs.
Xie tries bugs.
Then the direct approach.
Then bugs again.
No sale. Despite parrying Shang’s knees with her liver, Xie flees with only two out of thirty-six magic swords. After inflation, that’s half a Silmaril. This isn’t going well.
Then she Googles which swords she stole. Leading to the classic literary dilemma: rely on your own strength, or let your ribs heal?
Option one is silent, controls people she stabs, and has the mildly dramatic name “Night of Mourning.” As far as cursed artifacts go, it’s an old Honda. Evil parents buy a Night of Mourning if you keep your grades up and clean up after Cerberus.
It sounds cool, but the entire world is Ip Man’s hometown. If Xie could stab opponents, she wouldn’t need a magic sword. In card games, they call this a “win more” strategy. It doesn’t fix the knee-to-liver problem.
Option two talks, addresses itself as “The Seven Blasphemous Deaths” and promises global conquest.
Xie must read Tolkein, because she chucks that shit. Begging the question: what are fantasy novels in fantasy worlds about? Taxes? Spring cleaning? Cubicles? A lucid Alan Moore would have a field day.
I need to underline something here. Partially because it proves the show has a sense of humor. But mostly because it drives me insane. It’s like looking into the screenwriting sun. It’s Thunderbolt Fantasy elevating its abstract pun game.
Both artifacts feature mind control. E.g: they turn…people…into…
Xie sets out to reclaim her pride the warrior’s way: cheating slightly less than possible. And it works! In the greatest twist of Urobuchi’s career, she hits an opponent. With poison damage. I didn’t know that was allowed.
Her victory lap triggers Thunderbolt Fantasy’s weirdest, dumbest, and best feature: character poems. The narrator drops koans about how badly someone’s ass just got kicked. It happens just often enough for you not to get used to it.
Here’s Xie’s, just to prove I’m not insane.
You bet everyone spends their poem posing. It’s delightful, like an art school taunt emote. Xbox Live by way of Homer. DX crotch-chopping in 29/8 time. For all the pomp, each line’s replaceable with “What’s good, darkling?”
Anyway, Shang gets better.
Don’t call yourself the Princess of Cruelty. The universe hates competition.
Losing the re-re-rematch leaves a mental mark. Xie spirals. She’s a third as stressed as the average med student, and half as likely to do something extreme. Ultimately, Xie wants what we all want: to give back. To be respected. To serve the devil without catching flying elbows to the spine.
Respect’s the big one. It’s surprisingly relatable, especially while Sauron’s mall sword negs her.
Seven Blasphemous Deaths is a subtle manipulator.
Gently nudging Xie to the edge.
It’s hilarious. Come for Sauron, stay for jock GLaDOS.
We’ve all dated that hellsword. Therapists don’t exist yet and fossils are just fun bones, so Xie finds a priest to lament her non-protagonist weakness. She’s a poison-type on an RPG planet. I’m sure games exist where status effects work better than winning. But bleed generally comes at the expense of punching through mountain chains.
Said priest has…unique answers.
Alright, he’s nicer than that. But he emphasizes serving Wushu Satan. Making it more understandable when Xie snaps. Corrupt cops are after her for “multiple murders” and Shang’s rebroken her ribcage, but it’s really her sword-bully following up on this talk that cracks her brain’s outer shell.
Maybe that seems like an exaggeration. Here’s the direct quote:
Persuasive. Xie’s position on police brutality evolves.
And keeps evolving, and won’t stop evolving. The hellsword may be a problem. It gets stronger the more guards it kills, like a slaughterhouse Katamari. Xie dices decades of pork tails.
No. Shut it, nerd. Pop music and Netflix have ruled anime lower on the basement rankings than dice. Go wait your turn for proper Hollywood exploitation. I don’t see Tom Cruise in Greyhawk.
Yup. It rocks. She kills so many puppets with Blackrazor. Or Frostmourne. Or Soul Edge. Or Stormbringer. But the twist is that she stops. Coated in puppet blood (there’s a lot of it, by the way), Xie aims for a better way.
Every frame of soap opera suffering’s led here. After trying poison, illusions, literally calling the cops, discount sword magic, therapy, and deluxe sword magic, Xie decides to join punch club. She challenges Shang to a one-on-one, no shenanigans duel.
She finds her honor.
Why would you ever find honor? Honor’s killed more people than fleas or God’s will. I would rather find a lump. Xie abandoned the One True Path: when scorpions fail, find more scorpions.
If you learn one thing from me, make it this: nuclear disarmament is vital for mankind’s survival. If you learn a second thing: honor is for corpses, liars, and invincible Jackie Chan clones.
That’s not the end of her story. Watch Thunderbolt Fantasy. Shang’s sidekick carries a talking guitar, so there’s a puppet with a puppet.
Why’d I pick Xie? She has one of the better soap operas. A tragedy that feeds into another abstract pun. Xie’s allies, enemies, insecurities, and magic knife all take her for a ride. Chasing strength…turns her…into a…
Me neither. Here’s a puppet kaiju fight. A bard belts the series theme song to reflect dragon fire. Watch Thunderbolt Fantasy.
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Dan B, who always brings scorpions to a puppet fight.