Thunderbolt Fantasy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Kung Fu puppetry of Taiwan, but little did I know that I wasn’t the only one who’d taken an interest in Taiwan’s Wuxia puppetry- Japanese writing star Urobuchi Gen (the man behind Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, and Fate/Zero) had also taken an interest in Pili Puppetry form. In a twist of fate, Pili was also looking to work with him, and as a result of that partnership- Thunderbolt Fantasy (Toriken Koki), a Japanese-Taiwanese hybrid TV series was born! (You can hear about this story in full in the Episode 0 special on Crunchyroll.)

I only heard about this show a week ago, and when I did I got pretty excited. I’ve never been able to watch a Pili series before, much less one as it aired, and this one was being simulcast with English subtitles on Crunchyroll. Thus, I eagerly waited for July 8th, when the first episode would air, and couldn’t wait to watch it last night when it popped up on the list.

So, how was it?

In short- as awesome as advertised!

I’ve seen clips of Pili shows, and even watched Legend of the Sacred Stone, but this was a whole other level. The puppet-work is amazing, the story and characters are engaging, and the craftsmanship in everything is a sight to behold. I couldn’t believe how into it I got, and by the end of the episode all I wanted to do was watch more!

In the Episode 0 (Making-of), the Japanese partners talk about how they were on set in Taiwan and the wonder of watching a piece of wood and cloth come to life the moment a human hand was put inside. I haven’t seen it done in person (although I’d like to, someday) but I can completely understand what they meant, as you literally forget you’re watching puppets at times because of the way they move and act. It really does take the magic of puppet theater and bring it into the 21st century.

thunderbolt-fantasy1

The story?

The story at first blush is fairly standard. A great evil lord is trying to get his hands on mystical artifact, and killing everyone who gets in his way, which leads him into conflict with our heroes. Like I said, standard. But given Urobuchi’s reputation as a writer (it was written by him, but produced by the Taiwanese) I suspect there will be some nice twists coming that take it in a different direction. Not that it matters, because this story isn’t about the plot but the characters and action, both of which will keep you watching.

One thing I did like about this show is that each character has a different voice actor. In the original Taiwanese Pili shows, there is just one person doing the voices for all the characters, which is fine, but having a full cast allows each character to have a bit more life to them. It adds to the immersion, and I liked the voices they chose. One weird thing is that the English subtitles use the Chinese names, while the Japanese actors are using the Japanese names. It does make it more authentic, but it makes it a bit harder to remember everyone’s name since you’re hearing and reading different names.

In any case, Episode 1 has garnered 5/5 stars on Crunchyroll (with 123 votes) and I suspect it will be cult hit here and in Japan. (It’s only disadvantage is that it came out the same week Pokemon GO! launched) I hope so, because it really deserves the attention, and I’d like to see them do more in the future.

Want to check it out?

New episodes air on Crunchyroll each Friday evening starting July 8th (July 16th if you have a free account and are delayed a week), and I strongly recommend you do so. You might watch to watch Episode 0, which is available for everyone July 8th, and includes a preview of the show in the last five minutes.

Enjoy!

Rob

 

 

The Kung Fu Puppetry of Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan. Picture by Harris Tsam

 

As far as I know, Taiwan is one of the few places where puppetry is not only appreciated, but where puppet shows are shown on national television. In particular, the Pili programs of gloved puppetry shows have continued to capture the imaginations of young Taiwanese with their creative and colourful puppet storytelling.

The credit for upholding the long lasting popularity of Hand Puppet Shows in Taiwan, no doubt, belongs to the Huang family. Through their creative performances and their skillful management, they continue to find new ways to evolve the Hand Puppet Shows. Ultimately, the Huang family had developed the famous PiLi Dynasty with the PiLi Puppet Theatre. Following the current trends of modern society and the technological media- television became the new performing stage of the Puppet Shows and delivered this theatrical artistry to even a much broader audience. In its effort to attract the young viewers of the new generation, PiLi Puppet Theatre continued to create new and interesting concepts in their stories, including- illusionary time and space themes and action-packed Chinese kung-fu sequences. Now, the Puppet Show’s stage and presentation techniques can now expand to a different level of possibilities.  From e-pili.com.tw

During my own time in Taiwan, I have seen first hand how popular these shows are, as there are specialty stores selling copies of the puppets and related merchandise and even a Pili-themed museums. The puppets themselves are so beautiful, I was tempted to buy one just for display.

How beautiful are they? Watch this amazing 2010 opening for one of the Pili TV series:

 

There have been several attempts to bring these shows over for English audiences as well, the first was an international release of Legend of the Sacred Stone, a somewhat rare film that has garnered a 7.3/10 rating on IMDB and a small cult following for it’s crazy-ness. You can see a sample here:

 

The other was in 2006, when Cartoon Network took one of the Pili series and dubbed it into a show called Wulin Warriors. Sadly, as is often done with foreign non-animated properties (and some animated ones as well!) the dubbers decided to have “some fun” with it, and “liven it up”. So while the visuals might still give you some of the spirit of the original, the dub itself and the creative changes seem targeted squarely at 8-10 year old boys. Someone has put all 13 episodes up on YouTube, if you can get through that many…

And that character that rambles on about pizza and makes bad jokes? In the original show, he’s a deaf mute. (I guess now we know why!) I haven’t seen the original, but I imagine it’s a heck of a lot more watchable. The only redeeming thing about this one is the beautiful puppetwork.

Anyhow, if you happen to come across one of these Pili productions or characters, now you know what they are. Unfortunately, there’s no fansubbed versions of the shows out there, and unless you speak Mandarin you won’t be able to follow the originals well. My own Mandarin isn’t up to the task, yet, but maybe someday.

More about Taiwan puppet culture in this short 5 minute documentary:

Rob