Thunderbolt Fantasy: A Mockery of Mastery

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.

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There are tales in every culture where strive to cultivate an art or trade to the point of perfection. While it might simply be due  to a personal lack of worldliness, I feel like that the Japanese have a particular fixation for crafting inspirational narratives around self-serious journeys to artistic and trade-based mastery. The  lines between profession and purpose in these stories blur in many cases, and become indistinguishable in others. Jirou Dreams of Sushi is a documentary of a master sushi chef’s work ethic. Various sports stories in anime and manga, whether they be about baseball or cooking, star their main protagonists honing their craft to performative excellence, if not total perfection. The Japanese government literally designates the masters of certain culturally significant vocations as “Living National Treasures.”

Gen Urobuchi has a few things he says about this obsession over mastery, several words to those self-serious egotists who strut around like the world and its people should slit their stomachs to purify the ground they stand on. He does it through the context of one of Japan’s flashiest cultural artifacts: swordsmanship. He mocks it. He basically mocks the idea of people placing so much of their substance, so much of their self-worth in achieving it and maintaining it, and he imparts this mockery to audiences through a show so visually and audibly campy that it can be easy to miss: Thunderbolt Fantasy.

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Interwoven in this flashy and flowery tale of sword quests, sword strikes, and sword booms are four characters of swords-import: (1) Miè Tiān Hái, who I will refer to as the “Bones of Creation,” (2) Shā Wú Shēng, who I will refer the “Screaming Phoenix Killer,” (3) Lǐn Xuě Yā, who I will refer to as the “Enigmatic Gale,” and (4) Shāng Bù Huàn, who I will call just “Shāng.”

Many characters in Urobuchi’s stories stray away from the unambiguous and stereotypical qualities that denote the labels “hero” and “villain.” That being said, the Bones of Creation and, to a lesser degree, the Screaming Phoenix Killer, tend to serve as the show’s more antagonistic roles The Enigmatic Gale and Shāng, to a greater extent, tend to serve the story’s more protagonistic ones. This organization between the former two and the latter two accomplished, I can more clearly declare that Thunderbolt Fantasy’s antagonists serve as narrative mocking material for the protagonists. All four of these characters, antagonists and protagonists, demonstrate their swordsmastery at some point or other in the story. However, only two characters of them are obsessed with proving how good they are with swordplay. Only two of them die arguably pathetic deaths.

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The infamous Screaming Phoenix Killer makes, arguably, the most unformulaic, dramatic, dangerous, and treacherous entrance of those who eventually join Dān Fěi’s fellowship, killing nearly two of his future comrades-of-convenience while being prepared to  go one-versus-all with the rest of them. The immediate impression that viewers receive is that he’s the strongest out of all of them, the toughest in a fight to subdue. He constantly thinks up of windows to the people he meets to prove how great he is at wielding swords, and he only agrees to join the fellowship on the condition that the Enigmatic Gale’s head is his once his part in the group has been fulfilled. The Enigmatic Gale is the one person he has a personal grudge against, and the one person he’s never had the opportunity of killing. And yet, the Screaming Phoenix Killer is the first of them to fall, slain in a needless duel that he declared for the supposed honor of his swordsmastery.

The Bones of Creation makes short work of him, and the Enigmatic Gale gets away with his neck unscathed.

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The less-than-infamous but even more deadly Bones of Creation targeted Dān Fěi, her family, and her home in the first place for the special sword that all three of them protect. He already feels that he’s the greatest at wielding swords, and he wants find a sword that he can wave around that’s worthy of his swordsmastery. He sends countless cronies out to die for him to obtain such a blade. And then, after a round-about set of events that involve all of his cronies doing just that, the Enigmatic Gale suddenly conjures a sword from his pipe and challenges him to a duel like the Screaming Phoenix Killer. The story’s renowned master thief and slickest escape artist, by that point of the story, offers the immediate impression to viewers of being far from a decent warrior.

After all, he’s  gotten by in the story so far manipulating people to fight for him and, in one case, manipulating one person out for his life of his to get himself killed in his quest to pull off a great heist. The Bone of Creations responds to the Enigmatic Gale’s challenge under that impression, insulted by the fact that a man of an inherently cowardly profession like thievery would pull an edge and act as an equal to a proud swordsmaster such as himself.  And then the Enigmatic Gale soundly bests the Bones of Creation at his own life’s work. The Bones of Creation demands why he prefers theft to swords when he’s so great at the latter. The Enigmatic Gale replies that he finds theft exhilarating, and swords boring.

The Bones of Creation, thoroughly humiliated, promptly kills himself.

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Most surprising of all for the audience is Shāng, a swordsman that audibly grumbles and visually bumbles his way through one hostile encounter after another, despite making out of every one of them relatively alive and well. A commentary throughout one episode by the scoundrels of Dān Fěi’s fellowship transitions from suspicion at his mysterious nature to derision at his bumbling. He’s written off as a non-threat to their personal conniving, and his swordsmanship is declared to be two-bit, mediocre, and, to paraphrase the Screaming Phoenix Killer, lacking any edge.  Viewers might have suspected that Shāng might have been more than the One-Eyed Impaler, the Night’s Lament, and the Screaming Phoenix Killer gave him credit for, but the true extent of Shāng’s capabilities probably flabbergasted most people watching the show when the curtains on them rose.

For one, it turns out that his sword lacks an edge because it’s just a stick that’s painted silver. He handicaps himself with a stick when fighting so that he’s reminded of how morally awful killing people happens to be to him by how physically awful it feels to kill people with a stick. Yet even with what’s basically a wooden branch, he’s able to cut and stab through people with an explosive amount of ease. For another, the end of the show has him sealing away a newly awakened, very destructive, hugely towering, and actually immortal demon with 1 of 36 other sealing swords like the one sword that the fellowship has been questing for all along that the Bones of Creation shattered as petty revenge for being thoroughly humiliated (before promptly killing himself). The fact that he has thirty-six spare swords suggests that he’s been through similarly perilous, if not more perilous, adventures filled with similarly powerful scoundrels like the one viewers have followed him on for the last twelve episodes.

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What’s especially rich about the end of the show that ties into how both Shāng and the Enigmatic Gale utilized their swords compared to the Screaming Phoenix Killer and the Enigmatic Gale is a line that Shang utters. To paraphrase, he states that swords are merely tools. The antagonists saw their prowess in using swords as their whole worlds. The protagonists used their swords as a mean to the ends they desired, their personal good and personal fun, respectively. The antagonists ended up being weaker swordsmen, and the protagonists ended up being stronger. The former two derided the latter two’s casualness, and the latter two showed the former two’s hubris up.

And Urobuchi probably had a lot of fun knocking egotistically self-serious masters off their mountains, making points not unlike the ones Nisio Isin’s The Monogatari Series are rich of. Urobuchi’s not mocking hard work. The Enigmatic Gale and Shang had to work hard to become as proficient at swords craft as they later demonstrated. But they don’t treat their swords as their lives, and they should take no shame in not making it so. After all, the flamboyantly-titled Screaming Phoenix Killer and the Bones of Creation lost and got themselves killed. The shadowy Enigmatic Gale and just simple Shang (or the Edgeless Blade, apparently) won and lived.

And they’re living fulfilling lives.

Management: For an essay on a show with similar themes, check out this post I wrote about The Monogatari Series here.

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8 thoughts on “Thunderbolt Fantasy: A Mockery of Mastery

  1. I think it should be noted that Thunderbolt Fantasy draws heavily from wuxia literature, especially Jin Yong’s novels. Wuxia’s martial arts are based less on real martial art and more on Chinese philosophy. Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism, value kindness and personal enlightenment more than skills mastery. I wonder how much of Thunderbolt Fantasy’s theme is draw from his personal life experience and how much from watching/reading wuxia works. In a way, I guess Thunderbolt Fantasy is like Evangelion: copying tropes and cliches of older works and modify it according to the creator’s worldview.

    • Well, totally true. The philosophy of Chinese wuxia is not mastery of skills, but using it for the sake of justice (yì), that’s why in many wuxia novels, “foolish” but kind heroes won in the end.

  2. Not wrong, but I feel like your missing out on something here, wasn’t Enigmatic Gale still, like, he lost in the end too right?

      • Sure but, in the end, he solved a sword problem with a sword. I feel like he isn’t completely aloof, like, the reason why he feels like reaching mastery is like drowning in an ocean is because he’s pretentious enough to claim the acme of skill. But as Sun Tzu says and I think Qin Shi Huang from the Wuxia film Hero alludes to, ultimate mastery is to win without fighting, to completely not need the sword at all, which is where Shang comes in.

      • The point in my post isn’t that Thunderbolt Fantasy thinks that swords and swordsplay are bad. It’s that show thinks that it’s ridiculous to pin one’s ego on demonstrating how masterful one is at them.

        Your point about Shang isn’t completely true. Shang does use a sword (or sword-like implements) to solve problems. He just happens to use unconventional ones in unconventional ways.

  3. There’s also this one line that the Enigmatic Vapelord said in the finale that exemplifies the character and the author’s mockery:

    > The heart of evil often beats in the chests of the childishly sincere; to take the source of his pride and replace the gem of arrogance with the worthless rock of humiliation. That speaks to my true nature as a thief. It’s the thrill of a lifetime.

    The fact that a legendary swordsman – whose whole being revolves around mastering the blade – was trumped by an aloof thief who was simply better at the craft than him, speaks to which lifestyle Urobuchi prefers.

    I wonder, though, if this message was a jab at the otaku culture in Japan as well. Even outside of anime, Japanese people have a cultural tendency of pursuing complete knowledge and mastery over something, to the point of obsession. It makes me think, were Urobuchi’s obsessed swordsmen step-ins for his country’s people?

    Oh, one more thing. Do you have any ideas of how to convince someone to watch this amazing show? I’ve tried, ad nauseum, to convince a friend of mine to watch this show but regardless of the praises I’ve sung about – from its sharply-written dialogue and talented seiyuus to its godly soundtrack (god bless Sawano Hiroyuki) – he can’t seem to get over the initial hurdle of the unique art style. Any suggestions?

    • I think that connection is a stretch, considering that the Enigmatic Gale suffers from his own fixation of collecting villainous peoples’s prides.

      Maybe advertise the writer if he’s a fan of other works of Urobuchi’s. You could also say he’s being a tad insensitive culturally (puppeteering in this style is uniquely Chinese), but I don’t that will go well unless you know he’s prone to guilt trips.

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