Day One: A Shadow of Eagles Across the Moon

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Welcome to the 12 Days of Anime! Here we pay homage to our favorite moments of 2016, our favorite shows of 2016, our favorite animators of 2016, and anything else we feel like. We hope you enjoy the festivities. On that note:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,

THE LAND IS CLOAKED WITH DEEPEST BLUE

THE SHADOW OF EAGLES ACROSS THE MOON

ENDURE THE PAIN IT’S EASY NOW

IN WORDS CAN I SAY IT

WOOAAAAHHHHHH (x ∞)

[tw: pics of extreme puppet on puppet gore]

For the past few years, I’ve been struggling with my feelings for the work of anime writer Gen Urobuchi. I loved Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, a collaboration between him and the slackers at SHAFT, which came out of nowhere and punched 2011 freshman college student me in the face. I later enjoyed the adaptation of his canon fanfic Fate/Zero, which managed to overcome some legendarily ineffective staging choices with stand-out scenes like the Meeting of Kings. When  it was confirmed that Urobuchi’s next project was to be a gritty cyberpunk drama, I was sold. Here, I thought, would be his masterpiece. But when Psycho Pass started airing, all I had were questions. In a city devoted to stabilizing the mental health of its citizens, why build police guns that exploded perpetrators into masses of gore? How was it that the antagonist and his lackeys were solemnly discussing George Orwell’s 1984 as if the writers expected us to be surprised and impressed by the most obvious touchstone they could have picked? Why was it that almost every murder victim was female, and each killing a form of graphic one-upmanship? Did a girl really have to be strangled to death in every Urobuchi anime? In the second half of the series came the infamous hammer scene and Hyper Oats, but by that point I had already tuned out.

Psycho Pass has its fans, and I don’t want to disabuse them of the show’s strengths. If anything, when I examine my feelings from back then I suspect I was waiting impatiently for the arrival of an all-encompassing, singular artist who didn’t actually exist. After all, Gekidan Inu Curry were just as essential to the brew of ingredients that made Madoka what it was (the references to Faust that inspired rampant speculation, I’ve heard, were theirs) just as Psycho Pass was as much an attempt to translate Naoyoshi Shiotani’s Bayside Shakedown police thrillers into 90s cyberpunk as anything else. Every television show is a collaboration. But on further examination, even the particular flavor that Urobuchi himself brings to the table is more rooted to genre than I’d thought as a teenager. Madoka‘s a mediation on the importance of hope and sacrifice against an overwhelming and unfair system, but it’s also a magical girl turf war story with dashes of Lovecraft and an ending ripped from Serial Experiments Lain. Urobuchi’s cult hit from when he worked in visual novels, the gruesome Song of Saya, liberally riffs on equally cult film Possession with the exception that it lets you fuck the tentacle monster. Not to mention that among the guy’s visual novel work is a fan written sequel to the film Equilibrium. Urobuchi has his pet themes, and a keen eye for when to bend cliche and when to play things horrifyingly straight, but at heart–like his friend Kinoku Nasu–his work is very, very nerdy.

Thunderbolt Fantasy, which aired this summer, is his nerdiest project of all, and I loved it unabashedly. It’s his most straightforward television script, a wuxia drama about a team of martial artists fighting to prevent an evil warlord from destroying the world with a magic sword. But the story of its creation is far stranger: the project is a collaboration between Urobuchi and his buddies at Nitroplus and Taiwanese puppet studio Pili. The characters are portrayed by extraordinarily detailed puppets, the violence is graphic and the script was written by the team in Japanese, Taiwanese Minnan and Mandarin Chinese simultaneously! It’s the kind of project which could have only come about through talented people making exactly what they wanted to make, with few concessions to what is “marketable.” But Thunderbolt Fantasy is 100% pulp thrills, from the scene in the first episode where a defeated villain decapitates himself, then summons a demon bird to deliver his remains to his boss…

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To a scene later on where the protagonist punches somebody so hard that their ribs protrude out of their back….

To the old-fashioned poems that punctuate key character moments, similar to those that you’d find in a classic Chinese novel.

I’ve seen folks online laud Thunderbolt Fantasy as campy fun, and while that’s part of the appeal I think it’s worth pointing out how the show keeps much of what makes Urobuchi’s work distinctive. The “main party” of adventurers initially adheres to cliche, but it soon becomes clear that the team is less a band of heroes than a gang of villains. As the story twists and turns, victory rests less on who owns the most powerful magic sword, and more on the epic battle of wits and schemes that defines the show’s second half. And each main character manages, sooner or later, to play against type. At the same time, the show’s rigid genre format mostly serves to keep Urobuchi’s worst instincts in check. The story is tighter constructed than Psycho Pass, and while I wish the heroine had more to do there’s significantly less sexual violence than can be found in Urobuchi’s other work.

Most importantly, Thunderbolt Fantasy seems wholly comfortable in what it is, and rocks along to its wailing soundtrack (courtesy of Hiroyuki Sawano!) without shame. I dunno how I would have felt about it back when I was in freshman year in college, but right now it’s what I’ve secretly wanted from this team for years. I have no idea how these madmen managed to ensure a second season, but it couldn’t come soon enough.

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