A series I missed out on in my summer preview post is Thunderbolt Fantasy. While I was pretty much on board for it after hearing Urobuchi Gen, aka. the Butcher, actually thought of its concept and wrote its story, it went completely under my radar at the time as I cleanly forgot about it. Nevertheless, as somewhat of a mix between old-style Chinese wuxia flicks and Japanese anime-plot ideas, I have been rather entertained by it thus far.
You might be wondering what brought this on all of a sudden. I have been feeling for some time that doing the usual posts for previews of seasons and the like is mere boring stuff and can be found almost anywhere, and thus, I should write content that people would be interested in reading aside from the commonly penned stuff. Editorials like these are, hopefully, what might yet interest more people to think a little more deeply about the shows and series they watch. Needless to say, this post contains spoilers for the series if you have not watched it.
For this post, I will primarily be talking about a scene in which I felt the series really brought to fruition well in its presentation. It is that of the scene where Shang Bu Huan, our protagonist, sits down across the table from a well-known mass murderer, Sha Wu Sheng, and of the invisible fight that takes place between them as they converse and drink wine in an idle manner.
The plot had moved on in a somewhat choppy manner before we arrived at the crux of this episode, and this entire scene took more than half the episode to cover. We begin with Shang Bu Huan looking up Sha Wu Sheng in a desolate inn, in which Sha Wu Sheng is the only customer. The scene is filled strangely both with a sense of desolation as well as beauty, with the quiet night hanging on the trees, flowers, and lanterns that make up the setting. Sha Wu Sheng sips wine calmly as he remarks that indeed, he thought Shang Bu Huan would be the one to come to him, and sure enough, Shang turns up and sits down at the table casually.
Shang has come to talk to Sha regarding the possibility of settling certain matters in a peaceful manner, but Sha would have none of it. The talk moves on a little with regards to both the matter as well as Shang’s background, and Sha also remarks that it is a little amusing as he had not had someone sit down across him at a table for quite some time.
What makes the scene so interesting however, is when Sha turns the conversation, in the form of a question, to whether Shang really thought he could settle things simply by talking. He observes that any man who really thought so would also have lost his head long ago. Sha then reveals that he had been thinking of nothing but lopping off Shang’s head since he had appeared, and yet Shang had, despite not making any overt moves, not even let down his guard even once.
This brings us to the all-important part of the presentation of the scene itself – that stark contrast between the background of the night, the beauty of the surroundings and the idle conversation between the two men, against the brutality and the real combat that was really taking place. An invisible duel, so to speak. Even before they had actually exchanged blows, both men had been fighting, one looking for an opportunity to cleave his opponent in half, the other sitting there with the “guarded mindset of a drawn blade”, in Sha’s words.
I cannot stress how well the contrast was presented here. As the scene keeps moving in between the invisible duel and the calm drinking of the wine by the two, we are given a glimpse of what is really going on in the minds of the two pugilists present. It is a theme that has often occurred throughout pugilistic and martial arts series, and here we are shown, quite masterfully, just how it might be like for one particular such engagement.
The well-timed transitions between the two situations playing out is certainly one of the better presentations of the genre I have seen in recent times that I can remember. Even with the explosion near the end of the scene and then it transitioning, as seen above, back to the calm conversation, I felt it was not overdone or underwhelming. It was, instead, quite the balance between going overboard with the quality of the presentation, and cutting it too close for comfort.
The theme itself, in the form of the invisible duel, is something that a lot of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with, if we are well acquainted with the genre. I am no pugilist myself, but I can well imagine the number of invisible fights that must go on before the first blow is even thrust, and the many more that are exchanged even as the actual combat begins. While Thunderbolt Fantasy did not go past that point, it is worthy of note that by not doing that, it actually made the scene even more surreal, in my opinion at least.
While the fight does not even start thanks to the timely intervention of another character, the entirety- nay, the centerpiece of the episode had to be this particular scene in its entirety. We were treated to a very well presented contrast that was masterfully executed through both the settings and the duel we were unable to see without the show narrating it silently to us. If there was one thing that Thunderbolt Fantasy did really well, then it was this scene, where we are given quite the look into the minds of two high-level pugilists and the world of martial arts, as well as actual combat between two masters. As someone who has watched wuxia flicks since I was young and being quite the fan of both great presentations and the martial arts genre, this particular scene pleases me greatly.