Besides being where Shiao Yi started his career as a Wuxia novelist, Taiwan is home to a specific medium that is tied to the Wuxia genre. This medium is an on-going TV series franchise of glove puppetry belonging to the brand known as Pili(which translates to Thunderbolt in Mandarin). These productions involve special effects, wirework, and voiceovers in addition to the complex puppetry designs. Since 1984, this franchise has expanded to feature length movies, co-productions with Japan, and English translations on Cartoon Network and Crunchyroll. With this franchise going on for nearly 40 years and having many different titles, we will focus on the titles that are available with English translations.
Legend of the Sacred Stone is a feature-length film from 2000 that is a spinoff of the main series. The plot involves a particular Lord Jian who loses his martial abilities and seeks the sacred stones to regain it. This is the first known Pili production to be officially translated in English, with the Japanese language dub DVD including English subtitles of poor quality. Unfortunately, this version of the film is cut by nearly 30 minutes and the only version available with English subtitles. While there is a Taiwanese DVD with Taiwanese Hokkien audio (the original language), there are no English subtitles on this. The DVDs are now long out of print, however second hand DVDs are still available on eBay.
In 2006, Cartoon Network aired the first US-focused export of Pili known as Wulin Warriors. This was critically panned due to heavy storyline alterations, name changes, and characters’ personalities being changed completely (in one case, an originally mute character was suddenly talkative in the new adaption). What was supposed to be a serious story was ruined by a humorous dub and a theme song that did not fit the original tone. Fans of hip-hop music and the English dub of Dragon Ball Z may be amused to discover that the theme song they used is akin to a knock-off of The Wu-Tang Clan’s music, and that Goku’s voice actor (Sean Schemmel) voices one of the characters! But ultimately the series was canceled after two episodes aired, with the remaining completed 11 episodes made available online for free. All 13 episodes are now available on YouTube.
In 2016, a co-production between Pili International Multimedia with Japanese companies Nitroplus and Good Smile Company resulted in Thunderbolt Fantasy (an obvious reference to the meaning of Pili). Being a Japanese co-production, this series stood out from previous Pili productions as it was written by Gen Urobuchi (head writer of the 2013 Japanese superhero series Kamen Rider Gaim) and its theme song was performed by T.M. Revolution (singer of the theme songs for 2002’s Mobile Suit Gundam Seed). While the original Pili series is produced in the Taiwanese Hokkien language, this series was produced simultaneously in two separate audio tracks of Taiwanese Hokkien (for the Taiwanese market) and Japanese (for markets outside of Taiwan). This series is available on Crunchyroll for US audiences.
The Pili series is a prime example of combining modern filmmaking with traditional glove puppetry set against an ancient backdrop. Despite being relatively unknown in the west, that may change once Pili Fantasy: War of Dragons releases on Netflix in the West. Until then, let us know if you came across any of these aforementioned titles or plan to watch any of these!