Oni: Thunder God’s Tale Teaches Empathy With Monsters – This Week in Anime

Mari Okada and Tonko House introduce young audiences to yokai and the important theme of acceptance in this adorable stop-motion anime series.

This series is streaming on Netflix

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.


Steve

Nick, I’ve only known Tako-Neko for a day and a half but if anything happened to them I would kill everyone on this website and then myself.

Nick

You know, I can’t say I ever expected a stop motion spinoff of the very real James Bond movie, Octopussy, but props to whoever made that pitch to Netflix.

Well, on that front, I have fantastic news for you about who we can blame:

Y’know, I’m STILL waiting for more news on Okada’s horny apocalypse movie, so sure, let’s check this out.



Jokes aside, while Okada handled the scripts for this 4-episode series, the bulk of the inspiration comes coutesy of Daisuke Tsutsumi and Tonko House, the independent animation studio he co-founded after working as an art director at Pixar for several years.
Yeah, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale definitely feels like a product of that pedigree. In fact, I’m kinda surprised this wasn’t edited and packaged as a ~two hour kids movie a la Pixar’s oeuvre, because I think it could’ve worked as one with very minimal tweaking. But I’m not gonna pretend like I know the difference between how original movies perform on Netflix vs. original series. And I’m also not gonna pretend Netflix knows that either.



What’s important is it’s very cute.
It is absolutely fucking precious. Almost too much at some points, and that’s largely thanks to the wonderful stop-motion. I couldn’t tell ya exactly why, but there’s always just something so pleasing about looking at real-life miniatures and dolls in these projects. It always feels like I could reach out and feel the fuzzy felt of it all.

Technically the series uses hybrid stop-motion with CG, but the unifying aesthetic is rooted in that good tactile fuzziness. And that comes largely courtesy of Dwarf Studio, who worked on the similarly precious Rilakkuma and Kaoru. Slightly fewer bouts of office worker ennui in Oni though.

That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make for four 40-minute episodes with this adorable plushie of a dad.



Move over Lum, there’s a new oni ready to invade everyone’s hearts.
And there’s plenty of squeezability to go around! I mean, I already showed you all the majesty of Tako-Neko and their amazing amalgam of toe beans and tentacle suckers, but there’s a whole cast of cuddly yokai kids, including the cutest kappa this side of Sarazanmai.

Though this Kappa encounters a lot fewer jokes about distended anuses, since this is still a family show. Instead this Kappa is just in need of constant protection from the entire world.

Don’t worry, he finds his knight in shining armor—and by that I mean a tiny duckling in yellow down who paddles around his skull plate for most of the runtime.



They are pleasingly peep-shaped, and yes, I would take a bite out of one if offered.

I’d say you were talking like an oni there, but considering what the other yokai kids have in their bento you’d probably fit right in on Kamigami Mountain.





Nothing I love more than sight gags that are as stupid as they are potentially horrifying.

One of those punchlines that is gonna blow some current-children’s minds when they remember it from a clickbait listicle in 10 years.

For our heroine Onari, however, the downward spiral of internet culture is one thing she mercifully doesn’t have to worry about. She just lives on a mountain with her large dad and goes to school with her folkloric friends. All she has to concern herself with is preparing for the inevitable invasion of oni who seek to destroy her and everyone she loves.




Valley girl umbrella, incidentally, also belongs in the pantheon of impeccable character designs.
If nothing else, she perfectly encapsulates the unique place Thunder God’s Tale occupies, as a largely US-produced project helmed by a Japanese artist who’s spent most of his professional career working on Western animation. The result is a series where the subject matter and characters are steeped in Japanese iconography, but so much of the presentation is filtered through the typical visual style of US kids animation. Which puts it in the perfect spot to be both very interesting and also a nightmare for Netflix‘s inscrutable approach to subtitling.


On the other side of that equation, it’s very funny to see “ittekimasu” just sitting there naked in the subs. I mean, that’s what she says in the script! So it’s correct, but it feels like an ancient fansub found its way through a wormhole.

There are certainly a few scripting choices that, because my brain was poisoned with mid-2000s fansubs, made me think things weren’t quite going according to keikaku. But I just had to remind myself that actual kids watching this on their tablets or phones don’t even know about the ancient Nakama Wars.

Trueeee that. And as a way to introduce presumably American kids to figures and customs from Japanese folklore, I think Oni’s doing a good, perhaps even noble thing here. And it’s even in concert with its ultimate moral lesson.

Granted its most immediate moral lesson is protect your adorable dumb dad from the harsh judgment of school children, which is equally as important as cultural exchange.




It takes Onari a bit to learn that one, though.
This is where I get the decision to break the series down into four episodes, because each one does have its own distinct arc. And the first two are pretty expected fare from this genre. Onari’s embarrassed/frustrated with her weird dad, but their love perseveres. Onari’s a misfit without any cool yokai powers, except then her dad turns out to be a cool thunder deity. Onari struggles to live up to that legacy, but the power of family carries her through. Lots of tried and true stuff, but with consistently gorgeous and charming presentation.





Can’t be overstated how much the presentation really puts it all over the top. I’m a cynical adult who has to pay taxes and read political news, on top of basically being raised on narratives like this in my own generation’s media, so it would have been easy for me to check out during this whole section. But the sheer amount of warmth the animation, music, and performances imbue Onari and Naridon with managed to grab my heart anyway.

It lacks the intergenerational appeal of, say, Rilakkuma and Kaoru‘s blend of Sanrio cuteness and millennial angst, so don’t expect any of that. This is, for the most part, a straightforward kids show for kids to enjoy. But you’re right, it’s got a lot of love poured into it, and it shows. And I’m sure that stems from the story being based on a poem by the director’s late mom.

And while it’s built on fantastical creatures, there’s a lot of grounded, relatable elements to Onari’s family life. Like having your weird uncle show up and crash at your house without warning.



Like obviously Putaro doesn’t actually arrive in a beat up Cadillac with his entire life inside a suitcase, but spiritually he does.

I have to imagine that wind sack he carries around with him is the exact yokai equivalent of that make and model.

Also like any good uncle he immediately gives Onari a BB gun as a present.

Also all he talks about is the band he played bass for in college.

They had a totally sick van with a rad picture painted on the side of it. The ladies loved it. Had to sell it off to pay rent back in ’09 tho. But trust him, it was awesome.

Speaking of cars and vans, you know, there’s something kinda familiar about how those oni look…

Gotta say, it’s a bold fucking move for any production in 2022 to borrow the big twist from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

Who knows how much say Mari Okada had in the outline of the story, but I like to think she saw the opportunity to make The Village, For Kids!, and ran with it.

I’ll admit, that movie would have been way better if it featured Bryce Dallas Howard going HAM on a Taiko no Tatsujin machine.



Note: that happens while Onari still thinks she’s lost in a village of cursed monsters who want to eat her. Truly nobody can resist the allure of those drums.
That whole sequence is pretty great. Like, in movies, I’ve seen these fish out of water scenes happen hundreds of times in New York. Guys almost getting run over by a taxi. “Ey, I’m walkin’ here!” And so on. But Oni deals with real shit, like those weird plasticized food displays in the windows of some Japanese restaurants.

Or the horrifying effigy of your tanuki friends!




But while the requisite reverse-isekai jokes are fun, it’s once those are over that Oni introduces the elements that make it genuinely special.

The best ally any yokai could ask for: a nerd.

Not just a nerd, but a terminally online nerd!



At least he’s not on Reddit yet.
One can only hope. And by all accounts, Calvin’s a good egg with an above-average zest for monsters from the Japanese tradition (and to that I say: whom amongst us). And he’s such a good egg that he helps Onari realize that humans aren’t necessarily the scary oni her Kami comrades made them out to be. Which is an important thing for her to grapple with, because Naridon’s hiding some big secrets about her own ancestry.



And yes you can absolutely guess what that secret is.
That’s right: Onari…is an alien!
This was an Urusei Yatsura spinoff the whole time!
I have to save my precious reserve of Lum faces for our eventual column on the reboot, so please make do with this one moderately intimidating photograph.

But yeah no, Onari’s a human who Naridon inadvertently adopted after he and Putaro’s thunderstorm caused her parents’ car to crash. And he’s spent the last 10 years trying to lovingly raise her while hiding this fact from her and living with a deep pit of shame inside that big fuzzy hairball.


And as if that revelation wasn’t enough, the entire village finds out this secret along with her and immediately get a very Shiki-esque look in their eyes.


The last episode is also the most thematically ambitious one. Like, after the “oni” were revealed to be deforestation equipment, I was expecting a full-on FernGully finale. But Oni sidesteps the environmental angle in favor of one about the horrors of mass prejudice and mob mentalities.

And it’s here where Calvin goes from a likable side character to a critical thematic hinge of the whole thing. Through his status as a foreigner living in Japan, it ties the fantastical “spirits vs humans” conflict to the much more mundane topic of regular ol’ human prejudice.





And what a shockingly direct condemnation of that attitude too. It could have been left as subtext, and that point still would’ve gotten across just fine, but it’s refreshing to see this kind of casual bigotry be put on completely unambiguous blast like this. It definitely ratchets Oni up a couple more notches in my book.





It genuinely took me by surprise to see the topic broached so openly, and while the conclusion is still abstracted and simplified for a narrative – Onari is decidedly not capable of fixing millennia of institutionalized racism across the world – it still lands.


Yeah, IRL, interrupting Thanksgiving dinner to ask your uncle to dance his racism away probably isn’t going to work out. But hey, kids’ movies have permission to wasshoi the bad guys into submission.

More directly, its goal is to plainly state that arbitrary categories are not what define us, and the tribalism they can engender is ultimately toxic. Onari might not be a yokai, or a thunder god, but she was cared for and loved by Naridon, and that alone is enough to make them family.

Yep, we all could stand to be a little more like Naridon, with or without the rad afro and penchant for flatulence.

Truly a shining example for all man- and monster-kind.


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