A lot of our sentiments about saving the Earth, protecting animals, and co-existing with each other stem from films that we saw as kids. Although animation isn’t a kids-only medium (and, yes, it’s a medium and not a genre), it is one that deserves all the credit for instilling these qualities in us at such a young age. Some of the best examples are “FernGully: The Last Rainforest,” “The Jungle Book” (the 1967 one), “Moana,” “Finding Nemo,” “Over the Hedge,” “WALL.E,” “Tarzan” (the 1999 one), “Rio 2”, “Wolfwalkers”, and basically the entirety of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography. But since humanity continues to destroy the one habitable planet we know of; it seems like we need to keep reiterating the message to the younger generations who are just learning the ways of the world. And one of the best places to start is Netflix’s latest offering, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale.”
Created and directed by Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi and written by Mari Okada, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” follows Naridon (Craig Robinson) as he returns to his village (which is filled with oddball gods and monsters) in Mount Kamigami on a stormy night with a baby. That baby grows up to be Onari (Momona Tamada). Her best friend is Kappa (Archie Yates). And she dreams of becoming the Great Hero and vanquishing all the Oni. What’s the Oni, though? Well, according to legend, they are these malevolent forces that have ravaged the villages of the Kami all across Japan. On the night of the Demon Moon, they are apparently going to cross through the forbidden forest and over the bridge that connects the land of the Oni to the village. So, before that, every kid – which includes Onari, Amaten (Brittany Ishibashi), Ann-Brella (Anna Akana), Tanukinta (Charlet Takahashi Chung), Nama & Hage (Robert Kondo), Emi (Miyuki Sawashiro), and Darma – has to master their Kushi and prove to Mr. Tengu (George Takei) that they are capable of holding their own against the Oni.
“Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” starts off as a simple story about what you expect from yourself and what others expect from you; and how we lean on our friends and parents to guide us through this dilemma. Onari comes off as someone who is highly ambitious because, well, she essentially wants to be a God. And in doing so, she fails to see the gap between her abilities and the final result. The limited series obviously doesn’t say that it’s wrong to have lofty expectations. But if the aforementioned gap isn’t addressed, it can lead to you being disappointed in yourself and the laughing-stock of others. The two characters that ground Onari are Kappa and Naridon. Kappa does it via his very vocal trepidation about everything since his whole existence is kind of volatile, which is visually represented so beautifully by the puddle of water on his head that keeps him going. However, his Kushi shows that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Naridon isn’t great with words. So, he contrasts Onari’s free-spirited nature with his calming, go-with-the-flow vibe. Then again, his reclusiveness is on purpose, even if it costs him his popularity amongst the Kami.
That brings up the topic of exclusion. Despite having the danger of the Oni looming over their heads, the villagers—especially the children—don’t come together. They spend a lot of time bullying Onari and treating Naridon and Kappa as jokes, which is largely due to their personal insecurities and fears. After the arrival of a strongman figure, Putaro (Omar Miller), these villagers naturally gravitate towards him because that’s exactly what happens when people see someone exuding copious amounts of confidence. The source of said confidence can be hollow. But it rarely matters at the moment because the focus is on the rise of aggression and mass hysteria. And the noise of that becomes so deafening that dealing with the imminent threat, i.e., the Oni becomes almost secondary. Without spoiling it too much, the Oni represents fear and negative actions. In “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale,” such actions range from deforestation, capitalism, a general disrespect towards nature, fear of the unknown, the fear of losing a loved one, and the refusal to tackle all that in a constructive fashion. Because if one doesn’t act, they give the aggressors a free pass. Acting on it can lead to failure, but one can learn something from it.
In addition to all this text and subtext, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” is a dazzling yet comforting visual masterpiece that’s rooted in Japanese culture. The influence of Miyazaki is apparent. But there’s a little bit of Ishirō Honda as well, I think. The animation is clearly made to look like stop-motion. However, it is a completely 3D CGI animation. There’s an hour-long discussion on it, featuring Dice and the VFX supervisor and DVFX supervisor of Megalis VFX, that describes how the look, and the motion of the characters are achieved that you should definitely check out. Because the final result is mind-blowing. The most insane aspect of the visual style of the limited series is that the felt cloth-like skin of the characters, the water, the leaves, every element in the house, and the movement of wind or fire, are made to look realistic no matter how unrealistic their design is. Artists almost never break the laws of physics, and yet they make room for their imaginations to run wild. And all of it is amplified by Andrew Ritchie’s virtual cinematography, Zach Johnston and Matteo Roberts’s music, Hajime Takagi’s sound design and sound editing, Robert Kondo’s production design, Rachel Tiep-Daniels’s art direction, and Bradley Furnish’s editing.
While the animators do a lot of the heavy lifting to breathe life into the characters in “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale,” it’s the voice actors who make them memorable. Momona Tamada as Onari and Archie Yates as Kappa will steal your heart within a matter of seconds. They aptly capture their respective characters’ adorable nature and underlying resilience. If the limited series didn’t have anything else and just featured the two of them talking, I would’ve watched it. Omar Miller as Putaro is a major highlight. The way he essays his character’s change from bright optimism to dark pessimism is fantastic. Brittany Ishibashi, Anna Akana, Charlet Takahashi Chung, Robert Kondo, and Miyuki Sawashiro as Onari and Kappa’s classmates are annoying when they need to be and cute as hell when they overcome their animosity towards the aforementioned duo. George Takei as Mr. Tengu is hilarious. It’s difficult to play a character so straight that it gets funny, but he does it effortlessly. Seth Carr is really good, and the way his voice breaks due to his excitement about the Kami is sweet. Craig Robinson as Naridon is certainly a choice because he hardly has any dialogue. It’s probably the easiest pay cheque he has claimed (much easier than Vin Diesel as Groot).
In conclusion, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” is the most comforting animated series that Netflix has presented since “City of Ghosts.” Both of them should have a gazillion seasons because the level of warmth, enjoyment, and love that these kinds of shows emanate is something that we desperately need right now in this world. But Netflix doesn’t want to play fair with creators of animated projects. Hence, we are getting a singular season of these amazing stories. Anyway, since something is better than nothing, please watch them as many times as you can. Show them to your kids. If you don’t have any kids of your own, show them to your neighbors’ kids. Show it to everyone you know. I won’t advise stopping strangers from recommending “Oni.” However, if they are having a bad day and they want to brighten things up, do tell them to give it a go. They’ll definitely thank you for it later.