Stop-motion. Japanese mythology. Adorable characters. What more could you want? Oni: Thunder God’s Tale has been on my “To Be Watched” list for ages. (Don’t ask me how long that list is…It’s kind of embarrassing) But it never felt like the right time – even though the series is only 4 episodes long, each one clocks in at around 45 minutes. And unfortunately, my binge-watching capabilities aren’t what they used to be.
But I decided this was the week to do it. And I was pleased with my decision. This series is an absolute gem. Though it likely could have worked even better as a movie.
Onari, lives with her father, Naridon in a village full of kami, gods, and mythical creatures from Japanese folklore. With the Demon Moon set to rise and the invasion of the oni – Onari and her classmates must harness their kushi or an innate power. But, her struggles in finding her powers lead her on a journey of self-discovery.
The animation. My god. Not only are the character designs absolutely adorable – but the animation itself is a combination of stop-motion and CGI. But they blend seamlessly together – so the combination isn’t jarring.
I really loved the morinoko, small glowing forest spirits – who remind me of those paper doll birds from Spirited Away. They’re beautiful. And there are so many different character designs – which makes most of the scenes really interesting to look at.
So there’s a point in the story where Onari finds herself in a human city – where she befriends Calvin. Calvin happens to be a Black boy living in Japan, who has an interest in Japanese folktale creatures. He doesn’t really fit in with his peers and it is this commonality that allows him to bond with Onari.
I’ve never seen an anime where the notion of being a gaijin was explored – and the fact that they decided to make Calvin Black is all the more important. Because while White foreigners are discriminated against in Japan on occasion – Black people definitely face more and harsher discriminatory practices.
And this also helps when Onari’s true identity is revealed – Calvin, unfortunately probably knows what it’s like to be reviled by people just for who they are – and things they have no control over.
I thought that was a really good touch, as it has multiple layers.
In Miyazaki’s work, there’s a concept called ma which basically translates to emptiness. In his films, these are moments with no dialogue – that allows the audience to sit with what has just happened or even to take in the scenery. There are multiple moments like this throughout the series. But I can see other moments where Miyazaki’s legacy is honored.
For me, the most obvious is the scene where Calvin makes Onari a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When Onari eats it, she starts to cry – which is very reminiscent of the onigiri scene between Haku and Chihiro. I don’t doubt that the scene was paying homage to Spirited Away.
And while it’s not particularly strong, there are definitely themes and elements of respecting nature and keeping in touch with tradition and culture like with Pom Poko, My Neighbor Totoro, or Princess Mononoke.
But Oni: Thunder God’s Tale still has its own strong and unique identity. It can easily stand on its own.
Reluctant Dad/Found Family
Well, I’m glad the show didn’t try to force a romance between Onari and Calvin because that just wouldn’t have worked. The main relationship focused on is that between Onari and Naridon. From the start, it’s made clear that while Naridon raised her – he’s never felt like a “dad” to her. Naridon spends most of his days playing and wandering the mountain – but he always makes sure to have food prepared and keeps their home clean.
He cares deeply for Onari and Onari cares a lot for him – so that makes the moment when she finally recognizes Naridon as her dad, all the more heartwarming. It feels earned. And they’re allowed to have their own happily ever after.
Certain aspects of the series felt disconnected – the main theme of prejudice didn’t really come into play until the second half, and the whole thing with the kami becoming frightening monsters when they became angry wasn’t foreshadowed or really explained.
In a similar vein, I still have no idea what Naridon was doing with the morinoko – by releasing them on the other side of the bridge. Maybe I missed it – but it felt like it was left as a bit of a loose end.
These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they did lower the quality of the series in my opinion. But what really wasn’t necessary was the 45-minute episode length. While I enjoyed the ma – there seemed to be a lot of extra stuff in the series, that made the pacing awkward – like the mini-arc given to Onari’s tengu classmate.
There were natural stopping points in the episodes, but they would just continue. It might have made more sense to do eight- 22-minute episodes to make the story flow just a little more natural or cut some pieces here and there, to make the series into a 2-hour long movie.
I just don’t understand the choices here regarding episode length. Again, it’s more of a bothersome detail as opposed to being a truly negative aspect of the series that totally ruins it. But definitely, I thought the pacing could have been better.
While I’m glad the movie didn’t go the route of “the oni are just misunderstood and fear the kami as much as the kami fear them,” the fact that the oni are humans wasn’t much of a surprise. And the twist that Onari is an oni — was even less so. I mean, it’s basically there in her name.
But it’s not done poorly even if the conflict with the oni gets solved via deus ex machina – human world versus spirit or natural world isn’t the main theme of the film. It’s about hate, fear of the unknown – and how harmful that can be.
At the end of the day, Naridon recognized that humans weren’t horrible demons which led him to taking Onari in as his own. And this ended up saving the kami from destruction. It’s nice how that all intertwines.
And that’s the scoop!
Release Year: 2022
Length: 4 episodes, 38 – 44 minutes
Creator/Developer: Daisuke Tsusumi
Writer: Mari Okada
Executive Producers: Daisuke Trusumi, Robert Kondo, Kane Lee
Producer: Sara K. Sampson
Voice Actors: Craig Robinson, George Takei, Anna Akana, Momona Tamada, Brittany Ishibashi, Archie Yates. Tantoo Cardinal, Seth Carr, Miyuki Sawashiro, Charlet Chung, Yuki Matsuzaki, Robert Kondo, Omar Benson Miller