Netflix’s “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” is a CG treat from director Daisuke “Dice” Tsusumi (read our interview with him here). A father-daughter story about adoption, perception, fear, and love. And it’s as adorably charming and heartwarming as it looks. Animated to resemble stop-motion, characters look flocked and snuggly. Every shot looks like a fairytale diorama that leaves you wanting to pause every second. Even though animation is often marked for children, the deeper themes are ones every parent will understand.
Young Onari (Momono Tamada) attends a school for budding Kami (gods), though we’d recognize them as Japanese spirits- Yokai. She’s optimistic and brave, with a head full of adventure and excitement. With her best friend Kappa (Archie Yates), she dreams of becoming a full-fledged kami and can’t wait to discover her Kushi. The powers every kami obtains to be helpful. But she’s embarrassed to learn that kushi is inherited. And her father, Naridon (Craig Robinson), a red ogre, spends his days dancing, chasing butterflies, and being a generally silly fellow. She hasn’t the first clue what his kushi could be.
The children must learn of their kushi and develop it in preparation for defending their home from the oni (demons) on the night of the demon moon. A red moon will rise, and destruction will come across the demon bridge leading to their village. Desperate to learn about her kushi, Onari foolishly follows Naridon into the demon forest and discovers he’s actually a god of thunder. Word spreads like wildfire and Onari becomes the darling of the school. So why can’t she seem to develop any powers? And why does Naridon refuse to help?
The appearance of Putaro (Omar Benson Miller) the wind god, a blue ogre and Naridon’s brother, throws even more confusion into the mix. Uncle Putaro steps up to assist Onari in learning to make thunder and lightning in the face of Naridon’s suspicious reluctance. All the while wondering why his brother vanished ten years ago when they were at their peak and wreaking havoc on the oni village. And why Onari has a doll that was on the other side of the bridge the night Naridon vanished.
This leads Onari and a reluctant Kappa on another journey across the bridge and to the oni village. Reaching the edge of the forest, she gazes upon buildings and neon signs, bikes and vending machines. And humans? Turns out these are the “oni” those in the kami village talk about. Here we meet another human willing to help Onari and Kappa get back home: Calvin(Seth Carr). And we learn that the “magic” of the humans are the great metal machines that are chopping down the forests surrounding the kami villages, snuffing out the natural powers of the earth they use to exist. Deforestation is killing the ancient spirits.
It’s then the pieces start to fall into place. Why Onari doesn’t have any powers, why Naridon disappeared ten years ago. In a heartbreaking flashback, Onari’s parents were in a fatal accident driving along a cliff’s edge in the rain, when Naridon’s lightning blinded them to the truck coming the other way. Onari’s mother, desperate to save her baby, gave her to Naridon before the car went over a cliffside. Realizing he and Putaro caused the death of innocents, Naridon disappeared to the Kami village with baby Onari, raising her as one of them to protect her from the truth.
Fear is the Greatest Threat
This is where we touch on one of the biggest themes throughout the four-episode series. Fear. The kami have feared the humans so much as to call them demons for the damage they cause. Onari is immediately feared by the kami for being human. Beings that have known her since she was a baby are suddenly pointing spears at her, ousting her, othering her simply for who she is. And it’s causing the kami to change, their shadows rippling with fear and hatred, with Putaro fueling their uncertainty.
Having lost track of her in the forest, Calvin finds Onari wandering in a daze; feeling adrift and alone with her feelings. He shares his own story of otherness, moving from San Francisco with his mother. He talks about being othered by Japanese kids, calling him a foreigner, poking fun at his differences. But that Japan is his home regardless of how he’s seen by others. This prompts Onari to return to the village, after Kappa pleads for her help. An enormous shadowy demon has appeared on the bridge.
We learn that Naridon is at the epicenter of this demon, full of fear for Onari’s life and for how she will perceive him now that the truth is out. Onari returns to the village to stop him, trying to stop Putaro from fighting with his brother as he feels betrayed and hurt by his brother’s secrecy. Desperate to get through to Naridon, Onari is joined by her peers — who see her as the same Onari they’ve always known — and performs a chant she and Naridon perform daily, telling him that she is his daughter and always will be.
This is an extremely heartfelt story, and feels told through lived experiences of its creators. When you’re a child, one of the worst feelings is to not know where you fit. To learn that you don’t originally belong, or that you must adjust to belonging somewhere new can be extremely scary and unsettling. Fear and uncertainty can keep us from connecting with one another the way we should. It can poison relationships and make us distrustful of those we once cared for. It also leans strongly on your family being those who chose to care for you, that your origins don’t matter. So long as you have those who love you, you’re home.
This was an adorable series and I loved every second. It can be enjoyed by children and parents, both will take away different meanings from it. The animation style is wonderful and fun, the character designs are so cute, I wish I could get them as plushes. The artistry of it is beautiful, with many shots looking illustrated and full of dynamic color. It’s just good. It gave me the warmest fuzzies. With a diverse and amazing cast, I really can’t find any fault with it. It’s sensitive and respectful. It takes itself seriously when it’s necessary, and injects enough humor to give you a chuckle. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, sweet, and just emotional enough to shed a tear or two, give “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” a watch. You won’t regret it.
It’s currently available to stream on Netflix now.