Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is Baby’s First Crash Course in Shinto

I’ve known about Netflix and Tonko House’s project, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, since its initial announcement in November 2019. Over the course of the three years it took for the show to drop… a lot has happened, on both a global and personal scale. We have at least seen an explosion in diversity lately, but I feel like a lot of it just becomes clout instead of doing anything substantial for the good of humanity. Despite that, I decided to watch Oni anyway; it’s short, so it’s not like I had to worry about time.

In Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, a bunch of yokai (who are actually kami because the terms are technically one and the same) live together to protect the world from the Oni. A large dude named Naridon enters their domain with a child. He lives there and raises his kid, Onari, who trains to fight the Oni. However, she doesn’t exactly have any powers (referred to as kushi) because Naridon is a bit of an oddball. Sounds like the perfect setup for a coming-of-age story!

Before discussing the story at all, I must praise Tonko House for their absolutely stunning job with the visuals. Tsutsumi brings that experience as a former Pixar animator to the table for sure. Oni, being in brand with the studio, is an ode to stop-motion animation, and simply put, it’s the most beautiful display of the style I have ever seen. Every motion and detail is perfect and full of life. I can’t really express how visually appealing the show is; you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Furthermore, the show does a better job presenting a mythological world than almost any other case I’ve experienced in Western culture, especially compared to the literature department. It hits all the right notes, and teaches you the basics of Japanese culture and Shinto folklore in memorable ways, instead of mindless exposition dumps that insult the viewer for not having encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff going into it. If only there was more soulful stuff like this out there to teach children about other cultures.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. However, it’s told with much more chutzpah than a lot of the crap that spews out of our screens these days. Oni isn’t exactly deep or profound, but it’s not mind-numbingly predictable either. It showcases the strictness of Japanese society all too well, with how much pressure the children are given to excel, especially for poor Onari, who doesn’t know what her power is. It’s not heavy all the time, though; there’s plenty of adorable humor sprinkled throughout.

Being only a four episode miniseries, Oni doesn’t exactly have time to tell its story. While it kind of sucks that I waited this long for such a short show, the length is to its benefit; if it was allowed to go on longer, it could’ve easily gotten boring. Oni, especially in the first half, is basically a character study. There isn’t much adventuring whatsoever, and there’s a lot of dialogue. Honestly, it would have been a REALLY bad show if it went on for twenty-four-plus episodes. Fortunately, it does what it needs to do in the time given.

As you can expect from a program aimed at kids, the characters are quite simple, and are hard-carried by how they are presented in execution. Unsurprisingly, the studio did a great job making them memorable and likable (well, except for the people who aren’t meant to be likable). Onari herself is plucky and full of energy, and as the main character, is the one who must find herself. However, the real star of the show is the tragic hero, Naridon. Although he’s doofy and the least expressive character in the show, I was somehow able to tell that he carries a lot of baggage. If Tonko House actually meant for you to pick up on that, then kudos to them. 

Out of Onari’s classmates, the only one who isn’t a jerk is her kappa friend… Kappa. He’s the socially awkward and sensitive kid that you just want to hug all the time. Unfortunately, everyone kind of exists to fill the class and be, as I said, jerks. Even her teacher, Tengu-sensei, is kind of one too. Once it’s found out that Naridon is a big hotshot, he puts too an unfair amount of stock into Onari; they couldn’t give George Takei a better character to voice? Even Naridon’s brother, Putaro, is kind of your typical jealous younger sibling. Holy crap, I said the cast was great, but in retrospect, a lot of them really aren’t. Well, props to Tonko House for clearly telegraphing whom the audience is meant to root for. At least the school principal is a cool dude.

If there is anything of note to add, it’s what you could argue is the show’s biggest flaw. In essence, it loses its whimsy by the second half. While still excellent all the way through, it’s… well… how do I put it? Basically, in some regards, Tsutsumi isn’t that much different from typical modern writers. Oni has social undertones that have been around since humans put pen to paper, and it kind of sucks that this is just another one of those cases. Fortunately, it’s one of the more respectable instances of it, and they kind of—as the kids say it—jabait you in a way.

Sidebar: I swear if The Dragon Prince becomes darker next week, I’m going to be really angry and sad. However, you won’t be hearing my thoughts on it until November 19th since I’m going to Walt Disney World again!

Actually, hang on, there’s just another small nitpick, and it’s this weird case where subtitles appear to translate text on various background objects that don’t really matter whatsoever. Well, obviously, they do matter as little details to make the world feel alive, but you know what I mean; none of it matters to the plot. Ironically, this DOESN’T occur during the one instance of actually relevant onscreen text.

Well… okay, there’s one more issue I have with the show; not really the show but its circumstances I guess. While it’s nice and all, it doesn’t do Japanese culture any favors. In this age of inclusivity in American pop culture, people seem to think that nothing exists unless observed by the American mainstream. As someone who’s read manga for ten years and studied Japanese culture directly for four, Japanese mythology is alive and well in its actual origin point: you know, Japan itself. From Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan to In/Spectre and beyond, Shinto is everywhere, much to the locals’ famous claims of not being religious. It is odd that, with how common Shinto is, most of those I.P.s fail to break through into the mainstream, with Spirited Away being the only one to have managed it. Not even Oni is mainstream; Netflix really didn’t do much to promote it at all, and I spent two years thinking production was axed by COVID.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.75/10

As far as representation is concerned, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is by far the best portrayal of Japanese mythology in all of Western entertainment (at least out of what I know of). To be less hyperbolic, it’s just a really cute, amazing show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you wanna raise a kid who will swim outside of the mainstream, then Oni is an easy must-watch. In fact, if you’re a parent, you should probably watch it with them.

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