When Netflix The limited-running animated series “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” begins on Friday, October 21, and will be the culmination of creator and director Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi’s long-term goal to bring characters from Japanese folklore to a global audience.
Oni, written by Mari Okada and Tsutsumi, follows the story of Onari, a free-spirited girl living in a world of strange gods and monsters determined to help save her village from a looming threat. It features an array of international voices including Momona Tamada as Onari, “Jojo Rabbit” star Archie Yates as her best friend Kappa, Craig Robinson as her protector Naredon, and George Takei as her teacher Mr. Tenju.
Tsutsumi and his Tonko’s house Talk to partner Robert Kondo for the first time diverse The project was launched in early 2019 but the idea was born before that. “It was about five years ago when Robert asked me, If I could draw anything, what would it be? So, I painted figures from Japanese folklore,” Tsutsumi recalls. “It was a longtime dream, working in this industry as a Japanese citizen, to write a story about Japanese culture from an authentic Japanese voice. I thought that would be impossible, but I did this drawing afterwards. Robert thought it was cool, and slowly we started making a story out of it.” Then, to our surprise, Netflix showed an interest in telling this story very authentically from a cultural perspective.”
The result is a limited series of lush-looking CG animations that appear to be in stop motion. In fact, the project was originally to be produced in idle mode.
Kondo, who is the production designer on Oni as well as an executive producer with Tsutsumi and Kane Lee, explains.
“Stop motion is tactile. These worlds feel instantly believable, so that became a high mark for us as we got into CG to be able to recreate the feel of those worlds,” Kondo says. “We really design around the emotion and warmth of these worlds and characters. The source material for everything we create is somewhat similar, but the path we took for Oni was very, very different than what we’ve done in the past.”
Tsutsumi and Kondo are known for the graphic quality of their work. After leaving Pixar, they gained recognition for the 2014 Oscar-nominated animated short The Dam Keeper, and opened their own banner, Tonko House. The filmmakers hope that “The Dam Keeper” will one day become a full-length movie and have created graphic novels based on the short and woven characters from the Japanese Hulu series “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems,” written and directed by a collaborator Eric Oh.
Oni production was already planned to be a pre-pandemic global affair and the shutdown ended up making it a necessity. “Even before the shutdown, the majority of production was scheduled to take place in Japan,” Tsutsumi explains. “It was important for us to collaborate with animators and CG artists in Japan because it is a Japanese story. So, it will be far away no matter what.”
As it turns out, their producer, Sarah K. Sampson, deep experience in remote production of the project. “That’s not why we brought her in, but Sarah has incredible experience with previous productions that were all so far away, so when the pandemic started, she didn’t tap her interest and took advantage of the fact that we were a small studio. What we were allowed to do during the pandemic was get to the The best talents around the world.” “I really have to commend her for coordinating such an amazing team that has been working in different time zones. We never felt like we were losing quality. The culture is built by Zoom, by really thoughtful interaction, putting more time and attention in those unseen places where culture is built.”
While “Oni” is offered as a limited series of four episodes, Tsutsumi and the Tonko House team think it’s “one big 154-minute story divided into four chapters,” Tsutsumi says. “Our hope is that people will watch everything at once. This is how we made it.”
Tsutsumi and Kondo hope that their partnership with Netflix will continue and that they can share more tales from the “Oni” world.
“The Netflix creative team collaborated with us in a way that gave us complete creative independence as well as their amazing support. I can’t stress enough how much we need Netflix to be able to create Oni,” Tsutsumi says. “We’re excited to expand on the oni story at some point.
“I hope this is the first story we tell in this world,” Kondo adds.
Below, Tonko House shares a video about the inspiration behind “Oni”.
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