The new Netflix-produced animated show from Tonko House, ONI: Thunder God’s Tale, is a wonderful, four-episode story about found family, community, identity, and outsiders. On October 18, Sara Sampson, Robert Kondo, and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi sat down with io9 to talk about their animation process and how they approached storytelling while keeping both children and adults in mind.
“This is a very Japanese story,” explained Tsutsumi, “so it was important for us to work with Japanese animation studios.” They took inspiration from early Japanese anime, with their limited frame rates and choppier animation, and attempted to translate that into a kind of stop-motion computer graphic animation. “We actually started as a stop motion series,” Sampson said, “And then as soon as we started digging more and more into the story, the scope started to expand and take shape in ways that we never imagined. With that, we felt like we needed to pursue CG to tell the full story that ONI was shaping up to be.”
The show still retains the stop motion aesthetic, with textured felt-doll Kami characters contrasted against the waxy look of the humans that Onari eventually runs into. When asked about the episode two twist, when Onari realizes that the world beyond her home of Mount Kamigami is much bigger than she could have imagined, Tsutsumi said that this was a core part of their storytelling development. It is, in fact, the whole point of the story.
“As you know, in Japanese folklore, Oni [are] always the villain.” Tsutsumi said, referring to the folkloric Japanese demons. “And I read this really interesting historical theory that the oni might have originally been a description of foreigners, or people who didn’t look like the local Japanese people... I thought it was really interesting because that’s not that different from the world we live in today.”
When we use folklore in contemporary stories you have to make it connect to the world we’re living in today, Tsutsumi said. It was important for the midpoint to be the connector between the two worlds. He credits the story team and lead writer Mari Okada for making the twist so unexpected.
Sampson spoke about how the north star of the series—the moral of overcoming and understanding fear—helped them create a show that would appeal to both children and adults, not just parents. “We just focused on the concept of what is fear, when so much is unknown,” Sampson said. “You can approach fear with curiosity, and it gives you the courage to explore a new path and move beyond that.”
Kondo agreed, and said that for him, he always wanted to focus on the father-daughter relationship between Onari and Naridon, and especially challenge the ways that children view their dreams and themselves. “For me, at the end of the day, there’s this little girl who has this dream,” Kondo said. “She wants to be something greater than what she currently is. And I think that a lot of kids but a lot of adults also can relate to that—we all have dreams. And she’s sort of faced with the reality of what she’s capable of and who she is. And I think at the end of the day, the heart of the story is, is the story of a father and a daughter.”
While you can watch ONI: Thunder God’s Tale on Netflix right now, click through for an exclusive look at some of the movie’s incredible concept art from Tonko House.