The Tonko House Team on Making “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” on Netflix


When Netflix launches the limited anime series “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” on Friday, October 21, it will be the culmination of a longtime goal for creator-director Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi to introduce 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 who is determined to help save her village from an impending threat. . It features an international voice cast including Momona Tamada as Onari, “Jojo Rabbit” star Archie Yates as her best friend Kappa, Craig Robinson as her protector Naridon, and George Takei as her teacher Mr. Tengu.

Tsutsumi and her Tonko House partner Robert Kondo spoke for the first time with Variety on the project in early 2019, but the genesis of the idea began earlier than that. “It was about five years ago when Robert asked me, if I could draw anything, what would it be? So, I drew characters from Japanese folklore,” recalls Tsutsumi. “It’s been a long-time dream, working in this industry as a native Japanese, to do a story about Japanese culture from an authentic Japanese voice. I thought it would be impossible, but then I made this drawing. Robert thought it was great and little by little we started to make a story out of it. Then, to our surprise, Netflix showed an interest in telling this story in a very culturally authentic way.

The result is a lush-looking CG-animated limited series that looks like it was stop-motion animated. In fact, the project was originally supposed to be done in stop-motion.

“Early on, early in development, we worked with a stop-motion studio called Dwarf and actually did some real-life stop-motion visual testing with hands-on sets and real puppets,” says Kondo, who is a designer. production on Oni as well as an executive producer with Tsutsumi and Kane Lee.

“Stop-motion has a tactile quality. These worlds feel so instantly believable, so it became the highlight for us to get into CG to be able to recreate the feeling of these worlds,” says Kondo. “We really design around the emotion and warmth of these worlds and characters. The source material for everything we create is sort of similar, but the path we took for ‘Oni’ was very, very different. what we have done in the past.

Tsutsumi and Kondo are known for the painterly quality of their work. After leaving Pixar, they gained recognition for their 2014 animated short “The Dam Keeper,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and opened their own banner, Tonko House. The filmmakers hope that “The Dam Keeper” can one day become a feature film and have created graphic novels based on the short and spin-off characters in a Japanese Hulu series called “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems”, written and directed by a collaborator . Erich Oh.

The production of “Oni” was already slated to be a global affair to some extent before the pandemic and the lockdown ended up making it a necessity. “Even before the lockdown, the majority of production was planned in Japan,” says Tsutsumi. “It was important for us to collaborate with animators and graphic designers in Japan because it’s a Japanese story. So it was going to be remote no matter what.

It turned out that their producer, Sara K. Sampson, brought extensive remote production experience to the project. “That’s not why we brought her in, but Sara has an incredible experience in previous productions which were all remote, so when the pandemic started she didn’t flinch and capitalized on the fact that we were a small studio. What that has allowed us to do during the pandemic is to reach out to the best talent around the world,” says Kondo. “I really have to give her credit for orchestrating this incredible team. who worked in different time zones. We never felt like we were lacking in quality. Culture was built through Zoom, through really thoughtful interactivity, and by devoting more time and attention to those invisible spaces where culture is built.

While “Oni” is billed as a four-episode limited series, Tsutsumi and the Tonko House team consider it “one big 154-minute story broken into four chapters,” says Tsutsumi. “Our hope is that people watch everything at once. That’s how we did it. »

Tsutsumi and Kondo hope the partnership they’ve forged with Netflix continues and they can share more stories from the “Oni” world.

“Netflix’s creative team collaborated with us in such a way that they gave us complete creative autonomy as well as their incredible support. I can’t stress enough that we needed Netflix to be able to create ‘Oni’ It was an amazing partnership and I hope we can work together again,” Tsutsumi said. “We’re excited to expand the story of ‘Oni’ at some point.

“I hope this is just 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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Raymond I. Langston