Japanese folktale characters come to life
The four-episode series follows the story of Onari, a 10-year-old girl who grows up in a world of gods and monsters. She and her classmates train to defeat the scary oni, a demon-like creature from Japanese folklore.
"You don't have to know Japanese culture to enjoy the story, but hopefully you get to be introduced to Japanese culture because there are a lot of interesting aspects of folklore that even I learned through making this," says director and creator Tsutsumi.
A story only Tonko House can tell
Tsutsumi was born in Tokyo but now lives in California. He is a former art director at Pixar where he worked on Monster University and Toy Story 3. He and his colleague Robert Kondo founded their own studio, Tonko House, in 2014.
Tsutsumi says he created ONI: Thunder God's Tale with his then 10-year-old son in mind. Tsutsumi's wife is also Japanese, and they have both lived most of their adult lives in the United States. Being a racial minority has been challenging at times and the animator considers if that has also caused difficulties for his son.
The theme for the series was also informed by the way Japanese people in the past used to view foreigners as oni.
"I was hoping to capture human nature, and it's not just bad," explains Tsutsumi. "It's just the darkness we all carry. We have to overcome it. And our main character, who's just a 10-year-old girl, overcomes it because she recognizes something that's more important. My hope is that people get inspired by it."
A story spun from a personal message ultimately resonated with people around the world who feel foreign.
A cultural fusion
Members of the creative team behind ONI: Thunder God's Tale were located both in Japan and the US, so the production represents a cultural fusion. The script was authored in Japanese by renowned screenwriter Okada Mari.
With the series always intended to be broadcast in English, it would have been simpler for the script to be in English from the beginning. Tsutsumi insisted it be in Japanese to capture cultural sensibilities.
"I was working with Mari on the Japanese script," he recounts. "Once it was translated, I had to really take it and work with it in English, going back and forth between Japanese and English, to make sure that it doesn't feel like it's translated. Like it feels like it's created for Japanese. When somebody watches it in Japanese and when somebody watches in English, it feels authentic and natural. So, we really cared about is the character's emotion. That has to match the dialog so it doesn't feel forced."
The series' key message is the importance of self-discovery and finding one's place in the world.
"Tonko House will carry on with these themes," says Tsutsumi. "I have had such a great time telling a story about Japan. We definitely found out how hard it is, and you know, we're going through it right now. It's a difficult process, but it's totally worth it because we love telling our own stories."
With the success of ONI: Thunder God's Tale, more works are on the way with meaningful themes and beautifully crafted storytelling.