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Director Tomotaka Shibayama‘s latest film, My Oni Girl, is an action-adventure drama with elements of a buddy comedy and a relatable coming-of-age story. The film, produced by Studio Colorido, was released in theaters in Japan and on Netflix on May 24, following its exclusive premiere at this year’s Anime Central.

Tomotaka Shibayama first started his career at Studio Ghibli as a cel painter for Spirited Away before transitioning to an animation artist. His talents and style led to numerous credits on notable anime feature films such as Penguin Highway and his 2020 directorial debut, A Whisker Away.

Today, he is one of the key creators at Studio Colorido, and his latest film, My Oni Girl, is soon to be released. My Oni Girl centers on Hiiragi Yatsuse, a high school student struggling to make friends. However, one summer, his life takes a turn when he encounters an oni girl named Tsumugi, who has come to the human world to search for her mother. My Oni Girl is sure to be a heartwarming buddy film that carries a message that resonates with audiences of all ages.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Shibayama to learn more about his new film, how his past experiences shaped its creation, and what audiences can expect from this heartwarming story. We discussed the unique aspects of My Oni Girl that resonated with him during production and how he believes they will connect with the audience. Shibayama expressed the lessons he hopes viewers will take away from his film.

How would you say My Oni Girl compares to your previous work?

Tomotaka Shibayama: My Oni Girl is my first feature animation film as a director. I encountered many difficulties at the start, even in the pre-production stage.

Did anything you learned from your work on A Whisker Away influence the development of My Oni Girl?

Shibayama: So, as you may be aware, A Whisker Away was a co-production with Junichi Satō, who is quite a legendary director. I gained a lot of influence from him. One thing Director Sato insisted on was that it was not about making the film. It’s not about making a wonderful artistic movie; it’s more like a good movie that is supposed to have a tight connection between the audience and the film.

So, when I was developing this film’s story, I focused on the connection. There should be sympathy and connection between the audience and the film itself, and that is what I thought was critical to producing My Oni Girl.

In your own words, what makes My Oni Girl unique?

Shibayama: One of the main themes in this film is that there is an oni, an ogre, that appears in the story. So the original word “on” in traditional Japanese suggests something that is hidden or can not be seen has evolved into ‘oni,’ which means ogre.

So I went through that traditional Japanese word’s meaning and tried to connect it to the many issues current teenagers carry with them today, such as not being able to express their true feelings because they can not really express themselves and become very shy. So the connection between the meaning of ‘oni’ and modern teen issues is unique, highlighting how hidden feelings relate to the word’s traditional meaning.

Were there any parts of the film that you resonated with personally?

Shibayama: Something that I personally resonated within the film is the main protagonist, Hiiragi. Hiiragi represents the modern teenager who struggles with expressing their true feelings. The character reflects how I was in my teens as well. I also could not express my true feelings and tended to say something else instead. Therefore, this film reflects my teenage years, so it feels like a message to the teenage Shibayama that he could have done better to express himself. So it turned out to be that kind of film in the end.

What themes can we expect to be explored through Hiiragi and Tsumugi’s story in My Oni Girl?

Shibayama: As I previously mentioned, Hiiragi, the protagonist, represents current teens who can not express themselves. On the opposite end is Tsumugi, the female protagonist; her personality is completely different from Hiiragi’s. She is outgoing and loves to be honest. Tsumugi tends to express her true feelings. Through these two characters, I want to explore and convey a message to teens that it is imperative to tell people what you are feeling rather than hiding yourself.

You mention Hiiragi and Tsumugi are complete opposites. Did you enjoy utilizing this in their character dynamics and development throughout the film?

Shibayama: Hiiragi has an issue with his father, while Tsumugi is also very angry with her mother because of a misunderstanding. So, throughout the story, there is this father-to-son and mother-to-daughter drama. While this is a very troublesome issue in the film, at the same time, Hiiragi and Tsumugi go on a road trip and have a buddy relationship. So this makes the film more lighthearted. It’s not a very deep traumatic drama, but at the same time, it’s lighthearted, fun drama throughout the film.

Also, at the same time, this is a buddy film. However, audiences watching the film might think, “Oh, is there going to be a love relationship between these two characters?”. So audiences may get very excited about that at the same time, but it’s not clearly written. However, you can get a sense of that in the film. So that is something being done between their relationships.

What were your intentions when you set out to direct this coming-of-age story?

Shibayama: In the pre-production stage, when I was about to create the film, I wanted to do something about teenagers—about the issues that teenagers want to overcome in the modern day. I thought that these days, everything is on the internet. You can Google it; then you can find anything. Like “how to get a girlfriend,” you can look on Google for all that. So, I feel that current teens are very strategic and know how to work everything out using technology.

At the same time, in Japanese, there is a term that means “reading the air.” In English, you have the phrase “reading the room.” These days, many teenagers like that because they are scared of hurting others’ feelings, so they try to read the air. So I wanted to push and tell a story that rather than “reading the air,” it’s more important to tell what you mean. Say what you want to say and your hidden truth. So I insisted that this film cheers on these kinds of teenagers.

What lessons or feelings do you hope audiences take away after viewing this film?

Shibayama: It’s important to tell others what you truly feel with your own words. That is the central theme that I want people to take away. And the second thing is that even grownups tend to hide their feelings. There are times when they are not sure of themselves, too. Overall, in life, you don’t always see everything, but some things are hidden underneath. So, to understand each other, it is essential to dig deep to understand each other and connect. That is the message I want people to take away after seeing this film.

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My Oni Girl Director Asks Viewers To Be Honest With Themselves