My Oni Girl Is a Pleasant but Unremarkable Coming-of-Age Journey

Movies Reviews studio colorido
My Oni Girl Is a Pleasant but Unremarkable Coming-of-Age Journey

Although Studio Colorido’s films haven’t left quite the same impact as some of their high-flying peers, their output has successfully mixed the everyday and otherwordly to deliver a solid stable of work, from the surrealist Penguin Highway to the shapeshifting teen angst of A Whisker Away. Their latest is My Oni Girl, a coming-of-age story that taps into a similar vein by melding the mundane with folklore as its characters battle both arctic monsters and adolescence. While its plotting can’t quite keep up with its fantastical flourishes, My Oni Girl still proves a pleasant, albeit slight production with just enough going for it to appeal to 2D animation enthusiasts.

We follow Hiiragi (Kensho Ono), a first-year high school student living in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture, who, up until now, has done everything asked of him. He is accommodating to his peers, listens to his parents, and is in the middle of being similarly helpful when he meets Tsumugi (Miyu Tomita), a spirited girl his age who turns out to be an oni (in Japanese folklore these guys are traditionally quite murderous, but here they’re chill). She’s left home to search for her mom, who mysteriously disappeared from her village one day.

After Hiiragi gets into a verbal fight with his dad and a for-real fight with an ice yokai, he finds himself able to see Tsumugi’s previously invisible oni horn. Won over by her resolve to find her parent, he decides it’s time to finally break his obedient streak and sets off with her against his family’s wishes. They hitchhike, meet new people and eventually come face to face with an unearthly menace that threatens Tsumugi’s hometown.

Although this quest is disjointed, it’s charming enough throughout to largely justify the bumps in the road. At the center of it all is our central pair, who travel through the Japanese suburbs (and eventually a hidden winter wonderland), and thankfully, their disparate energies balance out. Hiiragi is almost painfully tractable at first, but it doesn’t take long until Tsumugi’s heedless attitude begins to affect him, as the two build out an amusing will-they-won’t-they defined by some classic teenage clumsiness.

But despite their up-front cooperation, both are nursing hurts: Hiiragi’s lifetime of being a pushover has caused him to build up so much negative energy he risks permanently transforming into an oni, while Tsumugi grapples with feelings of abandonment and anger towards her absentee mother. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but Yuko Kakihara’s script drives at both these arcs reasonably well; in particular, Tsumugi’s internal strife comes to a head in a sentimental collage of buried memories that results in one of the film’s most striking sequences. Even though Hiiragi doesn’t entirely differentiate himself from a legion of similar bespectacled anime protagonists, there is a specificity to his primary hang-up, his tendency towards suppression, that makes his struggles also feel palpable, if not as emotionally visceral as his counterpart.

Along the way, they meet an eclectic cast, and although the majority of these folks don’t get nearly enough screentime to leave an impact beyond vague congeniality, these chance encounters set up satisfying little vignettes as our main pair strengthen their bond. In the first half of the story, they make their way through the human realm, taking on odd jobs, helping solve familial spats and chatting with restaurant-owning grandpas, all while fleeing from monstrous pursuers. In the second half, they arrive at an icy village that combines beautifully portrayed pagodas trapped in ice with contemporary touches that give this place a specific, compelling flavor.

But while both these stretches keep the narrative trucking along, neither is given the runtime to truly shine. Specifically, the first section doesn’t have room to luxuriate in the grounded details of its travel story, while the larger-than-life battle with snow spirits in the following act doesn’t get the climactic build it needs. These two parts don’t entirely line up, and neither do the stakes, which aren’t outlined well. (What are the downsides of Hiiragi becoming an oni? Is there a doomed element to this romance because one is human while the other isn’t? Why does the village make the Omelas-esque decision that sets the plot in motion?)

Thankfully, where the script comes up short, My Oni Girl‘s aesthetic flourishes largely pick up the slack. If there’s an obvious thread tying together Studio Colorido’s work, it’s that their films are draped in vibrant colors and make the most of their reality-bending visuals. Those qualities are very much present here, and even though it has a slightly more subdued color palate due to its winter motif (Tsumugi’s home is constantly blanketed in snow), the background art still communicates the specificities of these places.

Studio Ghibli alum Tomotaka Shibayama’s direction excels at placing us in these backdrops, delivering compositions that luxuriate in the thin divide between the everyday and otherworldly. On top of this, the voice acting and smooth character animation fill in the screenplay’s gaps by giving the cast extra personality, found in Tsumugi’s spunky movements or the very Ghibli-inspired detail of hair that bristles with a life of its own.

My Oni Girl may not reach the heights of this studio’s best work, but it’s got just enough juice to make it an agreeable folklore-tinged escapade that will likely land with anime fans skimming through Netflix’s catalogue. Its leading characters gel with one another, their central gripes are well-defined, and its animation usually picks up the slack when its narrative drags. Although I wish it took some bolder swings, thanks to its impressive visuals and a few key emotional moments, this snow-swept journey didn’t leave me out in the cold.

Director: Tomotaka Shibayama
Writer: Yuko Kakihara
Starring: Kensho Ono, Miyu Tomita
Release Date: May 24, 2024

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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