To composers Zach Johnston and Matteo Roberts, music is never an afterthought in storytelling.
The duo, collectively known as Pep Magic, is behind the score of Netflix’s new animated series, “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale.” Based on Japanese folklore, it follows the story of Onari, a free-spirited girl living amongst gods and mythical creatures on Mount Kamigami. This includes her father Naridon, who wields his thunderous power through his taiko (“drum” in Japanese).
Johnston and Roberts collaborated with creator-director Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi in the early stages of “Oni,” allowing music and visual concepts to directly inspire and enhance one another.
“I think of visuals almost musically in a strange way, so I need their help to even write a story or make a painting,” Tsutsumi tells Variety, emphasizing how Johnston and Roberts are just as much filmmakers as they are composers.
The two weave traditional Japanese instruments with modern synths to create a nuanced, culturally driven score.
“Our number one concern going into it is, I want to make sure we’re respectful of Japanese music, but also make it our own,” says Johnston.
Pep Magic are longtime collaborators of Tonko House co-founders Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, first scoring the animation studio’s 2014 Oscar-nominated short “The Dam Keeper.”
With Tsutsumi’s support and guidance, they felt comfortable enough to explore the mythological world of “Oni” through music, spending countless hours researching the art of taiko drumming and traditional Japanese scales. Tsutsumi also provided some personal reference material: folk songs and chants he learned as a child in Japan.
“I think that when they come back with their intuitive approach and a solution — oftentimes, it feels authentic,” Tsutsumi says. “And the reason why I can say that is, it always makes me nostalgic when I hear the melodies that they created for this series.”
The score features renowned Japanese flutist Kei Sakamoto and taiko player Shuichi Hidano; these musicians were recorded live in Japan while Johnston, Roberts and Tsutsumi supervised the production remotely from California. For Tsutsumi, it was crucial to involve myriad Japanese artists for the animated epic.
“We were still lucky to be interactive with them and give them feedback after each take,” Johnston says about the musicians. “But it was really cool to just step out on some takes and let them do their own [thing].”
“The ideas were there, of course, but they really elevated that with their deeper understanding and experience with that music,” adds Roberts.
From shakuhachi to shinobues, Sakamoto tested over 40 Japanese flutes for the score, with only 10 of them incorporated into the final recording. If there was one octave missing from a traditional shinobue, she would build herself a custom instrument to complete the melodic phrase.
“She brought so much emotion to the pieces, I feel like we were all trying not to cry the moment she started playing,” Roberts says. “Both the taiko and the flute just brought so much humanity and warmth to the score.”
Ultimately, the harmony between the score and visuals was crucial in illustrating the fantastical elements and enigma of “Oni,” from the landscape of Mount Kamigami to its inhabitants.
“I really like seeing the themes change as the characters develop — it’s really gratifying and it feels really emotional,” says Johnston. “I feel like we spent two years with these characters, so the themes are burned into our brains.”
“They’re storytellers,” Tsutsumi adds. “What I care about as a director is, emotionally, it has to be honest — in the scene, to the characters. They always prioritize the emotion of the scene, and that’s what makes these two guys the most incredible composers, in my opinion.”
Below, Tonko House shares a clip of the “Rhythm of Mother Nature” from “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale,” now available to stream on Netflix.