If you were active on YouTube around 2012, then you probably heard of Ao Oni, the horror sensation that propelled the RPG Maker community forward, and helped kickstart quite a few let’s play channels.
While not as popular as other horror games of the time, like Amnesia, Ao Oni managed to introduce a larger audience to RPG Maker horror, which eventually opened the doors for titles like Ib, Mad Father, and even Yume Nikki, all of which would end up becoming cult classics that are beloved to this day.
Ao Oni‘s success was so extraordinary at the time that it even inspired a 2014 film adaptation, which came out soon after its initial wave of popularity in the West.
Ao Oni (2014)
Distributor: AMG Entertainment
Director: Daisuke Nibayashi
Release Date: July 5, 2014
To keep things clear, the Ao Oni game went through quite a few revisions, which changed its structure significantly from update to update. The personality of the main cast was one of the many things that would eventually end up being retooled, although the novels kept them true to their earliest versions.
This is worth noting because the movie’s characters are actually inspired by the official licensed novel, rather than the actual game, which is why you might not recognize some of the new characters, like Anna and Shun, and why some of them may act slightly different from what you are familiar with.
Despite pulling a lot from the novels, the movie does feel like a homage to the original game, which shows up in-universe being developed by Shun. This version of the game also happens to be a big part of the movie’s twist ending, which we’ll discuss later.
The movie opens with Anna’s brother, Naoki, watching a street performance before comically doing a 180 and running into traffic to end his life. This is the first of the movie’s many unintentionally comedic scenes, as it happens extremely fast and without any sort of context.
Naoki’s passing is a major motivator for Anna, as he ended his life because of incessant bullying. When seeing Shun being bullied by Takuro and his crew, who had previously targeted Naoki, Anna decides to stand up for him, eventually becoming good friends.
The movie’s plot is honestly paper-thin, and only really exists to group the characters up and lead them to where the Ao Oni resides. In the game, it was a mansion, but in the movie’s case it’s an abandoned building in which Takuro is stashing a shipment of opium, which he plans on selling later on.
Takuro waits until Shun is alone and drags him into his opium adventures, for reasons we’ll learn later. The group also stumbles upon Hiroshi, who is obsessed with insects in this canon, and was looking for beetles near the abandoned building. Anna also follows the group from afar, eventually joining them as she’s worried for Shun’s safety.
The reasoning that binds these characters together is extremely flimsy, especially for Hiroshi, who decides to randomly participate in a crime for no good reason. It’s pretty obvious why this group dynamic was eventually changed in the game, as these characters originally lacked motive to be together.
After the plot forcibly moves everyone into the abandoned building, the group splits up into pairs after hearing a series of different noises. Once they are all split up, their phones start ringing despite not having any signal. The call plays the chase music from the game, in a sweet but somewhat nonsensical homage, as the call ultimately serves no purpose.
We get a quick glimpse of the fully CGI Ao Oni after this call, and my opinions of him are pretty mixed. The Ao Oni isn’t a necessarily scary monster, as his ability to show up anywhere is what makes him a threat in the games. His face has an uncanny valley quality to it, but very few adaptations actually take him seriously.
His design has been slightly adapted from the games, sporting a somewhat smaller head (although still pretty big for his body), and a fluctuating amount of detail depending on the scene. There’s something weird about seeing an RPG Maker sprite be adapted into this HD resolution CGI monster, akin to seeing Mario in his realistic overalls in Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Despite all of these issues, the second time we see the Ao Oni is actually pretty unnerving. Mika, Takuro’s girlfriend, tries to look through a window, but only sees her reflection on the other side. After a massive eyelid blinks at her, she realizes that there’s a creature outside, looking straight at her.
Even with the subpar CGI, the movie does a slightly better job of introducing the Ao Oni than the game does, by having each member of the group catch different glimpses of him. We also get an early look at the Ao Oni‘s mimicry abilities, which he uses to lure Takeshi, one of Takuro’s friends, out of hiding.
Takeshi’s death is actually pretty brutal, and manages to be unnerving despite happening off-screen. He is grabbed out of hiding by the big blue monster, and is eaten in a matter of seconds, only leaving scraps of clothing and a puddle of blood behind.
After Takeshi’s death, the group splits up again, while Shun uses his RPG Maker gamedev intuition to start solving puzzles. It’s interesting that the movie attempts to adapt this aspect of the game, as puzzle-solving is a major part of the original experience, but it simply doesn’t work in a live-action scenario, especially considering how the viewer is never walked through anything.
We are never given any reason as to why these puzzles have to be solved, as the characters simply show up, complete them instantly, and run to the next scene like it’s a stage play. The puzzles are one of the many heavy-handed attempts at a callback to the source material, but they only serve to showcase how this movie doesn’t really know what it’s doing.
Roughly 45 minutes into this 1 hour movie we actually get an Ao Oni chase sequence, and it’s probably the only exciting scene in the whole film. The Oni’s entrance is pretty unnerving, as he mocks Shun and Anna by imitating the recently deceased members of the group, while also reveling in the fact that the protagonists have been cornered.
His CGI is still not great, but part of the unnatural way he looks and moves actually contribute towards making him scary. The Ao Oni is still prone to looking like a cheap effect overlaid on top of the scene at times, but I certainly don’t have any complaints about his design and how he was adapted to look more menacing.
Something that’s disappointing is how the concept of people turning into an Oni after death has been seemingly dropped. The Oni-fied characters did look extremely goofy in the game, as they were essentially the Oni sprite with a wig on, but it feels like an iconic part of the game’s identity has been ignored.
The mimicry aspect is a good replacement for the transformations, since they probably didn’t fit in the movie’s budget. What does bother me, however, is the fact that the movie’s budget doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere else aside from the few Oni scenes, as we don’t even get a single on-screen kill.
The performances in the movie can also be a bit of a mixed bag, with Shun and Anna being pretty terrible to watch. The two actors spend most of their time talking lifelessly at each other without any sort of emotion. It makes all of their scenes really difficult to sit through, which is worsened by the fact that they get the most screen time out of everybody.
The movie’s attempt at pulling a Sixth Sense is pretty egregious as well, as it’s revealed that Shun was dead all along. The only thing that makes me forgive this terrible plot twist is the unintentional comedy that comes from Shun immediately disappearing upon realizing he is dead, like Wile E. Coyote only being able to fall after realizing there’s no ground beneath him.
Hiroshi sacrifices himself to help Anna escape the Oni in the movie’s last chase sequence, while Takuro gets his comeuppance for having killed Shun via being devoured. Anna eventually gets cornered by the massive blue monster, and the movie reveals that it had an even worse second plot twist up its sleeve.
The movie weakly implies that everything we’ve seen has either happened inside of the game developed by Shun, or that it was all a precognitive vision that Anna had at the beginning of the movie, both extremely unsatisfactory endings that don`t resolve much. We also get some sequel-baiting before the credits, and believe it or not, this movie actually did manage to get a sequel.
It becomes increasingly difficult to have any good faith for a movie that tries to get away with two terribly hacky plot twists back to back, especially when the viewer was never given anything to grab on to throughout the entire movie.
Ao Oni had the really difficult task of adapting a 3-hour game into a feature-length film, and many wrong decisions were made. A lot of the movie just feels like people running from room to room in a completely random manner, and things like the puzzle-solving or phone calls have no payoff whatsoever.
It’s understandable that the movie is light on plot, but it borders on lazy with how little it tries to add to the existing story. This may be a blessing in disguise, though, as almost every original concept the movie brings to the table is executed badly.
Overall, Ao Oni‘s short runtime is its biggest saving grace, as it’s quite clear that the movie’s script has been stretched thin to hit the feature-length mark. The rush to capitalize on the game’s success is possibly a big part of why the movie feels so poorly thought out, which made for a pretty disappointing watch when coupled with the lack of original material made for the franchise.