A stage play at Southwark Playhouse
Based on the comic created by Stan Sakai
Stage Adaption by Stewart Melton
Directed by Amy Draper
Starring – Amy Ip, Haruka Kuroda, Shiu Hun Li, Jonathan Raggett and Dai Tabuchi
Music by Joji Hirota
The Story: 17th Century Japan. A world of bandit raccoons, feline ninjas and warring animal clans. A young rabbit leaves home, family and friends behind him in pursuit of one ambition, to become a great samurai warrior like his father. He is trained by an aged teacher in the warrior’s code of Bushido. The rabbit learns that the way of the samurai is one of peace and perfection and not just of swordsmanship.
War of the clans is once more engulfing Japan and he must make some decisions as to what path is best for him…
The Review: After real life getting in the way I missed my opportunity to see this recreation of Stan Sakai’s comic series a couple of weeks ago, a series that I have been a fan of since the beginning. The Southwark Playhouse have put on a Christmas show that is a bit different than the rest of the crowd.
Usagi Yojimbo (or his correct name – Miyamoto Usagi) is the creation of Stan Sakai and the play celebrates 30 years of publishing of the Ronin Rabbit. He has appeared in his own title, alongside both Groo: The Wanderer and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (on the page and in their cartoon series) and more recently in his own short animated film. His adventures are epic in scale. They feature everyday people and sword fights as well as monsters and mystical creatures from Japanese folklore. Recently, in the mini series Usagi Yojimbo: Senso, he even battles the Tripods from H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds.
For such a recognisable character with a depth of history the play cleverly features the early years of his training. It begins with Miyamoto playing at samurai with his two childhood friends Mariko and Kenichi before he heads off to be trained by the grumpy old master Katsuichi. A favourite character of mine, he’s a grumpy old lion who last featured in issue 117 of the Dark Horse series in a story entitled ‘Usagi and the Kani of the Pond’.
Through its narrative and performances, the play perfectly captures the days of childhood innocence as they turn into the rough realities of adulthood as represented by swordplay and battle. All the friends in some way grow up through the course of the hour and a half to the point that they are worthy to hold a sword.
We looked deeply into that period of history (albeit an anthropomorphic rendering) and saw the philosophy of the warrior and the dangers of the times. This was wonderfully told with reverence to the culture of the period.
The play holds onto an excellent balance of drama and humour. Told through both the actors and really interestingly manipulated storyteller narration, this was a play that represented the best of the comic series it sprung from. Painstakingly involving Sakai’s work to the point of using animated panels in the background projection to illustrate weather, battle, nature and more. They even used the skulls rising from dead bodies effect used for years on paper.
Don’t be put off by the swordplay however. This play is solidly family friendly and both adults and children were gripped and grinning from ear to ear throughout.
The staging was situated centrally to the small theatre and took place mostly on a raised wooden dais. Panels in the floor opened to reveal wells and gardens etc and made the most of the fascinatingly minimalistic staging style. The actors were incredibly likeable and warmed the audience up with games before the main performance (yes, even grumpy old me could be seen to join in with shenanigans).
It was in the last third of the play that they really amped up the action. The fight scenes were breathtakingly co-ordinated. The tension of each fight really was heart in the mouth time. A couple of times you could hear kids in the audience yelp because of the tension – enthusiastically we were all cheering on the hero.
The music by Joji Hirota was pure class. Sat within view view throughout the performance and often being an active part of the visuals Joji played, sang and directed his head off. Sound effects sprang up perfectly timed and the chimes and drums added immensely to the excellent feel of the piece.
Do you know what especially warmed my heart? The fact that they referred to the series as ‘Comics’ and not that tired old snobish term ‘Graphic Novels’ and that you could actually buy the first phone sized collection at the venue. They also has pages of original art on the walls of the theatre as we waited in line.
This play only runs to Sunday 4th January but is well worth making the effort for if you’re in London this weekend. It will no doubt continue elsewhere as it thoroughly deserves a much wider roll out. Seek it out.
Next year maybe some Space Usagi?
Many thanks for reading.
Antony Esmond is a comic reviewer and writer – his hips don’t lie.