Director: Amy Draper (@amyrosedraper)
Adaptation from: Sakai Stan’s long-running manga「兎用心棒」 (Usagi Yōjinbō)
Script: Stewart Melton (@stewmelton)
Design: Ele Slade (@EleSladeDesign)
Lighting design: Joshua Pharo
Projection design: Nina Dunn (@nina_pixelpixie)
Sound designer: Max Pappenheim (@max_j_p)
Casting director: Annie Rowe (@AnnieRoweCasts)
Fight director: Ronin Traynor (@RoninTraynor)
Soundscore: Hirota Joji (@JojiHirota)
Cast: Amy Ip (@amyip), Kuroda Haruka (@kurodaharuka), Siu Hun Li (@siuhunli) Jonathan Raggett (@JonathanRaggett), Tabuchi Dai
Runtime: 95 min (no intermission)
Official website: None for the play but Usagi Yojimbo (website for the manga) and Facebook page (manga)
Note: All Usagi Yojimbo photos taken from the manga’s Facebook page (no photographer credited).
When I posted my first review on Otherwhere back in 2011, I never really thought about where blogging might take me. Three years on, there have been new-found Asian film fan friends (in London and elsewhere), plenty of screeners, invites ge previews, film festivals and even interviews, as well as the opportunity to do a photoshoot for GIGAN magazine a few months back with several London-based Japanese actors – one of whom was Tabuchi Dai. I have been following Dai’s work ever since and was instantly intrigued when, a few days back, he started posting images on his Facebook page from a play he was involved in: Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse. So off to the theatre I went.
That Usagi Yojimbo, originally a comic book by Japanese-born, now long-time US resident Stan Sakai, found its way to the stage at all is impressive, because as the people behind the production – director Amy Draper and scriptwriter Stewart Melton – rightly ask,
How do you adapt a comic book for the stage? More to the point, how do you adapt a cult comic book with a title character loved worldwide for 30 years? A title character who is also a samurai (and a rabbit…)? (quote from the Usagi Yojimbo booklet)
It’s the sort of challenge that only someone with plenty of guts and imagination would take on. While the basic story is relatively simple (a young boy wants to become a samurai), transferring its details (said boy is a rabbit, and all other characters are animals as well) and narrative execution (it counts, to date, 203 issues) into a theatrical production lasting an hour and half is not. After research that involved reading every Usagi manga issue available, watching all kinds of samurai films and studying the architecture, clothing and culture of the historical period that the tale is set in, Draper and Melton in the end decided to focus mainly on the second Usagi book “Samurai”, which reveals how the young Miyamoto Usagi becomes a swordsman.
I won’t recount the tale here as it is familiar enough (the inexperienced youngster endures hardship before becoming the hero he longs to be) and will focus on cast performances instead. Other than Tabuchi Dai, there are also Amy Ip, Kuroda Haruka, Siu Hun Li and Jonathan Raggett, with most actors having one larger role, plus smaller supporting parts. The only exception is Raggett, who makes his stage debut in the lead role of Miyamoto Usagi, offering a rabbit samurai hero that is wonderfully kawaii, mischievous and earnest all at the same time. His often rather stern rabbit mama, Atsuko, is Amy Ip, who exudes both wisdom and strength as a samurai widow. Kuroda Haruka and Siu Hu Li play Usagi’s rather different side-kicks Mariko and Kenichi. Mariko, who has more pluckiness and fighting spirit (as well as skill) than her two best friends combined, struggles with the restrictions of the times (the 17th century), with Kuroda giving a spirited performance. Siu Hun Li is just as solid as Kenichi (and comes with a lovely Scottish accent to boot – I’m always partial to that). This leaves Katsuichi, the tea-loving and gardening-inclined sensei, who – thanks to Tabuchi Dai’s masterly acting – instills both fear (in his adversaries) and respect (in his pupil Usagi) without even lifting his sword. All of the actors as if live their characters and also work in perfect unison as an ensemble. Most of all, however, the cast seems to be enjoying the performance so thoroughly, something which makes all the difference.
Usagi Yojimbo’s artistic team uses a range of tricks and techniques to bring the manga to life. Lighting and projection at times creates the physical environment (rock faces that Usagi must climb, wide rivers that he must cross) but also reminds us of the tale’s origins as some sound effects are visually added in manga speech bubble form. The floor of the central stage, meanwhile, opens up to reveal a mini-garden, a well with real water and other unexpected treasures. (It must be mentioned at this point that the Southwark Playhouse, small as it might be compared to London’s better known venues, offers a fantastic performance space, with audiences placed on three sides.) The traditional costumes transport viewers to times long past, but it is the headwear that impresses most of all. Designed by Ele Slade and made by Chrissie Sterritt, the elaborate hairpieces come with adjustable parts so that different types of ears can be attached for actors that perform additional, smaller roles as part of the ensemble. The live score, composed and performed by Hirota Joji with occasional help from the ensemble, also deserves praise.
While there are, at least for the adults in the audience, no great narrative surprises in how the story of Usagi Yojimbo unfolds, younger spectators (the play is billed as age 8+) certainly have some lessons to take away. However, with a fantastic cast and inspired artistic team, Usagi Yojimbo is really a performance for everyone – or, as one reviewer wrote, “If you’re going to take the tykes or indeed just yourself to a show this Christmas, please make it Usagi Yojimbo” (A Younger Theatre).
Overall Verdict: While the story of the rabbit samurai is a simple and, in a sense familiar one (including for those that have never read the manga), the dedicated cast and creative team behind this adaptation make Usagi Yojimbo an unmissable delight for both young and old. (Or, as I posted on Twitter: “Loved loved loved it. Go go go.”)
- Usagi Yojimbo website (manga)
- Usagi Yojimbo FB page
- Other reviews: Sequins and Cherry Blossoms, Time Out London, A Younger Theatre, Exeunt, The Stage, Dulwich on View.
- Southwark Playhouse website. Not only does it have a great stage, but the bar/café area was cozy and charming.
- Image from the GIGAN (forthcoming issue) photoshoot I did with Tabuchi Dai: