When I first heard that a production based on Stan Sakai s master piece “Usagi Yojimbo” was in the works my initial thought was……..NICE!!!
My head instantly began to fill with images of people running back and forth, wearing rabbit ears, whilst attempting to knock seven shades of fluff out of each other with samurai swords. Then slowly It dawned on me that, although it was “based” on Stan Sakias work, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was going to be good, or that those involved would understand what it is that makes the source material so brilliant.

I have been a follower of Usagi Yojimbo for a long time. As a big fan of Ninja Turtles (and all things kick ass and anthropomorphic), I naturally gravitated towards Stan Sakias epic tale of a wandering Samurai, having noticed it advertised in the back of my monthly Mirage publications. I instantly subscribed and was blown away by Stan Sakai’s masterful use of simple black and white line art to spin an effective yarn of good versus evil.

Above being an awesome story about a rabbit that kicks ass, there are many things that make Stan’s work so well-loved by his thousands of fans. It’s not just his ability to portray hundreds of characters and emotions within the limitations of a simple black and white comic page. Or even his ability to entertain and inform his readers via the many mannerisms, quirks and characteristics of anthropomorphic characters. It’s the fact that these qualities only come from one who is dedicated to his art form and who is willing to put the love and attention to detail that Stan pours into his work.

It was these qualities that I was certain would have been missed by all who were in charge of bringing it to the stage. So armed with nothing but optimism and my lovely lady on my arm I bought two tickets and we prepared ourselves for what would very likely be little more than a child’s pantomime with rabbit ears.

Thankfully we were wrong.

With a small cast of players the Southwark Playhouse have managed to capture the style, warmth and efficiency of Stan Sakai’s work. Using a small stage to excellent effect to portray the many backdrops and scenarios of Usagi’s world.

A limited but very talented cast step forward to portray the many vagabonds and villains that inhabit feudal Japan, paying every attention to ape and compliment the action, humour and pacing that can be found within the pages of Stan Sakais comic.
Each of the cast members (other than Usagi, played by Jonathan Ragget) plays multiple parts throughout the performance, which can be slightly confusing if you are not paying attention. However the actors make every effort through their body language and voice acting to make sure you understand that a new character has entered the stage.

The whole cast does an excellent job to represent the many low life scum and high-born Samurai of Sakai’s ancient japan.
Jonathan Ragget makes a spot on Usagi, and Dai Tabuchi plays Katsuichi Sensei to perfection, together they brilliantly show the change that occurs in both characters as they journey from master and student, to Sensei and Samurai.
Their impressive ability to portray these characters authentically is matched only by their skills with the various weapons that make up your average Usagi Yojimbo tale. The duels throughout the performance are fantastic and each actor makes impressive use of the stage during the various fights and excellent finale.

Special mention has to be made with regards the innovative use of projection throughout the performance. Various visual elements and backgrounds from the comic strips are projected on to the floor and back drop of the stage through out the show to set the scene, and help to remind you of the source material for these varied and vibrant characters. Rolling clouds, heavy rain, and the blood soaked battle fields of the Adachigahara plain are all hinted at with Sakai style projections. These visuals, though simplistic, are excellent at adding the atmosphere that emanates from the pages of an issue of Usagi Yojimbo. Touches like this along with Joji Hirota’s beautifully atmospheric score of wind flutes and Taiko drums are the icing on the cake, adding all the suspense and thrills of a classic samurai movie.

My fears that one of my favorite comics would be portrayed as something cartoonish and silly were all for nothing. It was all there.
all the drama……
all the suspense……
all the action of one of the masters of modern comic book story telling.

And people in rabbit ears trying to knock the fluff out of each other……NICE!

Usagi Yojimbo is currently being shown at the Southwark Playhouse until the 4th Jan.


Rating: 4/5

Reviewer:Steve Sims

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