Image ©Richard Davenport
I’ve been reading the comic book adventures of Usagi Yojimbo – created, written and drawn by Stan Sakai – for more than 20 years of the 30-year existence, so it was a delight to see a live-action play at the Southwark Playhouse. Like the books, the play is for all ages (from 7 years and up) and is the theatre’s Christmas family show this year. We attended the evening show while it was still in previews, so there weren’t many kids in attendance, but I think that children will enjoy the show as much as the adults who watched with us.
The narrative of the play is the ‘origin’ story for Miyamoto Usagi – Usagi is a slightly reckless youth who is sent with his friend Kenichi to the Dagora school of swordsmanship, but upon seeing the lion sensei Katsuichi dealing with some brigands, Usagi runs off to train with Katsuichi; however, Katsuichi is an unorthodox teacher and it is an arduous experience for Usagi in the mountains, but he begins to learn lessons that will last him a lifetime …
The adaptation by Stewart Melton follows fairly close to the comic books (the bulk of the story is taken from the original comics, as collected in Usagi Yojimbo Book 2), with a little extra back story and minor adjustments to make the play a more complete experience. The play includes more interaction between Usagi and Mariko and Kenichi when they were children before Usagi goes to train, as well as having Usagi’s mother as a major character; it introduces the idea of the villainous Lord Hikiji, something that doesn’t become part of Usagi’s life until he becomes a retainer; and deviates from the book by having Usagi’s father already dead, thus providing Usagi something to live up to, instead of dying just before the battle that made Usagi a ronin as in the books, and changing the lineage of the swords that Usagi will use in adult life. This means that the characters and storyline are fairly easy to grasp for newcomers, with the delightful interplay between Usagi, Mariko and Kenicihi as children – play fighting with bamboo sticks in place of swords and arguing over who will be noble Lord Mifune and who will be evil Lord Hikiji – acting as a charming introduction to this world, and they even go out of their way to overexplain why the story is called Usagi Yojimbo.
If I were to describe the play in one word, it would probably be ‘joyful’. Despite the fact that there is some sword-based death and brigand-based threat, director Amy Draper has maximised the whole production to fill the viewer with positive feelings. The set design is simple yet beautiful – the stage is plain wood but cleverly conceals trapdoors that reveal story-based props (a fire with cooking pot, a vegetable garden, a mountain stream); the fact that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, something that is almost like a dojo in some respects, means that the audience really feel part of the performance, something that is complemented by the interaction of the actors with the audience before the play starts, as well as a few points throughout the show. At the back of the stage, there are bamboo trunks hanging down from the ceiling that are cut into a line that suggests mountains, as well as a backdrop that is lit with illustrations when appropriate – winds blowing, a kite flying, a peach being sliced in two – in the style of Stan Sakai’s artwork, something that is also used on the stage floor as well, showing leaves being swept by Usagi or transforming the stage into a river to be crossed and a mountain to be climbed. The music, composed and played live by Joji Hirota at the back of the stage with drums and flutes and whistles, is sparse yet beautiful, evocative and haunting. The animal nature of the characters is provided in a beautifully simple fashion, with headgear that evokes the creature (rabbit ears, a lion’s mane), which works wonderfully with the minimal make-up to create the idea of humans as animals. The production design does a great job of bringing Usagi’s world to life, from the swords to the costumes (apart from Usagi, the other actors play multiple characters, so they have to change minor elements throughout the show), taking the audience to 17th-century Japan with ease.
The actors are all delightful in their roles: Jonathan Raggett is perfect as Usagi, headstrong but honourable, as is Dai Tabuchi as a wonderfully gruff Katsuichi; Haruka Kuroda is a shining Mariko, displaying strength, humour and understanding; Amy Ip is exactly right as Usagi’s mother, and gets the biggest laugh of the night; and Siu Hun Li is a great foil as Kenichi, providing humour and antagonism. In addition to their main roles and side roles, the actors also have to fight with swords (although there isn’t as much death as in the comic books, perhaps understandable in a family production, but I would have loved to see a theatrical representation of the ‘skull’ balloon that Sakai uses to indicate death in the comic books), choreographed brilliantly by the wonderfully named Ronin Traynor. The story may be a coming-of-age tale but the cast and backstage team ensure that there is meaning and depth inside, as well as providing an entertaining 90 minutes, leaving the audience smiling as they do a small song and dance at the end. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the comic books or not, Usagi Yojimbo the play is a delightful evening’s entertainment and I heartily recommend it.