Whilst Usagi Yojimbo, currently showing at Southwark Playhouse’s larger space is running until early January, it is by no means a traditional Christmas show. Based on Stan Sakai’s award-winning Japanese comic book it’s marketed as the venue’s 2014 festive production but in the most shocking of horrors, there is an absence of snow and carrot-stealing reindeer… what the heck? Certainly unorthodox by our conventional standards, Usagi Yojimbo still holds a delightful magic which coats its audience in warmth and good feeling. The show may suffer from having a younger target audience that particularly likes Santa’s gut-busting red suit but given a chance, this excellent adaptation could spice up many people’s otherwise perfectly standard Christmases.
Sakai’s comic book series about a rabbit samurai called Miyamoto Usagi celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and has a huge legion of fans. How does it translate to the stage? Personally I haven’t read any of the comics, though I did watch the trailer on the venue’s website which depicts scenes from one. Judging by that, I’d say it works wonderfully. Stewart Melton’s adaptation is lifted with much fun and animation by director Amy Draper and Nina Dunn’s projection design places actual drawings from the comic onto the backdrop of the set. Generally speaking, the aesthetics are versatile and ingenious. Ele Slade’s design adds much depth to the confines of the small stage and lighting designer Joshua Pharo contributes hugely to a talented team of creatives. What’s most impressive here and with other shows in this vein are how a seemingly ‘lack of’ something or other just adds to the enjoyment and appreciation of. Here, the set is simple and the props minimal but it remains vastly exciting and open for exploration due to thinking outside of the box.
Musician and composer Joji Hirota sits at the rear of the stage, creating sound effects to everything from fight sequences to the chopping of a tomato; yet another thing that keeps Usagi Yojimbo fresh and interesting. Fight director Ronin Traynor hasn’t instrumented anything earth-shattering but the moves the actors undertake both with and without weapons are fluid and attention-grabbing, especially for kids in the audience.
A cast of five portray many more characters. I sometimes found it hard to keep track of who was who but on the whole, the young actors run about the stage in various guises (more personal than physical) and are utterly convincing. Emphasis has to be drawn to Dai Tabuchi, and Haruka Kuroda, both of whom are exceptional, especially in their versatility.
As a great lover of everything Japanese you’d be right in thinking I’d have done anything to get my hands on tickets for this show. Does that make me biased? Yes and no. Obviously Usagi Yojimbo has a particularly specific theme but the moral, beauty and talent on display here appeals to more than just Japanophiles like myself . The moments before the show see some cast members playing games ‘outside’ of the show as a way to create atmosphere for the audience. Whilst enjoyable to watch I initially had misgivings about what was to come as the activities drew on for perhaps too long. These are the only and minute negative aspects to the experience as a whole and really could quite happily be discounted altogether after sitting through the entirety of the production.
If you’re going to take the tykes or indeed just yourself to a show this Christmas, please make it Usagi Yojimbo. It’s fun, easy to watch and, as previously mentioned, a much welcome alternative to the usual predictable festivities.
Usagi Yojimbo is playing at the Southwark Playhouse’s The Large until 4 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.