Southwark Playhouse is not shirking from a challenge: transferring the world of a samurai rabbit in 17th century Japan from comic book to stage, and then mounting the show as a children’s Christmas production despite having no snow in it, no bells, no references to Dickens and no parts that really minor celebrities can play in order to keep the dying embers of their fame just about burning during the long, cold winter. But they’ve met the challenge with innovation, Christmas cheer and apparent ease.
The whole space is brightly lit, and made brighter by the pale bamboo shoots on every surface, cut to different lengths like pan pipes and undulating like the peaks of a mountain range. We are in Japan. But, unlike the canon of American comic book protagonists which is so ubiquitous, so familiar, the world of Usagi – faithful to the historical, architectural and sartorial context of 17th century Japan – seems a little more alien and distant. Stan Sakai’s comics draw on a different cultural feed, a less recognisable context. Still, it’s easy to understand (the show’s aimed at ages 8+) and, in this adaptation by Amy Draper and Stewart Melton, it’s beautifully distinctive.
What makes Miyamoto Usagi special is that, well, he’s a rabbit. And actors are generally not rabbits. So Ele Slade’s design has the actors heavily made up and wearing headdresses with animal ears stuck on top. Combined with colourful robes and glistening katanas, the entire design has the dynamism and stylised feel of comic book illustrations.
The thrust stage is cleverly made to look like a page from a comic book, split into small squares and rectangles. These individual cells are hatches that open up to reveal, among other things, a stream and a vegetable garden, but they also serve as different areas for projections and lighting to focus on. Colossal projectors fire animated images – rainy vistas and sunsets – onto the cells and onto the backdrop, and the actors interact with these moving projections. But the projections work best when the rest of the space is completely dark, and most of the time it’s not. So a lot of the time it’s difficult to work out what is going in in these washed out and weak images.
Projection is not the only excitement in the production: there are stunningly choreographed fight scenes (fight director Ronin Traynor) – genuine sword skills being played out right there on stage. It’s quick, accurate and genuinely quite exciting. As this is all going on Joji Hirota stands at the back of the stage surrounded by drums and gongs, performing a live score full of martial percussion and wonderful fluttering flute melodies that capture the spirit of these ancient Japanese mountainscapes.
Occasionally the narrative plods, mostly in the middle when Usagi is learning to master his inner self. It feels like one long montage scene – an extended version of the bit in Batman Begins when Liam Neeson is teaching Batman how not to fall over and how to pick flowers. And the overly moralising tone of non-violence and inner peace prods a bit too overtly at the mouldable minds of the young audience: Katsuichi teaches Usagi to use a sword ‘so that he won’t ever have to’; he mentions Buddhism and Zen, talks about mastering the inner self, peddles that proto-Voltairian lesson of tending your own garden.
But Usagi Yojimbo is lovingly, faithfully adapted. It blends the best of ancient and modern: swordsmanship and live music with mesmeric projections. The ups and downs of the life of a samurai rabbit make a very welcome change from shoddy panto and the umpteenth adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Marley’s chains and Biggins can do one – give me anthropomorphic leporids any day.