As the old Japanese proverb probably doesn’t go, the life of a samurai ain’t easy. First there’s the obligatory Karate Kid apprenticeship – archery, meditation, gardening, tea ceremonies, and, of course, calligraphy. Lots and lots of calligraphy. Not to forget getting your head around the traditional Eastern naming of the times of the day. When your sensei tells you he wants you stacking firewood by the first division of the hour of the dragon, you’d better know exactly which ungodly hour he means.
Thankfully in Usagi Yojimbo we in the audience get to skip straight to the swordplay. Before the show begins we swish our make-believe blades and, much like Peter Pan’s happy thought-powered flight, our imaginations set off a gong signifying the start of our adventure. Based on Stan Sakai’s long-running comic book series, now spanning three decades, director Amy Draper brings to lively light this tale of young rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, with all the complex simplicity of a magnified snowflake.
Naturally it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without audience participation, and so before we meet Usagi we have a nice round of warm-up games on stage. A cross between Paper-Scissors-Stone and Simon Says offers us the opportunity to bellow out forfeits for the performers – push-ups or star jumps or the singing of Japanese folk songs. The ensemble is joyfully game from the get-go.
Nestled in a grove of bamboo, Ele Slade’s fluid, monochromatic backdrop – and indeed floor-drop – is a rich gift for the senses, weaving effortlessly in and out of the performance. We are coaxed into blowing, and a puppeteered kite takes to the air, only to disappear into the delicate distance of the design. Intricate projections beamed directly onto the stage allow the actors to skip stepping stones across a rustling brook, or shift perspective in a heartbeat and seemingly climb great cliffs on their bellies. An apple is tossed and the aqueous background does all the slicing for us. It’s illustrative magic.
It is a simple story, and the passages of spirited action are always more engaging than the script, which has, for better or worse, none of the farcical mayhem of a pantomime. The transmogrification of characters into animals is a truly enchanting touch, and calls to mind the shruggingly sustained belief of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and The Cat Returns. Canine villains snarl, yelp, turn tail and run; a leonine sensei judders the seats with his roar; the eponymous rabbit and his young friend casually hop high in the air – flashes of in-depth animal work that tantalises us with a world very much apart from our own. Slade’s wigs and costumes, from top-knots to jinbaori, blending the human and animalistic, are a triumph in themselves, a perfect balance between suggestion and style.
Crystalline compositions from Joji Hirota are the icing on the namagashi, lending a thrilling soundscape to the relatively small stage and the white-hot fight scenes. There is a marvellous juggling of characters, particularly in the climax, where the cast of five switch from allies to foes and back again in the blink of an eye. The ensemble is as tightly bound as a katana’s silk, and the gripping results are just as masterful. Dai Tabuchi’s valorous presence and quicksilver blade-work captures the slashing shape of the Kanji alphabet (the calligraphy of which is beautifully advised by Yuki Snow); Haruka Kuroda’s versatility playing characters both sweet and sour makes for a fine showcase; Jonathan Raggett’s progress from scolded kit to scalding samurai is charted with focused nobility. This is a charming introduction to Japanese history and an animated alternative to anyone sick of yelling ‘he’s behind you’. As festive as it gets, in its own unique way – and not a panto dame in sight.