Usagi Yojimbo (Rabbit Bodyguard) is a comic book series that originates, not in Japan, home of manga and anime, but in the USA. It’s the creation of Japanese-American artist Stan Sakai. Set in the samurai era, it features stories from Japanese history and folklore and is so faithful to the period that it won a Parents Choice award for educational value. And now it’s the Christmas show at the Southwark Playhouse.
The comic book series has been running for thirty years. The first adventure was published in the anthology Albedo Anthropormorphics #2 in 1984 and the stories went independent in 1986. Since then there have been more than two hundred issues, with twenty eight collections and an original graphic novel. Stan Sakai has won four Eisner Awards, the comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Usagi was inspired by a real life samurai named Miyamoto Musashi who lived at the turn of the 17th century. Sakai calls him ‘the epitome of what a samurai warrior should be: honourable, loyal and a master swordsman. I think he reflects the ideals of the samurai culture.’
Sakai intended to do a series about Miyamoto Musashi but sketching one day he drew a rabbit with his ears tied up into a samurai top knot, and the character became a samurai rabbit instead.
Sakai is third generation Japanese-American and grew up in Hawaii, but was born in Kyoto while his father was stationed in Japan with the US Army. His stories mix his strong sense of his Japanese heritage with a Western approach to storytelling, along with a cinematic style that owes a lot to the influence of his favourite director, Akira Kurosawa.
He leaves home, family and friends behind to train with a maverick old lion teacher of the warrior’s code and learns that the way of the samurai is one of peace and perfection – not just masterful swordsmanship.
The production at the Southwark Playhouse runs until 4th January. Reviews have been good – ‘A visual delight… a seasonal treat’, says Time Out, which gave it five stars and made it their Critics’ Choice.