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1st December 2014

Usagi Yojimbo

The classic comic book comes to life on the stage.
Usagi Yojimbo which translates as "rabbit bodyguard" is a comic book series created by Stan Sakai. It is set primarily at the beginning of the Edo period of Japanese history and centres around a rabbit samurai called Miyamoto Usagi, whom Sakai based partially on the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. The comic has featured the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and won numerous accolades including three Eisner Awards and the Parents' Choice Award.

With a legion of fans including Stan Lee, the comic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and Southwark Playhouse hosts the world preview of a live stage show adaptation.

"One of the most original, innovative, well executed comic books anywhere to be found."
Stan Lee (co-creator of Spiderman, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and X-Men)

ID Fight Co-ordinator Ronin Traynor choreographed the fights for the show which have won rave reviews and at time of writing have been nominated for 'Best Choreography' in the Off West End awards.

Ronin states, "One of the challenges to the show was find a balance between a graphic portrayal of violence with a realistic use of katana techniques and samurai culture whilst creating something that would be suitable and entertaining for a family Christmas show.

This balance was achieved a number of ways. The first was a slow build to increased levels of violence and showing the consequence of choosing to fight. At first the consequence for the characters was a hit with a cane or defeat in training but the harsh realities are brought home in 2 scenes where Usagi sees the aftermath of a huge battle and also when his sensei is forced to kill a bandit. This helped to create high stakes for the final battle.

"Some splendid displays of swordplay both in training and in deadly earnest, there is plenty of action."
4 STARS - Daisy Bowie-Sell, Time Out

The other main challenge was creating an arc for the fights to match the journey the characters were going through in the story. Initially the fights start off with bamboo canes with the fighting style very much play based as the characters are young children. As Usagi starts his training the weapons progress to bokken (wooden training swords) and traditional Japanese sword techniques are incorporated at points.

"The fight direction throughout is of an incredible quality. Bamboo sticks, twin sai, swords; the performers look skilled using several weapons."
Joanna Trainor, Bargain Theatre Land

Usagi's training takes a number of years through which his skills increase until he finally becomes a Samurai. For the training section of the play, in addition to the script and original comics I drew influence from Luke Skywalker's training in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke's relationship with Yoda seemed to share a lot in common with Usagi's relationship with his sensei Katsuichi and Akira Kurosawa's influence on George Lucas and Stan Sakai can be seen in this scene.

"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." 4 STARS
Tim Bano, Exeunt

Another challenge was fitting all the fights on the raised stage without killing an actor or audience member who surrounded the stage on 3 sides. Two scenes that needed particular careful planning were the Karate Kid style tournament which was followed by the final battle which has all the actors in the production fighting with katana at the same time, often as multiple characters. To keep the tension, and provide an opportunity for actors to find their marks under the pressure of live performance having already been on stage for 80 minutes I choreographed a fight which switched between realistic action, slow motion fighting and group stylised choreography.

"The duels throughout the performance are fantastic and each actor makes impressive use of the stage during the various fights and excellent finale."
Steve Sims, Geek Syndicate

In addition to teaching the actors how to work with katana and sword fight theatrically I also thought it would be beneficial for them to experience some traditional techniques, not necessary suitable for stage but helpful in understanding the mind-set of a samurai. For this I brought in ID Fight Performer and 3rd Dan Black Belt in Battojutsu, Richard Clark to work with the actors. In this session we covered sword draws and sheathings as well as dressing for battle. The whole cast also threw themselves into reading Stan's comics and watching lots of Samurai movies for further inspiration - such is the life of an actor.

"Ronin Traynor's rousing fight choreography proves well worth the wait."
Mark Valencia, Whats on Stage

This was an amazing show to work on. The whole cast and creative team were very passionate about the project and I remember discovering Usagi Yojimbo when I was younger so it's been a real honour to work on the show."

Usagi Yojimbo is on at the Southwark Playhouse from 28th November 2014 - 4th January 2015.

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