***This article originally appeared in the May 22 issue of Animation magazine (No. 320)***
April is going to be a big month for fans of Usagi Yojimbo, the acclaimed 35-year-old comic book series from award-winning creator Stan Sakai. That’s when Netflix and Gaumont’s new action-comedy, CG-animated adaptation Rabbit Samurai: The Usagi Chronicles world premieres.
Set far in the future, the 10-episode series is set in a world that mixes sci-fi technology with magic and classic Japanese culture from the Edo period. samurai rabbit follows teenage Yuichi, a descendant of the great early 17th century warrior Miyamoto Usagi, on his epic quest to become a true samurai. Along with his trusty pet lizard, Spot, the hot-headed Yuichi (voiced by Darren Barnet) assembles a motley crew of misfit heroes – including a mischievous rhinoceros bounty hunter named Gen (Aleks Le), a cunning ninja cat named Chizu ( Mallory Low) and the Kitsune fox’s acrobatic pickpocket (Shelby Rabara) – as he battles depth-charging moles, metal-tipped winged bats and monsters from another dimension, all with the goal of becoming the best usagi samurai.
samurai rabbit is produced in partnership with Sakai, who also serves as executive producer, along with Gaumont, Dark Horse Entertainment and Atomic Monster. The series is written by executive producers Candie and Doug Langdale (Maya and the three, the book of life, The Adventures of Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of the Incredible), with visuals overseen by art director Khang Le (Big Hero 6: the series, Small Big Awesome) and supervising producer Ben Jones (Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teen Titans, The Iron Giant). Animation is provided by Mumbai-based 88 Pictures (troll hunters, 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers).
Sakai, who worked with Stan Lee for 25 years to write the Spider Man Sunday Newspaper Comics, is most famous for its original creation Usagi Yojimbo, an epic graphic novel saga that began in 1984 and now spans over 34 volumes. The legendary creator, writer and illustrator has been honored with multiple awards for Usagiincluding six Eisner Awards, two Harvey Awards (including one for best designer), the Japanese American National Museum’s Cultural Ambassador Award, a Parent’s Choice Award and an American Library Association Award.
“I did Usagi since 1984, so it’s been over 37 years,” says Sakai, explaining how protective he is of the property, which he fully owns. “I would be very selective in bringing it to animation, other forms of media – but the experience has been great and the show looks fantastic. The samurai culture in a future setting works like a charm. It’s just beautiful. The city looks like huge castles, and you have vehicles, but there’s a lot of feudal feeling to Japan.
Initially skeptical of introducing Usagi in the future, Sakai was struck by Gaumont’s pitch and early backgrounds and character designs. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to work.’ And it works. And it’s beautiful. The writers, Candie and Doug Langdale, did an amazing job with the script,” he says.
“My Usagi lives in feudal Japan, but we put him into the script,” Sakai continues. “And there’s an amazing twist to my character that I loved. So they took my stories, but they also expanded on them and went a lot further than I could have ever imagined.
The Langdales, for their part, watched Akira Kurosawa’s films for inspiration, as well as Japanese yōkai films of the 1950s. “We were creating a world based on the world that Stan created for the Usagi Yojimbo pounds, but it’s a thousand years in the future from that point,” says Doug Langdale.
One of the main obstacles, according to the Langdales, was the creation of a futuristic world centered on Japan. “The idea is that there hasn’t really been any influence in future Japan in the series from other parts of the world,” Doug Langdale explained. “So trying to keep Western influences out of the world’s guise as much as possible was a big challenge.”
To that end, there are no electronics – including smartphones and computers – in the world of samurai rabbit. “It was coming from above,” Candie Langdale said. “We were told not to do that. And we were like, ‘awesome.’ It makes the story more interesting with the challenges it presents.
Sakai was “very involved in every step of the process,” he says. “I approved everything. Everything came my way, from initial plot sketches to character design. I even approved of things like broccoli and rocks that were used for the bottom. And it was great to work with Netflix and Gaumont. It was a wonderful experience.
Set in a sci-fi CGI universe, samurai rabbit also includes dynamic 2D footage rendered in a beautiful hand-drawn style featuring Yuichi’s ancestor, Usagi. “Gaumont and I tried to create a different look between the futuristic world of Yuichi and my classic world of Usagi,” says Sakai. “Every time my Usagi appears, it’s a very different type of animation. You can immediately tell that it’s either a flashback or a fantasy sequence or something very different. C It’s a nice contrast, and it works really well. I love her look.
On wisdom and honor
During his quest, Yuichi not only learns what it takes to become a great samurai, but also more about his ancestor Usagi. “Yuichi idolizes his ancestor and himself wants to become a samurai, a great warrior,” says Sakai. “So he goes to town, but things don’t go as well as he expected. He gets together with his gang of misfits and together they meet various yōkai, the monsters from Japanese mythology… Later they act as a group, and it’s wonderful how the characters develop, how the whole dynamic of the group is growing.
Yuichi’s character arc is pronounced, as noted by Sakai. “At first he wants to fight,” he says. “That’s what he thinks a samurai should do. As the series progresses, he learns about himself. He learns what it’s like to become a samurai, that it’s not just about fighting. It’s a matter of control. It’s about fighting, but what’s more important is do not struggle. He must learn when it is appropriate and when it is not. The fight is never free. This is very fun. It’s never malicious. And I think Netflix and Gaumont handled it very well.
In early episodes, Yuichi “pretty much personifies youthful arrogance”, says Sakai. “He thinks he knows everything. He thinks he’s so wonderful. He was given the sword, but he learns that there is so much more that he must learn, that he must develop. He must grow as a person. Throughout the series, he not only matures, but he learns things about himself and what he is capable of. He learns that too much arrogance is not good, that if he wants to be a leader he has to control it – so that, rather than leading people, he inspires them.
Asked what he hopes viewers will take away samurai rabbit, Sakai recalls a conversation he once had with the mother of one of his readers. “His son was reading a Usagi book, and she asked, “What is it about?” He thought for a second and said, “It’s a matter of honor. And I thought that was a great answer. And that’s something that I would like people to take away is that this show is about honor. It’s a matter of loyalty. It’s a matter of friendship. And I think that’s a great message to leave with people.
Rabbit Samurai: The Usagi Chronicles premieres on Netflix on April 28.