‘Samurai Rabbit:’ A futuristic take on Bushido and Stan Sakai’s hit comics

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It’s been almost four decades since award-winning cartoonist Stan Sakai created his cottontail samurai champion Miyamoto Usagi, the star of his five-time Eisner Award-winning comic Usagi Yojimbo. Now the world’s most famous rabbit warrior is getting a CG animated series on Netflix starring his battle-hungry descendant, Yuichi, set 2,000 years after the time in Sakai’s comics.

“I’m very happy with it,” says Sakai, who serves as executive producer of the new show. Samurai Rabbits: The Usagi Chronicles, which will be released on the streamer today, April 28th. “I was involved throughout the process and I love what everyone has done together. It was like the perfect storm where everyone got together and gelled and this truly incredible series came about.”

Samurai Rabbit – produced with 88 images (To redden), atomic monster (Mortal Kombat), The Legend of Tarzan‘s Dark Horse Entertainment and F stands for family‘s Gaumont Animation – follows the adventures of teenage rabbit samurai Yuichi (Darren Barnet) as he embarks on an epic quest to become a true samurai and make his great 17th century warrior ancestor Miyamoto proud. To protect the city of Neo Edo from yokai monsters, ninjas and evil aliens. Yuichi and his trusty dinosaur-like lizard pet Spot join forces with rhino bounty hunter Gen (Aleks Le), neko ninja Chizu (Mallory Low) and fox thief Kitsune (Shelby Rabara), all new iterations of characters from Sakai’s original comic.

“It’s a character-driven story first and foremost,” says Sakai, who is also known for his time as a writer Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “Every character has a backstory and everyone has something to overcome, like Gen. He’s a big, strong rhino, but he’s a hypochondriac.”

He continues, “I think animals are universal, and you can play each animal’s traits either to play with the character or play against the character, like a rhino that’s big and strong but so terrified of the slightest cut . It’s a nice place to play.”

Samurai Rabbit Writers and showrunners Doug and Candie Langdale, who previously produced at Maya and the three and now Executive Producer with Sakai for this new series, agree that animal characters offer a unique storytelling opportunity and advantage in addressing violent themes.

“The show called Samurai Rabbit, so you know there’s going to be a lot of fighting in there,” says Doug. “But I feel like the fights feel a little less threatening for a young audience when it comes to animals. And by doing that, it allows you to tell stories that you might not be able to tell with human characters because it would be a bit too real.”

Adds Candie, “I feel like if there’s a scary element or something that makes a young viewer feel vulnerable, it gives the kid a little cushion when the characters are animals so that it feels like it.” feels a little safer. I really hope viewers go away feeling like they’ve made new friends because that’s such a big part of the show.”

Sakai’s original comic series, which is still releasing new volumes, was inspired by his own childhood fascination with samurai films.

“I grew up in Hawaii and there was an old theater just down the street that used to show samurai sword fighting movies every weekend,” says Sakai. “I remember seeing it The one-armed swordsman, The blind swordsman, and every other iteration of Swordsman. When I was growing up and deciding to make a comic book, I was thinking about my childhood.”

Sakai initially considered creating a comic series about Miyamoto Musashi, a real-life samurai who lived in Japan at the turn of the 17th century and was, in Sakai’s words, “the epitome of what a samurai should be.”

“But one day, while I was drawing in my sketchbook, I just took a picture of a rabbit with his ears tied in a samurai topknot, and I loved the design,” he recalls. “It was easy and it was unique. Nobody else had ever done it before. Instead of Miyamoto Musashi, I named my character Miyamoto “Usagi,” which means “rabbit” in Japanese.”

Usagi YojimboThe first volume of Sakai, about a samurai rabbit who goes on a warrior’s pilgrimage and sells his bodyguard services, was published in 1984, and Sakai has published over 200 volumes since then. The series won a Parents’ Choice Award in 1990 for its educational value for the way Sakai incorporates historical fact and legend into its stories.

“I have drawings of Usagi from 1982,” says the cartoonist. “It’s been 37 years, almost 38, and Usagi has had a lot of recognition. I won many important awards and now we have this Netflix series. It’s incredible. It’s just stunning.”

While Sakai’s comics are set in feudal Japan, Samurai Rabbit takes place in what Sakai calls a “hodgepodge” of future, present and past. The city of Neo Edo has all the traditional architectural structures of Edo period Japan but with flying cars, arcade games, karaoke, vending machines and more.

“The story itself already adds a lot to the visuals where you have the stories of Miyamoto Usagi and the actual adventures of his offspring Yuichi,” explains art director Khang Le, who is known for his artistic direction Star Trek: Lower Decks. “That alone gives us a very clear contrast. But the challenge is really to combine these two things. After some trial and error, we finally came up with taking the architecture of Neo Edo, a very iconic Japanese architecture, and combining it with modern Tokyo.”

He continues: “So you will see skyscrapers built with the same architectural details that you would find in ancient Japan. You’ll see vending machines and modern signage; They have elements that look like Edo period Japan, but they are also combined with my personal experiences of visiting Japan. It’s one of my favorite places and I really tried to incorporate the flavors I experienced there while remaining authentic to the world Stan created 37 years ago.”

Some parts of Neo Edo are directly inspired by Dōtonbori, a famous street in Osaka.

“It’s a bit touristy, but it’s also very inspiring for us to build this world based on this road because you have all these huge sculptures and statues of crabs and fish that are really fun,” says Le.

Adds Doug, “We also watched a lot of walkaround videos of Tokyo and other parts of Japan. The whole time we were developing this world, we just kept running these videos. We’ve gotten to a point where we feel we can find our way around Tokyo now, even though we’ve never been there in person.”

Le decided to do it too Samurai Rabbit‘s sets are modular to enhance the sense of the vastness of the world.

“This idea came from the fear you feel when you first arrive in a big city,” Le says, laughing. “It was also one of the largest sets we’ve ever built – the restaurants, the arcades, the shops, the streets, it’s all part of the same city set. It all goes together. And it was my first time working with 3D animation. But I think it turned out great. Hopefully when people see the show they will feel like they are walking through Neo Edo with our characters.”

Sakai acknowledges the show’s visual greatness, even saying that it was Le’s initial concept art that convinced him of the show’s future success. Of course, the interwoven use of 2D animation for select scenes in the show to pay homage to Sakai’s original comics was also a moving experience for the creator.

“Whenever there’s a flashback or a fantasy in this 2D animation, it’s just amazing,” says Sakai. “But the first drawing Khang did of Neo Edo’s cityscape blew me away, and that really convinced me that this could be a series and that it’s going to be good. Neo Edo is a fusion of futuristic elements with the traditional, making it unique. The whole setting is wonderful and put so much imagination into it.”

One of the greatest challenges, however, was to create a Japan that is not only futuristic, but futurized without any trace of external influences.

“We wanted to keep western styles out of things,” explains Doug. “The idea behind the show is that feudal Japan was given this powerful stone that dictated all of its technology, so it’s a city that developed without outside influences. Also, there are no electronics, no screens, and no cell phones. All the power comes from that stone, so it’s all brute force technology.”

Candie adds, “But to be honest, making all the arcade games that don’t involve computers, electronics or screens has been a lot of fun. I love the vending machines, those Victorian machines. So that was a huge place to draw from.”

With all those moving parts (literally and figuratively), that’s impressive Samurai Rabbit was created 100% remotely, with teams in the US, India and France. There were never two actors in the same sound booth, no two authors in the same author’s room.

And though it was a trial, the team came together as friends and filmmakers to produce an outstanding series dedicated to the theme that united their teams: unity.

“What a lot of what Samurai Rabbit has to do with friendships, loyalty and honor,” says Sakai. “And these are the great tenants of bushido, the way of the warrior, the samurai. And I hope those qualities come through on the show, because these characters are individuals, but they also come together as friends and then as a group. It’s a powerful journey.”

Image by Victoria Davis

Victoria Davis is a full-time freelance journalist and part-time otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She has covered numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. You can find out more about her work at victoriadavisdepiction.com.

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