Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our ongoing column where we continue the animation-centric ritual of yesteryear. We may no longer schedule our lives around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we chat with the Samurai Rabbit creative team about bringing Stan Sakai’s legendary comic book universe to television.
Love makes you stupid. After years – no, decades of begging, pleading, and praying, we finally have an animated series based on Stan Sakai‘s Usagi Yojimbo comic book. However, it doesn’t look or behave like we imagined it would. The creative adaptation stirs anxiety and confusion in longtime fans, but if they take a moment to breathe and release their preconceived notions, they will discover a show bursting with imagination and infatuation for the source material.
Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles jumps into the comic book’s future. Showrunners Candie Langdale and Doug Langdale navigate the Usagi legacy into an all-ages arena with fewer corpses than Miyamoto Usagi’s feudal Japan but not totally absent of corpses either. The Netflix show follows the lone ronin’s distant ancestor, Yuichi (Darren Barnet), struggling to honor his family history. Where Miyamoto was wise, kind, and resilient, Yuichi is ignorant, brash, and foolhardy. He rushes into danger with confidence but no experience. The first ten episodes deliver a hard, necessary lesson in mindfulness.
Miyamoto Usagi first appeared in the Albedo Anthropomorphics anthology in 1984 before finding a temporary home and solo title with Fantagraphics. The character resided for a good long time at Dark Horse Comics before landing at his current home with IDW Publishing. Of course, you probably first encountered Usagi through his frequent guest appearances on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. He frequently crossed swords with Leonardo and was forever immortalized in plastic as a Playmates action figure.
Space Usagi, another far-flung future animated version, nearly made it to the small screen back in the early nineties. Unfortunately, the ratings failure of Bucky O‘Hare and the Toad Wars nixed the possibility. Comic book fans have impatiently waited for the character to receive proper cartoon acceptance ever since. It took longer than most would have liked, including Stan Sakai, but Miyamoto’s world is finally streaming on Netflix.
Art director Khang Le helped translate the characters and concepts from the page to the screen. He was tasked with placing a science fiction veil atop feudal Japan while inserting a recognizable modern animation aesthetic into Stan Sakai’s style. The result is something askew but not totally unfamiliar.
“Taking the focus away from my Miyamoto Usagi,” says Stan Sakai, “and onto the descendent, I thought was a great move. I was a bit hesitant, but it was Khang’s designs that actually convinced me, ‘Oh, this is going to work.’ That first drawing he did of Neo Edo, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great. It’s going to look fantastic.’ And what Doug and Candie did with my character is just genius.”
Everything Le needed to rework Usagi Yojimbo into Samurai Rabbit was in the comics and in Sakai’s favorite samurai films. He read and watched as much as he could. Le then smashed those designs into a contemporary reality. The juxtaposition birthed the cartoon’s entire vibe.
“You have a very traditional element,” explains Le, “from feudal Japan alongside something that’s very modern. For example, skyscrapers, vending machines, which are extremely popular in Japan, especially if you’re walking around Tokyo. Every couple of steps, you can find a vending machine. We have a lot of signage, but it’s a good balance with the kind of architecture that you usually see in samurai films. We have this complete universe for Yuichi Usagi, and that’s kind of like a mirror of what we are doing now too. Stan is Miyamoto, we are Yuichi.”
The filmmakers have a lot to live up to, and that comes with anxiety. As Yuichi is to Miyamoto, Doug and Candie Langdale are in awe of Stan Sakai. They were thrilled to get the assignment, ushering Sakai’s universe to television, but they were also nervous about messing it up.
Yuichi actually offered them a freedom that would not have come with Miyamoto. The teenage wannabe samurai is an entirely new creation, and they could make him and his world bend to their will. Their story could also reflect their unease, leaning into Yuichi’s desperate desire to honor his ancestor.
“Our Usagi is almost the opposite of a conspiracy theorist,” says Doug Langdale. “He’s coming into this new place and finding out that no one’s belief about history matches his belief. Yuichi turns out to be right and proves [his ancestor’s nobility] to everyone, but he’s coming into this place as the lone voice saying, ‘No, history isn’t what you think it is. This guy you see as a villain was a great hero.'”
Early in Samurai Rabbit, when Yuichi arrives in Neo Edo, he discovers that most folks believe Miyamoto Usagi to be a great betrayer. Their textbooks taught them that Miyamoto turned against the government and slaughtered the shogun in cold blood. The possibility crashes Yuichi’s idolization, sending the young hero into crisis.
“Yuichi is very much like a young Miyamoto Usagi,” says Sakai. “He’s impulsive, like all people that age; they know it all, they can do it all, but then he finds that his confidence is not where it should be. His abilities are not true to what he thinks. That’s a big revelation to him, ‘Hey, at first, I didn’t think I needed a sensei. Now I want a sensei, and I want the best.’ And he does find one. He changes throughout the entire series; you can see his development. I think it’s wonderful. This is a very character-driven show. The artwork is fantastic, but the focus is on the characters.”
Doug and Candie Langdale vividly remember approaching Sakai regarding the historical tarnish Samurai Rabbit places on Miyamoto Usagi. They understood it was a big ask, but they also knew Sakai was pretty game when it came to mucking about with this particular timeline. Again, their setting permitted them to run wild a bit.
“That was a fun day,” says Candie Langdale, “very humbly going to Stan, ‘Excuse me, sir. May we please do a thing? Can we sully your character for a little bit?’ He was very generous with us. But there is this separation. These are not Stan’s characters; they’re descendants. So he gave us leeway. He’s protective of his property, but he’s not overprotective. We kept Miyamoto safe, but here, we can have fun with him too.”
Samurai Rabbit represents Stan Sakai’s largest creative partnership. He was thrilled by the experience and deeply appreciated the showrunners coming to him with numerous alterations and suggestions. And we’re not just talking about tweaking character design; we’re talking about every tiny, little element found on the screen. Stan Sakai got his word in.
“This is my biggest collaboration ever,” says Sakai. “We had a whole team of writers, artists, designers. I was getting approval notices for everything like broccoli or rocks; I had to approve things like that. Other things were these huge flying ships, and my first thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love it. I would love to have a toy of that or a playset. I would love to go beyond just the animated series and do toys and comic books and everything.”
In the nearly forty years since Usagi Yojimbo‘s creation, very few folks have dabbled in Stan Sakai’s world. Almost every issue featuring his character was drawn by him, written by him, and lettered by him. You would think that with such an intense hold on the character, Stan Sakai would not be interested in seeing others play with Miyamoto Usagi. That’s simply not true, and his joyous experience on Samurai Rabbit might have uncorked something.
“I’ve always enjoyed seeing other artists’ interpretations of my Usagi,” says Sakai. “In fact, at one time, I proposed a series called Usagi Yojimbo: Kagemusha, Shadow Warriors, in which other creators would write and draw Usagi stories, maybe an anthology series, five or six issues. That’s something I still would love to do.”
Hearing Stan Sakai sound rejuvenated after this project is incredible. He acts like a young creator with a new shiny object in front of an audience, not like an icon who regularly publishes a monthly comic that’s magically never stale or repetitive. Samurai Rabbit could be the next phase in his already momentous career, pulling even more fans into his universe.
The ten episodes currently streaming on Netflix are only the beginning. The next ten Samurai Rabbit episodes are almost done and on their way. Be like Stan; get hyped.
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