Usagi Yojimbo fans will soon get to watch the adventures of an animated samurai rabbit in the future.
It may not be quite exactly the same samurai rabbit that they are thinking of. But it will definitely be “in the future.”
Netflix recently announced that they will release a CGI-animated series based on Stan Sakai’s Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series Usagi Yojimbo. Unlike the original stories, the animated version will not take place in the past.
Who Is Usagi?
Since the 1980s, Japanese American comic book artist Stan Sakai has created many tales about Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin in the feudal Edo period.
The series is partially inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa and other samurai movies. Sakai has also incorporated other bits of Japanese culture and folklore.
For example, Grasscutter is a fun adventure about the legendary sword Kusanagi, which is sort of the Japanese equivalent to Excalibur — except that the Japanese government states that the always-shrouded, never-seen sword is real.
Usagi and all of his friends and enemies are anthropomorphic animals, taking the usual human roles of honorable warriors, ninja spies, scheming magistrates, noble lords, humble peasants, shopkeepers, and so on.
The Netflix Series
The new animated series will be called Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles. It is described as a comedy-action series.
Netflix has not revealed a voice cast nor an exact air date for the series. However, we do know that the animated series will feature a descendant of Miyamoto Usagi, not the original rabbit from Usagi Yojimbo.
According to Netflix’s official synopsis, “the series takes place in the far future, set in a world that mixes modern high-tech images with classic Japanese references.” It goes on to state that “teenage Rabbit Samurai Yuichi” is on an “epic quest to become a true samurai.”
It adds that Yuichi leads “a ragtag team of misfit heroes — including a roguish bounty hunter, a cunning ninja, an acrobatic pickpocket, and a faithful pet lizard — as he battles depth-charging moles, metal-tipped winged bats, and monsters from another dimension.”
That futuristic description sounds a tad different from the original series. Some things are the same — Yuichi is clearly meant to be the equivalent to Usagi; and the “roguish bounty hunter” could be a version of Usagi’s ronin rhino friend Gen.
However, much of it also seems to closely resemble Space Usagi, a less well-known spinoff of the comic books. Like the Netflix series, Space Usagi took place in the future and featured a descendant of the samurai warrior.
According to the official Usagi Yojimbo website, an animated Space Usagi series was attempted in 1994. However, the website states, “the timing couldn’t be worse as toy companies had been burned badly by the flop of the ill produced Bucky O’Hare. Thus, anything with a rabbit in space was considered off limits to them.”
A three-minute pilot for the Space Usagi series was produced, featuring Jim Cummings in the title role.
Not the First Animated Usagi
An animated version of Miyamoto Usagi has appeared on TV screens before.
Three different versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987, 2003 and 2012) had episodes which featured the samurai rabbit, although the 1987 TMNT incorrectly assumed that his name was “Usagi Yojimbo.” (Yojimbo means “bodyguard.”)
In his first appearance, it’s explained that he’s from an alternate dimension.
As a result of these appearances, a couple of TMNT-based Usagi Yojimbo action figures have been produced as well.
The Turtles and Usagi had a couple of crossovers in the comic books as well.
More on the Series
In 2018, French company Gaumont Animation optioned an animated TV version of Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai was named co-producer. Director James Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions was also mentioned, along with Dark Horse Entertainment.
Nothing more was announced until July 2020, when Netflix picked up the series for exclusive release. All of the previous names remain with the Netflix announcement. 88 Pictures was picked to be the CGI animation studio.
Netflix already has a webpage for the new series, although there’s nothing to look at yet.
A great deal has changed since the first attempt at an animated Space Usagi series failed. For one thing, overall animation quality has improved. The futuristic, popular, and entertaining animated series Samurai Jack shows that traditional Japanese themes can be added into a science-fiction setting with no problems.
Hopefully, this series will be a good one, and I look forward to it. Stan Sakai is an excellent storyteller who created great characters, and Usagi Yojimbo clearly deserves a TV series.