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SDCC 2021: Netflix’s first look at the animated Usagi Yojimbo TV series

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Netflix and Gaumont Animation shared a first look at the upcoming Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles at a San Diego Comic-Con panel for the animated series based on Stan Sakai’s legendary comic, Usagi Yojimbo.

You may know Miyamoto Usagi, the samurai rabbit, from his long standing connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Both products are products of the underground comics boom of the 1980s, and Usagi has crossed over with the anthropomorphic heroes in three of their animated series. But as announced last year, Netflix’s & Gaumont’s (The Fifth Element, F Is for Family) will be the first time the bunnicular warrior gets his own solo cinematic debut.

Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles follows Yuichi Usagi, an adventure-loving samurai-in-training on his quest to rid Neo Edo of the dangerous Yoki. He and his trusted tokage, Spot, journey through a lush alternate version 26th century Japan that mixes sci-fi technology with Edo period Japanese design with anthropomorphic animals. Along the way, he’ll team up with the brash rhino bounty hunter Gen, the fun loving fox thief Kitsune, and the serious cat ninja Chizo in this animated action comedy. All the characters are descendants of the classic heroes of Usagi Yojimbo.

The project boasts James Wan (Aquaman, Furious 7) as an executive producer, who was a childhood fan of Stan Sakai’s long running comic. Sakai considers the Usagi franchise to be his life’s work and legacy and has historically been fiercely protective of it in the past. Usagi’s crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a testament to Sakai’s personal friendship with the Turgles’ creators, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman.

During the panel, Sakai shared that he has been very involved in every stage of the project and has given input and approval for everything in the finished product from design to voice actors. Above all, he wanted a show that would be action packed, well crafted and respectful of Japanese culture. His passion for the project is a great sign of quality from a cartoonist who won an Inkpot Award for “Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Cartooning,” and has been inducted into the Eisner Award Hall of Fame. Nearly 40 years after his first Usagi Yojimbo story, Sakai’s series is still garnering Eisner nominations.

Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles showrunners, Doug & Candie Langdale, said they wanted to build a character-driven story that appealed to the young audience that devoured Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the ’80s and ’90s. Lead Director Ben Jones compared the series to the Hong Kong action comedies of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow, mixing light-hearted action with technical precision. For his part, Art Director Khang Le wanted to bring the iconic look of the comic to life, by giving Neo Edo a mix of traditional Japanese architecture and the vertically inclined and vibrant buildings of modern Tokyo. It was that wonderful fusion that apparently sold Sakai on the series.

Image: Gaumont Animation/Netflix

At the panel, the team shared stunning renders of the CGI, as well as an exciting preliminary animation test, which can be seen above at about the 35-minute mark. However, Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles has not forgotten its comic roots, and will have flashbacks rendered in traditional 2D animation. Those sequences are filled with flowing inks and gorgeous watercolors, pushing this beyond your normal kids fare and into a feast for the eyes.

This is not the first time Sakai has attempted to make a series about a descendant of Miyamoto’s. Space Usagi, a Saturday morning sci-fi reimagining of the character, had a pilot in 1995. Jumping off the popularity of Usagi’s appearances in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made sense, and there’s a clear line from that pilot to Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles, but the low cost animation for cartoons of the era left the project wanting. The world of animation has come leaps and bounds since those days and if this panel was any indication, Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles will finally bring Sakai’s legacy of world class action to a new generation.

There is no release date as yet for the series, which will premiere on Netflix.

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