A young hero defeats an island of ogres in this reimagining of a Japanese folk tale, told in a glorious fusion of styles lifted primarily from Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (animated films). The creators dip into Japanese theatrical conventions, as well, and even Hong Kong martial arts films. Fights take place in slow-motion. Paper parasols whoosh open to represent comic-book-style explosions. Props dangle out past the edge of the stage, as in a 3-D movie. Characters burst into the “Banzai!” cheer and turn it into a song and dance.
It’s tremendous fun. And along the way, the saga of an ogre-destroying superhero evolves into something else — a gentler parable in which a forgiving young man uses his superpowers to better understand ogres. Recalling his adoptive mother’s axiom, “Fight[ing] fire with fire only makes more fire,” Momotaro (Jacob Yeh) finds a way to turn ogres into friends.
Momotaro begins life as a baby who pops out of a giant peach to become the adopted son of an elderly childless couple (Tia Shearer and Phillip Reid). He grows into a fine youth with super “Peach power!” He can wash clothes or chop wood at hyper-speed.
When three giant horned ogres, led by the particularly nasty Daimon (Rafael Untalan), harass the couple and steal their crops, Momotaro vows to go to the ogres’ island, defeat them and bring back the veggies.
On his journey he befriends a shaggy orange dog, Inu (Reid), a monkey, Saru (Untalan) and a bird, Kiji (Shearer), who join his quest.
Debra Kim Sivigny’s costumes vibrate with crayon colors in clothes that sometimes bow to Japanese traditions and sometimes just riff on them. The animals with Momotaro sport distinctive headdresses and armbands of yarn and cloth. Kiji, the bird, is a very bright green indeed, and Saru, the monkey, has enormous banana-yellow ears. When actors play “invisible” roles — carrying props or doing puppeteer duty — they wear all-black outfits, as the omniscient narrator Koken (Ryan Sellers) explains early on.
“Anime Momotaro” bubbles along in front of a pagoda-shaped set by Natsu Onoda Power, whose own manga- and anime-inspired “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” ran at Studio 2ndStage a year ago. Clear plastic globes piled under and around the stage lend a magical touch. So do Japanese lanterns that hang over the audience, sculptural “trees” made of bamboo and a color scheme rich in the blues and greens of the sea.
A cartoony pop-rock sound design by Chris Baine keeps the show hurtling forward, and a couple of songs, one of them a repetitive all-clap-hands “Banzai!” number, have real earworm potential. It’s a small price to pay for having this much fun.
All five actors in the cast, with their energy, good humor and expertly synchronized performances, make the stage feel highly populated under Eric Johnson’s sure-handed direction. Johnson first co-adapted “Anime Momotaro” in 2011 with choreographer Alvin Chan and others at Honolulu Theatre for Youth, where he is the artistic director. Let’s hope he works in Washington often.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
adapted from the Japanese folk tale by Alvin Chan, Eric Johnson and Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Directed by Eric Johnson. Recommended for ages 5 to 10. Lighting, Zachary Gilbert. Presented through March 10 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.