Anime Momotaro

Theater, Kid-Friendly
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Editorial Review

Banzai caper is a crowd-pleaser
By Jane Horwitz
Monday, February 11, 2013

Borrow a kid from a relative or friend if you need to, but see “Anime Momotaro” at Imagination Stage.

True, this is theater for young audiences, but any stage-loving adult shouldn’t miss it. That’s how fresh, inventive and engaging the show is. Children will squeal appreciatively at the eye-popping stage antics, and you’ll thank yourself for taking you, too.

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.

PREVIEW: ‘Momotaro’ takes anime back in time
By Maura Judkis
Friday, January 25, 2013

Gura, gura, gura! Kyaaaa! Kokaa! Ka-ra-choom! Guuu -- zaba zaba zaba zaba.

Just as American superheroes need their sound effects when fighting the bad guys -- Zap! Pow! Boom! -- so, too, do the stars of Japanese anime. And in an anime-inspired stage interpretation of an ancient Japanese legend at Imagination Stage, the onomatopoeic effects are even more important to the story than they would be on television. They’re actually a nod to ancient Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatrical traditions.

“It’s a huge thing in traditional Japanese theater, because they didn’t have sound effects then,” says “Anime Momotaro” adaptor and choreographer Alvin Chan. “So when you open a door, it’s ‘bata-bata-batabatabata.’ . . . [For wind blowing], we want to just be like ‘psssshhhhh,’ but there’s nothing in the Japanese language like that. So we have to be like ‘pi-shuuuuuu.’ ”

Anime — stylistic contemporary cartoons like "Yu-Gi-Oh" or the "Sailor Moon" — has become increasingly popular in American culture, but when Chan and director Eric Johnson, both of the Hono lulu Theatre for Youth, decided to create an anime-themed show for kids, they were faced with a challenge: How to create the explosions, the slow-mo action shots, the close-ups and the exaggerated emotions that are characteristic of anime without using actual animation?

Instead of looking forward, they decided to look back. Those special effects had all been done in Kabuki theater, with the help of koken, stagehands dressed in black who manipulate props as stealthily as ninjas.

“It was cool that we kept coming back to these traditional theater tricks to do something new,” Johnson says.

Although the dialogue is in English, the sound effects come from the Japanese language, and if it’s a noise that isn’t expressed in that language, it is pronounced as it’s written in katakana, the Japanese way of translating foreign sounds. When a character has to scurry across the stage, he vocalizes it as “skuri skuri skuri,” a blend of the English word and Japanese pronunciation. Throughout the rehearsal process, the cast has invented sound effects to enhance the throwing of a rock or the chopping down of a tree.

“It’s a fun way of honoring the sounds without actually having to teach the language, or do bad Japanese accents,” the director says.

The story they’ve adapted is as old as the theatrical tricks. The tale of Momotaro, a boy born from a giant peach who goes on to defeat ogres terrorizing a small town, is a well-known folk tale. But in this kid-friendly version, Momotaro, played by Jacob Yeh, doesn’t slay the ogres; he finds a way to make peace with them.

“One of the major themes that we’ve added to this is anti-bullying,” Chan says. “He gets to the point where he realizes that an escalation of violence is going to bring more violence.”

Between the nods to Japanese theater, the language and the lessons about bullying and violence, it seems like “Anime Momotaro” could be a lot for a 5-year-old to take in. But Johnson stresses that any child, even one who has never watched anime or heard of Japan, will be able to understand the show.

“They live and breathe these characters and sound effects,” he says. “They have an entry into [theater] that their grandparents don’t.”