In ancient Japan, a young boy named Momotaro stands to protect his village from the evil, giant ogres. So, with the help of his animal friends, Momotaro ventures out to take on the baddies.
The show, ‘Anime Momotaro,’ does sound like it’s a big cartoon. The folks at Imagination Stage, however, would like you to know that it is just as real as the cold weather outside.
Imagination Stage will present ‘Anime Momotaro’ starting Wednesday in Bethesda. The show, based on Japanese folklore, is directed by its writer, Eric Johnson.
Johnson, who is originally from Boone, N.C., and has worked with Imagination Stage before, is the artistic director for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in Hawaii.
“I was based on the East Coast for a number of years and I did two shows [at Imagination Stage],” Johnson said. “Both of those shows were very much multimedia shows. We used a lot of film and projection design and those kinds of techniques in the shows. This show is interesting because we don’t use any actual film — we’re using a lot of the techniques that are in film, specifically in animation, to tell the story.
An example of that, Johnson said, was the use of a hand fan on stage to express emotion.
“If a character gets really angry, in the way of a cartoon, a thought bubble might pop up and there might be flames in their thought bubble,” Johnson said. “We actually have a fan that we open behind the head of the actor and it has drawn flames on the fan. So you’re getting something that looks kind of like a live cartoon. We’ve done some of Imagination Stage’s work out in Hawaii and we’re really glad they decided to pick up some of our work.”
The role of Momotaro belongs to Jacob Yeh, who has performed in ‘P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical’ and ‘Wake Up, Brother Bear’ at Imagination Stage. Johnson said Yeh’s knowledge of martial arts was critical for him landing the part.
“[Jacob] is great! When we were coming out here, I was a little worried,” Johnson said. “Hawaii is predominantly Asian, so we knew we wanted to have some really talented Asian actors in the show like we had in the production [in Hawaii]. That was really important to us. So I was worried about who we could find for the title role. Jacob is just wonderful. He is such a creative individual. A sharp actor, he brings martial arts training, which is really helpful because we have these large [martial arts] sections in the show. He brings a lot to that.”
Yeh was excited for the opportunity to bring Momotaro to life.
“What boy doesn’t grow up wanting to be a super hero?” Yeh said. “To imagine their origins are other-worldly? That they have been endowed with super strength or super speed or something? Yeah, it’s been fantastic to be able to play a boy who’s got a special gift. Just to see how he goes about dealing with the world around him and seeing him go on this epic journey to find out who he is and where his real faith lies, it’s awesome.”
While Johnson has nothing but praise for his leading man, Yeh says Johnson is a fantastic director.
“He’s the first director I’ve had where you feel really at ease with him, but he’s still getting stuff done and he’s given me great notes,” Yeh said. “I think when you’re doing children’s theater, some people tend to get into the habit of being a little too obvious and you try to telegraph things and he keeps telling me, ‘Play it real. Play it natural.’ This is the one character in the whole show who is not a caricature. There are times when he strikes these poses or he’s heroic and stuff, but he’s usually trying to figure out the world. He’s trying to listen to his parents, he’s trying to do the right thing, he’s trying to be brave, but he’s also trying to learn from the other animals.”
The anime style of animation is huge across the world now. Shows such as ‘Dragon Ball,’ ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and ‘Pokemon’ are shown across all major television networks. Regardless, Johnson hopes audiences understand this show is not a cartoon.
“I’m a little worried [people will think it’s a cartoon],” Johnson said. “Imagination Stage has such a reputation for doing really creative theatrical work that a lot of people will look at that title and ask the question, ‘How in the world is this theater going to use that form in a new way?’ There certainly are big fans of anime who will be curious on that level. It’s very much theater.”