Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 117

Usagi Yojimbo

by Stan Sakai
Genre notes: historical fiction, zoomorphs, samurai, educational
30+ vols
ISBN: 1616553987 (Amazon)

Usagi Yojimbo is the story of a fictional, idealized, totemic, and somewhat historical Japan. It is a story told by following (primarily) a single wandering ronin as he follows the way of the samurai, seeking enlightenment, honour, justice, and the beauty of living. Due to his wandering nature, the reader encounters a breadth of stories, regions, and cultures. These tales unfold circa 1627 and create, despite their (sometimes) almost mythical hue, a worthwhile vantage into real and historical Japan.

Sakai peppers his narrative with the fruit of a lot of research. The most popular of his stories, “Grasscutter,” begins with a lengthy-though-entertaining excursus into the mythological origins of Japan and her people. A shorter story, “Daisho,” explains the craft with which the samurai’s sword-pair is forged and the importance those two swords (called daisho) hold to their owners. Other chapters include overtly educational bits on kite-making, pottery-making, and the intrusion of the West into the Far East. And even when he isn’t completely halting his telling in order to instruct the reader, Sakai weaves a story that posits a seamless, discreet form of education—taking part in the story by simply reading it, Sakai’s audience is constantly learning more and more about a dead and foreign culture.

One of Sakai’s great talents is in his visual storytelling. His art flows naturally and his panel design is masterful. Some of the most beautiful pages are silent and filled with panels; each of these panels illustrates part of a picture-story that initially seems unrelated to the narrative intent but ends up providing context or mood for everything that is to follow. Sakai’s art has a wonderful, lyrical quality to it and it’s incredible that he’s been able to maintain his more-than-twenty-five-year schedule of producing one chapter per month. He really is one of the best creators in the medium.

30 vols is a lot to take in. If you want a nice place to start, to see if this is a book for you, I'd recommend read vol 28, then 29, then 30 and backtracking from there if the story suits your tastes.

But seriously. Look at this cover. The way the action draws your eye to Usagi as central figure. The bandits slipping in the rain-sodden mud (the mud drips from both Usagi's and the brown-furred bandit's shoes, the bandit has mud on his knee implying an earlier slip). The fallen bandit being overcome with the mud. The water so heavy that it's formed rivulets down the hill. Sakai uses no detail on the water save for the concentric circles where drops have hit. The whole thing is masterful.

Then this first page follows a single action (shoveling mud into a bucket and then transferring that mud to an embankment), but details emerge to tell us we're watching many hands work. Different bodies in different clothes, a team effort in the face of calamity.

Pull back and we see the nature of the problem in a magnificent splash page. The story's title is "The River Rising" and the art leaves us no doubt that it's true. White foamy crests fill the bottom fifth, broken by a single fallen tree. The fencing is in the process of succumbing. In the central portion we see the village houses with rocks on their roofs to protect against winds (if the blowing trees in the back weren't enough, the rocks would still tell us of the winds). Usagi directs the effort but his words draw our eye to the most important image, the magnificent, billowing dark cloud.

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