Created by: Stan Sakai
ISBN: 1569714134 (Amazon)
Back in what I imagine was 1986* I walked into my local comic book store for the latest issue of Power Pack and saw there was an artist doing a signing. He was the letterer for Groo the Wanderer and a creator of indie black-and-white comics. I didn’t approach his table. Not only was I painfully shy as a child (I would have been in sixth grade or so at this time), but I felt bad for this creator and didn’t want him to see the pity in my eyes. After all, he wasn’t good enough to work on color comics. Color comics like Power Pack.
I was a moron. That creator was Stan Sakai. And I’ve been regretting the ignorance of my youth ever since.
It wasn’t until late 1998 that I first encountered Usagi Yojimbo firsthand when I had one of the final issues of the “Grasscutter” storyline slipped into my pull list at my local store. Rather than return the book for a refund, I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I’d heard of the rabbit samurai by that point and I was looking for new ways to distance myself from the superhero genre, a market of the medium with which I had been growing increasingly disenchanted. It was really much better than I expected a book starring people with animal heads to be. I waited a few months more for “Grasscutter” to be collected so I could get a little more context. And a month after reading “Grasscutter,” I had every volume of Usagi Yojimbo I could find. Sakai’s creation was invigourating.
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.
Usagi Miyamoto, a long-eared samurai based on Musashi Miyamoto, is a near-master swordsman. Having lost his lord to a betrayal on a battlefield years earlier, Usagi has taken to wandering Japan on a warrior’s pilgrimage. As he follows wherever his paths lead him, he hones his skills, meditates on the way of life, and interacts with those whom he meets on the road. The rabbit’s nomadic nature allows Sakai to easily structure the book episodically, with many stories self-contained in a single chapter. Typically, the author will interject a sustained story arch in between groups of five or more shorter tales. Still, despite the book’s episodic nature, Sakai manages to keep a fairly large stable of recurring characters who help to build reader-investment in Usagi’s world.
Usagi is a morally upright figure who lives by a strict code of honour and generally prefers non-violent solutions. Regardless, because of his abilities, his willingness to assist the oppressed, and the general anarchy of the land, Usagi has personally killed more people on-page than probably any single real-world figure has throughout history.** Yet for a book filled with so much violence, Usagi Yojimbo is a nearly sterile work. Opponents die from deep sword cuts, but there is rarely any kind of blood shown—and never any viscera. Just as Usagi himself does not tend to rejoice in the violent outcome of his circumstances, neither does Sakai seem to relish gratuitous visualizations of what must be horrible deaths. For this reason, despite all the killing, Usagi Yojimbo may be an entirely appropriate and wonderful read for even an older elementary student.
One of the great things about watching a series and creator evolve over twenty-five years is that progress and growth are tangible. Improvement in craft becomes easily evident. One of the not-so-great things about it, though, is that there is the early stuff to contend with, the material produced when the creator was still feeling his way around. Before he had time to grow comfortable with his art style. Before his writing could find its pace and voice.
On the left, Usagi as he originally appeared in 1984.
On the right, Usagi as he appeared in 1998.
Like with Fables (though not as grievously), I find myself conflicted when recommending Usagi Yojimbo. The first volume is really just not at all representative of the wonderful stories that fill the book’s twenty-four other volumes. The art is hard and abrupt, and there isn’t enough of a narrative to endear the reader to any of its stories. The first volume’s importance lies in its introduction of several recurring characters, including Usagi himself. My only fear is that some will approach the first volume only to give up on an otherwise stellar series.
*All dates mentioned herein are rough approximations based on my own sorely used memories.
**This may be an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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