Usagi Yojimbo is no ordinary rabbit. He’s one of the greatest samurai of all time. In this latest guest post, Win Wiacek from the awesome Comics Review introduces us to Usagi, and tells us why it’s important we read Stan Sakai’s legendary comic series.
Once upon a time you just eventually grew out of comics. These days you’re a fool and uncool if you haven’t grown into them yet. Call them graphic novels if you want but it’s all pictures and words working together to tell tales and make magic.
There are inviting, exciting strips for kids like Yakari, sagas for die-hard superhero fans who share exclusive passes to complex universes of characters and concepts such as Hellboy or The Avengers, socially evocative polemics like King – a Comic Biography and delicious books and series which break boundaries to develop a life of their own: Tintin, Asterix, Maus, From Hell, Persepolis and Usagi Yojimbo.
That last one is something you might not have heard of – but it is probably the best of that very prestigious list.
Usagi Yojimbo first appeared as a background character in Stan Sakai’s The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy in 1984. He soon graduated to stirring starring roles in a variety of publications as his creator found a way to express his personal passion for Japanese history, legend and the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers.
Originally Sakai was considering a human historical hero but inspirationally opted to transform his proposed protagonist into an anthropomorphic fantasy animal, unaware that he was embarking on a 30-year journey detailing the life of one of the most enticing and engaging heroes of all time.
Literature has been content using beasts as protagonists and metaphorical stand-ins forever, from Peter Rabbit to Animal Farm to Watership Down (“Usagi” literally translates as “rabbit”) and these stories and scenarios scrupulously mirror the Edo Period of Japan – roughly 16th and 17th century AD by our reckoning – whilst simultaneously referencing a broad basket of other cultural icons from sources as varied as War of the Worlds to Zatoichi to Godzilla.
And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…
The expansive period epic stars a vast bestiary of sentient animals whilst detailing the life of a peripatetic Lord-less samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible selling his sword as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard-for-hire).
Miyamoto Usagi is brave, noble, industrious, honest, sentimental, gentle, considerate, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering, conscientious and one of the greatest swords-masters in the land. However as a rabbit devoted to the tenets of Bushido, he is simply unable to turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice. As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into an unending panorama of incredible situations.
Despite changing publishers a few times the Roaming Rabbit has been in continuous publication since 1987, with more than 30 books and collections so far. There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys. Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public. Stan Sakai has won more awards than he has shelf-space for his works which like Harry Potter is equally accessible to youngsters and adults alike.
Fast-paced yet lyrical, informative and frequently pant-wettingly funny, Usagi Yojimbo also bristles with tension and thrills and frequently breaks your heart with astounding tales of pride and tragedy. Simply bursting with veracity and verve, and it is the perfect comics epic: a monolithic magical saga of irresistible appeal to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened haters of comics tales.
Where to start:
Usagi Yojimbo Book 1: The Ronin, or perhaps Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition
(2009, Fantagraphics, collects books #1-7)
This debut monochrome compilation opens with The Goblin of Adachigahara from 1984 as a weary warrior trudges through the snow and accepts hospitality from a lonely old woman. In return for food and a night’s shelter he tells her of his history and how he lost his master at the battle waged near this hovel many years ago.
Warring against usurper Lord Hikiji, the wanderer’s puissant clan chief was betrayed by trusted General Toda and all the rabbit could do was preserve the falling leader’s body from further shame and desecration. Since that time he has been a masterless itinerant living out his tragic Karma. Now his journey has brought him back to the region of his greatest shame, and although he doesn’t know it, to the shack of foul Toda’s wife and the ghastly debased creature she still loves.
That incredible clash of hero against horror led to Lone Rabbit and Child! which set up major plot threads for the future as the Ronin was hired by beautiful swordswoman Tomoe Ame to protect her young Lord Noriyuki. The callow youth had been travelling to the capital to ratify his role as leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan following the death of his father, but the party had been repeatedly attacked by ninjas working for the infamous Hikiji – now risen high in the Emperor’s hierarchy. The insidious schemer was determined to foil the investiture and appropriate the Geishu properties for himself, but had not reckoned on fate and the prowess of the lethally adept Usagi.
In the sequel, as Tomoe recovered from wounds incurred in the defence of her young master and Noriyuki slowly adapted to the subtly perilous life as Lord of a powerful clan, Hikiji’s scapegoat committed suicide and left a damning testament to the villain’s perfidy. But even though a fruitless pursuit of The Confession led the Rabbit Ronin to danger and momentary joy it provided no lasting peace or justice.
Bounty Hunter added outrageous comedy to the suspenseful all-action mix when conniving thief-taker Gennosuké bamboozled the big hearted bunny into joining in a potentially profitable hunt for a band of outlaw brothers after which Usagi found himself on the wrong side of the law when his noble efforts to save a caravan from bandits resulted in his being rewarded with a stolen steed and branded a ‘Horse Thief’. Village of Fear leapt straight into terror territory when the wandering samurai stumbled into a township trapped by a were-beast who treated the peasants as its rapidly-dwindling larder.
Moments of peace and contemplation were few in the Yojimbo’s life but, even when a drunken horde interrupted A Quiet Meal, the rabbit’s patience took a lot of rousing. Some folks however, really don’t know when to stop boozing and leave well enough alone…
Blind Swordspig is a masterful comedic parody that also sets up future conflicts as the landless lepus meets a formidable companion on the road whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes. How tragic then that the affable Ino is also a ruthless, blood-spilling outlaw who won’t let comradeship affect his hunger for freedom or carnage…
A hint of past tragedies informs Homecoming! parts 1 & 2, as the penniless roving, Ronin accidentally returns to the village of his birth and finds his first love wedded to his oldest rival. Moreover when invading ninjas starving in the deepest of winters threaten the village, they take as hostage the son who should have been Usagi’s…
This poignant and heartbreaking glimpse into the past is gloriously offset by the concluding inclusion as Bounty Hunter II sees the uproarious return of the bombastic Gennosuké who is again determined to enlist the lethally skilled and formidable swordsbun in a dangerously profitable get-rich-quick scheme involving literally hordes of hostile criminals…
Graphic wonderment from a true Sublime Master.
Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai
Yokai is a generic term that (broadly) translates as “ghosts”, “phantoms”, “spirits” or even “strange, otherworldly apparitions”, all of whom hold a peculiarly eclectic place in Japanese folklore, being simultaneously mischievous and helpful, malevolent and miraculously beneficial. Generally they have animal heads or appear as amalgams of diverse objects or body parts.
This scintillating scary story occurs over one night – an Oborozuki-Yo (“Night of the Hazy Moon”) – when – assorted Yokai are particularly restless; a tale which explores the Japanese equivalent of Halloween as the noble, gloom-shrouded Ronin wanders lonely roads in search of a bite to eat and a place to sleep.
Seeing a light in the nearby woods, Miyamoto leaves the path hoping to find a welcoming peasant hearth for the evening but is harassed by a taunting Kitsune (trickster-fox spirit) and becomes lost. Soon however he hears sobbing and is drawn to a weeping noblewoman. The distressed lady is Fujimoto Harumi whose pilgrimage to a temple was disrupted when a Kitsune stole her young daughter Hanako away. Pleading with the wisely reluctant Ronin, the lady convinces the wayfarer to plunge deeper into the wild woods to rescue the lost girl, leading to an epic series of contests against a horde of fantastic hostile creatures. He almost succumbs until he is unexpectedly saved by an old comrade, mystic demon-queller Sasuke.
It seems that this very evening is the dreaded Hyakki Yako, “Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”, when haunts and horrors from the netherworld form a procession into the world of people, seeking to subjugate all mortals. They simply need a living soul to lead them, a final sacrifice to light their way here. Terrified for the stolen waif, the Ronin and the devil-slayer engage with an army of horrific, shape-shifting, fire-spitting, tentacle-wielding monstrosities to save an innocent and the entire world, but there are forces in play the rapidly-tiring Miyamoto is painfully unaware of and, without the luck of the gods and the tragedy of an old friend, all will be inescapably lost.
Sheer comicbook poetry: the good kind.
Usagi Yojimbo: Senso
The long-eared nomad has been around and frequently escaped the confines of the comicbook page – with guest-shots in sundry other series such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation – he even almost made it into his own small-screen show, but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out.
As well as mountain of merchandise in November 2014 the Rabbit Ronin even premiered in a stage show here in London; to celebrate his 30th anniversary our furry fury starred in a staggering out-of-continuity cosmic clash.
Senso means War! – it says so on the back of the book – and this epic Armageddon tale opens fifteen years from the Yojimbo’s current timeframe with all the regular characters in play for a spectacular final battle between usurping over-villain Hikiji and the forces of the Shogun led by Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Preceded by a comedic cartoon introduction, Usagi and Stan, and a selection of cover sketches, the action opens as the Shogun’s forces, led by recently aligned and fully restored-with-honours Samurai Usagi, clash with the Dark Lord’s armies.
Also drawn into the cataclysmic battle and employed in key positions are valiant bodyguard Lady Tomoe, former bounty hunter General Gennosuke and even the rabbit’s (unsuspected and unacknowledged) son Jotaro. Even though the battle seems to be going against them the noble young lord is appalled when chief scientist Takenoko-Sensei offers his new prototype weapon – an armoured, self-propelled moving fortress called Turtle Mountain.
Preferring defeat to the shame of using atrocity weapons, the heroes fight on with renewed desperation, but everything changes in an instant when the sky is suddenly rent by a fiery scream and a colossal metal shell crashes onto the field. In the silent aftermath the shocked remnants of two shattered armies drag themselves from the blood and dust to discover a third force has entered the fray: ghastly beings like giant octopi, killing with heat and light and riding immense three-legged walking machines. It takes ninja leader Chizu to discover that the rubbery horrors can be killed and their diabolical machines destroyed, but her consequent and so-noble death will not be the last.
Tense, oppressively ominous and downright scary in places, this fabulous reworking of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds is an astoundingly compelling variation on the hallowed theme which offers one tantalising “maybe” after another as three decades of beloved characters assemble to face the end of a world and triumph in a most incredible manner, and at the most horrific of prices.
The multi-faceted legendary Lepus’ nigh-universal irresistible appeal encompasses every aspect and genre of adventure comics and this moving End of Days epic will delight devotees and certainly make converts of the most hardened hater of funny animal stories.
Text and illustrations © 2015 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.