‘Usagi Yojimbo’ Elegantly Blends History with the Mythological

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga: Volume 1
Writer, Art, and Letters: Stan Sakai
Series Editors: Michael Dooney and Jaime S. Rich
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

usagi2Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is a series that works on multiple levels. It has the epic feel of a Japanese chanbara (sword fighting films), alongside moments of melodrama, in which the relationships of the characters are at the forefront. Sakai was born in Japan and emigrated to the United States, where his great comic Usagi Yojimbo would begin in 1984, continuing to this very day. Sakai incorporates many elements of his Japanese background by placing the main setting of the story within the Edo period of Japanese history. There is a lot of terminology used with certain aspects of this time, from the weapons, the clothing, to the social statuses. Sakai definitely does not shy away from the immense amount of research incorporated, really making Usagi Yojimbo feel like you are getting a lesson in history as well.

One thing that immediately strikes the reader is the use of anthropomorphic animals in the stead of humans. The main character, Usagi Miyamoto (a take on the notable Musashi Miyamoto), is a rabbit and a ronin; a samurai without a lord, wandering the land through what is called musha shugyo, or warrior’s pilgrimage. Alongside Usagi, there are other memorable characters that one comes across in this particular volume, such as Gen, the bounty hunter rhino, the mysteriously evil Jei and Katsuichi Sensei, the lion teacher of young Usagi. Having animals as these characters paints this unique combination of history with mythological storytelling.

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The art style has a very ukiyo-e like appearance, especially within the beautiful splash pages and the long rectangular frames of action. Sakai also plays with the word balloons, following characters as they jump off cliffs into rivers and often containing floating skulls when characters are killed. There is a very cinematic feel to the pacing of many of the stories; the frames laid out like the storyboards of a film. At times as well, there is an intimate slowing down of the action, where Sakai isn’t afraid to focus on smaller actions; the up and down motions of a garden hoe in “Usagi’s Garden” or in a particularly outstanding shorter tale called “Jizo” where the frame doesn’t shy away from the same foreground and background, only changing within as characters appear and disappear.

Though some of the larger, ‘Kurosawa’ type epic stories may stand out for their length and inclusion of multiple characters, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crossover “Shades of Green” or the two-part “Daisho”, the elegance of both the art style and dialogue (sometimes lack of), really shines through the shorter tales. “The Lizards Tale” focuses on the relationship Usagi forms with the commonly found tokage lizards, resulting in a tale of cause and effect. “The Music of Heaven” as well is a shorter but powerful story of a Zen Buddhist monk detached from the world around him, wishing to understand what exactly is the music of the gods. Usagi Yojimbo is a beautiful collection that is both entertaining and thought provoking, a combination that will surely form many new fans and remind old fans why they fell in love with this comic in the first place.

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