Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo (Part 2)
Last post covered the first seven volumes, published under Fantagraphics; now we move on to the Dark Horse run.
Book 8: Shades of Death
As the first of the Dark Horse books, this is often recommended as an ideal starting point. It was actually my own personal entry point…but looking back, it’s definitely one of the weirder, offbeat volumes, and I might actually recommend against picking this one up first (at the very least, go with the next book, Daisho). The book’s not at all bad, but most of the stories here are strangely experimental ones that go against the grain of what you can expect.
First comes a team-up with none other than…the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A lot of Usagi fans groaned over this (even though it was a natural fit; Sakai was well-associated with Turtles’ creators Eastman and Laird, and had written a few five-page Usagi-Leonardo team-ups as inconsequential “bonus” stories in the past), but it’s a pretty solid, if mostly shallow, action-oriented yarn. It’s fun to see Sakai use the Turtles in a setting where they can show off the ninja skills they should have, from tracking to stealth to deception, and fun to see some light interaction between them, Usagi, and Gen. The Neko Ninja also return to the forefront as the main adversaries, and Sakai nicely complicates things by bringing in Chizu, a female ninja chief (and sister of Shingen) who considers Usagi her ally. Their interaction here is minimal, but it sets up some interesting tension between the characters that will play out later on.
Other experimental stories are “Jizo”, which tells a complete, satisfying tale in 32 identical panels from the exact same perspective, and “The Lizard’s Tale”, which is so far the only “silent” Usagi story (completely devoid of dialogue and narration). There’s also a dark two-parter called “Shi”, best remembered for a Sin City-esque action sequence where Usagi faces four assassins in a storm, allowing Sakai to experiment with light and shadow. “Shi” also has a notable moment that shows a far more frightening side to Usagi’s personality after a battle pushes him to his limits. Finally, we get more flashbacks to young Usagi’s training with Katsuichi in a set of parable-like episodes.
Bottomline: A more untraditional set of Usagi stories; there’s no real harm in starting with this one, but I recommend another book for a better first taste. If you’re into artsier comics, the experimental nature at play should interest you, especially “Jizo”.
Book 9: Daisho
Now this is more of a traditional collection, and probably a better overall place to start than the previous book (a few small elements of Shades of Death do carry over, but nothing major). There’s more Japanese art and culture when Usagi meets a Buddhist monk who plays the shakuhachi flute and longs to hear the music of heaven. Usagi also crosses paths with another set of characters I didn’t expect to see returning – this time from the aforementioned short story from Circles, “The Duel”, in a sort of sequel that, while not as poignant as the original tale, gives a dark sense of resolution. An interesting pattern comes into play here; it’s usually those who immediately underestimate Usagi that easily lose to him, whereas those who recognize his skill are the ones who’ll give him a harder time.
In the middle of Daisho is a sort of mini-epic where Usagi, in the middle of saving a village, loses his swords, then goes into a frenzy as he teams up with Gen and a new bounty hunter to find the man who stole them from him. Like the unsettling moment in “Shi” that teased Usagi nearly losing control, the more furious side to his personality here is equally disconcerting, and something I wish we’d see more of in future stories (so far, it hasn’t popped up again). Stray Dog, the new bounty hunter, is another welcome addition to the cast and fitting rival to Gen, being just as crooked (and as noble) as Gen is.
Daisho closes out with another of my favorite Usagi stories, “Runaways”. Taking us back to his time in Mifune’s service, this follows Usagi in a classic tale of star-crossed romance, as – heartbroken over Mariko’s marriage to Kenichi – he nearly turns his back on duty after falling in love with another girl. It’s Stan Sakai at his most sentimental and bittersweet, with a wonderful gut-punch of an ending.
Bottomline: This averages out to what I consider one of the better Usagi books. I’m a softie, but it’s worth it for “Runaways” alone, and the other stories aren’t bad at all. “Daisho” also brings in Stray Dog, and the little reveal about him is a nice surprise. The final pages also bring back Jei, who’ll be keeping a low profile until his big role in Book 12.
Book 10: The Brink of Life and Death
Perhaps acknowledging that Shades of Death might not be the best starting point, Dark Horse sets this book up as more of an ideal entrance, kicking it off with a few pages of text and illustrations that introduce us to Usagi’s world. Thing is, you don’t really need this kind of introduction, and even without it the book is as new-reader friendly as Usagi volumes get. Once again, there’s a little bit of everything: another cultural treatise (this time on Japanese fishermen), an evening in a haunted house, an intriguing assassination attempt, a clash between Chizu and the Komori Ninja, and a creepy little story that’ll drive you nuts wondering what the deal with Jei is. But at the definite heart of the book is “Noodles”, a sobering tale of social injustice featuring Kitsune and a disabled soba seller. Though it ends with the protagonists getting even, you probably won’t feel too good about what happens in this one. (*sniff*)
I’ve often felt that, outside of “Noodles”, the stories here don’t quite stand out as much as those in other books; looking back, though, I have to hand it to Sakai for delivering decent episodes while at the same time setting things up that will recur down the line. We meet three new characters – the outlawed Inazuma (a sort of replacement for the Blind Swordspig), the warrior-turned-priest Sanshobo, and Keiko, Jei’s “familiar” – who play major parts in the upcoming Grasscutter epic and beyond. Sakai also tries something different with the Koroshi League of Assassins, pitting Usagi against a more faceless and amorphous villain organization. Oh, and some sparks fly between Usagi and Chizu, developing a relationship that’s proven to be one of my all-time favorites.
Bottomline: Some pretty good offerings here that introduce a lot of foundational stuff for future books; Inazuma, Sanshobo, Keiko, and returning flames Chizu and Kitsune will continue to factor in further down.
Book 11: Seasons
Playing the long game in comics is tricky. Even with creator-owned works like Usagi Yojimbo, it’s difficult to juggle multiple sub-plots, keep readers intrigued, and make sure everything pays off. In many ways, Sakai’s long games are pretty dangerous, as he’s content to let some plot elements sit for years or even decades before delivering on them. This book introduces Koji – possibly the most skilled swordsman Usagi has dueled up to this point – and the Lord of the Owls; Koji’s story won’t be addressed until Book 17 (Duel at Kitanoji) and the Lord of the Owls, believe it or not, has only just now returned to the comic, specifically in Usagi’s March 2011 issue, almost fifteen years since his appearance here. It can be pretty damn tough to live up to whatever expectations might build over that time, and sure, sometimes I can say that it doesn’t seem to be worth the wait. But it shows just how far Sakai plans to go if he’s willing to let plots fester for years and years, taking his time to tell each one.
I even once joked on the Usagi forum that the books where Jei plays a major role have a funny pattern to them; his first major appearance was in Book 3, the next was in Book 6 (3×2), the next in Book 12 (6×2), and as it would turn out, the latest came right in time for Book 24 (12×2). Stan Sakai himself assured me that it was coincidence, and that we wouldn’t have to wait until Book 48 for the next big Jei story. Well, we’ll see.
Digression aside, I actually like this volume a lot, long-seeding plotlines and all. Koji’s introduction in “The Withered Field” is a pretty cool story that finds Usagi out of his league (which he rarely is). There’s some nice interaction with priest Sanshobo in “The Conspiracy of Eight”, who quickly becomes one of Usagi’s more dependable allies, and some episodes that finally bring back Tomoe (though one of them’s a flashback). We also see the return of Lord Hebi, Hikiji’s lieutenant from the early Fantagraphics books, and get a glimpse of a formidable new face of the Neko Ninja. But the best story in the set has to go to “The Patience of the Spider”, a story that doesn’t involve Usagi at all. It’s the tale of the disgraced General Ikeda, his hatred of the Geishu clan…and how, subtly but believably, he allowed his life – and his hate – to change for the better. Ikeda’s story is a rare example of a plot that, as much as it feels complete and resolved here, will still be used well in later books.
Bottomline: “The Patience of the Spider” and “The Conspiracy of Eight” make this the logical prerequisite to the buzzed-about Grasscutter, and “The Withered Field” makes it almost crucial to read before Duel at Kitanoji. Ultimately, this stands out to me as one of the best volumes in the series – good doses of action, mystery, the supernatural, and even a moving personal history.
Book 12: Grasscutter
Grasscutter marks a pretty important part of Usagi’s legacy; this is the story that won Stan Sakai a number of industry awards and brought his underappreciated series lots of attention. Kind of easy to see why, because it’s still the biggest, broadest, and probably most ambitious epic that Usagi Yojimbo has featured to date. Once again, Sakai clearly sets out to make this a big deal; it opens with four sequences recounting Japanese mythology and the dynasty of the gods extending to the Emperor. Sakai introduces Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (“The Grass-cutting sword”), a sacred blade of the royal family that was lost at sea, before fast-forwarding five hundred years to Usagi’s time period. Now a conspiracy plots to overthrow the Shogun and restore the Emperor by finding the lost Grasscutter…and Usagi, being the luckiest guy on Earth, unwittingly ends up with the sacred blade in his hands.
Like in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, almost every major player introduced thus far is brought back – even the long-absent Tomoe and Noriyuki (making a proper return this time) from the earliest books. Gen is now after Inazuma, Sanshobo receives an unexpected guest, and Jei steps out of the shadows to wage his unholy crusade. In the middle of all this, Usagi finds himself in a whirlwind of trouble thanks to the Grasscutter sword, culminating in his long-awaited showdown with Jei.
In spite of all the hype, though…I have to confess that I was a little let down by this book. Unlike The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, which came together organically, the plot here feels a little forced and never quite comes together. There’s a lack of structure evident; Gen and Inazuma’s stories hit their high points in the beginning, then drag through the rest of the plot. There’s a long awkward stretch of Usagi aimlessly running away from – and later aimlessly running after – some dudes. And the masterminds in the background never come across as threatening or even significant; I almost wish they’d just made Hikiji the bad guy here again.
The far stronger half of the narrative is with Tomoe and Noriyuki, who, surprisingly, never actually meet up with Usagi in this book, even though their part of the story is driven by the same conspiracy (Sakai talked in his forum about how he really intended them to cross paths, but then realized it didn’t make sense because of the geography associated with Grasscutter). I also kind of wish that the mythological prologue had more of a connection to the core plot, but all it does is set up the titular MacGuffin. In the end, I can’t help thinking there’s a lot of lost potential in Grasscutter, and it feels less like an epic and more like Sakai moving characters into place for future issues. It certainly doesn’t seem to justify the huge page count.
Bottomline: Not personally fond of this story, but given its popularity, it’s still worth checking out. The Japanese mythology parts are interesting enough if you dig that kind of stuff, and at the very least this sets up some of the superior future storylines.
Book 13: Grey Shadows
Taking a break from the hanging ending of Grasscutter, this volume follows the familiar post-epic route of scaling things back down and moving away from the regular cast. Frankly, this has always been one of Usagi’s less-interesting books to me, and the stories here feel a little more conventional than what Sakai usually comes up with. They’re hardly bad; they just don’t seem to have the same impact that other books have. The opening episode introduces an interesting connection to Usagi’s past and another somewhat-challenging, if slightly clichéd, perspective on honor. Then we get “The Demon Flute”, probably my favorite chapter in the book thanks to some clever bits of storytelling that nicely illustrate the “horror” moments (never an easy feat in comics). “Momo-Usagi-Taro” then provides a diverting retelling of a Japanese folktale (and a check-in with Stray Dog from Daisho). And there’s “The Courtesan”, a fairly interesting look into the lifestyle of the titular class, weighed down by a plot that doesn’t quite work as well as it should.
If there’s one thing Grey Shadows is definitely remembered for, it’s the introduction of Inspector Ishida in “The Hairpin Murders”. Ishida is Sakai’s recurring detective character, done in the traditional Sherlock Holmes style of deduction and fair-play mysteries; Sakai plots a pretty good case here, and along with giving important clues in the script he also puts clues in the art.
Bottomline: Some interesting use of more traditional cultural elements – like kabuki, courtesans, and folk legends – in what might overall be one of the weaker books. But it’s Usagi Yojimbo, and even the weaker entries are well worth reading.
Book 14: Demon Mask
The title, cover image, and back cover summary might make you think this book highlights the supernatural elements of the Usagi mythos, but that isn’t quite the case. The central story, “Mystery of the Demon Mask”, doesn’t have any supernatural elements at all, and is actually another fair-play mystery, this time without Inspector Ishida. I actually like this one more than the previous book’s mystery, although it might be a little easy to guess the murderer given the limited number of suspects (and again, Sakai plays fair). Other than that, there’s actually plenty of humor in this volume, with a bratty kid finding out what a typical day with Usagi is like in “A Life of Mush”, a daring challenge posed to the ronin in “The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill”, and a failed jewelry theft in “A Potter’s Tale”. We do get our big supernatural story towards the end, as Usagi teams up with Sasuké the Demon Queller (whom Sakai frequently hints at having an intricate untold backstory) to face a legion of monstrous spirits.
Also of interest are several shorter, 10-page-or-less stories, like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament”, which flashes back to an incident from Usagi’s childhood; “Tsuru”, a four-pager that was originally told in one-page installments; and “The Missive”, where we check in with Katsuichi and Jotaro. Finally, two full-length stories lead right into the next book: “Deserters” presents the political machinations of the Neko Ninja, and “Reunion” brings Gen and Sanshobo back for the next big epic.
Bottomline: Back to top form, this is one of the most balanced books of them all; humor, romance, mystery, culture, giant spiders, and some brief insights into Usagi’s past. It helps to read this before Grasscutter II, and it’s a terrific starting point in general.
Book 15: Grasscutter II – Journey to Atsuta Shrine
Now this is more like it! Unlike The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy and Grasscutter, the epic story here is determinedly straightforward: Usagi, Gen, and Sanshobo need to bring the legendary Grasscutter sword to Atsuta Shrine, and they’ve got the warring Neko and Komori Ninja clans hot on their tail. With a single narrative to focus on, Sakai handles this one a lot better than he did Grasscutter, introducing tons of surprising twists that nicely complicate the seemingly-simple quest. There’s a lot of weight to the stakes this time, and a real sense of uncertainty about the outcome, especially when the Usagi-Chizu foreplay comes back into the picture. It also helps that the action almost never lets up, as our three heroes fight for their lives in some of the series’ most harrowing battle scenes to date.
I definitely hold this above the first Grasscutter arc; even the mythological introduction here (focusing exclusively on Yamato-Daké) is arguably better, presented more as a personal story than a history lesson.
(Oh – and can I just point out that that cover is incredible?)
Bottomline: Sure, this storyline might not be terribly deep (by Usagi standards; it still gets pretty resonant), but it’s a thoroughly engaging book and probably my favorite Usagi Yojimbo epic so far. Try to make sure you’ve at least read Grasscutter before this one; Demon Mask helps, too.