Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo
I leave for Japan by the end of the week. Naturally, this would be the perfect time to do all the last-minute research I need to get the most out of my trip, so what better way to waste that opportunity than by going through and reminiscing the ENTIRE TWENTY-FOUR VOLUMES of Usagi Yojimbo?
Ancient Japan with animal characters. That’s the best way someone I know summed up Usagi Yojimbo, Stan Sakai’s remarkable black-and-white comic book series that’s highly regarded as a masterpiece of the form. Set in feudal Japan (around the 17th century), Usagi is a traveling samurai whose lord and master was killed in war, making him a ronin. Usagi is a rabbit, and all the characters are animals (but they’re really just visually-interesting stand-ins for humans; none of them actually show animal traits, so Usagi doesn’t go nuts for carrots or anything like that).
Usagi is good-natured, polite, and generous, despite his ronin status leaving him poor, his only income being the occasional odd sword-for-hire job. Unable to settle down, he walks the warrior’s pilgrimage, practicing the code of bushido and training endlessly in mind, body, and heart. You can probably pick up there that this isn’t a funny animal book – it gets into serious, often morose and morbid stuff. It’s feudal Japan, after all – life was harsh, peasants suffered, and the rich and powerful got away with heinous crimes (because that’s not at all what present times are like).
In a weird way, Usagi Yojimbo is where my fascination with Japanese culture really began. And if you’re familiar at all with the work itself…you’d understand why I’m not at all ashamed to say that. This is as solid as storytelling gets, bar none. Even though I’ve since branched out and delved deeply into manga (and completed Lone Wolf and Cub and Samurai Executioner, monumental samurai epics by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima)…I still put Usagi over all of them. Without hesitation. Part of it’s that Stan Sakai does a spectacular job of merging storytelling techniques (the grittiness of the underground movement, the patience and cinematic angles of manga, the action cuts of the American superhero comic, the genuine panel-to-panel cartooning of the classics, among so many others) into a style so uniquely his own. Part of it’s the tremendous amount of research he puts into the series, allowing him to do tales that feature everything from kite-making to pottery to Buddhist music to fishing to supernatural mythology, with further notes in the end pages. Part of it’s the way he manages to flawlessly execute his shortform stories while at the same time building longer character arcs that come to a head in the occasional epic. Part of it’s that…he’s just that damn good.
Usagi Yojimbo is my favorite comic. Favorites list change all the time, but it’s been at the top of the heap for a while, with no signs of slowing down after over twenty-five years of continuous publication. And everyone I know who’s read the series as thoroughly as I have agrees that Usagi has never had a low point – ever. Are some volumes better than others? Well, sure. And yeah, there are some stories from early on in the run that will forever remain classics. But to this day, Sakai still manages to top himself. “Chanoyu”, a story exquisitely depicting a traditional tea ceremony, could arguably be the best chapter in the entire series, and it didn’t come our way ‘till Book 22. “Teru Teru Bozu”, coming out just months ago (yet to be collected), is one of the creepiest of the many “ghost stories” Sakai has done.
The best part, though? You can start reading anywhere you want…well, almost anywhere. Sakai does his absolute best to make sure that each new story is as new-reader-friendly as possible, and, in general, you can’t go wrong in picking any of the 24 books as your first step. But the released volumes all offer different things and, of course, some starting points are better than others. Given the still relatively low-key profile of the series, you’d be lucky to find the exact book you’d want to start with at your local store. So here I’m gonna run down all 24 currently-released book collections of Usagi. I’ll avoid spoilers (as much as possible) and stick more to pointing out what each book has to offer, to give you ideas for putting together a possible reading order that might best suit you given whatever choices are available – and at the same time charting my own deep affection for this comic, because that’s what I really wanna do anyway.
Book 1: The Ronin
One thing about Usagi Yojimbo is that its publishing rights are still split between two companies. Fantagraphics prints volumes 1 to 7, and Dark Horse puts out the rest. I didn’t get a chance to read the first book until years after I’d started Usagi…and it was actually a lot better than I expected it to be.
Usagi was very much a part of the ‘80s underground comics crowd, a batch more largely known for its energy than lasting craft. I expected the series to begin in that same vein before maturing into the classical epic it is now, and I was wrong. Stan Sakai brings in most of the series’ core elements with the very first story.
Really. That first story – “The Goblin of Adachigahara” – nearly has it all; Usagi stops by a house for shelter, meets a mysterious old woman, recounts his past as a samurai – with a flashback to the defeat of his lord on the bloody plains of Adachigahara – and then faces the titular demon. All in 8 pages. With a tragic twist ending to boot, something you can expect a lot of in this series.
Following that, we get some more short stories (this being standard format for Usagi books) that introduce us to elements we’ll see again. Usagi meets his primariy allies – Tomoe Amé, a swordswoman of the Geishu clan who matches him in skill; Noriyuki, the young Geishu lord; and most importantly Gen, an arrogant, cutthroat bounty hunter – and his main enemies – the Neko Ninja, controlled by the ambitious Lord Hikiji. There’s also another touch of the supernatural as Usagi stumbles upon a village terrorized by a murderous spirit. Oh, yeah, and we’re also introduced to the Blind Swordspig, one of Usagi’s deadliest – and most sympathetic – rivals.
So that makes Book 1 a great starting point, right? Well, yeah, but I will say that while it’s solid stuff, it’s a bit more dour than other volumes. The first four stories are full-on action fests with Usagi hacking away at endless bad guys– all well done, but it takes a while for things to lighten up and give us a better idea of the benevolent, lighthearted character Usagi is meant to be. Thankfully, the latter half of the book gets into that, with two humorous episodes (“Horse Thief” and “A Quiet Meal”) preceding a “Homecoming” story that fleshes out Usagi’s background and motivation.
Bottomline: Might feel a little aged and underground, but definitely one of the best places to start, with plenty of important introductions. Gen and Tomoe’s first stories are fun, and even this early on there’s a hint of something more than friendship between Tomoe and Usagi.
Book 2: Samurai
Getting into these earlier volumes late was a funny experience, though it’s the path most people follow given how difficult it was to come by them. As I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed volume 1…but this volume completely blew me away. Samurai is without a doubt one of the best books in the series, as it’s hard to find any story that so perfectly encapsulates what Usagi Yojimbo is all about.
After an unexplained duel, Usagi once again runs into Gen, his sometimes-useful-often-irritating-partner, and decides to tell him everything: how and why he trained to be a samurai; who his mysterious mentor was; how he received his swords; how he entered the service of Lord Mifune; and how Mifune died in battle with the armies of Lord Hikiji, leaving Usagi as a ronin. We’re introduced to Katsuichi, Usagi’s sensei, and his almost hilariously unorthodox method of training. We see how Usagi matured from an impulsive boy to a skilled swordsman – and how the rivalry with Kenichi, his childhood friend, deepened accordingly. This is also where Stan Sakai gets to first explore the principles of bushido, as Katsuichi’s philosophical lessons guide Usagi’s actions; he refuses to loot dead bodies, he helps his lord save face, and – most significantly – he chooses duty over love, leaving his girlfriend Mariko behind as he joins Mifune to serve in the civil wars.
Three more short stories round out the volume; Usagi battles a Kappa (water demon), saves a village from corrupt officials (the first of many such stories), and, uh…meets Godzilla. Yeah. I can’t really explain that one, so go read it yourself.
Bottomline: Fully explaining who Usagi is, this might be the best place to start overall, and it’s just a damn good book besides.
Book 3: The Wanderer’s Road
In many ways, this is the first traditional Usagi Yojimbo book, beginning the format that most others will follow. It’s another set of short stories, each one averaging 22 pages (the modern length of American comics) with themes more in line with what you’ll see down the road. The opening story, entitled “The Tower”, is a fun little morality play on karma, intolerance, and Usagi’s willingness to stand up for what’s right, no matter how trivial. The rest of the book is a pretty solid mix of light and dark: Usagi once again runs into Gen (his “best friend”) for another offbeat adventure; he has a rematch with the tragic Blind Swordspig; and he meets two important adversaries – Shingen, leader of the Neko Ninja, and Jei, the demon spearman. Most of these characters will feature in Book 4’s upcoming epic (which makes it best to read this volume first) and the demonic Jei will grow into Usagi’s unstoppable nemesis.
But the darkest and most testing story in the book is “A Mother’s Love”, where Usagi commits what might just be cold-blooded murder. Some of the values of bushido have their place in modern society…but other aspects of it are harder to embrace, presenting moral difficulties that Usagi will deal with time and again. A strong example of how complex the series can get, in spite of its simple approach.
Bottomline: Still a solid starting point and a decent set of classic stories; if available, try to read this one before Book 4.
Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy
The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is the first true Usagi epic (a six-issue story that comprises the entire book), and many still consider it the best. It’s hard to argue with that, because this one has it all: intrigue, betrayal, a massive action set piece, and important moments in the lives of the characters we know. When an upstart lord plots a war on the Shogun, Usagi is drawn into a dangerous mission to rescue Tomoe Amé. Stan Sakai clearly wanted to make this a big deal, and pulls out all the stops; even his pencils take a cinematic approach, delivering some beautifully detailed spreads right from the beginning (the opening two-page splash of Tomoe in the rain is breathtaking). The narrative builds tension amidst a foreboding storm, and nearly every major character returns to play a role: Gen hunts the Blind Swordspig for the price on his head; Shingen tracks down Usagi, seeking vengeance; and Lord Hikiji, still in the background, makes a surprising move on the Geishu clan. Usagi faces another moral dilemma – “is it better to stay loyal to a good lord or an evil lord?” – and everyone else gets a life-defining moment (with some of them not making it out alive). We also get our first glimpse of Chizu, Shingen’s little sister (who’ll show up in the Dark Horse books) and a few more hints on what’s going on between Usagi and Tomoe.
Bottomline: Great stuff, a culmination of the beginning Usagi stories and the model of future epics, with some of Sakai’s most striking visuals in the entire series.
Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid
Going back to the shortform, this volume almost feels like a fresh start, as Usagi leaves the Geishu lands and most of the old cast behind. Yep, no more Gen, Tomoe, Noriyuki, or even enemies like Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja (don’t worry, this won’t last long), as we instead meet new one-off characters that Sakai makes as complex and memorable as the old ones, and get the new Komori Ninja in place of the Neko. More than anything, though, what sets this volume apart from the previous ones is how deeply it delves into Japanese culture; there were certainly hints of that before, but here Sakai gets into it so well that you can feel the authenticity in his stories. “Frost and Fire” cleverly weaves an ill-fated romance together with Usagi’s view on the sacredness of a samurai’s swords; “The Way of the Samurai” examines an aged warrior’s desire to preserve his honor; and – in this volume’s most famous chapter – “A Kite Story” serves as a fun adventure with a detailed account of the ancient kite festivals, complete with an illustrated process of how giant kites were made. Sakai’s embellishment of this old tradition is a delightful read that shows how different the series can be.
Strangely, the titular characters of the book – the Lone Goat and Kid assassins, homages to Koike and Kojima’s “Lone Wolf and Cub” – don’t show up until the very end and remain to this day among the lesser-used characters of the ensemble. Their meeting with Usagi is still pretty exciting, and gives us this book’s one real swordfight.
Bottomline: One of the less-remembered volumes; while not as key as the previous books, this is arguably Sakai at his most authentic and artistic.
Book 6: Circles
Most of this book is given over to one of the most pivotal stories in the series, as Usagi once again returns to his hometown. There he reconnects with his sensei, Katsuichi, his old rival Kenichi, and his lost love Mariko…who drops an unexpected bombshell on him, setting up a new status quo between Usagi, Katsuichi, and Mariko’s son Jotaro. Usagi also has an unexpected reunion with Jei, as the enigmatic demon makes his first of many return appearances intending to destroy Usagi and “rid the world of his evil!” Like Samurai, this is as personal as Sakai’s stories get, hitting on the high points of Usagi’s character and developing his key relationships with Katsuichi, Jotaro, Mariko, and Jei; if only Gen was in this one, we’d have a complete picture of the ronin right here.
There’s one more story that deserves mention in this volume, and it’s one of my personal favorites in the series. “The Duel” portrays the difficulties faced by samurai who lose purpose, summed up perfectly in the tale of a ronin trying to provide for his family the only way he knows how. By this point we expect Usagi to win most of the duels he’s in, yet Sakai still manages to build up enough anxiety in this one to make us doubt the inevitably tragic outcome.
Bottomline: Both a great starting point and an important landmark; it can be hard to find, but try to read this one as soon as possible.
Book 7: Gen’s Story
The last of the Fantagraphics books brings back some of the series’ missing pieces, with the expected return of Gen (in time for the long-promised revealing of his backstory) and the more-surprising return of another character whom I didn’t think we’d be seeing again. The Gen-Usagi “friendship” has definitely come into its own by this point, setting them up as comfortably bickering partners who – even in the face of Gen’s arrogance and greed – always have each other’s backs. And I love how Gen routinely calls Usagi out on the ronin’s one major flaw: his tendency to play hero without always thinking it through.
Gen’s origin is as poignant as I hoped it would be, explaining his frequent gruffness and cynicism, but without losing his more humorous side (the final scene where Gen once again tries to cheat Usagi out of his money cracks me up every time I read it). Sakai also introduces Kitsune, a charming pickpocket and street-hustler, who serves as a female foil to both Usagi and Gen. I have a feeling she’s one of Sakai’s personal favorite characters given how frequently she’ll crop up again later on.
Bottomline: Obviously a must-read for Gen fans, this is all in all one of the funniest books (there’s even a humorous flashback to young Usagi’s training with Katsuichi). The last story is another great one that slyly plays against your expectations in the best ways.