Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo (Part 3)
Been a while, but this post will finally clean up the Dark Horse run. Take note that Book 25: Fox Hunt will be released in July.
Book 16: The Shrouded Moon
Gen fans take note – he’s actually in more of this book than Usagi for once, and the banter and camaraderie between them is some of the best we’ve gotten. Kitsune gets thrown into the mix too, and we finally learn her own tragic backstory. Like Grasscutter II, this volume isn’t as terribly deep as the others, but it’s dependably entertaining; “Showdown” has Usagi and Gen hustling two rival mob bosses before meeting an intimidating new ronin, “The Shrouded Moon” pits them and Kitsune against a superstitious criminal, and “Three Seasons” presents three slice-of-life stories where Usagi helps folk of differing social class – and where he gets to beat up a bunch of gangsters with fish. “Escape!” also deals with the aftermath of Grasscutter II on the Neko Ninja’s side, with an intense action sequence that sets up a new status quo for Chizu.
Bottomline: Outside of Kitsune’s past, these are lighter stories that nonetheless entertain. Another good starting point.
Book 17: Duel at Kitanoji
Remember what I said about long-building plotlines? Well, here one of them (the Koji story from six books ago, in Seasons) gets its due, and the payoff’s pretty damn good. After a few brief detours in “Vendetta” (probably one of Sakai’s weaker stories overall, because it won’t have a proper ending until Book 20) and “Images from a Winter’s Day” (a different take on the tale of a missing son), Usagi finally makes his way to Kitanoji…and pays witness to a final duel between two of the greatest swordsmen in the land. Sakai’s gift for crafting engaging characters in such limited space is impeccable, as we (and Usagi) come to care for both contenders before they square off, in spite of their arrogances. Usagi even voices out our own thoughts on how wasteful the duel is, and yet Sakai makes clear its importance to the code of bushido, and how it leads to a natural acceptance of fate.
Heavy stuff aside, those who’ve read the earlier books will thrill as key characters from Usagi’s past finally return to the forefront – none of whom are more important than his “nephew” Jotaro, and the book ends with Usagi temporarily taking the young student under his wing.
The action scenes are suspenseful and satisfying, especially in “Koji” (the episode that reintroduces the character) and in “Crows”. As to the outcome of the titular duel…readers have mixed feelings on it, but it does what it needs to, moving the story onward.
Bottomline: It’s best to read Seasons before you read this one, as I’ve already said, and proper introductions to Katsuichi and Jotaro (perhaps in Samurai or Circles) help, too…but to be perfectly honest, there’s still no harm in going ahead with this book. Sakai tells you everything you need to know about the characters and shows them in suitable action.
Book 18: Travels with Jotaro
The next two volumes bring a new dynamic, as Usagi pairs up with Jotaro for a long stretch on the road. It’s a welcome change, and many consider these two books as their favorites. Though we already know all there is to know about Jotaro, his exuberance and innocence constantly entertains, especially when he meets the regular members of the supporting cast. Gen is absent, but “Out of the Shadows” features Chizu in an unsuspecting thriller, while “Sumi-E” deals with the return of Sasuké the Demon Queller in another rumble with mythological monsters. Even old enemies are revisited, as “Tamago” brings back a forgotten set of villains in a cruel twist of an ending.
Speaking of mythological monsters, this volume also features the first appearance of the Tengu, a supernatural swordsmaster Usagi met as a child. The “Usagi and the Tengu” flashback clearly holds big clues to unraveling the secrets of sensei Katsuichi, and Sakai plays a maddening trick by hinting that Usagi himself knows more than he’s letting on.
Bottomline: Though some would say it’s essential to read Circles first, I’d disagree, and say this is as great a starting point as any. The little bomb that was dropped in Circles comes through just as effectively when it’s brought up at the end of this book.
Book 19: Fathers and Sons
Concluding Usagi and Jotaro’s journeys together, there’s a sense of bittersweet at just how close the two have become, and how easily Jotaro could change his uncle’s outlook on life. Usagi helplessly skirts these weighty topics, even as characters like Tomoe (finally returning here for a brief interlude, but we’ll see a lot more of her soon enough) and Sasuké press him to acknowledge the connection they share. What becomes clear is that Usagi does have a family waiting for him, yet he constantly foregoes the chance to settle down with them because of how seriously he takes his pilgrimage. In conjunction, Sakai reminds us of the difficulties of ronin and their injured status with “Pride of the Samurai” (featuring a pretty famous guest star that almost took me out of the story). Sakai also makes sure that Jotaro gets a number of child characters to play off of, including Gorogoro (of the Lone Goat and Kid assassins) and Kitsune’s new apprentice. Additionally, there’s “Bells”, a somber flashback story starring Katsuichi that answers a dangling question from Book 17.
It all comes to a head in the two-part “Hokashi”, and the book’s emotional ending is preluded by a deliciously classic American convention. Two teams of warriors – one clearly good and the other clearly evil – face-off in heated battle, and as obvious a set-up as it may be, it’s something we haven’t seen in Usagi Yojimbo, entertainingly changing things up for a moment.
Bottomline: If possible, I’d highly recommend reading Travels with Jotaro before this one, even though these stories are just as effective at showing their relationship.
Book 20: Glimpses of Death
The many diversions have been great, but here we finally return to the traditional Usagi Yojimbo format of solo stories. And to no one’s surprise, they’re pretty damn good. “Contraband” kicks it off with what seems a standard tale at first, made memorable by an unexpectedly powerful ending; “When Rabbits Fly” plays with the constraints of the time-period, as Usagi meets (you guessed it) a Da Vinci stand-in; “Samurai for Hire” is one of the funniest stories Sakai has ever done (and it doesn’t even have Gen in it), with Usagi humorously pushed to his limits by a fussy old woman; and “After the Rat” revisits both Kitsune and Inspector Ishida in a brief fair-play mystery. While Gen doesn’t cross paths with Usagi in this volume, we do see him run into his rival Stray Dog, and the two find themselves on the trail of a dangerous bounty. Finally, Sakai brings his open ended “Vendetta” story from Book 17 to a close in a predictable but workable ending, one that stands fair on its own even if it doesn’t make the original story any better.
All in all, in spite of the grim title (and I have to wonder why they’ve thrice used “Death” in the book titles anyway), this volume has just the right amounts of emotional depth and lighthearted entertainment – probably weighing more on the latter, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bottomline: A traditional set of stories makes this one of the purest starting points we’ve had in a while. The chapters that shift away from Usagi – especially the one with Gen and Stray Dog – might be a little confusing without prior reading, though.
Book 21: The Mother of Mountains
It’s time for another epic, and here Sakai goes the same route he did with Grasscutter II: a narrative that’s straightforward rather than scattered. Tomoe returns for the biggest role she’s had in the series thus far; she’s the undisputed lead character of this story, as we begin delving into her past, her parentage, and the grueling rivalry she shared with her damaged cousin Noriko. Noriko and her band number among the most heinous characters the series has introduced, giving weight to the threat they pose to the Geishu lands, though the true conflict never shifts away from the bitter enmity between the cousins.
Usagi and Tomoe find themselves imprisoned and abused as Noriko brings them to her mercy, and as you’d expect, these moments continue to hint at something unspoken between them. But also in the spotlight is Motokazu, making real the promised potential Sakai laid for him in Grasscutter, and giving us another set of eyes in Lord Noriyuki’s court. Things end perhaps a little too cleanly here – especially compared to previous epics, as we even get a “back to normal” moment to cap things off – but the great final chapter sinisterly sets up a looming threat.
Bottomline: Though this book tells you everything you need to know to enjoy it, being familiar with Tomoe from the earlier books will help. Not the most important of the epics, but still a pretty good adventure yarn.
Book 22: Tomoe’s Story
The first three stories here were actually published waaaaay back in the Fantagraphics days as the Usagi Yojimbo Color Specials (Sakai actually had to redraw the first chapter because he’d lost the original pages), but they happen to fit into the timeline quite nicely. “Tomoe’s Story” fills out her past and references the difficulties faced by women in feudal courts, while “The Doors” allows Sakai to stretch his artistic skill by drawing a multitude of iconic Japanese monsters. “Fox Fire”, on the other hand, continues to tease at what’s going on between Tomoe and Usagi with a sitcom-meets-the-supernatural episode. This is carried on in “The Thief and the Lotus Scroll”, as Tomoe meets Kitsune…and isn’t pleased with Usagi’s connection to her (imagine what’ll happen when she meets Chizu).
“The Ghost in the Well” presents a crafty retelling of a real Japanese legend, and some hints of Lord Hikiji’s renewed ambitions – but most importantly it plants a pretty devastating plot-seed that threatens to painfully shake things up. It’s made all the more hurtful by the final chapter, “Chanoyu”, which I already talked up in my original post as one of the best – if not the best – stories in the series, as Usagi and Tomoe say farewell…and given the circumstances Sakai has introduced, I have to wonder if this may indeed be final.
Bottomline: Essential for the Tomoe fans, these stories are driven by her and Usagi’s connection and show a major, if less-explored, part of the ronin’s personality. It helps to be more familiar with Tomoe before you read this one, but even if you’re not, the book will get you up to speed in time for the final gut-punch – a testament to how well Sakai plans these collections.
Book 23: Bridge of Tears
Not quite a traditional short story collection, as most of the tales here comprise a full narrative arc. The Koroshi Assassins decide to finish off Usagi once and for all, bringing in the deadliest killer they know. As their plot unfolds without the ronin’s knowledge, he comes across a town in need of protection…and meets a perplexing new female companion. I’m not sure I understand the relationship Usagi shares with Ayako in this book (driven by his unresolved feelings towards Tomoe, maybe?), and the ending to their story isn’t particularly satisfying, especially in how Usagi deals with the killer.
Better on the whole are the two stories that stand apart: “Rain and Thunder” sees Gen and Stray Dog corner Inazuma and engage her in a furious duel. “Fever Dream” presents what could either be mere hallucination…or a dark premonition of the future involving Usagi and Jei.
This volume also concludes with the 100th issue of Usagi Yojimbo’s third publication, given over to a celebration of guest artists roasting Stan Sakai. It’s not informative or indicative about the series at all, but comic aficionados will enjoy seeing Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragones, Jeff Smith, Guy Davis, and other industry legends paying tribute to Sakai’s prowess – while heartily poking fun at him.
Bottomline: I’d probably recommend against starting on this book – the stories are better read after you know a bit more about Inazuma, Gen, and the Koroshi Guild, and of course you won’t see what the big deal about the 100th issue is if you haven’t grown to appreciate the series. Otherwise, there’s a decent arc of stories here, but nothing that stands out.
Book 24: Return of the Black Soul
As the title implies, this volume finally features the proper return of Usagi’s nemesis, Jei, who hasn’t seen prominence since Grasscutter (over a decade before this story was published). A two-part prologue allows us to fully witness the dark incident that gave “birth” to him, providing a lot of cryptic answers about his nature…and yet this book isn’t really about Jei. Readers expecting a decisive confrontation between Usagi and the black soul are bound to be disappointed; once you’re past that, though, this is actually a superb little epic that – while leaving Jei’s story up in the air – closes out another character’s story in memorable fashion.
Usagi gets caught up in the continuing hunt for Inazuma, and he isn’t the only one; assassins from all over the land are drawn to the bounty on her head. There’s an almost noir-ish quality to the unfolding narrative, as the mass of gathering hunters turns the game of cat and mouse into a struggle for survival.
Unlike the past few books, there’s very little humor to be found here, the dour tone persisting as the stakes build to a fatalistic climax. But for all its grimness, it culminates in a genuinely touching – and thoroughly humanistic – ending.
Bottomline: Hard to say how accessible this one is; the simplicity of the story makes it far from impenetrable, but having a proper introduction to Inazuma and Jei is best. Reading The Brink of Life and Death, or even just the first Grasscutter, will help greatly.