Despite my awareness of the title and despite it being around since 1984, I have never read Stan Sakai’s cult comic Usagi Yojimbo. Personally, I was introduced to the comic’s main protagonist through the numerous crossovers within the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, the second season of the 2003 cartoon being an absolute highlight. Having made its home at a number of publishers, from Fantagraphics to most notably Dark Horse, IDW is now continuing this long-running series with its creator still writing and drawing the adventures of the anthropomorphic rabbit rōnin.
During the current lockdown, due to a certain global pandemic, I have exposed myself to various Japanese media, such as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai cinema and Takehiko Inoue’s manga series Vagabond, and with the release of IDW’s first volume of Usagi Yojimbo, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Based on those mentions of other media, you can dissect the influences behind Sakai’s creation as several characters are inspired by or make reference to samurai movies. The twist, however, is the comic depicts an alternate version of the Edo period of Japanese history that features anthropomorphic animals.
Despite a few references to previous storylines, this is comprised of all-new material, so any newcomer to Usagi Yojimbo can jump into this. Beginning with the three-issue arc “Bunraku”, when Usagi suspects an evil presence during a performance featuring the Japanese puppetry art of bunraku, he teams up with the demon hunter Sasuke to uncover the mastermind. Though there’s an emphasis on supernatural horror, it’s not particularly scary – largely due to Sakai’s art – as the story works best with the banter between Usagi and Sasuke, both with their own purpose in life as the former feels more out of his depth whilst the latter is doing the heavy lifting.
Due to the comic’s episodic nature, the stories themselves aren’t groundbreaking as they evoke the majority of samurai narratives, in which the masterless warrior travels from one adventure to the next. From a dramatic standpoint, the best storyline of this volume is “The Hero”, in which Usagi goes back to his roots as a yojimbo (bodyguard) when he is hired by Lady Hira, a famous writer, to keep her safe on her perilous journey to visit her father. Much of what I love about this story is not so much the action, but the discussion of everyone’s role during the period, in particular Lady Hira’s position as a samurai’s wife. She would prefer to devote her life to her writing, even if it could disrespect her husband’s reputation. In the end, the outcome is tragic from everyone’s side, showing the harsh reality of the time, whether it is devoting or rejecting tradition.
The remaining two issues tell two distinct short stories, from a retelling of the very first Usagi story “The Goblin of Adachigahara”, to a comedic bounty hunt that is constant battle, battle, battle. Presented in full-color for the first time in its illustrious history, Sakai’s art style might be a blind spot for some readers — the mixture of Japanese hack-and-slash action and anthropomorphic animals has a lot in common with classic Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. Sakai has proven himself to be one of the most successful cartoonists in the industry, but his style is of an acquired taste.
This first volume of Usagi Yojimbo doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a welcome return to Stan Sakai’s cult creation.