The Usagi Yojimbo Saga
By Stan Sakai
In which the London Graphic Novel Network travels to Fuedal Japan and meets rabbits, rhinos and cats dressed up as ronins and samurais. Leading to the oh-so obvious question: Is this stuff for kids or what?
Ok then: first of all – let’s all just be up front about this:
A few weeks back I got an email from a very nice person from Southwark Playhouse (hi Katie!) asking if we’d be interested in doing a little bit of cross-promotion for their production of Usagi Yojimbo. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine? Sure: why not? That’s the nature of the beast – right? (And if you wanna see behind the scenes at Usagi Yojimbo rehearsals then click here! and a trailer for the show? Click here!).
So. Yes. This is why the prize for our A3 Comic Competition is two tickets to Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse and this is why the thing you’re reading now (and the thing that all the finest minds of the London Graphic Novel Network is going to be focusing it’s considerable crazy energies on) is The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 1 by Stan Sakai.
(Which erm: reading the back – doesn’t actually start at the start but instead collects Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 2 #1–#16 and Vol. 3 #1–#6 which – ok – is slightly confusing: but I guess they have their reasons…).
I should note that – yes – Usagi Yojimbo started off all the way back in 1984 and (holy moly) is still running today (apparently at 203 issues and counting): but – please don’t worry: going through all ten books of The Sandman already feels like we might have bitten off more than we can chew (are we really only halfway through it? I mean at this point it kinda feels like we’ve been doing it for like forever) and yes I’ve no intention of trying to get through all the Usagi Yojimbo books out there. This is just a quick visit to see what this rabbit ronin stuff is like and then we’re heading home: there’s no need to worry that we’re settling in for the long haul or anything: ok? (Wait – rabbit ronin?).
I will also admit up front that up until a few weeks ago I didn’t really (ok then: didn’t at all) know who Usagi Yojimbo even was. Apparently Empire magazine named him the 31st greatest comic book character ever and IGN ranked him by 92nd in their list of the top 100 comic book heroes (thank you wikipedia): but yeah – I’ll admit that I was more than a little clueless. (Until it came back to me that – oh yeah – I think when I was just a teenager there was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic (hey – like I said: I was just a teenager – don’t judge me) that had Usagi Yojimbo making a cameo along with (can this be right?) Cerebus the Aardvark: like doing some sorta time travel medieval Japan thing? So erm yeah).
But yeah: I guess I should say at this point (for those of you who don’t know): Usagi Yojimbo is a comic about a rabbit ronin (and I really like this line from the Usagi Yojimbo wikipedia page: “Sakai originally planned for Usagi and other characters to be human in stories explicitly modeled after the life of Miyamoto Musashi. However, once as Sakai was idly doodling, he drew rabbit ears tied in a topknot on his proposed hero and was pleased by the distinctive image”). His basic deal (as far as I can tell) is that travels the land having adventures like erm (searches for nearest reference point) the Littlest Hobo. Only instead of a dog it’s a rabbit. And he has a sword. And he can talk.
I’ve got a copy of the book ready and waiting back home and should (hopefully) have it read by the weekend but until then yeah: does anyone out there know more Usagi Yojimbo than me? Can they fill us in a little bit about the appeal and whatever? I mean – I know normally we kinda stick directly on a very particular book: but I reckon this can be a little bit more of a free-for-all. Like – if you’ve read is Book 28 (28 being how far they’ve got so far) or whatever then that’s cool: share what you know / what you think…
A mean – a rabbit ronin? That’s a little goofy isn’t it?
I hope you’re not prejudiced against anthropomorphic characters in general?! Also, don’t tell Philip Spence you think it’s a goofy idea… http://www.ninja-bunny.com
(That said, Usagi Yojimbo’s never really grabbed me; it looks pretty good from what I’ve dipped into, but have never read a whole issue)
Usagi Yojimbo Saga 1 starts there, because Fantagraphics released a Usagi Yojimbo special edition reprinting all their issues. So Saga starts with the Mirage series, then the Dark Horse series (current publishers). But you can honestly get stuck in anywhere.
I’ve been a casual fan of Usagi for about 20 years now, since I picked up a couple of Fantagraphics issues in a bargain box and instantly took a liking. Just like a lot of stories about wandering warriors (Conan the Barbarian, Jonah Hex, Lone Wolf etc), it’s fairly easy to jump in at any point. Usagi’s story takes place in the Edo period of Japanese history, but populated with anthropomorhic animals, mainly sort of non-descript bear/dog people, but pretty much all sorts, such as the villainous Lord Hebi is a snake. There are also tiny dinosaur type creatures (like miniature brontosuarus) called Tokage, who wander about freely. Just because! There are lots of nods to Japanese folklore, with slight retellings of famous tales, and also lots of references to Japanese cinematic stories such as Zato-Ino, the blind pig (Zatoichi) and Lone Goat and kid (Lone Wolf). Also like a lot of the wandering ronin type stories, there are recurring characters who appear from time to time, such as Gen the rhino, and Tomoe the cat, sometimes with their own agendas. There are violent scenes, but handled well (often when people expire there is like a little sort of cloud balloon thing with a skull drifting away from their body), without excessive gore. Sakai is a good storyteller, once he levels out and finds his art style, he has a consistent, busy, but clean line, almost like a neater Sergo Aragones (who he has frequently worked with as the letterer on Groo the Wanderer, which in a nutshell is Conan the Barbarian meets Asterix meets Mad. LOVE GROO!)
Wikipedia says the series was awarded a Parents’ Choice Award in 1990 for its educational value through Sakai’s “skillful weaving of facts and legends into his work.” Which I think pretty much sums it up. It’s complex enough to keep readers interested, but easy enough for casual or younger readers to get stuck in at any point. Plus it’s damn good fun! Who doesn’t want to see a samurai rabbit?
Sakai also created a short series called Space Usagi, featuring a distant descendant of Usagi, with similar themes. I read it when it came out but can’t remember much about it, but I didn’t think it was as potent as Usagi proper.
I’m not sure if you had me at “There are also tiny dinosaur type creatures (like miniature brontosuarus) called Tokage, who wander about freely. Just because!” or “Space Usagi.” Probably both.
(“Just because” = my most favourite of reasons for doing things).
I guess my question/worry/whatever (before I actually start reading it) is – well – is this just gonna be something for kids? I mean the fact that it won a “Parents Choice Award” is almost enough to stop me reading it altogether (I mean – a recommendation from a parent is a kiss-of-death right? I don’t want my reading to feel like I’m having to eat my greens you know?). On the spectrum of Disney (just for kids = urg) to Pixar (almost too good for kids to enjoy = yay!) whereabouts is Usagi gonna fall?
But yeah – now I just kinda wish we were reading Space Usagi.
‘A mean – a rabbit ronin? That’s a little goofy isn’t it?’
It’s been a while since I weighed in. But here it is.
I love Usagi. I find the art easy on the eye and fun, and the same with the stories. I pretty much agree with John Bishop’s synopsis of the series.
The stories have historical references, humour and violence, even a bit of romance , so not just a “goofy “rabbit story. The stories can be quite intricate as well, stories within stories sometime.
Check out Stan’ website for a fun short Usagi film :
Ok then. Well.
So – there’s this whole thing with stuff that’s for kids that means that most people just kinda dismiss it. You know: oh – who cares – it’s just for kids: what do they know?
I mean – obviously: not much. Kids are stupid. That’s why they have to go to school all day and learn stuff – right?
But: that doesn’t mean that the stuff that you put in their minds (films, books, tv, comics, whatever) has to be stupid too.
And well – yeah: Usagi Yojimbo. I mean – I’m still only 100 pages in but so far the signs don’t point to good (and I really hope that Southwark Playhouse Katie doesn’t mind me too much getting the knives out – but yeah: all publicity is good publicity or something – right?): but yeah – for me it’s not really worth the while that it’s taking me to read it.
“But it’s for kids!”
Yeah – well – at the risk of being massively predictable and using a way over-used cultural touchstone – but Pixar films are for kids and Up and Wall-e and Ratatouille and The Incredibles and all the Toy Stories (plus Toy Story of Terror!) are my favourite things ever. And ok yeah I know – Pixar are really really good at what they do and are pretty much in a class of their own – but the point is: it’s possible to make stuff that’s good for kids that can also be good for non-kids too – yeah?
And yeah: well – Usago Yojimbo: I mean (so far) it’s all just so incredibly simplistic. The hero can do no wrong. The bad guys are mean and awful (and oops: surrounds himself with idiots): I mean – to use another (over-used) example: Studio Ghibli (who also make a whole bunch of fantastic films) show that it’s possible to have an exciting adventure story where it’s not just black and white / good and bad but actually – ooooh: shades of grey – you know: maybe the bad guys are actually heroes and the good guys are actually bad? Stuff that kinda helps to build a better richer and fuller understanding of the world and of people? I mean: I read a comic adaptation of a Children’s Book called a Wrinkle in Time a while back and yeah the way that’s all like – there is evil out there and it has no real rhyme or reason and must be fought against (and not understood – because there’s nothing to understand) is just like – well – (my feeling): it’s where a lot of the problems that we basically all have as a species kinda comes from you know? (It’s also why I got kinda tearful at the end of The Lego Movie and 2000AD’s XTNCT: but that’s a whole other thing)….
And yes: and just to say: this was my favourite bit (of what I’ve read so far): you know – just for the of it (“Why is a horse a horse but a rabbit a person?”) and – ha! yes – what do you know? – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned up after all!
I’ve only just started reading it so am only a few hundred pages through but so far I am quite enjoying it. I am not seeing what the various industry worthies who have written introductions for the various sections so far about (as I think it was James ‘Starman’ Robinson said) an endless possibility for stories, so far it seems to be basically a bunny version of Garth Ennis’ run on the Punisher, Yojimbo walks into town, bad guys beat him up, he is relentless until the bad guys are dead, just not quite as dark as the Punisher. But this is near the start of the story so there’s time for variation later on. So far all the other characters seem to be rather peripheral but I’m two hundred pages in and most of the recurring characters from the key at the start of the book haven’t appeared yet so it’s hard to judge. At the moment it’s pleasing the Studio Ghibli faux medievalism of something like Princess Mononoke part of me.
It’s a shame I haven’t had time to read all of it. Being a lover of anything Samurai or Ronin related, this comic would have to do something drastic to turn me against it…and it hasn’t. It is like a sanitized version of Lone Wolf and Cub and other such stories. The use of animals and the “cute” way things are shown to be dead make it more accessible to a younger audience but it still has some serious parts (beheading and impaling). There’s enough there to keep me reading it plus apparently the teenage mutant ninja turtles show up “just because”. Worth finishing and something I would recommend to a younger reader as a nice gateway into the world of “violent” Fuedal Japan (unless it turns terrible somewhere down the line).