Jan 26, 2015

The Usagi Yojimbo Chronicles

The Usagi Yojimbo Chronicles
Ben Smith

I discovered Usagi Yojimbo in the same way most kids of my generation did, by his guest appearance on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I know I liked him instantly, but much like the Turtles themselves, had no idea that he was a comic book character. I'd eventually find out, but his comics aren't the type that would have appealed to me as a kid, with the lack of X-Men and all. A few years ago, I finally decided to try out the comic series, and purchased the first collection of stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few stories, I didn't like it that much. It happens.

Those that know me, know that my sons are both obsessed with the Ninja Turtles. Since I can't always stand to watch the same Nickelodeon series episodes over and over, I put on some of the original series, and whenever I do that, I always make sure Usagi's appearances are included. (I will get them to like Usagi or die trying!) They seemed more interested in Genghis Frog and the mutant frogs from Florida than the samurai bunny, but it did inspire me to give Usagi comics another try.

I started reading the same book that I did before, and after only two stories, decided I was in love. Why it works for me now, and not before, I can't really explain, other than I probably didn't have the same love for the "cartoony" art then as I do now. I was much more into the hyper-detailed art of a Steve McNiven at that time, and the "mature" storytelling of The Killing Joke. The idiocy of youth.

It doesn't take a whole lot of analysis to determine what makes Usagi great. First, he's a super cute bunny. Secondly, he's a badass that will fuck you up. There you have it, review over.

Usagi Yojimbo was created by Stan Sakai, and made his debut in Albedo Anthropomorphics #2, in 1984. (Fun fact: the character's name is Miyamoto Usagi, not Yojimbo. Yojimbo means "bodyguard." He's also partially based on a famous samurai.) After a few more appearances in anthology books, he quickly became popular enough to get his own comic series in 1987. The stories are largely episodic, with a few larger story lines running in the background, and references to past battles, enemies, and history.

Since this is likely to become a new obsession, I've decided to document my thoughts, as I've been known to do, story by story. Buckle up, this could end up being a long one.

The Goblin of Adachigahara

Usagi stops at an inn for shelter and rest, and battles a goblin with ties to a fateful battle from Usagi's past, the Battle of Adachigahara. It was in that battle that Usagi's master was killed, making Usagi a ronin (masterless samurai).

Sakai was already clearly a master at his craft, with crisp, appealing artwork and a simple story, if slightly predictable. (It could be the predictable nature of the stories that didn't appeal to me the first attempt at reading them, but not everything needs to be about surprises.)

Lone Rabbit and Child

Usagi crosses paths with the young lord of the Geishu Clan, Noriyuki, and his bodyguard Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki, having recently become the sole heir to the clan, is traveling to the capitol so that the Shogun can establish him as the new clan leader. However, the corrupt Lord Hikiji has hired multiple assassins to attack them, so that he can lay claim to the Geishu possessions. Lord Hikiji was on the opposing side of the Battle of Adachigahara, and so Usagi decides to offer his considerable assistance.

The Confession

Lord Nerai, conspirator with Hikiji against Noriyuki, was ordered to commit seppuku for his failure. Before doing so, he wrote a full confession implicating Hikiji, which Usagi must deliver to the Shogun. Armies of ninjas stand in his way, but Tomoe Ame shows up to assist. Noriyuki, Tomoe Ame, and Usagi eventually present the confession to the Shogun's trusted advisor, Lord Okii, but unfortunately he is secretly aligned with Lord Hikiji.

(As a child of the '80s, I was raised on hundreds of movies to believe the ninja was the ultimate martial arts masters. Turns out, ninjas were sneak attack artists, and mostly operated as spies, assassins, and mercenaries. Many of the qualities of honor and expert swordplay associated with ninjas in modern pop culture, are more in line with the history of the samurai. If you can't trust classic movies like American Ninja, what can you trust?)

Bounty Hunter

Usagi meets a bounty hunter named Gennosuke, and assists him on collecting a bounty on two brothers. Gen pays him for this help, but in a humorous ending, leaves him with the bill for the local inn. (I'm fairly certain Gen is going to be a returning character.)

Horse Thief

Usagi runs off a group of bandits attacking some guards, and takes possession of the one horse left behind. When he tries to sell it at the nearby village, it turns out to be owned by the Town Magistrate, which he finds out when he tried to sell it to him. Assumed to be a bandit, Usagi escapes with the horse. Later, Usagi is still trying to unload the horse, and finds what he assumes to be some horse traders. Instead it's the same bandits he ran off in the beginning, and they are all quickly joined by the Magistrate and the guards, who were tracking Usagi. Chaos ensues, Usagi escapes, and finally finds someone to take the horse. A very fun and entertaining story.

Village of Fear

Usagi encounters a savage cat beast, which has held the nearby village in its grip of fear. (It ends with a pun, which should make Duy happy.)

A Quiet Meal

Usagi stops for a quiet meal, but some gamblers are being rowdy and menacing the other patrons. When they decide to turn their bullying attention toward Usagi, he demonstrates some quick, non-lethal sword work. He spends the rest of his meal in peace. Another quick and fun story. (It's really refreshing to see that Sakai has a variety of different stories he wants to tell with the character.)

Blind Swordspig

A blind outlaw named Ino passes through a village, and causes a lot of destruction when they recognize him and attempt to collect on his bounty. When Usagi passes through the same village later, they tell him of the horrible villain that attacked them for no reason. As Usagi attempts to track Ino, he finds him trapped in a hole. Not knowing who he is, they strike up a friendship. When a couple of bounty hunters try to collect on Ino's bounty, Usagi discovers who he is, and is forced to match swords with someone he considered to be a new friend. The brutal results of the battle leave Usagi with what is sure to be a vengeful and returning foe.


Usagi finally arrives home, just in time to save a child from the Mogura Ninja. The boy winds up being the child of Usagi's former flame, Mariko, and his former rival, Kenichi. Kenichi was made the Town Magistrate after Usagi's father, the former magistrate, was killed by Lord Hikiji's men as part of the overthrow of Lord Mifune, coinciding with the Battle of Adachigahara.

The Mogura Ninja again attempt to take the child, but as a distraction while they raid the town supplies. Kenichi and Usagi put aside old rivalries and track the ninja down to their cave in the Eastern Mountain. Later, Mariko accompanies Usagi to the grave of his father. They reminisce back to when Usagi cut off a lock of her hair to keep with him forever, and she in turn kept the knife he used to cut off that hair. A heartfelt moment to close what proved to be a key look back into the history of Miyamoto Usagi.

(Did Claremont steal Mariko, or is it just a really common name?)

Bounty Hunter II

Gen and Usagi cross paths again, and Usagi agrees to assist him on another bounty. Only this time, turnabout is fair play in the end.

Thus ends the first book. I'm sure Sakai only continued to improve as an artist and storyteller, but I can't help but be amazed at how fully formed he seems to be at both, right from the beginning. The look and characterization of Usagi is rock solid from the very first page. I like the different types of stories he told with the character, from funny, to action-packed, to sad. There's the references to a deeper history to follow, and the lingering threat of Lord Hikiji. The burgeoning supporting cast of characters are all engaging and interesting as well.

Great characters, beautiful art, excellent storytelling. There's not a single thing not to like about Usagi Yojimbo. Which really makes me wonder what was wrong with me five to ten years ago. Anyway, it's never too late to admit you were very, very wrong. Don't make the same mistake I did. Read Usagi Yojimbo now, before it is too late!

Next week: The Legion of Super-Heroes!

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