Jun 16, 2015

My Top 6 Favorite Characters from Usagi Yojimbo

My Top 6 Favorite Characters From Usagi Yojimbo
Ben Smith

As of this writing, I have only read through “Usagi Yojimbo Volume 22: Tomoe’s Story”

I’ve been struggling to think of something to write about Usagi Yojimbo. Longtime readers will know I recently decided to give the series a try, inspired by his affiliation with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I started with short recaps of the opening stories contained in the first volume, but recaps quickly suck all the joy out of reading, and I wanted to enjoy this series as much as possible without it turning into work. The Usagi Yojimbo comic exists in that space where it’s really hard to put into words just how consistently great it is. There isn’t really a high concept idea to hook new readers, it’s basically a masterless samurai (ronin) that wanders Japan on a warrior’s pilgrimage, with a wide cast of colorful characters he gets into adventures with, but with funny animals. There’s not much more to it than that, but that doesn’t accurately describe how awesome it is. It just is. But I felt like I had to write something, because this is fast becoming my single favorite comic book series of all time.

Much has been said about how great Stan Sakai is. He’s a master storyteller. The way he offsets some of the more violent imagery with funny word bubbles and sound effects strikes a perfect balance between serious and fun. The level of research he puts into the time period is all the more remarkable because of how seamlessly it weaves into the background of the stories. All of this is known, and has been written about many, many times. Instead, I’m going to focus on one of the main things I love about the series, and that is the multitude of fantastic characters that pop in and out of the series. It’s rare to find any series that has done a better job of consistently introducing new characters that are as interesting as the cast of Usagi Yojimbo. Nearly every single one is capable of headlining their own solo stories, and have from time to time.

So, strapped for ideas of what to write about, and with a focus on my favorite characters, there could have only been one option. You guessed it. It's list time.

Honorable mentions:

Jotaro is about as good an impetuous young child character can be, but he is still a child character. (That doesn’t mean I still didn’t get a little misty eyed at the end of “Fathers and Sons.”)

Katsuichi is Usagi’s sensei, and he carries the traditional role of mentor and overall badass master. However, Ben Kenobi, Yoda, and Splinter are the least played with toys in any kid’s toybox for a reason.

The woodcutters are fun little reoccurring background characters. (For Avatar: The Last Airbender fans, think of the cabbage merchant.)

Noriko is Tomoe’s sadistic cousin, and is on par with her as a warrior. She is appropriately known as the Blood Princess, and I absolutely love her. She’s a great villain. Unfortunately, she’s only appeared in one story so far (again, I’ve only read up through volume 22).

Nakamura Koji is a samurai on a training pilgrimage, and probably the first person I can remember that beat Usagi head-to-head in a swordfight. He’s about as honorable and interesting an antagonist as you’ll ever see. The kind that will assist you in adventures up until it’s time for him to fight you himself.

Lone Goat and Kid are fun, but a tad too in-jokey for me. Just slightly.

Inazuma was fast becoming one of my favorite characters, before tragedy befell her. A no-nonsense master with the sword that was arguably one of the deadliest killers in the series, with a tragic backstory to make her all the more interesting. Unfortunately, she met a fate worse than death.

Sanshobo is a former samurai turned priest, that hasn’t lost any of his fighting skill.

Now, my top 6 favorite characters. Every character on this list I am just as happy to read solo stories about as I am when they cross paths. (Whenever two or more of them come together, it’s always a great time. It’s one of the best parts about the series.)

6. Chizu

Chizu is the one-time head of the Neko Ninja clan in service to Lord Hikiji, and a longtime ally of Usagi. Despite their opposing sides, her and Usagi have helped each other the several times they’ve crossed paths.

It was established very early that she wasn’t fully committed to serving the dark side, and was eventually betrayed by the Neko Ninja clan because of her repeatedly doing the right thing. I’ve always been drawn to strong, capable characters, and as you’ll see from the rest of my list, Usagi Yojimbo sports some of the strongest female characters in comics. It’s also been implied that she has a bit of a crush on Usagi, something common among most of the female characters. (With me being overly interested in the love lives of my fictional characters, this adds an extra layer of intrigue to the question of who Usagi will settle down with, if anyone.) In my eyes, Chizu is the bad girl with a heart of gold, now on a path of redemption (possibly).

5. Inspector Ishida

An instant favorite of mine from his first appearance, when he and Usagi teamed up to solve some murders.

 His keen mind makes him the most effective detective we’ve seen in the series, and despite his appearance is a more than capable fighter. He maintains a steadfast commitment to justice, and yet was more than willing to look the other way when Usagi justifiably killed one of the local Lords.

Another strength of the series is that even when the mysteries are telegraphed, it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the story one bit.

4. Kitsune

Kitsune is an anthropomorphic fox, and is every bit as tricky as her namesake. She’s spent most of her life as a street performer and thief, with the requisite hard life as a backstory.

No matter how often she lies to, or steals from, Usagi and friends, she continues to be incredibly likable. (She almost always steals the purse of every character she crosses paths with for the first time. It’s almost become a rite of passage for the series.) The only thing more fun than her and Usagi together, is when Gen or Tomoe are along for the ride.

She’s also had a flirtatious relationship with Usagi, but unlike Chizu, it seems to be more about making Usagi uncomfortable or one of the other females jealous. This page of Kitsune purposefully making Tomoe jealous is one of my favorite single pages from the entire series so far.)

3. Murakami Gennosuke (Gen)

Gen is a perfect representation of the friend that loves to give his friends a hard time. (As Kelso said, “it’s fun when friends get hurt.”) His outward personality of a bounty hunter that cares only about money, is often betrayed by his selfless actions, revealing the good heart he has within.

Despite his proclamations, he always has Usagi’s back, even if he has to pretend to justify it by finding some financial gain to be made from the situation. His comedy and jovial nature is the perfect counterbalance to Usagi. He’s a loyal friend, and don’t let him try to convince you otherwise.

2. Tomoe Ame

Tomoe and Gen are two of the oldest reoccurring characters in the book, but up until about two days ago (when I read “Tomoe’s Story”) Gen would have easily taken the second spot.

Tomoe is the personal bodyguard and advisor of Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan, who Usagi has helped save in several different situations. She is an extremely talented swordsperson, on par with Usagi as a warrior. (In the aforementioned “Tomoe’s Story,” her and Usagi tied in a sparring match with each other. One of the main questions I have as I move through the series, is which characters can match Usagi with the sword. So far Gen and Usagi have not gone head-to-head, that I can remember.)

For a long time Tomoe and Usagi appeared to merely be friends and peers with a strong respect for each other, but as the series continues it has been suggested that they have a stronger attraction for each other. (There’s an absolutely beautiful depiction of a tea ceremony between her and Usagi that is an almost completely silent story. It’s one of the strongest depictions of Sakai’s skill as a storyteller.) One that will most likely go unrequited. (I’m convinced that if Usagi were to settle down, then Tomoe is probably the right person for him. Well, I guess the right person is probably Mariko, but that’s a boring answer.) Tomoe has come under some scrutiny due to her being a female with a prominent position in the Geishu Clan, something that could be perceived as unseemly to other Clans. (She’s actually based on a real-life 12th century samurai named Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe Gozen sounds awesome, and you should read about her too.) I love Tomoe, and I am so very nervous that some of the bubbling plots happening behind her back will come to fruition.

1. Miyamoto Usagi

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. What makes Usagi so great is that he’s a multifaceted character. His contradictions make him seem more real to me than most fictional characters, which is no small feat considering he’s a bunny. Many of the iconic superheroes of Marvel and DC have developed a standard pattern of behavior, with them only moving outside of that established pattern to highlight a specific instance when they are behaving “out of character.” (As they should, since Marvel and DC should always strive to maintain a core depiction of their heroes for every new generation of readers to enjoy.) A book like Usagi can obviously go wherever the creator decides to take it, and that single voice will invariably almost always produce a more fully-formed person.

I can’t possibly describe everything that’s great about Miyamoto Usagi, so I’ll break it down into some of my favorite traits. (A list within a list, if you will.)
  • Despite being honorably almost to a fault, he’s not opposed to helping an innkeeper maintain the illusion that his inn is haunted, for example.
  • Even though he’s one of the most skilled swordsmen in the country, he will try to avoid an unnecessary fight as much as possible. Many times he’s walked away from some challenger despite being called coward or laughed at by the crowd. (Almost every time he’s been forced to later kill all those that mocked him anyway.)

  • He’s generally a good-natured and even-keeled type of person, which makes it all the more exciting the times he really gets pissed off.

  • His strong sense of honor and strict adherence to Bushido, never keeps him from being friends with people like Gen and Kitsune.
  • Again, he’s a master swordsman, and I’m always drawn to competent characters. The only times he gets beaten is when he’s overwhelmed by larger numbers, he’s the victim of something unforeseen (like a sandal breaking) or the rare times when he faces someone better.

  • He’s always willing to help out in a situation, and risk his own life for others, if it’s the right thing to do.

  • He’s a master trash-talker. Frequently he says something along the lines of “please don’t make me kill you,” to opponents. I guess it’s not really talking trash if it’s true.

Those are just a few of the things that make Usagi so fascinating to me. One of the more unfortunate things about Usagi is that many of the deeper relationships he could have, like with Jotaro or Tomoe, are sacrificed by circumstance, or because of his journey on the path of learning. They would rather not end his adventures with a burden of responsibility, because they believe he is happier with life as a wanderer. Similarly, he often suppresses his own feelings in service to what he believes is their happiness. It’s yet another thing that makes him the ultimate hero that he is.

I am primarily a superhero fan, and a Marvel fan at that. I do buy creator-owned books like Criminal, Satellite Sam, and Powers. Some of my favorite series of all time have been books like Y The Last Man, Bone, or Preacher. But the thing I’ve liked most about those is that they ended. For some reason, I can read about Spider-Man indefinitely (as long as it’s good) but I need most of my creator-owned books to eventually have an ending. I’ve read comics like The Walking Dead and Fables, and they’re good, but for some reason I lose interest when they just continue on and on. I’m just more invested in the world and history that Marvel has created on an ongoing basis.

Usagi Yojimbo is the type of series that, as soon as I get all the way caught up to the current issues, I’ll probably start all over again at the beginning. I read them so fast that I tend to forget a lot of it, and I want to remember it all. I need to. They’re that good. It’s probably one of the few remaining comics that still work as a monthly series. There are as many one-and-done stories as there are multi-part epics, and everything is presented in a way that you don’t have to have read the entire series to understand and enjoy what’s going on. If you do know the history of all the characters, it’s that much more rich a tapestry for you. One of the strengths of comics, and fiction in general, is when a history between characters is implied, without it ever having been something that was depicted in a previous book. Usagi Yojimbo is one of the best comics I’ve ever read at depicting character relationships where you never know if it’s one or the other. You could pick up the series at volume 13, and the characters and the world are so fully formed that they’re easy to grasp without any prior knowledge. Not to mention that no matter where you start, you’re always going to get an entertaining story created by a master of the craft. That is no easy feat.

I really don’t know what else to say beyond that. Get it. It’s great.

1 comment:

C_Oliver said...

I like Stan Sakai's art, really I do, but as a writer he has one of the worst ongoing cases of 'General Exposition meets Captain Obvious' I've ever read. I mean, even worse than the usual suspects like Roy Thomas...

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.