Stan Sakai’s masterpiece, Usagi Yojimbo, has been published since 1984 with no signs of stopping. Sakai’s version of 16th century Feudal Japan is a land of anthropomorphic animals who live by the sword and a code of honor, mixed with the humor of a newspaper comic strip. It’s been listed as one of the greatest 100 comic series of all time (IGN #92) and this collection brings together three storylines and an all-star roast of the titular hero into one book. Is it good?
Usagi Yojimbo Saga Vol. 6 (Dark Horse Comics)
Collecting issues #94-116, book six probably isn’t a good jumping off point for people interested in the series, as relationships and setting have been covered long ago. However, with a little background work, book six is a fine example of what the series is all about. There are three main storylines: “Bridge of Tears,” which finds the titular rabbit/samurai in a new relationship that has him questioning whether to stop wandering and settle down; “The Darkness and the Soul,” an origin story on Jei, one of Usagi’s fiercest foes; and “Sparrow,” which sees Jei’s return and a team-up with Gen.
It’s easy to see how Usagi Yojimbo has garnered the attention it has. The stories are funny in a newspaper comic strip sort of way and the art is also reminiscent of this. The panels wouldn’t look out of place next to Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes at just a glance. But the storylines feature loss, of life and the heart, in a way that belies its cartoony aesthetic, making it richer and more meaningful. Dogs, foxes and rabbits are assassins, prostitutes and beggars, which may at first seem like a distraction, but are given real depth and character and doesn’t take the reader out of the narrative or make the stakes seem any less real.
Creator Stan Sakai has written and drawn almost the entirety of the series, and he’s given the story a unique space to occupy. Whether it’s making Yojimbo (a big rabbit) seem honorable and stoic, or the fierceness with which the demon Jei is portrayed, the originality of the series isn’t lost even after more than three decades.
The first storyline was probably my least favorite, though the ending was touching. The background of Jei was interesting–he’s always been the best example of how dark the book could get. The last arc features Yojimbo teaming up with Gen the bounty hunter and the return of Jei in the present storyline. It was a well rounded collection capped off by the volume #100 roast issue, which features some guest artists and writers including Frank Miller, Jeff Smith and Sergio Aragones to name a few. It’s interesting to see Miller’s “Marv” from Sin City occupy the same page as Yojimbo, even if it is for just a few panels, but it’s a celebratory fan service one-off as it’s meant to be, so there’s no real criticism there.
Is It Good?
Remarkably, for as long as the series has been out, it doesn’t seem stale. This is a fine collection of what makes Usagi Yojimbo good. Both the artwork and writing continue Sakai’s high level of quality work and should please fans of the series who would like to have these stories collected in one place. There’s also a nifty section in the back with all the covers for the various issues, in color, which is very nice.