There’s a Zatoichi film on in the background as I'm typing this up. It’s the bleached-blond Takeshi Kitano one, with the cartoon blood sprays and the musical numbers.
Hey look: a light-hearted new take on an old samurai classic. What a weird coincidence.
1 – The Rabbit-Eared Ronin
It’s a classic premise: a lone hero wanders the land, defending the weak and righting wrongs. We’ve all seen this story before, but never mind: there’s something about it that carries a timeless, universal appeal.
The details change, of course. The hero might be a figure of the establishment or a justified maverick. Sometimes they’re thrown wildly out of their element/comfort zone and fight the good fight on the long way home. The hero might be a gunslinger or a swordfighter or any number of occupations that gives them something cool to do in the action scenes.
There’s a thousand things the hero might be as they do their heroic deeds.
In this case, the hero’s a rabbit.
Not just any rabbit: Miyamoto Usagi, the noble master-less samurai of Stan Sakai’s animal fantasy Japan. Usagi’s adventures mix Japanese history and mythology with cartoon comedy and sword epic drama. The end result is something like Looney Toons as directed by Akira Kurosawa.
2 – Uasgi’s Real Master
Stan Sakai is the award winning letterer of Groo the Wanderer and the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips.
He also apparently draws a comic? About a rabbit? Something like that.
But really: Sakai infuses every Usagi tale with his love of Japanese culture (he was born there, although raised mostly in Hawaii). One has to look no further than the extensive historical/cultural notes in the back of each collection to see that.
Perhaps more impressive is that Sakai is an independent one-man-band on this title; he writes, draws, inks, and letters it. He’s done so throughout the title’s various publishing runs; the first through Fantagraphics Books, the second through Mirage Comics, and currently through Dark Horse Comics.
3 – I Used To Have The Figure
The sum total of my Usagi experience prior to this was me owning the toy from Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line. And in all fairness, that wasn’t special. I had everyone. I mean, I had Ace Duck, for crying out loud…
The point is: when Dark Horse Month came around, I read the series (well, the half-dozen volumes my library carried). And…well…
Put it this way: Usagi Yojimbo ran right up my alley and knocked my head clean off.
And it kills me, but I can’t put my finger on just
why it does (but I’ll try, clearly). It just…it hits that perfect combo of whimsy and gravity, not unlike Jeff Smith’s Bone. I can only call it a nimble series, able to tackle whatever stories Sakai wants to.
The same can be said about Sakai’s art; he has one of those rare cartooning styles that seems capable of rendering anything and making it fit. If Usagi squared off with a tank in the next issue, it’d look like a tank that belonged there (well, not historically, but you know what I mean). There’s nothing else that looks quite like a Stan Sakai comic on the stands.
Sakai's art has bits of [Groo artist] Sergio Aragones’ bouncy, sketchy cartooning, but there’s also elements lifted from Japanese comics and films. The battle scenes are pure Kurosawa, all flurries of chaos book-ended by long stretches of graceful motion.
His strong sense of lettering and sound effects in terms of page composition is also rarely seen in Western comics, although I suspect it comes more from his background as a letterer. The clangs, clashes and hi-yaaaaa’s of the fight scenes are seamlessly integrated into the panels. And the “death bubbles”, the little animal skulls that float out of Usagi’s dispatched foes…that’s just lettering gag genius.
If Dark Horse Comics excels at anything, it’s allowing master artists to publish something pure, something that shows the artist’s identity like a giant signature written across the pages. Like Frank Miller’s Sin City or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is a creator at his best.