Before I joined Right Stuf and hopped on the manga machine, I was a big fan of American comics. I read Batman, Sandman, and more, but always on the read list was Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai. A classic of the indie comics scene, it’s a historical comic blending the tales of the western and samurai films to tell classic stories. Usagi was popular enough to appear in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic and animated series. Despite this high pedigree, the series always eluded me. I like my physical books and supporting my local comic shop, but they never had an issue or trade paperback in stock. That changed with this review! I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait.
This book collects the first stories when the series moved from Fantagraphics to Dark Horse. Because there is some story beforehand, don’t be surprised when the first story is a crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! First-time readers should not be afraid. As a first-timer myself, I had no problem understanding the world or characters of the comic.
The first few pages give all the backstory you need: In Edo Period Japan, Miyamoto Usagi, our rabbit samurai, was loyal to honorable Lord Miifune. Unfortunately, Mifune and his army are slain in battle by the evil Lord Hikiji, leaving Usagi as the lone survivor. Now a ronin, Usagi wanders the land, seeking spiritual harmony and helping people in need. It’s a classic set-up, and the episodic storytelling follows suit. Taking clear influences from Japanese cinema (the title is a reference to the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo), Usagi hops from one wandering-samurai story to the next, and it always finds a way to stay fresh. Sakai jumps between genres and tone; one chapter could be a romance, another an action adventure, the next a horror mood piece. Sakai is able to do this with strong consistency, showing his storytelling prowess.
Along Usagi’s travels, he often bumps into a recurring cast of characters. Each one has a strong and memorable personality. Gen, the brash bounty-hunter rhino, is one of my favorites. His money-making mentality clashes with Usagi’s bushido code, leading to some fun dialogue and conflict. Fans of Samurai Champloo will enjoy their banter. It can also lead to long-form stories like the tale of Chizu and her rise to being the leader of the Neko ninja clan. There’s many more, like the lady thief Kitsune, the fierce Tomoe, and the psychotic Jei. The wide cast keeps stories distinct, and it is nice for long-time fans to see what their favorites are up to.
What makes this series stand out from others on the shelf is how cartoony characters designs. Usagi’s ears wrapped like a samurai topknot is just one little detail Sakai adds to the cast. Gen has a horn, but it’s been cut (shaved?) down to a stub. I should also mention the tokage, a fantasy dinosaur-reptile mix that is all cuteness. The “animals as humans” concept reaches full potential in the enemy ninja. Each clan is made of a different animal species, and they are choice picks. There is a clan of bat ninja, with sharp blades along the edge of their wings. Mole ninja bury into the ground, able to surprise their victims in broad daylight. Again, another example of Sakai bringing something new to the series to increase its longevity.
There are three written forewords from some comic book industry legends, and they all say one thing: The historical accuracy to the time and place is immaculate. You know, minus the anthropomorphic animals. Everything from the architecture, clothing, and societal norms is spot-on. Sakai weaves these facts into the plot, making it educational and entertaining. There’s a whole section about seaweed framing, and Sakai makes it fascinating. Fans of historical manga such as Lone Wolf and Cub and Vagabond will feel right at home reading this book.
Usagi Yojimbo has been published for over 30 years, and I can see why when reading this volume. It is always mixing things up with the characters and genre, however, it never strays from its historical action core. Its action brings in fans of American comics, the historical accuracy brings in fans of manga. With such a crossover appeal, it’s no wonder publishers keep wanting this series. Sakai is here with his storytelling expertise to keep writing new stories, each different from the last. I’m excited to see what’s next for Usagi and his friends in the deluxe volume.
Usagi Yojimbo Saga Manga Volume 1 (Second Edition) collects Volume 2 #1-16 and Volume 3 #1-6 and features story and art by Stan Sakai.
Follow Miyamoto Usagi in his epic trek along the warrior’s path, beginning with over 600 pages of Usagi’s essential adventures. In this first volume, Usagi protects a village from a band of assassins, reluctantly engages in a duel for blood money, hunts a gangster who has stolen his swords, and more!Add to CartLearn More